Guatemala (Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity)
In the early 1980s the Guatemalan army defeated a Marxist-led guerrilla movement by killing tens of thousands of Mayan Indians as suspected subversives. Remnants of various guerrilla organizations joined together in the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union (URNG) and refused to stop fighting until they achieved peace with justice, that is, negotiated concessions. Only in 1996, and under much international pressure, did the Guatemalan government and the URNG formally end four decades of armed conflict. The army remains the most powerful institution in Guatemala. When active-duty or retired officers are prosecuted, activists, journalists, witnesses, and judicial personnel are besieged by anonymous threats and attacks, sending the deniable but unmistakable message that the army (or part of it) is willing to return Guatemala to the nightmarish political violence of earlier years. Under such conditions public support for human rights prosecutions has been limited. Yet to defer prosecution, until some distant future that may never arrive, risks perpetuating above-the-law status for the military. The dilemma raises key questions: Should human rights activists attempt to prosecute army officers for genocide and other crimes against humanity? Should the human rights movement insist on prosecution even if the defendants have the power to destroy Guatemala's tentative progress toward democracy?
In the October Revolution of 1944 schoolteachers, lawyers, and army officers overthrew the last of the liberal dictatorships that ran this Central American country like a giant hacienda. The elected governments of Juan José Arévalo (1945951) and Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán (1951954) abolished mandatory labor, encouraged workers to organize, and instituted land reform that led to the nationalization of United Fruit Company plantations. Because Arbenz had communist advisers, the Eisenhower administration in Washington decided to overthrow him. Through air strikes and a mock invasion staged by exiles, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) intimidated the Guatemalan army into abandoning Arbenz. Under the U.S.elected Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas (1954957), the National Liberation Movement reversed the land reforms and many other achievements of the previous governments.
Insurgency and Counterinsurgency
Electoral fraud, political killings, and coups d'etat prevented the Guatemalan Left from competing in elections. In November 1960, 120 junior army officers tried to overthrow President Manuel Ydígoras (1958963) in order to, quoting from their manifesto, "install a regime of social justice in which wealth belongs to those who work and not to those who exploit." Several of the rebel officers went on to found the country's first Marxist guerrilla organizations. Resentful over its humiliation in 1954, the army was slow to welcome U.S. military advisers but, when it did in 1965, it soon exterminated the guerrillas' rural logistical base, which at this point consisted mainly of ladino (nonindigenous) peasants in eastern Guatemala.
In the 1970s surviving guerrilla cadre attracted new supporters among the indigenous Mayan peasants of the western highlands, who have been a subordinate caste since the Spanish Conquest and who represent approximately half the Guatemalan population. With the support of the Catholic Church, Protestant missions, and public schools, Mayas during this period began to regain control of many ladino-dominated municipal governments. They also started to demand equality for Mayan language and culture. Meanwhile, the left wing of the Catholic Church became a bridge for some Mayan communities to join the guerrilla movement, which by 1981 seemed to control much of the western highlands. Counterinsurgency violence peaked during the regimes of Generals Romeo Lucas García (1978982), Efraín Ríos Montt (1982983), and Oscar Mejía Victores (1983986). The Guatemalan army repeatedly butchered women, children, and elders as well as military-age men, even when they offered no resistance.
Under Mejía Victores the army allowed a new constitution to be drafted, which led to the resumption of elections and a civilian-led government. Under pressure from Europe, the United States, the United Nations (UN), and the Organization of American States, the government and army began negotiating with the URNG in 1990. Accords on refugee resettlement, indigenous rights, socioeconomic justice, and a truth commission culminated in the 1996 peace agreement, which is being monitored by the United Nations Mission to Guatemala (MINUGUA).
Two Truth Commissions: Did the Army Commit Genocide?
Like other Latin American militaries rejecting judicial accountability, the Guatemalan army has arranged broad amnesties for itself. The latest is the 1996 National Reconciliation Law, which extends amnesty to the guerrillas and is a condition to which URNG leaders agreed. Following protests from human rights organizations, the URNG obtained the government's commitment to a Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH). Because the CEH was prohibited from naming names or preparing cases for prosecution, the Catholic Church organized its own Recovery of Historical Memory (REHMI) commission. Led by Bishop Juan Gerardi, REMHI delivered its report in April 1998. Two nights later Gerardi was bludgeoned to death in his garage.
Several years of investigation were required to bring two army intelligence officers and a sergeant to trial for the murder. The "unknown men in civilian dress" who attack the army's critics have repeatedly been traced to the army's G-2 intelligence branch and to the presidential general staff, a security and intelligence operation that the peace accords sought to abolish, but which instead has continued to grow. Under international scrutiny death squad activity gradually diminished from the mid-1980s, to the point of almost disappearing in the mid-1990s, but since 1998 it has been on the rebound in response to the prosecutions of army officers. The trials of three military personnel for the murder of Gerardi, as well as of two generals and a colonel for the 1990 murder of the Guatemalan anthropologist Myrna Mack, were accompanied by threats and attacks against judges, prosecutors, and witnesses, with some killed and others forced into exile.
The amount of testimony compiled by REMHI and CEH is staggering and damning. The CEH was able to register a total of 42,275 victims, including 23,671 arbitrary executions and 6,159 forced disappearances, from which it estimates a total of more than 200,000 dead. According to its calculations, the Guatemalan state was responsible for 93 percent of the violations, and the guerrillas for another 3 percent, with responsibility for the remainder unclear. The CEH's most controversial finding was that the army committed genocide against the Mayas crime not covered by the 1996 amnesty because of Guatemala's obligations to the international genocide convention. Human rights groups hailed the genocide finding, but it was not accepted by President Alvaro Arzú (1996000), who signed the peace accord with the URNG. The Mayas suffered 83 percent of violations according to CEH calculations, but thousands of ladinos were also killed for supporting the guerrillas. If the army's intent in targeting victims was the elimination of a political group, the genocide convention does not apply.
According to the CEH's 1999 report, the army "defined a concept of internal enemy that went beyond guerrilla sympathizers, combatants or militants to include civilians from specific ethnic groups." Furthermore, "the reiteration of destructive acts, directed systematically against groups of the Mayan population" and including "the elimination of leaders and criminal acts against minors who could not possibly have been military targets, demonstrates that the only common denominator for all the victims was the fact that they belonged to a specific group and makes it evident that these acts were committed 'with intent to destroy, in whole or in part' these groups." From 1981 to 1983, the CEH concluded, the army committed genocide against four specific language groups that it suspected of particularly strong support for the guerrillas: the Ixil Mayas; the Q'anjob'al and Chuj Mayas; the K'iche' Mayas of Joyabaj, Zacualpa, and Chiché; and the Achi Mayas.
Human Rights Prosecutions and Backlashes
Prosecutions for war-related crimes in Guatemala have been few. Until 2000 virtually all convictions were of junior officers, enlisted men, and leaders of the civil patrols, a counterinsurgency militia into which the army conscripted hundreds of thousands of men, most of them Mayan. Since the army killed soldiers and civil patrollers who failed to carry out orders, many of the homicides documented in the REMHI and CEH reports were arguably committed under duress. Consequently, human rights groups have decided to focus on senior army officers as intellectual authors of the crimes. But such indictments are hard to prove in court, as demonstrated by the Gerardi case. Although three military men were found guilty of that crime, the convictions were soon overturned on appeal. Of the three senior officers tried for the murder of Mack, only one was convicted, and even this conviction has been overturned on appeal. As of late 2003, the cases were still pending.
Because the Guatemalan judicial system lacked independence until the 1990s, and is still antiquated and underfinanced, prosecutions depend heavily on the families and friends of victims and require much international support. Like other Guatemalan human rights organizations, the Archbishop's Office on Human Rights that coordinated the Gerardi prosecution receives most of its funding from Europe and the United States. Threatened judges, prosecutors, and witnesses have been able to obtain foreign asylum with the help of the Canadian and other embassies. Freedom of Information Act lawsuits in the United States have provided documentation. Unfortunately, international support makes the human rights movement vulnerable to nationalist backlashes. Public fear of postwar crime waves has repeatedly trumped support for human rights. In 1999 voters rejected constitutional amendments to remove the army from internal security and grant equality to Mayan culture. Mobs dissatisfied with ineffective police and judicial reforms have lynched more than 360 suspected criminals since 1996. Ex-members of the civil patrols, whom the CEH found responsible for 18 percent of human rights violations, have demanded compensation for the unpaid duty they performed for the army.
The leading symbol of opposition to the human rights movement is Ríos Montt, the evangelical Protestant military dictator who defeated the guerrillas in 1982 and 1983. Despite the REMHI and CEH reports, as well as dozens of exhumations of massacre victims, Ríos Montt and his populist party won the 1999 presidential election as champions of law and order. The victory enabled Ríos Montt to assume leadership of the Guatemalan congress just as 1992 Nobel peace laureate Rigoberta Menchú was trying to indict him for genocide (Ríos Montt claims no knowledge of the massacres). In the hope of repeating the Pinochet precedent Spanish court's indictment of ex-Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet for kidnapping, torture, and murdern March 2003 the Menchú Foundation persuaded a Spanish court to hear a torture case for twelve Spanish victims. In Guatemala the Legal Action Center for Human Rights is the legal representative for the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), composed of massacre survivors. More than a hundred witnesses have given testimonies, corroborated by exhumations at the sites of twenty-five massacres that cost an estimated 2,100 lives. If the cases against Ríos Montt, Lucas García, and six other former officials go to trial, these will be the first genocide indictments to be tried in any country where the crime was committed.
A constitutional ban on candidates involved in military coups prevented Ríos Montt from running for president in the 1990s. Then in July 2003 new constitutional court justices appointed by his party allowed him to run for president in the November election. Despite fears that Ríos Montt and his party would attract a massive Mayan vote, they finished third. Newly elected president Oscar Berger (2004, a neoliberal businessman, has promised to reduce the army by nearly one-third. One reason that part of Guatemala's elite now supports neoliberal reform is that Guatemala has become a major shipment center for cocaine being transported from Colombia to the United States. Some army officers run protection rackets and the U.S. government has refused to certify Guatemala's compliance with drug enforcement. Under severe financial pressure from international lenders, the previous government agreed to a Commission to Investigate Illegal and Clandestine Security Forces (CICIACS). The new commission will be led by representatives of the UN, the Organization of American States, and Guatemalan citizenry. Now that Ríos Montt is no longer a congressman, he has lost his immunity from prosecution and is expected to face several indictments.
SEE ALSO Catholic Church; Death Squads; Forensics; Massacres; Ríos Montt, Efraín; Truth Commissions
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