The July 27, 1990 Regulations, "Aliens and Nationality: Asylum and Withholding of Deportation Procedures," mandated the creation of a new corps of Asylum Officers to provide an initial, nonadversarial adjudication of asylum claims. Asylum Officers use asylum law, interviews with asylum applicants, and relevant information on country conditions to determine the merits of individual claims for asylum. As specified in the Regulations (8 CFR 208.12), as amended, such information may be obtained from "the Department of State, the Office of International Affairs, other Service offices, or other credible sources, such as international organizations, private voluntary agencies, news organizations, or academic institutions."
Perspectives are one means by which information on human rights conditions in a country and/or conditions affecting given groups or individuals deemed "at risk" within a given country is presented to Asylum and Immigration Officers. Perspectives are written by recognized authorities under contract to the Resource Information Center, Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S. Department of Justice. Perspectives cannot be, and do not purport to be either exhaustive with regard to the country surveyed, or conclusive as the merits of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum. Nor do they purport to summarize a range of opinions on a given issue: the perspective offered is that of the contributing authority. It is for the Asylum Officer adjudicating a particular case to determine what evidentiary weight to give to the information in this Perspective.
The inclusion of this Perspective in the collection of Perspectives compiled by the Service does not constitute an endorsement of the information in this Perspective. The views expressed in this Perspective, therefore, do not necessarily represent statements of policy of the United States Government, nor does this Perspective reflect foreign policy concerns of the United States Government.
Research completed 30 April 1997
When Alvaro Arzú Irigoyen took the oath of office as President of Guatemala on January 14, 1996, he vowed to bring an end to three and a half decades of civil war and "to fight impunity head on." Within days, he moved to restructure the armed forces, retiring half of the countrys generals, and dismissing scores of police officers tied to criminal activities. A month later, he became the first President to meet with the guerrilla leadership. In September, he dismissed another nine senior military officers, signed an agreement with the rebels to reduce the size of the armed forces, and limit their involvement in domestic affairs. Before the end of the yearon December 29he secured the signing of a peace treaty which ended the last insurgency in Central America.
Despite these historic developments, Guatemala still has a long way to go to create a society and polity capable of safeguarding the most basic human rights of its citizens. That is particularly true of its historically oppressed indigenous majority. Well over a hundred thousand Mayan peasants perished in the civil war, almost all at the hands of the armed forces, who frequently massacred entire villages. Though the war has receded, the racism that fed its savagery has not. As documented in this report, incidents of discrimination and violence directed at members of indigenous ethnic groups continue to be widespread.
Mayans are not the only group at risk. In urban areas, the Governments counter-insurgency efforts focused on eliminating dissent among whites and ladinos (persons of mixed European and indigenous ancestry). Death squads organized by the military and extreme right-wing organizations targeted human rights advocates, teachers, university professors, clergy, union leaders, judges, prosecutorsin short, anyone seeking, or suspected of seeking, change. Thousands were abducted, tortured, and killed, as a warning to others. Though President Arzú has acted to sever the links between the security forces and clandestine organizations, there are signs that many of the latter continue to operate as renegade criminal organizations, often with continuing ties to members of the police and armed forces.
In an interview just before the signing of the peace accord, President Arzú cautioned that "[w]ere done with the first stage, and now comes the hard part Its going to be a real
challenge." The biggest part of that challenge is, as Arzú recognized in his inaugural address, impunity. Until members of the armed forces, police, death squads, and guerrilla organizations who have engaged in murder, torture, and rape are brought to account for their actions, such patterns of behavior will persist, as demonstrated in this report.
To date, few human rights violators have been brought before a court of law, and still fewer convicted and sentenced. Complicating the challenge of ending impunity is the National Reconciliation Law passed by the Guatemalan Congress on December 18, 1996, over the objections of the center-left New Guatemalan Democratic Front (FDNG) and the National Union of the Center (UCN). The law "extinguishes criminal responsibility" for crimes committed up until the date of passage by the legislature. Yet, in an improvement over previous amnesty laws in Argentina and El Salvador, this one specifically excludes from amnesty cases of forced disappearance, torture, and genocide. Guatemala is also a party to the American Convention on Human Rights, which does not permit extinguishing responsibility for other crimes, such as extrajudicial executions. On the other hand, interpretation of these provisions will ultimately rest with the Guatemalan judiciary, which has so far demonstrated little resolve to end impunity for human rights violations.
The peace treaty signed on December 29 also creates a Commission for Historical Clarification, intended to provide an official account of human rights violations during the guerrilla war. But the Commission has only three members, a $50,000 budget, and six months to complete its work. It is, moreover, barred by its charter from naming individuals responsible for serious crimes. To counter that defect, Guatemalan human rights groups are producing parallel reports. The human rights office of the Roman Catholic Church (Oficina de Derechos Humanos del Arzobispado de Guatemala, ODHAG) is sponsoring the Project to Recover Historical Memory (REMHI), which since 1995 has been interviewing survivors of some of the worst atrocities. The Project, financed by donations from Scandinavian countries, has so far documented 483 mass killings, and received information about more than 300 clandestine cemeteries. Meanwhile, a coalition of 27 human rights organizations is pooling files on about 10,000 cases of forced disappearance, torture, and execution.
Until the challenge of impunity has been met, none of the groups that have historically been at risk in Guatemala will be truly safe. It is therefore important for outside observers not to be lulled into complacency by the end of the civil war or by the obvious good intentions of President Arzú. In a more
fundamental sense, the civil conflict will not be over until impunity is brought to an end, and the broader features of Guatemalas new political accord, including recognition of the rights of the indigenous majority, are implemented.
II. Historical Background to 1944
Among the factors bedeviling Guatemalan history and politics is that the country is the product of an incomplete conquest. Though Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado subdued the native Mayan peoples in the 1520s and 1530s, they have to this day remained a majority. That is in sharp contrast with the outcome in such settler states as the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and (within Latin America) Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Costa Rica, where European populations quickly became majorities.
Guatemala is likewise a settler state, in that its political system is dominated by descendants of European settlers. But because the European-Americans have stayed a tiny minority, Guatemala has remained unstable, like other settler states in which minority populations of European ancestry have tried to govern native majorities. Examples include South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) before their conversion to majority rule, and present-day Bolivia and Peru, which, like Guatemala, have Amerindian majorities, and a long history of political instability.
The attempt to preserve minority rule in settler states has costly social and political consequences. One is the tendency to resort to violence or a credible threat of violence to contain pressures for majority rule. Such countries tend to become highly militarized, with armies whose primary purpose is not to defend the nation from external attack, but to maintain internal order.
Because of their monopoly over the political system and the legal instruments of coercion, the descendants of settlers also have enormous advantages in education and business, advantages that accentuate the gulf between rich and poor. According to the World Bank, Guatemala has one of the worlds most unequal distributions of wealth and income. The close association between ethnicity and poverty in turn reinforces widely-held racial prejudices, undermining ideals of shared nationality and citizenship that could (as they do in many Asian countries) help shape a consensus for social reform.
Sharp socio-economic stratifications also limit prospects for sustained economic growth and democracy. When wage-earners are prevented from organizing to defend their interests, low wages translate into meager incomes that perpetuate social distinctions and limit development of
the consumer purchasing power essential to building a modern economy. In so doing, they also inhibit the formation of broad-based middle classes that moderate tensions between rich and poor and provide a firmer foundation for democracy.
Guatemalas history is a testament to the destabilizing effects of its social structure. As a dependency of the Viceroyalty of Mexico, the Captaincy-General of Guatemala (encompassing all of present-day Central America as far south as Costa Rica) followed Mexico in declaring its independence from Spain in 1821. It remained part of Mexico until 1823, when it seceded and reorganized itself as the Central American Federation. The federation was at first governed by Conservatives headquartered in Guatemala City, but in 1829, Francisco Morazán, a Liberal general from Honduras, overwhelmed his adversaries. Moving the capital to San Salvador, Morazán enacted liberal reforms throughout the region. He abolished slavery and established habeas corpus and trial by jury. In 1832, the Liberals disestablished the Catholic Church, providing for full religious freedom, civil marriages, divorce, and lay education. Yet in their eagerness to modernize agriculture, the Liberals also alienated the Mayan majority. In 1829, they passed a law stripping Amerindiany villages and families of any lands for which they lacked titles.
The land grab sparked a revolution. Led by Rafael Carrera, a ladino who typified the plight of the Spanish-speaking, mixed-race population that was denied both the right to own land in Mayan villages and to hold public office, it quickly gained the support of the Amerindian population. In 1838, Carreras hordes took Guatemala City. The following year, Carrera withdrew Guatemala from the Central American Federation. Though often characterized as a conservative for his reversal of Liberal measures affecting landholding and the Church, Carrera could more accurately be compared with the Mexican mestizo Emiliano Zapata, who likewise sought to prevent the wholesale seizure of Amerindian lands by modernizing elites. Following Carreras death in 1865, Guatemalas indigenous majority began losing its ability to defend its land base.
When the Liberals regained control of the Government in 1871, they took measures to prevent a repetition of the Carrera phenomenon. Dictator Justo Rufino Barrios built a modern army, with officers trained at the new Escuela Politécnica military academy. The armed forces quickly turned into the favored means of social advancement for ladinos, effectively splitting their interests from those of Amerindians.
With military backing, Barrios carried out the Liberal reforms held back by Carrera. He secularized the University of San Carlos, expelled some religious orders, and barred clerics from wearing religious garb or holding processions in public. When the church excommunicated him, he expelled the archbishop.
Once again, the Liberals set their sights on Mayan lands. In 1877, they enacted a law that forced villages to sell their communal holdings. This time, when the Mayan peoples tried to resist, they were subdued by the new, professional military dominated by their former ladino allies.
The redistribution of land helped convert the economy from the subsistence agriculture of the Mayan peoples toward the export agriculture championed by Liberals. Not only did the expropriations open up new lands for cultivation of coffee, they also created a vast population of landless peasants, with little choice but to work the coffee plantations at subsistence wages. Coffee quickly became Guatemalas most important source of wealth, with exports multiplying five-fold in the first fourteen years of the Barrios dictatorship. Meanwhile the Mayan peoples dispossessed and subjected to what the British consul described as "one of the most cruel despotisms the world has ever seen" retreated into the isolation of their highland villages, mistrustful of and hostile to outsiders, a condition that in large measure persists to this day.
In the first half of the 20th century, another tropical agricultural commodity bananas joined coffee as a pillar of the Guatemalan economy. Unlike coffee, the banana business was dominated by foreign firms, chief among them the United Fruit Company (UFCo). Though coffee remained the countrys primary export, UFCo, through its control of railroads, ports, and company stores, controlled about 40% of the economy by the 1930s. By 1934, UFCo also held more than 3.5 million acres of land, of which 115,000 were under cultivation.
Just as Justo Rufino Barrios had championed the interests of coffee cultivators, his godson Jorge Ubico became closely associated with the interests of both coffee planters and the United Fruit Companys banana empire. An admirer of Napoleon, he seized power in 1930, then quickly moved to consolidate his dictatorship. He reinforced the army, placing a former U.S. military attaché (whom he designated brigadier-general) in charge of the Escuela Politécnica military academy. He forced members of the Supreme Court to resign, then stacked the Court with political cronies. In the countryside, he replaced elected mayors (alcaldes) with town managers (intendentes) answerable to himself. When faced with the constitutional prohibition against reelection in 1936, he staged a referendum to remain in office.
Ubicos Vagrancy Law required all landless peasants to work for an employer at least 150 days a year; those with some land only had to put in 100 days. That ensured that most Amerindians and rural ladinos would have to work on plantations for more than three months, providing a steady supply of cheap labor for the harvest. To further enhance the authority of the planters, a 1943 law gave them the right to shoot poachers or anyone else intruding on their lands.
Ubico singled out the United Fruit Company for favored treatment. In 1936, he granted it a 99-year contract for a Pacific coast plantation, exempting the company from taxation and import duties, and guaranteeing low wages. To head off demands for higher wages elsewhere in the economy, Ubico set an upper limit of 50 cents a day on wages at UFCo. With a government-mandated ceiling on wages, and with a government-sanctioned monopoly on all transportation to the Atlantic coast, and on all shipping out of the only port on that coast, UFCo was able to set prices arbitrarily, guaranteeing handsome profits.
By the 1940s, however, events elsewhere in the world would help doom the Ubico regime. The Great Depression had led to Franklin Roosevelts New Deal in the United States; in neighboring Mexico, President Lázaro Cárdenas had nationalized the oil industry and launched a sweeping land reform. Then came the Second World War, and the crusade against fascism. By 1944, with Nazi Germany on the verge of defeat, Ubicos authoritarian rule seemed out of step with the times. Student-initiated protests gained support from respected businessmen and professionals, then from army cadets and the military Honor Guard. Ubico fled the country, to be replaced by a revolutionary junta consisting of Captain Jacobo Arbenz, commander of the cadets; Major Francisco Arana , commander of the Honor Guard; and a civilian. The junta held an election and transferred authority to the countrys first freely-elected President.
III. Guatemalan Politics Since the Election of 1944
The new President, Juan José Arévalo, was a university professor and admirer of Franklin Roosevelt who sought to implement a Guatemalan version of the New Deal. His reforms were far-reaching. The 1945 Constitution reinstated the ban on reelection, and mandated an apolitical military. All Guatemalans were granted freedom of association, including the right to form free labor unions. Literate women were given the right to vote. Political parties (with the exception of Communists and other "foreign or international" parties) could form and contest elections freely, ending seventy years of Liberal dictatorship. The Constitution granted the University of San Carlos administrative autonomy, with a guaranteed two percent share of the national budget. In April 1946, Arévalo won passage of a Social Security Law, and in 1947, a new Labor Code. The latter established the right to strike and to collective bargaining, set minimum wages, and restricted child labor. By the end of Arévalos term in 1950, urban wages had risen 80%. Arévalo also repealed Ubicos Vagrancy Law.
Colonel Jacobo Arbenz, who had served as Arévalos secretary of defense, won the 1950 presidential election with 63% of the vote in a three-way race. Arbenz tried to extend the revolution of 1944 to the countryside. Rather than nationalize UFCo monopolies, he sought to introduce competition. He began building a highway to the Atlantic and a new port to end UFCos monopolies on transportation and shipping. Then, in 1952, he promulgated an Agrarian Reform Law intended to create a rural middle class of freeholders. Decree 900 provided for expropriation of idle landholdings, with compensation based on the owners self-declared valuations as filed for the 1950 tax assessment. Farms smaller than 219 acres were exempt, as were those between 219 and 488 acres in which three-quarters of the land was under cultivation. By June 1954, about 100,000 families (comprising half a million persons out of a population of three million) had obtained lands of their own. That reduced the supply of labor for the plantations, forcing rural wages above a dollar a day.
These changes did not sit well with coffee planters and the United Fruit Company. Besides the higher wages, UFCos management was infuriated by the expropriation of 209,842 acres of unused banana plantations, and by the $3/acre offered by the Guatemalan Government. Though the figure was based on the companys own stated valuations (for tax purposes), and though it had paid half that amount to acquire the land twenty years earlier, the U.S. State Department demanded $75 an acre. Possibly influencing the U.S. position was the fact that Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had previously served as an attorney for UFCo, preparing the companys contracts with the Guatemalan Government during the 1930s.
Denouncing the administration as Communist-dominated, President Eisenhower authorized the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), run by Allen Dulles, brother of the Secretary of State and another former UFCo attorney, to proceed with covert actions against the Guatemalan Government. Though no Communist held any cabinet post, and the Guatemalan Communist Party (Partido Guatemalteco de los Trabajadores, PGT ) never held more than 5 of 58 seats in Congress, Arbenz fell into a public-relations trap when he purchased arms from Communist Czechoslovakia in an effort to circumvent a U.S.-imposed arms embargo. In June 1954, planes flown by CIA operatives began bombing and strafing military installations, fuel depots, and the presidential palace, while mercenaries led by former army Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas invaded from Honduras. On June 27, Arbenz resigned on the basis of a promise to preserve the gains of the Guatemalan revolution, and flew off into Mexican exile.
Installed in the presidency by the United States, Castillo Armas returned lands expropriated under Decree 900 to their former owners, including UFCo. He outlawed all political parties except his own National Liberation Movement (Movimiento de Liberación Nacional, MLN). He banned labor unions and peasant confederations, and restored Ubicos secret police chief. He decreed a Preventive Penal Law against Communism, providing for arbitrary arrest for up to six months of those designated as "Communists." Though the Guatemalan Communist Party had peaked at a membership of 4,000, the regime branded 72,000 citizens as "Communists," with no right of appeal.
Col. Castillo Armas was assassinated in 1957, and succeeded by Gen. Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes, who had developed a reputation for cruelty as enforcer of Ubicos Vagrancy Law. In 1963, to head off another presidential bid by Juan José Arévalo, the army took over, blocking Arévalos return from exile. The new head of state, Col. Enrique Peralta Azurdia, formed a new center-right party the Institutional Democratic Party (Partido Institucional Democrática, PID) modeled on Mexicos ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party. He also rewrote the Constitution, inserting a requirement that any new political party must first submit a list of 50,000 members. By questioning the validity of signatures, the Government was able to arbitrarily decide which parties could participate in elections, a power used over the next couple of decades to exclude center-left reformist parties. That kept not only Arévalo, but even Christian Democrats, off the ballot.
Besides the center-right PID and rightist MLN, only the centrist Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario, PR) was allowed to take part in the 1966 election. Even so, its presidential candidate, Julio César Méndez Montenegro, won a plurality of the vote. As a condition to being allowed to take office, however, the army made Méndez Montenegro pledge not to interfere in its affairs. In a context of tension resulting from the emergence of small guerrilla groups that kidnapped Government officials and politicians, the army took advantage of its autonomy to launch two fateful initiatives. One was a Cold War counter-insurgency campaign, advised and financed by the United States, that killed thousands of peasants in an effort to end civilian support for several hundred guerrillas. The other was the formation of death squads such as Mano Blanca (White Hand) in the cities, openly sponsored by MLN leader Mario Sandoval Alarcón, and widely believed to be covertly organized by the armed forces. Among the death squads primary targets were students and professors at the University of San Carlos, and labor lawyers and activists. With the Defense Minister able to declare states of siege at will, President Méndez Montenegro was reduced to a figurehead, helpless to limit the countrys slide towards violence and impunity.
In 1970 the pretense of civilian government disappeared altogether. Méndez Montenegro was succeeded as President by Col. Carlos Arana Osorio, commander of the counter-insurgency campaign. Announcing "there will be no halfway measures against subversion in my Government," Arana declared a state of siege. By March 1971, there had been more than 700 political killings in the country, including those of nationalist politician and lawyer Alfonso Bauer Paíz and labor leader Jaime Monge Donís. Though elected with support from both the PID and the MLN, Arana consolidated military control of the death squads. With the killing of the MLN President of Congress, reputed to be a director of the MLN-linked Mano Blanca, that group faded out, and was replaced by a group of new death squads more directly controlled by the army.
For the 1974 presidential election, the military-linked PID chose Aranas Chief of Staff, Gen. Kjell Laugerud, as its candidate. To hold onto MLN support, it offered Mario Sandoval Alarcón the vice-presidency. Bowing to the reality of military control, the centrist Christian Democratic Party of Guatemala (Partido Demócrata Cristiano de Guatemala, PDCG) countered by nominating Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, an officer they considered more honest and trustworthy than the rest. With the more reform-oriented parties Villagrán Kramers Democratic Revolutionary Unity (Unidad Revolucionaria Democrática, URD) and the United Revolutionary Front (Frente Unido Revolucionario, FUR), led by popular Guatemala City mayor Manuel Colom Argueta prohibited from taking part in the elections, these threw their support to Ríos Montt under the umbrella of the National Opposition Front (Frente Nacional Opositora, FNO). When early returns showed the FNO leading two-to-one, the Government delayed the count, then announced that Kjell Laugerud had won by a thin margin. The fraud was consummated when Arana persuaded Ríos Montt to accept a diplomatic assignment in Spain.
Gen. Laugerud, who was more of a technocrat than a cold warrior, reduced the level of repression. Forming an alliance with the Christian Democrats, he cut off relations with the MLN altogether, and split with his patron Arana. A raid on the home of an Arana associate uncovered a cache of arms and uniforms presumed to have been used by a death squad. In the Mayan highlands, Laugerud supported the development of cooperatives organized by the Christian Democrats and the FUR.
In the wake of the 1976 earthquake, however, this relaxation enabled peasants who had already benefited from the cooperative movement to form independent organizations that began to challenge the rural power structure centered on rural land barons and military commissioners. On its left fringe, this effervescence led to formation of a new guerrilla group, the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres, EGP). Under pressure from army commanders, Laugerud terminated his alliance with the Christian Democrats, and allowed the army to intensify repression in rural areas. In response, President Jimmy Carter persuaded Congress to cut off military aid and credit to Guatemala in 1977.
Gen. Fernando Romeo Lucas García, who had been Gen. Laugeruds Defense Minister, became President in 1978, following an election the Washington Post described as "a fraud so transparent that nobody could expect to get away with it." Continuing their tacit alliance with segments of the military, the Christian Democrats had nominated Col. Peralta Méndez. Lucas had countered by seeking a civilian Vice-President. After being turned down by Manuel Colom Argueta and possibly Alberto Fuentes Mohr, he settled on Francisco Villagrán Kramer, head of the Democratic Revolutionary Unity (Unidad Revolucionaria Democrática, URD).
Shortly after Gen. Lucas assumed the presidency, a new death squad was born. Run out of the national palace itself, the Secret Anti-Communist Army (Ejército Secreto Anticomunista, ESA), spearheaded a campaign of terror against labor unions, universities, and opposition politicians that exceeded anything seen under Arana. Among the victims were leaders of two opposition parties. Alberto Fuentes Mohr, founder and leader of the Social Democratic Party (Partido Social Demócrata, PSD), was killed on January 25, 1979, the day his party filed for formal recognition. Manuel Colom Argueta, a former mayor of Guatemala City and head of the United Front of the Revolution (Frente Unido de la Revolución, FUR), was murdered by three carloads of armed men in plainclothes on March 22, 1979, only days after registering his party. Colom and Fuentes were expected to be presidential running mates in the 1982 election.
So severe was the repression that even Gen. Lucas Garcías running mate could no longer tolerate it. On September 1, 1980, Vice-President Francisco Villagrán Kramer resigned and fled to the United States, saying that "death or exile is the fate of those who fight for justice in Guatemala." By 1981, virtually all that remained of the organized democratic opposition were the Christian Democrats. In August, party leader Vinicio Cerezo reported that 120 Christian Democrats had been murdered since September 1980, and withdrew all the partys deputies from Congress.
Though Gen. Lucas succeeded in virtually destroying the democratic opposition, he was ultimately trumped from where he least expected it dissident elements of the armed forces themselves. When he sought to impose the by now routine transfer of power to his Defense Minister in the 1982 election, Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, still smarting from the fraud that denied him the presidency in 1974, led a coup that removed Lucas from power. A broader motivation for the coup, however, was the concern of field commanders that Gen. Lucas corruption and indiscriminate slaughter were undermining the effort against the guerrillas, who were now more numerous and powerful than ever before.
Ironically, Gen. Ríos Montt became best known for implementing a plan designed by Benedicto Lucas García, the former Presidents brother. Named Defense Minister in the waning days of the Lucas regime, Benedicto drew on his French military training to put together a counter-insurgency plan modeled on the French experiences in Vietnam and Algeria. The idea was to force peasants to abandon their traditional villages for centralized and fortified towns where the army could maintain secure control. In practice, that entailed burning down entire villages, often massacring many or all of the civilian inhabitants. As a result of the slaughter, 200,000 refugees had fled to Mexico by the end of 1982, and somewhere between 300,000 and a million peasants had either gone into hiding in the mountains or swelled the ranks of the homeless in Guatemala City. This mass exodus led to worldwide protests, including an August 1982 condemnation by the United Nations.
As part of his strategy, Gen. Ríos Montt also expanded the armys presence in rural areas, increasing the number of military zones from nine to 22, one for each of the countrys 22 departments. Completing the militarization of the Guatemalan highlands, Ríos Montt also removed 324 village mayors, substituting his own appointees, and required that all men participate in civil patrols (Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil, PACs).
To rebuild a base of support, however, Ríos Montt moderated repression in some key aspects. He curtailed the activity of urban death squads, which had already decimated the democratic opposition. Labeling his counter-insurgency program frijoles y fusiles (beans and rifles), he provided food to peasants relocated to strategic towns, and had the army launch numerous other "civic action" programs. For these reasons, he has maintained a strong base of support among some Guatemalans.
To open up a largely closed political system that had earlier denied him the presidency he had won at the polls, Ríos Montt also launched an overhaul of the electoral law. The number of signatures required to register a political party dropped from 50,000 to 4,000, making it virtually impossible for the Government to continue excluding center-left parties from the ballot.
Yet Ríos Montts flamboyant evangelism created fissures among Guatemalan civil and military elites. In 1978, he had converted from Catholicism to El Verbo, a fundamentalist Protestant church affiliated with the Gospel Outreach Church of Eureka, California. As President, Ríos Montt encouraged the spread of Protestant missionaries throughout the country, causing resentment among Catholics. On August 8, 1983, Defense Minister Gen. Oscar Humberto Mejía Víctores, backed by the military, ousted Gen. Ríos Montt, and assumed the presidency.
Convinced that a return to civilian rule was essential to
improving Guatemalas international image and undermining
the credibility of guerrilla forces, Gen. Mejía Víctores held
an election in July 1984 under the new electoral law
prepared under Gen. Ríos Montt for a Constituent Assembly
to draft a new constitution. The Constitution was promulgated in
1985, and was followed by a presidential election free of the
fraud that had marred previous
In 1986, Christian Democrat Vinicio Cerezo became Guatemalas first civilian President since 1970. Having won a sweeping 70% of the vote, Cerezo was widely perceived as having a mandate to carry out the new constitutional provisions, the most important of which was to subordinate the army to civilian control.
As it had earlier done with Méndez Montenegro, however, the army sought to tie the President-Elects hands. Four days before Cerezos inauguration, it promulgated an amnesty decree barring prosecution of members of the armed forces and police for prior violations of human rights. Not only did Cerezo make no effort to challenge the decree, he took no action to end impunity for violations of human rights committed by the army and police subsequent to his assumption of the presidency. Furthermore, he allowed the police, which are constitutionally supposed to answer to the Ministry of the Interior, to be run by an army officer, effectively subordinating the nominally civilian police to the army.
Cerezo was succeeded in January 1991 by Jorge Serrano Elías, a political crony of Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, and leader of the Solidarity Action Movement (Movimiento de Acción Solidaria, MAS). Though Serrano beat Jorge Carpio Nicolle of the center-right Union of the National Center (Unión del Centro Nacional, UCN) decisively in the presidential run-off election, the MAS lost the congressional elections just as decisively. Center and center-right parties dominated, with the UCN taking 41 of 116 seats, the PDCG taking 27, and the National Advancement Party (Partido de Avanzada Nacional, PAN) taking another 12, while MAS was limited to 18 seats.
The one bright spot in the Serrano administration was the appointment of Acisclo Valladares as Attorney General. Valladares was the first Guatemalan official to attempt vigorous prosecutions of human rights offenses. Yet before his initiatives could have any effect, he was removed from office on allegations of corruption allegations later proved false in court. Like Cerezo, Serrano allowed the police to remain under control of the military, in defiance of the constitutional requirement that the police be subordinated to the Ministry of the Interior.
Unable to control Congress, Serrano tried to assume dictatorial powers. On May 25, 1993, Serrano ordered the dissolution of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Court of Constitutionality. The Court of Constitutionality, presided over by Epaminondas González Dubón, responded immediately, declaring Serranos action unconstitutional. Human Rights Ombudsman Ramiro de León Carpio likewise denounced the new regime as unconstitutional. The Organization of American States (OAS) called for the restoration of constitutional rule, as did the Clinton administration, which suspended security and economic assistance, and threatened economic sanctions. After losing the support of the army, Serrano resigned on June 1. Four days later, Congress chose a new President, former Human Rights Ombudsman Ramiro de León Carpio.
As expected, de León Carpio made a series of bold moves early in his presidency to try to limit impunity for human rights violations by the army and the police. On August 5, he ordered the closing of the Presidential Security Directorate, an infamous intelligence unit more commonly known as Archivos (literally "The Files"), which had previously prepared hit lists for government-sanctioned death squads. Unlike his predecessors, he also tried to wrest control of the police from the army. His new national police chief, Mario René Cifuentes, dismissed military advisers, terminated the joint army-police task force HUNAPU, and prepared to launch a new unit to investigate human rights violations. Yet by early 1994, the military had forced the dismissal of both the police chief and the interior minister, effectively canceling the reforms.
Only in the waning days of his administration did de León Carpio attempt one further reform. On September 15, 1995, he announced his intent to terminate the system of military commissioners through which the army maintained control over civilians in rural Guatemala. A week later, Congress made the dissolution formal.
On November 12, 1995, Guatemalans went to the polls to elect a new President, mayors, and Congress. The elections were clean, but hampered by the residual effects of fear and a widespread sense of the futility of elections in a country in which the military remained unaccountable to elected authorities. Less than half of the registered voters (47%) cast ballots.
There were, nonetheless, important results. In a stunning advance over its weak showing in 1990, the PAN won an absolute majority in Congress, taking 43 of 80 seats. The largest opposition party, Gen. Ríos Montts Guatemalan Republican Front (Frente Republicano Guatemalteco, FRG), won less than half that amount 21 seats. Just as important, the newly-formed New Guatemala Democratic Front (Frente Democrático Nueva Guatemala, FDNG) won six seats, restoring a degree of representation to the center-left after decades of persecution. Three of the FDNG representatives were leaders of human rights groups: Nineth Montenegro was president of the Mutual Support Group (Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo, GAM), an organization of relatives of the disappeared; Amílcar Méndez was director of the Runujel Junam Council of Ethnic Communities (CERJ), derived from the phrase "all are equal" in the Quiché language; Rosalina Tuyuc was president of CONAVIGUA, the National Coordinating Committee of Guatemalan Widows (Coordinadora Nacional de Viudas Guatemaltecas).
PAN candidate Alvaro Arzú Irigoyen, who failed to win an absolute majority in the first round of the presidential election, won the January 7th runoff with 51.2% of the vote. In his inaugural address on January 14, he vowed to "fight impunity head on." Five days later, on January 19, Arzú removed eight of the countrys sixteen generals, as well as two notorious colonels linked to killings involving U.S. citizens. On January 26, he dismissed 118 police officers linked to criminal acts, including 85 precinct commanders. In February, he became the first Guatemalan President to meet with the guerrilla leadership. In September, Arzú dismissed another nine senior military officers, including two more generals, and signed an agreement to reduce the size and power of the military. On December 29, a final peace treaty was signed in Guatemala City, formally ending the country's 35-year civil war.
IV. Structure of Government
The Constitution of 1985 defines the Government of Guatemala as a representative democracy. Elections are held every four years for a President and unicameral Congress. Because of past experience with dictatorships masked by staged or fraudulent elections, the Constitution limits Presidents to a single term. Should a President refuse to leave office at the conclusion of the term, control of the military passes to Congress. To forestall a return to military rule, the Constitution also prohibits the candidacy of anyone who has served as an officer within the past five years, or who has taken part in a coup, or led an armed insurrection. Underscoring the importance of the provisions against reelection and against allowing those who resort to arms to attain the presidency, the Constitution bars any amendments to the articles in question.
The president and vice-president are elected by an absolute majority of votes cast. Should no ticket achieve such a majority in the first round, a runoff is held among the top two contenders. The President appoints all ministers. Together with the Vice-President, these comprise the Cabinet (Consejo de Ministros), which is headed by the President. In principle, the President is also Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, although not until the presidency of Alvaro Arzú Irigoyen (1996) was any serious effort made to assert this authority in practice.
The Congress of the Republic (Congreso de la República) consists of 80 deputies, 64 of whom are elected by plurality from single-member districts, and 16 elected nationwide by party list, in proportion to the vote received by each party. Unlike the President, legislators may be reelected. A Permanent Commission attends to pressing business during congressional recesses.
The Supreme Court of Justice consists of thirteen justices (magistrados), who serve five-year terms, and may likewise be returned to office. Members of the court are chosen by Congress from lists prepared by university presidents, law school deans, the bar association, and judges. The Supreme Court, which oversees all the nations courts, is guaranteed two percent of the national budget, and appoints all other judges.
In principle, though not yet fully in practice, the Constitution sets an elaborate set of checks and balances on arbitrary rule. Laws may be proposed not only by the president and by Congress, but, in their respective areas of competence, by the Supreme Court, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, and the University of San Carlos. The President may veto acts of Congress, and Congress may override the veto by a vote of two-thirds of its total membership. Constitutional laws, such as the electoral law and the law of constitutional protection (amparo), can only be modified by a vote of two-thirds of all deputies. Amparo entitles any individual whose constitutional rights are threatened to sue for the "protection" of the courts, or where violations have already occurred, to sue for redress.
Congress may compel ministers to appear before it to answer questions. If dissatisfied with a ministers performance, an absolute majority of deputies can so indicate with a vote of no confidence. The minister must then offer to resign. If the President does not accept the resignation, a vote of two-thirds of the deputies dismisses the minister.
The Supreme Court may also find specific actions of the Executive Branch, or particular applications of laws, unconstitutional. But rulings on the constitutionality of laws themselves are reserved for the Constitutional Court (Corte de Constitucionalidad). The Court consists of five magistrates, who serve five-year terms, and are chosen respectively by the President, Congress, the Supreme Court, the national bar association, and the University of San Carlos.
Another innovation in the Constitution of 1985 was the establishment of the Human Rights Ombudsman (Procurador de Derechos Humanos). The Ombudsman is chosen by Congress from a list of three candidates submitted by the Human Rights Commission, which is made up of one deputy from each of the political parties represented in Congress. The Ombudsman holds office for a five-year term. Any citizen may submit a complaint to the Ombudsmans office. The Ombudsmans authority, however, is limited to investigating complaints and recommending a course of action to other branches and agencies of the Government.
Regional government is tightly controlled from Guatemala City, while municipalities are allowed some degree of autonomy. Each of the countrys 22 departments is run by a governor appointed by the President. Municipalities, on the other hand, are governed by councils consisting of a mayor (alcalde), councilors (concejales), and trustees (síndicos), elected for four-year terms, with reelection allowed. Taxes are levied by the national government, but the Constitution reserves ten percent of the national budget for municipalities.
One of the greatest challenges facing Guatemalas civil authorities is to enforce the constitutional provisions subjecting the military to civilian control. Though working in the context of military rule, the Constituent Assembly nonetheless sought to legislate military rule out of existence. To that end, the Constitution not only prohibits active-duty military personnel from voting and from holding public office, but bars even officers who have retired in the past five years from seeking the presidency, and prohibits those who have taken part in coups from ever running for the presidency. This last provision was tested in 1993 when Vice President Gustavo Espina tried unsuccessfully to succeed Jorge Serrano following the latters failed "self-coup," which Espina had backed. The provision was again tested in 1995, when retired Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, who had led the 1982 coup, tried to run for President. In both cases, the Constitutional Court ruled they could not.
Though the army is still authorized to maintain "internal" as well as "external" security, it is admonished to remain "apolitical," and to stay within the bounds of the Constitution. Not once, but twice, the Constitution emphasizes that the President is Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. The President is also responsible for military promotions. In a provision aimed at terminating military-sponsored death squads, the Constitution prohibits the formation of armed groups not regulated by law. It also stipulates that no civil or military functionary is obligated to carry out illegal orders, and that no civilian may be judged by a military court.
V. Constitutional Guarantees
In general, there is a wide gap between the generous guarantees of human rights set forth in the Guatemalan Constitution and actual practice, though there have been some advances over the past decade, and the initiatives of the current administration of President Alvaro Arzú Irigoyen reflect a determination to effect far-reaching improvements.
Article 1 of the Constitution commits the state to "protecting the person and the family." Article 2 says "it is the duty of the State to guarantee to the inhabitants of the Republic life, liberty, justice, security, peace, and full personal development." Article 3 then establishes a right to life, originating from conception, not birth. Abortions are illegal, and the death penalty is prohibited for women, for men under 18 or over 60, or for political prisoners (including those convicted of committing common crimes in a political context). In July 1995, the legislature amended the Penal Code, extending the circumstances under which the death penalty could be imposed for kidnapping. In so doing, it may have violated the American Convention on Human Rights, a treaty previously ratified by Guatemala, which specifies that the death penalty "shall not be extended to crimes to which it does not presently apply."
In practice, the right to life is frequently violated by death squads that in the past operated under direct military command, and may still have clandestine links to army intelligence. As late as July 1996, the UN Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA) reported that:
The right to life continues to be seriously undermined. The enjoyment of this right is more difficult because agents of the State and persons or groups linked to them are known to be perpetrators of civilian homicides and the institutions involved are not carrying out proper investigations.
By January 1997, following the end of the guerrilla war, MINUGUA was able to offer a more upbeat, though still cautious assessment:
In particular, a trend was observed for the greater respect on the part of agents of the state for a number of the human rights given priority under the Agreement, including the right to life....Nevertheless, the enjoyment of human rights by the
population as a whole is still precarious, and Government efforts against crime and impunity have achieved only partial results.
Article 3 also mandates respect for "the integrity and security of the person," language intended to prohibit torture, the use of which is explicitly forbidden against prisoners. Yet, at least until very recently, the army has continued to rely on torture to extract information from suspected subversives. According to the U.S. Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1995, "many bodies were found in various parts of the country bearing signs of severe disfigurement or mutilation." The police also resort to torture in order to force the confessions that serve as a substitute for inadequate means of criminal investigation. "To control violence requires a police system of professional investigations and good equipment," President Alvaro Arzú told the Washington Post in June 1996. "We dont have it." Common methods of torture include beatings, druggings, incisions with knives, cigarette burns, and electric shocks. The most notorious method the capucha (hood or garotte) is routinely used by both the army and the police against suspected subversives. In the words of a police detective:
The capucha is a hood made of rubber, which has a kind of tie at the end which goes behind it. You put the hood over the person, down to his neck, and you tighten the strings so no air can enter. Before, you blindfold the person and you tie his hands and ankles from behind, and you put him face down and then someone strong steps on his lungs while another holds his feet, and another his head. Then the strong guy starts "rowing" the persons body while another is tightening the hood. What happens? He starts losing consciousness from lack of oxygen. And when he is just about to faint, they jump on him to bring him to or they throw cold water on his face, and slap him. They take off the hood and interrogate him. They say "Are you going to tell the truth?" and "Who is so and so?" If he doesnt know anything, they put the hood back on until he feels obligated to say something, or else he is very macho and doesnt speak, or to save his life, he invents just about anything. Thats when it really gets started: torture. A lot of people cant take it. They die, and thats when they throw them on the roadsides about ten kilometers from the city. Thats why you often see people with their hands tied behind them, blindfolded; they were the ones who couldnt withstand the hood. There are sessions that last an afternoon, a day, a week, a month, depending on the seriousness of the alleged crime. Everything happens as easily as the way I am describing it.
A common variation in the use of the hood is to spike it with insecticide, as described by a soldier:
We give them the hood with Gamezán (insecticide) and they let it all out, against their will Its effective. The hood makes your eyes burn, you feel asphyxiated. We put insecticide inside. It burns your nose, you cant take it, you feel almost dead We give them the hood and they let it all out, even against their will. They tell the truth in the middle of torture.
In November 1995, the United Nations Committee Against Torture expressed its deep concern that torture remains endemic in Guatemala, and that the authorities were not taking prompt and effective action against those responsible.
By law, arrests and searches of a home may be made only with a warrant issued by a judge based on probable cause. The only exception is when someone is apprehended in the act of committing a crime; even then, that person must be brought before a judge within six hours. The clandestine detention centers that, at least until recently, were routinely used by the army and police to interrogate, torture, and kill "subversives" are explicitly prohibited, and the Constitution says that authorities who violate this precept will be held personally accountable. To date, however, no one has been charged with any such infraction. Moreover, in January 1997, MINUGUA reported "an increase in the number of verified cases of illegal detention attributed to the National Police and the Treasury Police."
Persons placed under arrest must immediately be told why they are being detained, and apprised of their rights to have an attorney present. In practice, however, most Guatemalans cannot afford legal counsel, and public defenders are usually too poorly trained and
overburdened by heavy caseloads to offer effective defense for their clients. Interrogations may only be conducted by judicial authorities. Confessions obtained from extrajudicial interrogations may not be submitted as evidence in a court of law. In all cases, the accused must be presumed innocent. The Constitution also provides for the right of habeas corpus, and the right to protection (amparo) from any other infringement of constitutional rights by the authorities. According to the U.S. Department of State, however, "most accounts agree that the security forces routinely ignore writs of habeas corpus in cases of illegal detention."
The Constitution mandates the inviolability of correspondence and private documents. Yet, according to the U.S. Department of State, "the authorities regularly disregard these provisions. Elements of the security forces continue to monitor private communications." In March 1993, for instance, a secret office of Archivos (the inter-agency intelligence unit discussed in Section VIII) was discovered in the main post office in Guatemala City, where it had been used to intercept mail.
Guatemalans are guaranteed freedom of speech and freedom of the media, including the press. The Constitution also provides for freedom of association, the right of petition, and the right of peaceful assembly. All these rights, however, have, at least until recently, been under assault from death squads linked to the military and to political extremists, who have had long-established patterns of murdering journalists, politicians, professors, students, trade unionists, clergy, catechists, and others who they perceive as threatening their interests. Though Guatemalas recent civilian Presidents have not sanctioned the actions of the death squads, they have not made a concerted effort to arrest and prosecute their organizers. That has in turn fostered a culture of impunity that perpetuates the violation of the most basic human rights of Guatemalas citizens.
According to MINUGUA:
In the current situation of impunity, the majority of serious crimes and human rights violations go unpunished. This is not because it is impossible to determine what has happened or to identify the perpetrators; it is due to the inefficiency of the national bodies responsible for investigation, judgment, and punishment, as well as the influence certain groups, mostly those connected with the State, have upon those bodies State officials or persons close to them take advantage of their State connections, not only to commit crimes and human rights violations, but also to impede their investigation and evade punishment.
A related problem is the widespread availability of guns. Article 38 of the Guatemalan Constitution goes well beyond the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, by establishing a right to bear arms both in the home and on ones person. With citizens holding hundreds of thousands of guns (almost none of which are registered), many of which are worn concealed under their clothing, and with effective impunity for their use, it is not hard to understand why Guatemala has one of the highest homicide rates in the hemisphere. In 1992, there were 34 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, compared with 10 in the United States and Panama, and 5 in Costa Rica.
In the social and economic domain, Guatemalans have rights to health, "ecological equilibrium," social security, and education. The State provides subsidies to religious schools. It also guarantees the autonomy of the University of San Carlos, the countrys only public university, which is reserved two percent of the national budget.
Employees have a "right to conditions that guarantee" their families "a dignified existence." These conditions include a minimum wage (currently just under $3 a day), an 8 hour work-day and a 44 hour work-week, and prohibition of child labor (under age 14). According to the U.S. Department of State:
The minimum wage is not sufficient to provide even a minimum standard of living for a worker and family. An estimated 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, including approximately 60 percent of those employed.
Wages must be paid in cash, except in the case of agricultural workers, where, with their consent, no more than 30% may be paid in food, provided the food is valued at no more than cost. Though employers are required to pay migrant workers their wages in full, this provision is flagrantly violated by plantation owners who fail to pay minimum wage, and by a judicial system that seldom seeks compliance. Any employee who is dismissed without just cause must be given a months severance pay for each year of employment. Employees have a right to equal pay for equal work, and employers may not make distinctions between single and married women.
Workers have the right to form free labor unions, and cannot be dismissed from their jobs for joining a union. Unions may go on strike, but only to achieve socio-economic not political aims. However, as pointed out in the State Departments Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1995:
...Labor code procedures make legal strikes cumbersome. Labor organizers criticize the requirement that two-thirds of the workers must approve a vote to strike, the prohibition of strikes by agricultural workers at harvest time, and the right of the Government to prohibit strikes which it considers seriously harmful to the national economy. A strike by employees of La Aurora Zoo in April  was the first legally authorized strike in 25 years lack of legal approval for a strike can be used as a threat against strikers. Workers can be suspended or fired for failing to show up for work if a strike has not been legally approved.
As discussed in Section XI, Groups at Risk, trade unionists and labor lawyers have been frequent targets of death squads linked to the countrys security forces, in effect undermining the right to organize.
As a matter of law, though not necessarily in practice, wherever Guatemala has ratified international treaties, such as conventions of the International Labor Organization (ILO), and where the provisions protecting workers exceed those in Guatemalan law, the international provisions take precedence. Guatemala has ratified both ILO Convention 87, on freedom of association, and ILO Convention 98, on the right to collective bargaining.
Though the Constitution provides for states of exception, these are severely restricted in order to avoid having them become a justification for the curtailment of basic human rights. Confronting the legacy of a long history of often brutal military rule, the Constituent Assembly prohibited suspension of most human rights under any circumstances. The right to life and to physical integrity can never be validly abridged. The only rights subject to suspension in an emergency are the freedoms of speech, movement, and peaceful assembly, freedom from arrest without a warrant, the right to be interrogated only by judicial authorities, the right to bear arms, and the right of public employees to go on strike. The President may suspend any of these rights by decree, specifying the rights and locations affected, but must submit the decree to Congress within three days for review. Even if confirmed by Congress, no decree can be in effect for more than 30 days.
The Human Rights Ombudsman, moreover, is required to defend all underogable rights under a state of exception. Instruction about the Constitution and human rights is made a mandatory part of the curriculum, and popular resistance to violations of human rights is declared legitimate. And though Article 204 states that the Constitution prevails over ordinary laws and international treaties in other respects, Article 46 states that where human rights are concerned, international treaties ratified by Guatemala take precedence over domestic law. That effectively incorporates the content of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the American Convention on Human Rights, into domestic jurisprudence. Guatemala has also recognized the compulsory jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
VI. Cultural Factors - Ethnicity
In racial terms, the population of Guatemala is predominantly native American. About 55% of Guatemalans are Amerindian, and 42% are ladino (of mixed, but predominantly native origins). Only 3% are of predominantly European or (to a negligible degree) African origin. To downplay the size of the native population, however, the Guatemalan Government measures ethnicity primarily by language and dress, reflecting a more general pattern of discrimination:
Ethnic discrimination permeates Guatemalan society. To be an indio is to be dumb, lazy, crude, backward, and altogether less civilized in the stereotypical view of many ladinos. In fact, indio is a common term of insult in ladino society. Within the narrow bounds of indian communities, one can advance economically and socially while maintaining traditional dress and language. But to succeed in the dominant society, or even simply to get a decent job, an Indian is pressured to shed her or his cultural identity and assume ladino dress and behavioral patterns. For these reasons, low estimations of the indigenous population are sometimes questioned; and it is argued that without societal pressure and discrimination the numbers of self-identified indians would be greater.
Since all ladinos speak Spanish, as does more than a third of the indigenous population, the linguistic balance tilts in favor of the dominant culture. About two-thirds (66%) of Guatemalans speak Spanish, with the remaining third speaking various Mayan languages.
There are four principal indigenous languages. Quiché, spoken by 13% of all Guatemalans, is concentrated in the departments of Quiché, Quetzaltenango, Sololá, Retalhuleu, and Totonicapán. Cakchiquel,, spoken by 6% of Guatemalans, is heard in Antigua, and in the departments of Sacatepéquez, Chimaltenango, Sololá, and Guatemala. Mam, with 4%, is used in the departments of Huehuetenango, San Marcos, and Quetzaltenango. Kekchí, also at 4%, is distributed in the departments of Alta Verapaz, Izabal, and Petén. Another seventeen languages or dialects are spoken by the remaining 7% of the population. There are also two small populations that are neither European, Mayan nor ladino. About 10,000 Garífuna, descended from African slaves and Carib Indians, inhabit the Caribbean coast, and some 500 Xinca live near the border with El Salvador.
Though Guatemalas original inhabitants and their languages are often collectively described as Mayan, the various ethnic groups have little sense of common identity. The major languages are sufficiently distinct as to be unintelligible to "Mayans" who speak other languages. Furthermore, beginning with the Spanish conquest, each community developed a distinctive form
of dress, or traje. The inhabitants of each native town distinguish themselves from the inhabitants of all other towns by the patterns in their brightly colored garments. "In the eyes of our community," says Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú, "the fact that anyone should even change the way they dress shows a lack of dignity. Anyone who doesnt dress as our grandfathers, our ancestors, dressed, is on the road to ruin." Between language and traje, indigenous peoples have remained highly segregated, limiting possibilities for ethnic unity and political clout.
Only in recent years have Mayans begun to overcome some of their differences, and to press for a more effective voice in the political life of the country. Ironically, the trend toward recognizing some degree of common identity originated in the severe repression of the 1980s. Mayans who remained in Guatemala received the same treatment from the security forces regardless of their specific ethnicity, while those who fled into Mexican exile intermingled and had to learn Spanish in order to communicate. The return of the refugees, with their language and organizational skills, and their sense of common purpose, has contributed to a growing movement for the recognition of Mayan cultural identity and for meaningful participation in government.
One sign of this movement is the formation, for the first time, of a pan-Mayan coalition the Coordinating Council of Organizations of the Mayan People in Guatemala (COPMAGUA). Another is the increasing participation of Mayans in electoral politics. In the November 1995 general election, Mayan candidates won eight (10%) of 80 congressional seats and 40 (13%) of 297 mayoralties, a significantly greater proportion than ever before. Twenty-one of the new mayors were nominated by local civic committees instead of national political parties, a change made possible by electoral reform. These developments within Guatemala have been paralleled by recognition from abroad, as in the awarding of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize to Mayan human rights activist Rigoberta Menchú.
These emerging political realities, coupled with unfulfilled constitutional promises, are in tension with present reality. According to the U.S. Department of State, "[a]lthough the Constitution accords indigenous people equal rights, in practice they have only minimal participation in decisions affecting their lands, culture, traditions, and allocation of natural
resources." The Constitution, moreover, is in other ways discriminatory. It recognizes Spanish as the countrys only official language. The various Mayan languages are relegated to the nations "cultural patrimony." Bilingual education is limited to regions of predominantly indigenous population which, as of 1981, included the western highland departments of Totonicapán (97%), Sololá (94%), Alta Verapaz (89%), Quiché (85%), Chimaltenango (80%), Huehuetenango (66%), Quetzaltenango (61%), Baja Verapaz (57%), and Suchitepéquez (56%).
Since 1995, progress has been made in recognizing the changes that need to be made to the countrys legal structure to accord Mayans their due part in the political order. In March 1995, the Government and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca, URNG) signed the Agreement on the Identity and Rights of Indigenous People. The document acknowledges the historical damage suffered by indigenous peoples from the denial of rights, discrimination, exclusion from the judicial and political systems, and plundering of lands and natural resources and affirms an "urgent need to overcome it." It recognizes Mayan identity and the value of indigenous languages. It requires that "all matters of direct interest to the indigenous people must be addressed by and with them," and specifies formation of consultative bodies. The agreement calls for legislation to recognize traditional forms of authority and adjudication at the municipal level, and to recognize collective rights to land and natural resources. It also commits the Government to amend the Constitution in several ways: to define the Guatemalan nation as multiethnic, multicultural, and multilingual; to recognize the Mayan, Garífuna, and Xinca peoples; to make all indigenous languages official; and to recognize indigenous forms of spirituality. According to MINUGUA, however, resistance to recognizing indigenous forms of spirituality continues to be strong:
During the period [August 1996 - January 1997], the most serious violations of the rights recognized in the Agreement on Indigenous Rights were associated with the exercise of
Mayan spirituality. Accusations of witchcraft greeted the performance of traditional Mayan rites and triggered violent reactions against the physical and psychological integrity of the victims, as well as serious acts such as kidnapping, death threats, and even murder. There have also been collective trials and clashes between villages. Lastly, the Mission observed various ways in which access by priests and adherents of Mayan spirituality to their holy places was being obstructed by individuals and religious institutions, and even cases of destruction and vandalism. The Mission has received complaints from spiritual guides about the procedure for the issuance of credentials to Mayan priests, which they consider humiliating.
On March 5, 1996, the Guatemalan Congress ratified the International Labor Organizations convention on indigenous rights, which specifies that indigenous peoples have a right to live on their ancestral lands, and to be educated in their own languages.
Still, differences in basic indicators between Mayans and ladinos underscore the extent of the challenge that lies ahead. Life expectancy among ladino men is 64; among Mayan men, 47. Nationwide, illiteracy is at a staggering 50%, reaching 77% among Mayans (90% among Mayan women). In 1989, according to official statistics, two-thirds of those who were employed in rural areas lived in extreme poverty. Ultimately, any attempt to deal with the problem of rural poverty must either come to grips with the contentious issue of access to land, or create large numbers of jobs through expansion of the industrial and service sectors of the economy.
VII. Land Issues and their Political Implications
Several factors contribute to the explosive issue of land ownership in Guatemala. One is the continuing importance of agriculture to the countrys economy. As of 1993, two-thirds of Guatemalas foreign exchange earnings came from the sale of agricultural commodities. Somewhere between a third and a half of the labor force works in agriculture.
A second factor is the combination of high population density and shortage of arable land. Roughly eleven million people most of them rural inhabitants live in an area slightly
smaller than Tennessee. Only 12% of the mostly mountainous land surface is arable, and only a third of that is in permanent crops, with the remainder in pastures. Exacerbating the problem is a rapid rate of population growth, which was about 2.5% per year in 1995.
A third factor is an archaic, inaccurate, and confusing system of land titling. Because the uncertainties and legal voids favor those who can afford to hire lawyers and bribe bureaucrats, army officers, and judges, powerful landholders are content to keep the system as it is, because it helps them gain title to lands they never bought. On the other end of the social spectrum, peasants who have little prospect of obtaining a title treat the land as an expendable resource, slashing and burning their way ever deeper into virgin rainforests. Guatemala loses 153,000 hectares (378,000 acres) of forest each year.
Superimposed on this is the ethnic factor. As elsewhere in the Americas, European settlers seized most of the lands originally held by indigenous peoples. In Guatemala, however, the indigenous peoples continued to be in the majority. The outcome is one of the most lop-sided distributions of land ownership in the Western Hemisphere. Two percent of farm owners mostly of European extraction hold about 72% of the precious arable land, and receive 90% of all farm credit. At the other end of the spectrum from these few latifundios (plantations or ranches) are about 550,000 minifundios averaging 4.6 acres apiece, which receive only 4% of all farm credit. Most rural Guatemalans dont own any land at all. The net effect is to reinforce positions of power and status little changed from colonial times.
Agribusinesses and plantation owners justify the existing distribution of land by arguing that it promotes economies of scale and maximizes foreign exchange earnings needed to modernize the economy. They point out that large agricultural enterprises growing export crops can make efficient use of agricultural chemicals and machinery. Land reform, they argue, would pull land out of export agriculture into subsistence agriculture, starving the country of dollars for the purchase of imports. Moreover, without enough arable land to provide every family with a plot large enough to meet its basic needs, and with plots being subdivided among large numbers of children, the outcome would be economic ruin.
Advocates of the poor, however, counter that the present system results in abysmal living conditions for most Guatemalans, with no serious prospect for improvement. Though Guatemala ranks 85th in real GDP per capita ($3,400 in 1993) among 174 world nations, it places 112th in the Human Development Index (HDI), a combined measure of life expectancy, educational attainment, and income. Nowhere else in the Americas is the gap between these two indices even a quarter as great. In 1989, according to official government statistics, more than three of every four Guatemalans lived in poverty, more than one in ten children died before reaching the age of five, and more than a third of schoolchildren aged 5-9 were suffering from malnutrition.
Were landless peasants to be employed in agriculture, or in newly-created industrial and service jobs, these grim demographics could be turned around. But there have been few meaningful development initiatives in rural Guatemala. According to Guatemalas Human Rights Ombudsman:
[Guatemalas] development style allowed economic growth in some productive sectors and in the economy overall, while postponing the structural changes needed for this process to bring about the kind of national development that would benefit all Guatemalans. The result has been that the latifundio-minifundio dichotomy has become even more pronounced.
A large proportion of rural employers, moreover, do not even pay their workers the legally-mandated minimum wage, which the U.S. Department of State describes as "not sufficient to provide even a minimum standard of living for a worker and family." And the rural minimum wage has been declining in dollar equivalents, from $3.20/day in the early 1980s to $2.60/day in 1995. Emigrating to Guatemala City is no real answer, because the city is unable to provide employment for more than a fraction of the rural migrants who are already squatting in its cardboard and plastic slums.
Facing these options, many if not most Guatemalan peasants would prefer to have their own land, even if it only ensured subsistence for their families. Indigenous peoples, moreover, value land not just as a commodity but as an essential component of their collective identity as a people. In Guatemala, maize (corn) is not just a staple food but a sacrament, the vital symbolic link between the earth, creation, and the human community. That is why Mayan organizations, peasant associations, the Catholic Church, and the URNG are all calling for land reform.
Guatemalas civil war added another wrinkle to the problem. As part of the counter-insurgency strategy applied in the early 1980s, the army destroyed hundreds of settlements, forcing their occupants into internal or external exile. Taking advantage of the opportunity, other peasants almost all with ties to the army through the civil self-defense patrols (Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil, PACs) occupied the vacated lands. Some of these peasants then obtained titles to the lands through a legal provision that allows for transfer of title wherever the land has been voluntarily abandoned.
By any reasonable standard, however, the lands vacated by refugees could not be said to have been voluntarily abandoned. To persuade the refugees who fled to Mexico to return to Guatemala, the Government signed an accord in 1992 which committed it to remove squatters from lands owned by returning refugees, to assist refugees in asserting their prior claims against those issued subsequently to squatters, and where such efforts failed, to find land for them elsewhere. An unintended effect of this policy has been to pit one set of peasants against another, often leading to conflict.
Since the arrival of the United Nations Mission (MINUGUA), there has also been an upsurge in land invasions on plantations whose owners have refused to pay their workers the legally-mandated minimum wage. Before MINUGUA, landowners would often respond to such takeovers with deadly force. Now, however, the risks are far less, and workers primarily those organized by the National Indigenous and Peasant Coordinating Committee (Coordinadora Nacional Indígena y Campesina, CONIC) have been occupying lands to demand either the back pay they are due or compensation in land.
In 1996, outraged plantation owners succeeded in lobbying Congress to incorporate stiff sanctions against land invaders into the penal code. Article 257 provides for two to six years imprisonment for "aggravated usurpation," which it defines as occurring under one or more of the following conditions: a) when more than five persons take part; b) they occupy land for more than three days; c) the owners are forced to leave; d) there is violence, disorder, intimidation, disguise, or breach of confidence; or e) damage is done to buildings, crops, roads, or natural resources. The penalty is also applicable to those who encourage others to engage in such behavior.
On May 6, 1996, the Governments Peace Commission (Comisión por la Paz, COPAZ) and the URNG signed a long-awaited socio-economic and agrarian agreement. Its provisions include: 1) a commitment to decentralize decision-making, and transfer more resources to municipalities; 2) a recognition on the part of the Government that it has an "undeniable obligation" to correct social inequities, coupled with commitments to boost spending on health and education (relative to GDP) by 50% by the year 2000, raise literacy to 70%, and cut infant and maternal mortality in half by the same year; 3) creation of a national "land bank" to provide landless peasants with access to land and credit; and 4) the doubling of tax collections by the year 2000.
Though the guerrillas were sufficiently pleased with the agreement to suspend their "war tax" on landowners, civic groups felt betrayed by what they saw as a series of unenforceable promises in lieu of immediate and concrete reforms. The Assembly of Civil Society (Asamblea de la Sociedad Civil, ASC), set up in 1994 to provide input to the peace negotiations from nongovernmental organizations and civilian groups, complained that its recommendations for broader reforms had been ignored. The National Indigenous and Peasant Coordinating Committee (Coordinadora Nacional Indígena y Campesina, CONIC) likewise protested that "the accord includes minimal commitments that do not satisfy the demands of the Mayan people and campesinos," and vowed that land invasions would continue. Between January and May, 1996, about 15,000 campesinos from various groups have invaded more than 20 farms in six of Guatemala's 22 departments.
According to Amnesty International:
The [Governments] deliberate criminalization and intimidation of land activists is most evident in the case of El Estor, a municipality of 70 villages in the eastern department of Izabal. For more than two years Father Daniel Joseph Vogt, a Catholic priest, together with other members of his church and land activists in the municipality of El Estor, have been subject to death threats, intimidation, and killings by unidentified individuals. In the context of a land dispute between the community and a local land company, they have also been accused by the local authorities of crimes such as sedition and deforestation.
In its January 1997 report, MINUGUA underscored the extent of the problem nationwide.
The absence of institutional mechanisms for dealing with land disputes, which often involve the indigenous population, and for implementing expeditious procedures for resolving them, as well as the Governments inability to provide legal remedies and legal advisory services to apply them, have contributed to the occurrence and the aggravation of such disputes. The Mission observed with concern that there were repeated clashes during the period under review between a number of indigenous communities and villages and between members of these communities and farm-owners, resulting in an unknown number of deaths and serious injuries and keeping tensions high in the areas in question.
VIII. Security Forces
Formally speaking, Guatemala has two principal security forces, the army and the National Police. The former is administered by the Defense Ministry, the latter by the Ministry of Government (Gobernación). Despite a constitutional requirement that the police be managed separately from the army, the police have until recently in fact been subject to military command. Even under the civilian presidencies of Vinicio Cerezo and Jorge Serrano, the number two position in the National Police continued to be held by military officers.
There is no more powerful testament to the true purpose of the Guatemalan Armed Forces acting as self-described bulwarks against domestic "subversion" than the fact that they have been so completely interconnected with the police that it is impossible to treat the two separately. Not only has the National Police (Policía Nacional) long been under military leadership, the Mobile Military Police (Policía Militar Ambulante, PMA) has jurisdiction over civilians. Owners of rural plantations and urban private enterprises have even been able to hire PMA members to guard their property, or serve as personal bodyguards. The 2,100-member Treasury Police (Guardia de Hacienda), nominally under the Ministry of Finance, is supposed to run
customs and control illegal stills. Yet, in cooperation with army intelligence, it has turned its power to conduct searches into a pretext to break into homes in pursuit of "subversives."
Corruption is widespread. Army officers are poorly paid, and expected to supplement their incomes in one of two ways. One is to seek government appointments that provide them with sobresueldos (additional stipends). That contributes to political jockeying and intrigue. Another option is to seek private sources of income. Many officers moonlight, providing security services to plantation owners and businessmen. That can entail anything from expelling peasants from land they have occupied to murdering a nettlesome union leader. Higher-ranking officers often have the option of acquiring land, much of which is taken by force. Typically, they become landlords, collecting rent from peasant farmers.
The most lucrative way of supplementing income, however, is providing protection to narcotics smugglers. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, at least ten current or former military officers are suspected of involvement in cocaine trafficking. Lt. Col. Carlos Ochoa Ruíz, for example, was indicted in Florida for transshipping 1000 pounds of Colombian cocaine through Guatemala. In March 1994, Constitutional Court President Epaminondas González Dubón drafted a decision in favor of Ochoas extradition to the United States. Days later, four men murdered the judge.
Police officers are both poorly trained and poorly paid. The average policeman has a fourth-grade education, and earns about $150 a month. Low pay and impunity foster corruption. In 1995, an ad hoc committee on the National Police exposed the sale of positions in the Rapid Reaction Force at 1,500 Quetzales apiece to persons with police records and persons against whom arrest warrants had been served. According to the U.S. Department of State, "Rampant corruption continues to impede the proper functioning of the police force, and there are credible allegations of some police involvement in narcotics trafficking."
The National Police has also been involved in other criminal activities. Upon taking office in early 1996, President Alvaro Arzú fired 122 policemen, charging them with crimes ranging from auto theft to kidnapping. The courts may, however, reinstate most of the accused. In September 1996, President Arzú fired two more generals, including Vice Minister of Defense César Augusto García González, for involvement in a smuggling and robbery ring run by Alfredo Moreno Molina, a former military intelligence operative in the customs office. The President also dismissed sixteen other officials, including police officers, customs officials, and three colonels for their alleged involvement in the ring.
The army has done little that is identifiably related to defending the nation from foreign threats. Guatemala has not had any recent history of conflict with either Mexico, El Salvador, or Honduras. Though it once claimed neighboring Belize as part of its territory, it has since renounced plans to seize the former British colony and has agreed to mediate a border dispute. Accordingly, all of Guatemalas 46,000-man armed forces are deployed to maintain domestic order. The country has only a nominal navy (1,000 sailors, 600 of whom are marines) and air force (1,300 members), both of which are under army control. Instead of being concentrated near the countrys four borders, the army itself is distributed throughout the country in 22 military zones, one for each department.
The armys central authority is its High Command (Estado Mayor), beneath which are five tactical commands. Personnel is D-1, Intelligence is D-2, Operations is D-3, Logistics is D-4, and Civil Affairs is D-5. The departmental counterparts are designated G-1 through G-5, and at the battalion level, S-1 through S-5. Civil Affairs, which originated in Intelligence, became a tactical command in 1982. S-5 operatives, who typically do not wear uniforms, advise military zone commanders in the use of psychological techniques and provision of social services as elements of counter-insurgency. G-2 is by far the most notorious branch of the army, for its role in the development and supervision of death squads. According to journalist Allan Nairn:
With a contingent of more than 2,000 agents and with sub-units in the local army bases, the G-2 under orders of the army high command coordinates the torture, assassination and disappearance of dissidents.
A. Death Squads and "The Files"
Guatemala is reputed to have been the first Latin American country to develop death squads (escuadrones de la muerte) and their primary modus operandi, the "disappearance." Far from implying an unknown fate for the victims, "disappearance" has served as a euphemism for kidnapping, usually followed by brutal torture, and, with rare exceptions, murder. To further contribute to the sense of terror, the (typically mutilated) bodies of the victims are dumped in ditches, wells, garbage dumps, and on sidewalks and roadsides.
Though the first self-described death squads were formed in the context of the counter-insurgency campaign of the 1960s, their roots go back to the CIA-backed overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. The new strongman, Col. Carlos Castillo Armas, decreed a Preventive Penal Law against Communism, providing for arbitrary arrest for up to six months of those designated as "Communists." Though the Guatemalan Communist Party had peaked at a membership of 4,000, the regime branded 72,000 citizens most of them non-communist supporters of President Arbenz as "Communists." Seventeen thousand were imprisoned, with no right of appeal. In 1963, these lists were incorporated into an expanded "National Security Archive" administered by Military Intelligence (G-2).
Though outdated and compiled with little regard for accuracy, the "archives" would later be used to put together lists of victims for government-sanctioned and organized death squads. In September 1980, for instance, Lucila Rodas de Villagrán, a 60-year-old schoolteacher, was shot by unidentified assailants. Then, while hospitalized in Quetzaltenango under police "protection," death squad members shot her to death. Her only apparent act of subversion was to have belonged to the pro-Arbenz Revolutionary Action Party (Partido Acción Revolucionario) more than a quarter century beforehand.
Just as the lists of alleged subversives first appeared in the aftermath of the 1954 coup, so did the organization that would form the first death squads. Founded by Col. Castillo Armas himself, the National Liberation Movement (Movimiento de Liberación Nacional, MLN) created White Hand (Mano Blanca) in the 1960s. Then-MLN leader Mario Sandoval Alarcón, who boasted of his role as "godfather of the death squads," actually served as Vice-President under Gen. Eugenio Kjell Laugerud (1976-1978).
Under Gen. Romeo Lucas García (1978-1982), the Government took more direct control of the death squads. As White Hand faded, it was replaced by the Death Squad (Escuadrón de la Muerte) and the Secret Anti-Communist Army (Ejército Secreto Anticomunista, ESA). In 1979, the National Police (under the Ministry of Government) claimed the Death Squad had killed 1,224 "criminals," and that the ESA had killed 3,252 "subversives," in effect hinting at its responsibility. According to Elías Barahona y Barahona, who served as press representative for the Ministry of Government from 1976 to 1980, the Minister of Government stored blank letterhead of the Death Squad and ESA in his office.
According to Amnesty International, the lists of death squad victims were prepared by an inter-agency office located in an annex of the National Palace, alongside the Presidents official residence. Commonly known as Archivos (literally "the files"), the agency was directed by the joint head of the Presidential General Staff (Estado Mayor Presidencial, EMP) and Military Intelligence (G-2). Decisions on who to make "disappear" were made jointly by the Ministry of Defense (overseeing the army), the Ministry of Government (overseeing the police), and the Army General Staff, which commanded the death squads. According to a high-ranking police official interviewed by Americas Watch, army intelligence would occasionally warn the National Police that "in such a sector at a determined time and on determined dates, the police ought not to intervene to avoid foul-ups in the operation."
According to Amnesty International:
No evidence has been found to support government claims that "death squads" exist that are independent of the regular security services. Where the captors or assassins of alleged "subversives" and "criminals" have been identified the perpetrators have been members of the regular security services.
Despite the nominal return to civilian rule in 1986, the military kept effective control over security by physically occupying much of the National Palace. In late 1993, the EMP, which housed Archivos, had 530 persons working within the offices of the Presidency.
The return to civilian rule in 1986 was accompanied by the growing influence of the EMP, as a principal vehicle for the military to develop and maintain a high
degree of influence over the last three Presidents [Cerezo, Serrano, de León]. The Presidential General Staff has achieved this influence not only by offering the President intelligence reports, but also by gradually taking over presidential scheduling and advisory services. A 1992 Crónica article characterized then EMP-head General Francisco Ortega Menaldo as the power behind the throne, whose duties included setting up President Serranos appointments, administering the Presidents discretionary budget, pointing out important news events, and providing the President with advance biographical information on the people with whom he was scheduled to meet.
The death squads, meanwhile, continued to operate, under new names. The ESA vanished, to be replaced in 1989 (during the Cerezo presidency) by the Avenging Jaguar (Jaguar Justiciero). Though the Government tried to portray these as the creations of right-wing extremists, the security forces role again became obvious following the assassination of anthropologist Myrna Mack, who had been studying the Communities of Population in Resistance (CPRs) in the western highlands. The assassin Noel de Jesús Beteta Alvarez turned out to be an Archivos Sergeant Major Specialist. The police detective who uncovered the link to Archivos was himself murdered, and the police report altered in a futile attempt to conceal the involvement of Archivos. Under persistent pressure from the family of the victim and the U.S. Government, Myrna Macks assassin was sentenced to 25 years in jail in 1993. The superiors who gave him his orders were finally indicted in 1996; they are awaiting trial pending a Supreme Court decision on whether the case should be tried by a military or civilian court.
Though the numbers of political murders and disappearances have declined substantially since the early 1980s, clandestine organizations with ties to the nations security forces continue to murder citizens with impunity. In its 1997 report on human rights in Guatemala, the U.S. Department of State said:
Politically motivated killings continued with disturbing frequency, albeit at lower levels than in recent years. PAC members, police and military personnel, and right-wing extremist groups were all responsible for political and extrajudicial killings. Because of the scarcity of law enforcement resources and a weak and ineffective judicial system, the Government did not successfully investigate many killings or other crimes fully or detain and prosecute perpetrators. The Governments inability to identify, prosecute, or punish those responsible for such offenses remains an impediment to human rights progress.
Archivos was supposed to have been dismantled on the order of President de León Carpio in August 1993. Yet in March 1995, Col. Otto Pérez Molina, then head of the EMP, told Human Rights Watch/Americas that Archivos was still in existence. Its current fate is unclear, particularly since the contents of the archives themselves have never been made public. There is therefore no way of knowing whether the files have been transferred to the new civilian intelligence agency, retained by the military, or destroyed.
B. Role of the CIA
Through most of the past half-century, the Central Intelligence Agency has played a critical role in organizing and advising Guatemalas security forces. The agency plotted and oversaw the 1954 coup against the elected Government of President Jacobo Arbenz. For the next four decades, throughout the period of intense repression of the civilian population, the CIA maintained a close working relationship with Guatemalan intelligence. The close ties persisted at a clandestine level even when the White House under Jimmy Carter, George Bush, and Bill Clinton adopted public positions critical of the human rights record of the Guatemalan Government. Ultimately, the CIAs covert activities were exposed by disclosure that one of its "assets" a G-2 colonel had been responsible for the cover up of the murder of a U.S. citizen and the torture of the husband of another U.S. citizen, and that local and regional CIA officials had concealed that information from the White House, the State Department, and Congress.
In June 1990, American inn-keeper Michael DeVine vanished while inspecting the grounds of his ranch outside Poptún, 140 miles north of Guatemala City. His wife visited the local army garrison and asked to speak with the base commander, Col. Julio Roberto Alpírez, but was turned away at the gate. The following morning, DeVines body turned up on a roadside near the ranch, with his hands tied and his head almost severed from his body. Shortly thereafter, Poptún residents told both Mrs. DeVine and U.S. Embassy officials that they had earlier run into a white pickup truck filled with armed men on a road beside the DeVine ranch, and that the men had inquired about Mr. DeVines whereabouts. Other villagers saw the truck enter and exit from Col. Alpírez base in the days preceding the murder. From the license plate, a private investigator traced the truck to a military base in Flores, the provincial capital. At the very least, Col. Alpírez had hosted an army squad sent to murder a U.S. citizen. He also covered up
the armys involvement, declining to provide U.S. Embassy officials with records of vehicles that had entered or left his base in the days prior to the murder.
In response, the Bush administration suspended overt military assistance to Guatemala in December 1990. But it secretly allowed the CIA to more than compensate for the overt cutoff. While the Bush and Clinton administrations withheld a little over $3 million in military aid, the CIA funneled close to $10 million to its partners in the Guatemalan intelligence establishment. To avoid having to notify Congressional oversight committees, as now required for formal covert actions, the CIA disbursed the funds under its ultra-covert "liaison programs," which require neither presidential authorization nor notification of the House and Senate intelligence committees.
Col. Alpírez, whose association with the U.S. Armed Forces stretches back twenty years, was among those retained on the CIA payroll. Alpírez first trained at the U.S. Armys School of the Americas in 1970, then returned to the School as a CIA "asset" in 1989 for a year-long Command and General Staff course. It was right after his return to Guatemala that he sanctioned the cover-up of Michael DeVines murder. Though aware of allegations of the colonels involvement in the slaying, the CIA nonetheless paid him another $44,000 following the termination of overt military aid.
Significantly, Col. Alpírez worked for Archivos ("The Files"), the Guatemalan intelligence agency that kept files on thousands of civilians, tapping telephones, intercepting mail, conducting interrogations under torture, and supplying lists of victims for the armys G-2 death squads. Though Archivos was formally abolished by President de León Carpio in 1993, former Guatemalan Defense Minister Gen. Héctor Gramajo alleged that the nominally civilian intelligence agency that replaced it remained under de facto military control.
The revelations of direct links between the CIA and Guatemalas murderous military intelligence establishment surfaced as the outcome of another U.S. citizens determination to uncover the fate of her husband, guerrilla commander Efraín Bámaca (Comandante Everardo), a member of the Mam ethnic group. After more than two years of futile inquiries, Jennifer Harbury, a graduate of Harvard Law School, went on a hunger strike in October 1994 to demand an answer. That led the Clinton administration to begin investigating, and ultimately prompted Rep. Robert Torricelli (D-NJ) to disclose the CIAs connection to Col. Alpírez, who had ordered the torture and possibly the execution of Efraín Bámaca after the latters capture on March 12, 1992.
Following that disclosure, President Clinton ordered a full review of CIA operations in Guatemala. The eventual outcome was dismissal of Frederick Brugger, station chief in Guatemala from 1991 to 1993, and Terry Ward, chief of covert operations in Latin America from 1990 to 1993. Bruggers successor as station chief, Dan Donahue, was demoted for failing to warn U.S. Ambassador Marilyn McAfee that the Guatemalan military had bugged her home and was spreading nasty rumors about her personal life.
The fact that a CIA station chief would show greater loyalty to Guatemalan military intelligence than to the U.S. Ambassador is highly suggestive of the mindset that characterized U.S. intelligence operations in Guatemala. According to Allan Nairn:
North American C.I.A. operatives work inside a Guatemalan Army unit that maintains a network of torture centers and has killed thousands of Guatemalan civilians. The G-2, headquartered on the fourth floor of the Guatemalan National Palace, has, since at least the 1960s, been advised, trained, armed and equipped by U.S. undercover agents. Working out of the U.S. Embassy and living in safehouses and hotels, these agents work through an elite group of Guatemalan officers who are secretly paid by the C.I.A. and who have been implicated personally in numerous political crimes and assassinations. This secret G-2/C.I.A. collaboration has been described by Guatemalan and U.S. operatives and confirmed, in various aspects, by three former Guatemalan heads of state.
In an interview, Col. Julio Alpírez told Nairn that the CIA advises and helps run the G-2. He said agency operatives visit Guatemala on temporary assignments to train G-2 personnel and provide "advice and technical assistance." Dianna Ortiz, an American Catholic nun kidnapped, raped, and tortured by security forces who followed the modus operandi of the G-2,
described being freed by a man she believes was one of those advisers (see Section XI-C, Groups at Risk: Religious Workers). That man, whom her torturers called Alejandro and treated as a superior, and who spoke poor Spanish and cursed in English, offered to release her to the U.S. Embassy. When Ortiz told her story to the press, Bush administration officials suggested it was a fabrication, despite the physical evidence still present seven years later of the circular scars from 111 cigarette burns. An investigation of Ortizs case is presently underway.
The U.S. military likewise played an integral role in the development of the state terror apparatus in Guatemala. According to Time magazine, Col. John Webber, a former chief of the military mission in Guatemala, helped promote the creation of state-supported terrorist groups.
It was his idea and at his instigation that the technique of counter-terror had been implemented by the Guatemalan Army There were those who doubted the wisdom of encouraging such measures in violence-prone Guatemala, but Webber was not among them. "Thats the way the country is," he said. "The Communists are using everything they have, including terror. And it must be met."
U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Berets) also openly trained the Guatemalan Armys elite Kaibil battalions, responsible for some of the worst massacres in rural areas.
C. Military Commissioners and Civil "Self-Defense" Patrols
The position of military commissioner (comisionado militar) was created by the dictatorships that preceded the Revolution of 1944, as part of their drive to ensure effective control of rural regions whose inhabitants resented the Liberals policies that gave preferential treatment to coffee and banana planters. The army placed commissioners in every municipality and on every plantation or large farm with substantial numbers of hired workers. Most commissioners were former soldiers. As members of the reserves, they answered to the chief of reserves, located in the departmental seat, who was in turn under the command of the chief of the military zone (coterminous with the departmental boundaries). Their principal tasks were to round up conscripts, and report anything unusual to superiors.
Following the emergence of the guerrilla insurgency in the early 1960s, the role of the commissioners changed from a primarily reactive to a primarily proactive approach to maintaining order. Thrust into the front lines of a counter-insurgency campaign, the
commissioners became spies, seeking to determine the political leanings of their neighbors, and reporting back to military intelligence. It would become commonplace for that information much of it notoriously inaccurate to be used as a blueprint for political murders and "disappearances." Not surprisingly, the new role earned the commissioners the distrust of most villagers, who began referring to them disparagingly as orejas (i.e. the "ears" of the military).
As part of the counter-insurgency effort, military commissioners were also incorporated into the newly-launched civic action program:
The other major step taken by the army, the civic action program, was designed to gather intelligence about provincial areas where there was little current control and, simultaneously, to provide a better image for the military in the eyes of the civilian population. The civic action programs and counter-insurgency were closely coupled activities, the former being one rather specialized phase of the latter. While military civic action was used much earlier in the Philippines to control the Huks, Guatemala was the first country in Latin America to actively undertake such a program.
On September 15, 1995, near the end of his term, President Ramiro de León Carpio announced his intention to dismiss the countrys 33,000 military commissioners. On November 22, Congress formally disbanded the commissioners. According to MINUGUA, however:
The demobilization of military commissioners was hindered, especially in remote areas of the country, by the Governments failure to publicize the measure and by the former commissioners determination to retain their authority. The Mission verified some cases where commissioners have kept their credentials and their weapons, and others where military authorities have stalled the process of collecting weapons by arguing that the former commissioners credentials were valid.
If, as one scholar has suggested, Guatemalas military commissioners have played a role roughly comparable to that of Haitian section chiefs, the Civil Self-Defense Patrols (Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil, PACs) have been the functional equivalents of the Haitian attachés. Both
have consisted of armed irregulars acting to enforce army control in their communities. Though in each case the groups leaders would report to local army officers, in neither did the army take responsibility for their behavior. Absent any sanctions for abuses, both became notorious for lawless behavior, including the murder of unarmed civilians. The civil patrols, however, were different from the attachés in one very significant aspect: participation was made mandatory for all rural males between the ages of 17 and 60. That, according to U.N. Independent Expert Mónica Pinto, is a violation of Article 34 of the Guatemalan Constitution:
Strictly speaking, the existence of the PACs, confirmed unreservedly by the authorities, and their methods of recruitment and operation constitute per se a violation of the right to freedom of expression.
The civil patrols were created under the regime of Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights:
They were part of his plan to exterminate the guerrilla movement by relocating the indigenous population and wiping out any community or killing any person that his Government was suspicious of, using methods that violated human rights.
The first patrols were formed in the war-torn department of Quiché in 1981. By 1982, the army had organized patrols throughout the highland departments of Huehuetenango, Sololá, Totonicapán, Chimaltenango, Alta Verapaz, San Marcos, Suchitepéquez, and Petén. At their peak in the mid-1980s, the civil patrols consisted of more than 800,000 Guatemalans, almost all of indigenous extraction. Since the countrys population was just over 8 million, almost a million of whom lived in Guatemala City, that meant that more than one of every ten individuals in rural Guatemala was an adjunct member of the security forces.
In an effort to try to improve the image of the civil patrols, they were later renamed Voluntary Civilian Defense Committees (Comités Voluntarios de Defensa Civil, CVDC). But forced recruitment persisted, and the CVDCs continued to be popularly known as PACs, or, more simply, civil patrols.
The patrols have functioned "as the eyes and ears of the military":
In conflictive areas the civil patrols have served as combat auxiliaries, often accompanying the army in military sweeps and capturing displaced families eluding military control. The patrols also fulfill a propaganda function by spreading an antileftist [sic] message among their communities and accusing those who resist joining the patrols of being proguerrilla [sic]. Not uncommonly, civil patrol members also perform unpaid construction and maintenance work for the local army commander.
The advent of the civilian presidency of Vinicio Cerezo in 1986 had little effect on the civil patrols. Once in office, Cerezo abandoned his pledge to disband the patrols. Responding to the breach of trust, community activists in Quiché formed the Runujel Junam Council of Ethnic Communities (CERJ), derived from the phrase "all are equal" in the Quiché language. Denouncing the patrols as a form of military conscription, CERJ called on rural males to assert their constitutional right not to participate. As elaborated in Section XI, Groups at Risk, CERJ activists have been some of the primary victims of repression.
According to the U.S. Department of State:
PAC members and military commissioners, who often represent the only day-to-day central government authority in outlying areas, are feared in many rural communities. They usually enjoy army backing and de facto immunity from prosecution. ODHAG [Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala] and CERJ, an indigenous human rights organization, reported that the executive branch failed to carry out arrest warrants against at least 30 military commissioners and PAC members for their involvement in human rights crimes. PAC members and military commissioners are rarely convicted for their crimes. No military commissioner or PAC member accused of committing a human rights related offense has been sentenced, although at least 14 (3 commissioners and 11 PAC members) were detained and under judicial proceedings at years end.
Perhaps the most eloquent testimony to the effects of the militarization of civil society on political stability, crime, and respect for human rights comes from the picture-postcard town of Santiago Atitlán, on the shores of Lake Atitlán. Between 1975 and 1990, while an army garrison maintained "order," there were some 800 violent deaths or disappearances. Finally, after the army massacred 13 residents on December 2, 1990, townspeople lost their fear and forced the removal of the garrison. The town, which inaugurated its own system of citizen policing, became tranquil overnight. According to one inhabitant, "Hooded men no longer come in the night, and the kidnappings and killings have stopped."
IX. Guerrilla Insurgency
Guatemalas guerrilla insurgency originated with an attempt to overthrow the regime of Gen. Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes. Army officers who favored restoration of the nationalist and populist policies of President Arbenz moved against Ydígoras, who had participated in the 1954 CIA coup. On November 13, 1960, more than a third of the army rose in revolt. Though overwhelmed by loyal forces within days, two rebel officers Luis Turcios Lima and Marco Antonio Yon Sosa took refuge among the ladino peasants of the Izabal and Zacapa departments of eastern Guatemala. Finding a base of support in a region that had benefited heavily from President Arbenzs land reform, then been hit hard by Col. Castillo Armass reversal of the reform, they formed the November 13 Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Revolucionario 13 de Noviembre, MR-13) in 1962. Later that year, the outlawed Communist Party (Partido Guatemalteco de los Trabajadores, PGT) formed its own guerrilla group. In December 1962 the two merged into the Rebel Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes, FAR).
The FARs growth in the mid-1960s caused concern in the United States, where it raised the specter of another Cuba, this time on the mainland. The U.S. responded with counter-insurgency assistance to the Guatemalan Army. Though initially held back by the right-wing but nationalist military Government of Gen. Peralta Azurdia, the counter-insurgency effort was allowed free reign under President Méndez Montenegro, who assumed office in July 1966 after making a secret pact with the army. In what would become a model for subsequent counter-insurgency operations, Col. Carlos Arana Osorio deliberately targeted the FARs civilian base of support ("draining the sea" to kill "the fish"), killing as many as 8,000 peasants. The strategy proved effective, temporarily crippling the insurgency. By 1970, both of its founders were dead.
Guatemalan revolutionaries drew two lessons from the debacle of the 1960s. One was the inappropriateness of foquismo, a strategy modeled on Fidel Castros rise to power in Cuba from a small focal group (foco) in the Sierra Maestra. With strong urban-rural divisions, and no charismatic figure commanding the attention of the nation, that strategy made little sense in Guatemala. The other lesson was that no revolution could succeed without support from the nations indigenous majority. Thus, when insurgents began re-entering Guatemala in the early 1970s, they focused their efforts on the Mayan highlands, and adopted a Vietnam-inspired strategy of prolonged popular war.
The Guerrilla Army of the Poor (Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres, EGP) began organizing in 1972 in the Ixcán area of Quiché, spreading out to Huehuetenango and Chimaltenango. Its commander was Rolando Morán. The Organization of the People in Arms (Organización del Pueblo en Armas, ORPA), also formed in 1972, established itself in the area around Lake Atitlán, in the departments of Sololá, San Marcos, and Quetzaltenango, west of Guatemala City. ORPA was led by Rodrigo Asturias (alias Gaspar Ilom), son of poet and Nobel laureate Miguel Angel Asturias. The reconstituted FAR, led by Pablo Monsanto, set up operations in the Petén and Alta Verapaz.
By the early 1980s, these groups had collectively built a broad base of support among Mayan peasants and villagers. In January 1982, near the peak of their power, the EGP, ORPA, and FAR joined with the PGT to form the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca, URNG). These developments again caused alarm in Guatemala City and in Washington, where the Reagan administration was already concerned about the 1979 Sandinista takeover in Nicaragua.
If there was a lesson the revolutionaries seemingly had not learned from the Izabal debacle of the 1960s and that the Guatemalan Army did learn it concerned the effectiveness of targeting the rural population for mass slaughter as a means of counter-insurgency. In a
country marked by deep racial and socio-economic divisions that in many ways correspond with the division between rural and urban populations, it had been possible to treat rural populations as practically foreign, making warfare against a large segment of the countrys civilian population politically viable. Faced with the possibility of a guerrilla triumph in the early 1980s, military Governments under Gens. Romeo Lucas García and Efraín Ríos Montt killed somewhere around 100,000 civilians, destroyed some 440 villages and hamlets, and subordinated all Mayan men between ages 17 and 70 to the military chain of command through Civilian Self-Defense Patrols (Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil, PACs).
With most of its sympathizers either dead, demoralized, or forced to flee the country, the insurgency once again lost strength. Though by no means wiped out, the URNG had to abandon any hope of a revolutionary takeover, seeking instead to maintain pressure on the post-1986 civilian Governments in Guatemala City to negotiate a series of reforms, in an effort to emulate the successful negotiations between the Government and the guerrilla FMLN (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional) in neighboring El Salvador.
X. Peace Talks, Agreements, and Agencies
In early 1986, Vinicio Cerezo took office as the first civilian, democratically-elected President since Julio César Méndez Montenegro left office twenty-six years earlier. Recognizing that his ability to govern the country was sharply circumscribed by the army, he concentrated on regional foreign policy, with the objective of achieving a negotiated peace to conflicts in neighboring El Salvador and nearby Nicaragua. Resolution of those conflicts could help set the stage for peace in Guatemala, by uncoupling the domestic insurgency from the fear of international subversion.
Because of Cerezos initiative in getting the talks underway, they were held in the Guatemalan village of Esquipulas. The resulting peace accords, known as Esquipulas II, mandated negotiations between the Governments of the region and opposition forces, including guerrilla insurgents, who were to be granted amnesty. Yet in Guatemala, where the army had just scored major gains against the URNG, the amnesty primarily benefited officers who had taken part in an attempted coup against the civilian Government, rather than insurgents. The URNG and Guatemalan exiles were likewise excluded from the National Dialogue sponsored by the National Reconciliation Commission (Comisión Nacional de Reconciliación, CNR). Further limiting the dialogue, which encompassed major political parties, churches, and citizen organizations, was the refusal of the army and a major part of the business community to take part. Though the Government held a perfunctory meeting with the URNG in Spain in October 1987, to satisfy the technical requirements of Esquipulas II, it was not until three years later that any progress would be made.
In March 1990, the CNR met with the URNG in Oslo, Norway, where the two parties agreed to have the CNR sponsor a series of meetings between the URNG and the countrys most important economic, social, and political organizations. A year later, newly-inaugurated President Jorge Serrano agreed to direct talks with the URNG, abandoning the requirement that the insurgents disarm beforehand. In October 1992, negotiators signed an agreement providing for the repatriation of 45,000 refugees living in Mexican camps.
Yet in the wake of President Serranos failed "self-coup" in May 1993, and his replacement by President de León Carpio, the negotiations again stalled. When President de León tried to exclude the URNG from part of the negotiations, the Catholic Church withdrew from its mediating role. Not until March 1994, with the United Nations replacing the Church as a facilitator, did the talks resume. On March 29, negotiators signed a human rights accord in Mexico City. The accord committed the Government to classify the crimes of disappearance and extrajudicial execution as "grave offenses" in the penal code, disband illegal security agencies and clandestine organizations such as death squads, and purge and professionalize the armed forces and the police. The agreement also provided for international verification by the United Nations.
On November 21, 1994, the United Nations Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA) began its work of verification. At first, the security forces, accustomed to getting away with anything, showed no sign of heeding the human rights accord. In its first three-month report, MINUGUA was categorical about the problem of impunity:
Verification has shown the extent of the problem of impunity. Most of the violations discussed in this report have received no response from the State in terms of identifying and duly punishing the perpetrators. The Mission believes that the existence of such widespread impunity, about which concern has also been expressed in other reports on human rights in Guatemala, is the greatest obstacle to the effective exercise of human rights.
Yet the very presence of the United Nations began making a difference, emboldening citizens to complain about rights violations and demand redress. As a U.S. scholar noted after a July 1995 visit to Guatemala:
It is also telling that MINUGUA is being called by Guatemalans who believe they are at risk, being threatened or victimized. At least the records being kept by MINUGUA seem to confirm a growing acceptance and use of MINUGUA by ordinary citizens. Finally, the high visibility of MINUGUA its white cars and vans all over the countryside, its omnipresent field staff, its resources in comparison to other Guatemalan Governmental offices charged with protecting human rights make it comparable only to the military as an organization capable of asserting its influence in Guatemala.
Or, in the words of Rodrigo Asturias, commander of ORPA, one of the guerrilla constituents of the URNG:
Three years ago, human rights was a subversive topic you could be killed for mentioning it. The United Nations turned it into a priority topic on the national agenda.
Yet in March 1996, former MINUGUA director Leonardo Franco cautioned that "impunity is the swamp that swallows everything in this country." Months later, under new director David Stephen, MINUGUA continued to emphasize the distinction between intention and results:
The new Government has shown its political will to tackle impunity and has adopted significant measures to that end. However, the Mission has not yet observed any integrated policy leading to decisive action against impunity.
Yet progress was made toward reaching a peace settlement. On March 31, 1995, negotiators signed an Accord on the Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In February
1996, Alvaro Arzú became the first President to meet with rebel leaders. On May 6, 1996, the Government and the URNG signed a second accord, on social, economic, and agrarian issues.
On September 19, 1996, the Government and the URNG signed the Agreement on the Strengthening of Civil Society and on the Role of the Armed Forces in a Democratic Society. That critical agreement, which prepared the way for a definitive peace settlement, limits the army to defending the country from foreign attack. A constitutional amendment will strip the military of its present role in maintaining internal order. In keeping with its new, more limited assignment, the army will be reduced from 46,000 to 30,000 troops in 1997, and its budget will be cut by a third by 1999. Another constitutional amendment will allow the President to appoint a civilian defense minister. Members of the armed forces who violate human rights will no longer be exempt from responsibility to civil society. Already, in July 1996, President Alvaro Arzú promulgated legislation transferring authority over military personnel charged with common crimes from military to civilian courts. On November 29, the Guatemalan Congress unanimously repealed the law authorizing the civil patrols. At that point, the army claimed to have demobilized and disarmed 99 percent of the civil patrols, and pledged to disarm the remainder by the first week of December.
The accord also calls for creation of an entirely new national civilian police force that will be completely independent of the military. Run by a restructured Ministry of the Interior, it will distribute 20,000 police throughout the country by 1999. Three militarized agencies notorious for violations of human rights the Mobile Military Police, the Treasury Police, and the Presidential General Staff (Estado Mayor Presidencial, EMP) will be dissolved. The Ministry of the Interior will take over domestic intelligence functions from the military, through a Department of Civil Intelligence and Information Analysis, assigned to gather information to fight crime while strictly respecting human rights. The Interior Ministry will also be authorized to exercise strict control over the registration of firearms by civilians.
On December 29, 1996, Government and URNG negotiators signed a final peace agreement in front of the National Palace in Guatemala City, the Agreement on the Implementation, Compliance and Verification Timetable for the Peace Agreements. In exchange for laying down their arms, the former guerrillas will be permitted to form a political party. Government security forces will be protected from prosecution for common crimes committed in the course of the civil war, as will the former rebels for political crimes. Yet under the terms of the law, the amnesty will not apply to genocide, torture, forced disappearance, and other violations of international human rights conventions. In the context of a weak judicial system and a continuing pattern of impunity for powerful members of the security forces, such ambiguity raises doubts about the extent to which justice and reconciliation will prevail. A three-member truth commission will investigate human rights violations during the civil war, but will be unable to prosecute or even identify individuals who either ordered or took part in such violations.
President Alvaro Arzú cautioned that, "Manna is not going to fall from heaven the day after the peace accord I know that the brimming enthusiasm of the Guatemalan people for this event can send the imagination soaring and lead to the belief that with the signing of a peace accord, all will be resolved...but this is not the case." In another interview two days before the signing of the accord, Arzú emphasized: "Were done with the first stage, and now comes the hard part...Its going to be a real challenge." A public opinion poll published in one of Guatemalas major daily newspapers underscored that concern. While 78 percent of respondents approved of the accords, only 38 percent believed they "would be respected."
According to the Washington Office on Latin America:
Ending the war, however, is not synonymous with ending violence. There is still an unacceptably high level of political violence and intimidation in Guatemala. And there is ample space for social conflict as new demands are put forward by historically disenfranchised groups with the potential of violent response from the traditionally powerful sectors. There has already been a significant surge too in common crime, as was the case in neighboring El Salvador following that countrys peace accords. The challenge for Guatemala will be to mediate and channel social, economic, and political differences through legal and democratic
mechanisms and institutions. The peace accords represent the promise of such change but not yet the reality.
XI. Groups at Risk
In a society as highly stratified by wealth and race as Guatemalas, the very concept of human rights that every human being has equal claims to life, to liberty, and to equal treatment under law is profoundly subversive. It is a constant reminder to the majority of the population that it is being mistreated by a small minority. Not surprisingly, much of the countrys elite has responded by equating the concept of human rights with "communism," in part because of the perceived leveling effect, but also to justify racism and dehumanization of adversaries.
In the Manichaean ("good" vs. "evil") context of the Cold War, "communists" were widely seen as having forfeited their humanity and their rights. That was true not only in Guatemala, but in the U.S. as well. If an individual or group could be labeled "communist," regardless of the accuracy of the label, it helped make political murder and torture not only tolerable, but, at least in some circles, virtuous. Such attitudes contributed to the formation of death squads across most of Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s, and to covert support for such practices by the CIA. Nowhere did the level of dehumanization and brutality exceed that of the Guatemalan security forces and their civilian allies. Even now, following the end of the Cold War and reform of the CIA and U.S. foreign policy, some of the same attitudes persist in Guatemala, fueled by racism and fear of reform. With support from the international community, President Alvaro Arzú has begun to challenge these attitudes. For the time being, however, citizens who try to assert their rights in Guatemala do so at considerable risk to their lives.
A. Human Rights Activists
Just as the concept of human rights is perceived as subversive by powerful segments of the countrys security forces and their political allies, human rights activists are seen as the ultimate subversives: as "communists," and/or as guerrilla allies. When army officers use that language to describe human rights organizations and investigators, it not only places the latter at risk with the formal security forces, but with their wider network of associates among nominally demobilized military commissioners and civil patrollers.
In its annual summary, published in February 1996, Amnesty International warned that:
subject of verbal or written death threats as a result of their work. Others have been attacked and killed. The perpetrators of these human rights violations are mainly the police and military and army-created civil patrols Both these and other new vigilante-style groups, also apparently working with official complicity, have allegedly engaged in "social cleansing," killing members of youth gangs and others involved in petty crime. These new "death squads" have also been implicated in human rights violations against those perceived as being opponents of the government, reportedly disguising the attacks as common crimes to escape official responsibility.
According to Freedom House, "Guatemala remains one of the most dangerous places in Latin America for human rights activists."
B. Indigenous Groups
Underscoring the racism and socio-economic polarization that characterize Guatemala, indigenous groups have been subject to mind-numbing levels of repression. Massacres of indigenous villagers during the early 1980s were miniature holocausts, arguably taking on the dimensions of crimes against humanity. Between army massacres and the grisly toll of paramilitary death squads, well over 100,000 unarmed Guatemalan civilians are believed to have perished during the 1970s and 1980s.
Though death tolls are now substantially lower than in the 1980s, a climate of fear persists, sustained both by the memories of past atrocities and by a constant succession of murders, kidnappings, and death threats that serve as daily reminders of the continuing power and impunity of the elites and the armed forces.
Indigenous people also suffered discrimination because of their religious beliefs.
C. Religious Workers
Guatemala is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for members of the clergy, particularly those who try to address problems of poverty, human rights violations, or discrimination against native peoples. It is unusual in a Catholic country run by self-professed Catholic elites for bishops, priests, and nuns to be targeted for repression. As in neighboring El Salvador, however, that is exactly what began happening in Guatemala in the 1970s.
In the context of counter-insurgency, both the Salvadoran and Guatemalan security forces began identifying large segments of the clergy with the enemy. Alarmed by the spread of liberation theology in the Catholic Church, and by the participation of priests in the Sandinista Government in Nicaragua, they began perceiving liberal clergy as closet communists and guerrilla sympathizers. Death squads published lists of names of clergy, and frequently acted on the threats. In El Salvador, assassins murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, American nuns, Jesuit university professors, and numerous parish priests during the 1970s and 1980s. A similar pattern prevailed in Guatemala. Since the mid-1970s, security forces and associated death squads have murdered more than a dozen priests and hundreds of catechists and other lay workers. In July 1980, the Bishop of Quiché, Juan Gerardi Conedera, was forced to go into hiding and close down the diocese. Despite the subsequent restoration of civilian rule, members of the clergy Protestant as well as Catholic continue to be at risk.
D. Political Parties and Individuals who Confront the Military
Political parties that aim to limit the power of the military suffer persecution. Their leaders run a very strong risk of assassination, or of harm being done to members of their families. An earlier section of this report (Section III) describes the 1979 murders of Alberto Fuentes Mohr, founder and leader of the Social Democratic Party (Partido Social Demócrata, PSD), and Manuel Colom Argueta, head of the United Front of the Revolution (Frente Unido Revolucionario, FUR). Both had just registered their respective parties, and were planning on running as a team in the 1982 presidential election. The 1993 assassination of Jorge Carpio Nicolle followed the same pattern.
Since the election of six center-left members of Congress representing the New Guatemala Democratic Front (Frente Democrático Nueva Guatemala, FDNG), FDNG leaders and activists have been singled out for repression. Because the FDNG argues that the army should be prohibited from having any domestic police role, members of the security forces tend to associate it with the rebel URNG.
The risk is not just to members of political parties, but also to individuals who oppose, or who are perceived to oppose, the will of the military or members of the military and associated groups.
E. Editors and Journalists
According to the U.S. Department of State:
So sensitive are the security forces to critical reporting that they have not spared U.S. citizens:
For Guatemalan journalists who incur the wrath of powerful officials, often by merely trying to report objectively, the consequences are often fatal.
According to Miami Herald correspondent Tim Johnson, who broke the story in the U.S.:
What happened to López is so common that it will barely be a footnote in the list of attacks against Guatemalan journalists. I called the Miami office of the Inter-American Press Association [IAPA] [They] sent me a chronology of threats to Guatemalan journalists over the past six months. It fills nearly two pages. Three Guatemalan journalists have been murdered already this year.
Journalists admit that in some particularly sensitive cases pressure and fears of reprisal result in self-censorship and limits on investigative reporting. For example, they rarely criticize the military or military officers, or discuss topics which could be perceived to affect the interests of powerful economic groups and individuals.
Union Members and Leaders and Land Reform Activitists
According to Freedom House, "Guatemala is among the most dangerous countries in the world for trade unionists."
The Coca-Cola bottling plant (Embotelladora Central Sociedad Anónima, EMCESA) conflict of the late 1970s and early 1980s exposed illicit and ultimately murderous associations between the government and security forces on the one hand, and powerful business interests on the other.
On February 17, 1984 Coca-Colas new owners, Anthony Zash and Roberto Méndez y Méndez said that they were going to close the Coke plant on grounds of imminent bankruptcy, offering four union leaders sixty thousand dollars to quietly acquiesce. The new leadership, which had steadily rebuilt union strength since 1983, refused the offer and decided to occupy the plant instead. By 4 a.m. the following morning, some fifty workers were taking care of the plant; within days, a round-the-clock vigil had been organized which, at its peak, included some 600 workers. How can Coca-Cola possibly go broke in a place like Guatemala? one unionist laughed. Babies are weaned on bottles of Coke since it is cheaper than milk The unionists discovered that owners Zash and Méndez had kept two sets of books, the original and another presented to the Ministry of Labor. Instead of going broke, they were clearing over one million dollars in profits per year. While Coke unionists never anticipated that their lightning takeover of the plant would last more than a few weeks, they refused to give in and accept severance pay. The occupation lasted one year On March 1, 1985, the plant reopened under new management
Although the numbers of abductions and slayings of trade unionists have declined since the early 1980s, they remain disturbingly high. Continuing impunity for the perpetrators preserves a pattern of repression that is intended to dissuade workers from exercising their constitutional right to organize.
Maquiladoras plants that assemble finished products for export from prefabricated components that are imported duty-free are a fast-growing part of the Guatemalan economy. Between 1986 and 1993, the number of maquiladora plants grew from 20 to 500, making that sector the fourth-largest earner of foreign exchange.
Individuals and organizations involved in land disputes are similarly at risk, particularly when they confront powerful landowners (latifundistas) who are prepared to back their often
dubious land titles. During Guatemalas half-century guerrilla war, landowners were frequently able to get the military to intercede on their behalf with the argument the peasant activists were "communists" and guerrilla sympathizers. As the war has wound down, they have begun relying more heavily on the police, and on often brutal private security forces, many of whose members are former, or off-duty, soldiers or police.
G. Judges, Lawyers, Detectives, Prosecutors
No participant in the Guatemalan judicial system not even the Chief Justice of the nations highest court is beyond the deadly reach of the security forces. That subverts the
whole system of justice, confronting any judge, lawyer, or detective who wishes to pursue powerful lawbreakers with an agonizing choice between conscience and safety.
Even American lawyers, operating in the United States, may be targeted when their clients are prominent adversaries of the Guatemalan Armed Forces.
H. Academics, Teachers, and Students
The Guatemalan Army has a history of conflict with students and professors of the University of San Carlos (USAC) that long antedates the emergence of death squads. According to Richard Newbold Adams:
[The relationship] between the military and the university students has been consistently antagonistic. Students have a long tradition of categorical opposition to the military. They fought the army in 1870 and did so against Ponce in 1944 [launching the Revolution of 1944-1954]. The Military has always been a principal target in the annual Huelga de Dolores, the burlesque spoof that the students (when permitted) stage annually to criticize current events The reason today for this antagonism is, if anything, greater than in the past. The interest of the military in government now makes them a greater threat than ever before to the civilian students.
Conversely, the military has long felt threatened by anyone who asks too many questions about its role in governance and in human rights violations. Such questions arise routinely among students, teachers, and intellectuals, making them prime targets of death squads.
Though environmentalists are not usually perceived as being as much of a threat to vested political interests as the preceding categories of groups at risk, they nonetheless run risks whenever they observe or worse yet expose illegal activities by members of the armed forces.
Large numbers of children and adolescents live abandoned on the streets of Guatemala City. They commonly resort to theft to survive. To reduce the pain of hunger and chilly nights, many of the youngsters sniff glue, which impairs brain function. In a country already accustomed to the dehumanization and murder of political adversaries, it is but a small step to dehumanize unwanted children, and treat them as public nuisances. The National Police, whose urban assignments result in routine exposure to street children, has been the primary source of violations of the rights of minors.
Among the childrens few defenders has been Casa Alianza, a branch of the New York-based Covenant House. After National Police beat to death 13-year-old Salvadoran immigrant Nahamán Carmona López in March 1990, Casa Alianza sued the police. A court sentenced four policemen to terms of ten to fifteen years imprisonment without possibility of parole. In other cases, however, such as the June 1990 abduction, torture, and murder of four children, those responsible have not been called to account, and even where arrest warrants have been issued, they have not been carried out.
XII. Repatriation and Internal Relocation
After a brief increase in the number of refugees who returned to Guatemala in 1995 (9,524), the number fell to less than half that amount in 1996 (just over 4,000). Late in 1995, the repatriation process was placed in jeopardy when an army unit massacred returned refugees. Swift action by President Ramiro de León Carpio, followed by a partial purge of the army and the police by incoming President Alvaro Arzú Irigoyen, headed off a complete collapse in repatriation efforts, yet could not prevent a significant decline in repatriation in 1996. The incident underscored the fact that until the army is brought under effective civilian control, no returning refugee will be truly safe.
On October 5, 1995, a 25-man military patrol entered the Aurora 8 de octubre returnee settlement in Xamán, Alta Verapaz. The inhabitants, seeing the intrusion as a breach of the governments agreement to respect the civilian nature of such communities, surrounded the soldiers, asking them to put down their weapons and await the arrival of MINUGUA and UNHCR verification teams. Instead, the soldiers forced their way through the crowd, pushing
civilians aside with their rifles. When a villager took hold of a sergeants rifle, the latter ordered his subordinates to open fire. The soldiers fired indiscriminately, killing ten villagers, and wounding more than a dozen. As the patrol left the settlement, a soldier shot to death an eight-year-old boy Santiago Pop Tut who was running home.
Four days later, President de León Carpio removed Defense Minister Mario René Enríquez Morales, who had tried to justify the shootings as self-defense. On January 22, 1996, in a significant break with precedent, the Jalapa Court of Appeal transferred the case from military to civilian jurisdiction. Yet on May 30 and 31, 1996, Judge Víctor Hugo Jiménez released eight of the soldiers, including the commander, on bail. The army had previously posted troops near the Cobán courthouse, and was engaging in surveillance of the prosecutor and members of MINUGUA. The judges ruling prompted vigorous protests from the Association of Families of the Detained-Disappeared of Guatemala (FAMDEGUA), from the URNG, and from Human Rights Ombudsman Jorge Mario García Laguardia. The Supreme Court responded by suspending the judge and appointing a substitute. In October 1996, the Twelfth Chamber of the Court of Appeals ordered the reincarceration of the eight soldiers.
The Xamán massacre highlights the deadly implications of the armys tendency to associate refugees with guerrillas. Those who fled the country during the 1980s are widely presumed to have done so to avoid being killed because of their sympathy for the guerrillas. That attitude imputes a political opinion to returning refugees, often causing officers and soldiers alike to perceive them as potential military adversaries.
The situation is doubly acute when refugees return to a locale in which either their relatives have been murdered, or their lands taken, by neighbors or neighboring villages associated with the civil patrols, who are armed and granted virtual impunity for their actions by the army.
Yet, according to anthropologists familiar with Guatemala, the countrys social structure poses serious obstacles to internal relocation. James Loucky, of Western Washington University, emphasizes that rural villages are closely knit, and cautious toward outsiders. They are segregated by language, by ethnicity, and rigid customs that all are expected to follow. Anyone who tries to relocate into an unfamiliar village is unlikely to be immediately accepted. Should that person be returning from years spent abroad, he or she may also be suspected of being a subversive by members of the local civil patrols. That suspicion is compounded when the person
in question is known to fear returning to his or her home village. Villagers are also likely to suspect that anyone who has lived abroad will return with new ideas, including familiarity with new freedoms, which may be disconcerting to traditional village leaders as well as to the army and rural landholders.
Departmental capitals are too small, and too close to the village of origin, to offer any refuge. More distant departmental capitals tend to be dominated by different ethnicities. The capitals, moreover, are where army headquarters are located. That leaves only Guatemala City as a potential refuge. Yet experts agree that Guatemala City is more like a small town than its population of 3 million would suggest. Like the rest of Guatemala, it is full of orejas ("ears," i.e., army informants) who watch the central market, the bus stations, and monitor the talk of the neighborhoods. That puts anyone who has crossed paths with the army no matter how trivial the purported offense in jeopardy, since they can be located fairly easily.
Rural Guatemalans face enormous economic obstacles to relocation, obstacles that in turn make them easier to find by military intelligence. For the most part, their skills are agricultural in nature (for men) or related to crafts and maintaining the household economy (for women). To relocate to another rural area, men must obtain a plot of land. In most cases, the only conceivable ways this can happen is either through squatting (which is very dangerous), or by the governments providing land in compensation for the land they lost. To relocate to Guatemala City, on the other hand, they must have kin or friends, such as fellow villagers, who have already established themselves there. Otherwise, illiterate and lacking perhaps even a working familiarity with Spanish, they have serious difficulties securing employment. Women may sometimes obtain work as servants, typically under menial and often racist and abusive conditions.
Unlike the inhabitants of advanced industrial nations, most Guatemalans particularly rural Guatemalans do not have an institutional safety net of health and unemployment insurance and social security benefits. They therefore have to rely on a relationship-centered social safety net, built around a core consisting of an extended network of relatives, supplemented by compadrazgos ("godparents," etc.). The compadres extend familial ties and obligations beyond blood-relatives. This is what makes Guatemalan rural villages so close-knit, and so impenetrable to outsiders. These are likewise the ties rural Guatemalans must rely on if they are to move to Guatemala City. That in turn makes them relatively easy to locate.
A. The UNHCRs Position on Repatriation and Internal Relocation
As of January 31, 1997, a little over 34,000 refugees had voluntarily returned to Guatemala. About 32,500 remain in Mexico, 10,000 in other Central American countries, and still more in the United States. Mexico has announced a new policy of allowing remaining
Guatemalan refugees to apply for residency and the opportunity to hold salaried jobs in the border states of Chiapas, Campeche, and Quintana Roo.
Though the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has assisted repatriation efforts, it cautions that this in no way indicates an endorsement of repatriation under existing conditions. In a letter to the INS dated 1 July 1996, the UNHCR summarized its position:
While UNHCR has helped facilitate the return of Guatemalans who have voluntarily asserted a wish to return, this does not mean that UNHCR promotes or encourages the repatriation of Guatemalan refugees. The element of choice is particularly important in Guatemalan repatriation because of the difficulties in concluding a peace accord between the Government and the guerrillas, and because of the on-going security problems in the country, including those experienced by returnees. An additional important factor is the scarcity of available land for returnees, which is relevant to the success and sustainability of their return, as well as to the political and social tensions which it can invoke.
On the question of internal relocation, UNHCR is guided by the following general principles:
For recognition of refugee status, the fear of persecution need not extend to the whole territory of the refugees country of origin The underlying assumption justifying the application of "internal flight alternative" is that the State authorities are willing to protect the rights of the individual concerned but are being prevented from or otherwise are unable to assure such protection in certain areas of the country. Therefore the notion should not, in principle, be applied in situations where the person is fleeing persecution from State authorities, even if the same authorities may refrain from persecution in other parts of the country The possibility to find safety in other parts of the country must have existed at the time of flight and continue to be available when the eligibility decision is taken and the return to the country of origin is implemented.
Applying these principles to Guatemala, UNHCR emphasizes:
It is irrelevant whether the State persecutes in the whole country or only in parts of it, as the State is normally in control of the whole territory. This obviously extends to the armed forces, which normally hold strong power in situations of persecution
With specific reference to Guatemala, there are two groups of refugees affected by the conflict. The first group is characterized by persons who were identified by the State, individually or collectively, as supporting or sympathizing with the guerrillas or engaging in other activities considered to be subversive. The second group consists of persons who faced localized violence or human rights violations committed by the guerrillas or other non-governmental persecutors.
In accordance with the criteria mentioned above, the concept of an internal flight alternative cannot be applied to the first group, i.e., individuals who crossed an international border due to persecution by the Government or military because they were suspected of supporting the guerrillas or other subversive activities which the military or Government considered to be a threat to its authority.
Regarding the second group, the situation in the country at the time of flight was such that the protection they needed could not have been guaranteed within their own country. In fact, those who fled within Guatemala and became internally displaced found themselves in a very vulnerable situation. According to official figures, the number of persons in this category is one million. Even today, as the search for peace goes on and the Government is committed to rebuilding its institutions, internally displaced persons still face a difficult situation, lacking personal documentation, and access to assistance and to land.
In July 1996, MINUGUA reported that refugees were returning to Guatemala "at a markedly slower pace" about half the rate of the previous year. It cautioned that "the resettlement process continues to encounter problems arising from the landholding system, the influence of the ideological discourse maintained by members of the army and by persons under its influence which identifies returnees with URNG," and "tensions between returnees and non-returnees."
B. A Paradox: Many Asylum Applicants Fear the Army, but Dare Not Blame It
Human rights reports whether from Guatemalan, American, or international organizations, or the United Nations indicate a clear and pervasive pattern of abductions, torture, and extrajudicial killings of civilians by government security forces that is in no way matched by guerrilla forces. Though the guerrillas initially kidnapped and executed military commissioners and plantation owners, they have not with one prominent exception done so in recent years. Recent human rights reports have faulted guerrillas primarily for economic sabotage, and for extorting "war taxes" from the owners of large estates, practices they have since discontinued. On March 20, 1996, the URNG suspended offensive military operations altogether, to promote a more favorable climate for peace talks. Objectively, the guerrillas pose little danger to most Guatemalans.
Yet it is commonplace for asylum applicants to say they fear being harmed by the guerrillas if they return to Guatemala. One possible reason for this paradox is the fact that the army sometimes disguised its soldiers as guerrillas prior to carrying out massacres of civilians, as in the Las Dos Erres massacre. More recently, there have been allegations that corrupt army officers have disguised their men as guerrillas in order to extort "war taxes" from estate owners. According to the January 1997 MINUGUA report, estate owners have also recently complained of alleged kidnappings by guerrillas. "Upon verification, the Mission found that the kidnappers were ordinary criminals who had used fake URNG seals and letterheads to commit their crimes."
Another possible reason for the paradox, according to some anthropologists with an intimate knowledge of the country and prevailing conditions, is an all-pervasive fear of military forces. Guatemalans know first-hand how powerful the army is, whether from the disappearance of loved ones or acquaintances, the destruction of a village, or the constant presence of informants and soldiers carrying high-powered rifles and sub-machine guns. They also have little concept of an independent judicial process, since judges and other law enforcement officials in Guatemala are subject to intimidation and corruption. If applicants tell a U.S. asylum officer the truth, they may fear that their criticism of the army will become known to Guatemalan army intelligence if their application is denied and they are returned to Guatemala.
It makes little difference that this fear is ungrounded in terms of INS practices. From a Guatemalan perspective, it is only logical to suspect the loyalties of any agency of the U.S. Government. What Guatemalans know is that the U.S. Government supported the Guatemalan Government and army in their counter-insurgency efforts, and opposed the guerrillas. If they are to ask the U.S. Government for protection, it is inconceivable to them that they can get away with contradicting the U.S. Governments own position that the Guatemalan Government and army were on the right side of the conflict, and that the guerrillas were on the wrong side. To a Mayan villager, that would be like seeking protection from an influential village authority, while telling him his friend and business associate is a bad person.
On paper, Guatemalans may have equal rights. In practice, they still do not. It is very difficult to persuade Mayan villagers that the disjunction between law and reality they have always faced in their homeland no longer governs once they apply for asylum in the United States. Asylum officers, experts emphasize, need to be sensitive to that reality.