Political violence is making an unprecedented comeback in Guatemala. Nineteen political leaders and activists have been assassinated since December, and death threats, assassination attempts and violent intimidation have become commonplace, increasing drastically in the months leading up to the coming November presidential elections. (1) Within Guatemala, there is no doubt that the intimidation and direct attacks are orchestrated by the ruling FRG (Guatemalan Republican Front) military party, whose thug tactics are both a desperate attempt to hold on to power for four more years, and a clear sign of the dark times ahead should this goal be realized.
Assassinations, attempted and successful, have thus far been focused on low- and medium-level candidates and officials of opposition parties across the political spectrum. The center-right UNE (National Unity for Hope) has been victim of the most frequent attacks while holding on to second place in the presidential polls and publicly denouncing multiple human rights abuses. UNE has lost four politicians to the recent violence: a current mayor, a mayoral candidate, the wife of another mayoral candidate, and a congressional candidate, all shot to death between April 25 and July 11.
The left-wing ANN (Alliance for a New Nation) has suffered the second heaviest number of losses, with three activists murdered, two on May 28 and another on June 16. Many more ANN members have survived gun and machete attacks, and one even lost an ear and part of his tongue during an attempted pre-assassination torture session. In addition to the UNE and ANN, a total of twelve politicians and political activists from the PAN, Unionista, GANA, DCG, UCN or unspecified parties have been murdered in the past nine months.
Mirador Electoral, a Guatemalan election watchdog organization, has listed a total of 94 registered acts of political violence between November 2002 and August 2003, including bombs, shootings and break-ins at political offices and human rights centers, kidnappings, machete attacks and drive-by shootings, verbal threats, beatings, and attempted assault with automobiles. The attacks and threats have affected most parties other than the ruling FRG and appear to be part of a coherent FRG electoral strategy. The political party of the Guatemalan generals, the FRG is headed by el General himself, Efrain Rios Montt, ex-dictator and architect of the indiscriminate massacres of the 1980s scorched earth campaign. After relinquishing presidential power in a 1986 civilian transition, the generals managed a political comeback through Alfonso Portillo and the FRG in the 1999 elections. The final step in the re-solidification of direct military political power, the FRG have managed to enlist General Rios Montt as their presidential candidate despite a constitutional article banning such participation by coup members. In order to gain the inscription and election of Rios Montt, the FRG rely heavily on both violent intimidation and electoral fraud.
Intimidation has been played out through individual threats and attacks on Rios Montt’s actual and ideological opposition, but also through large-scale violent manifestations and attacks on public institutions. During two days in late July thousands of FRG supporters, armed with sticks and guns, rioted in the streets of Guatemala City, sowing violence and especially targeting members of the press through kidnappings and attacks; one journalist avoided being burned to death after being covered in gasoline. (2) The official human rights watch office of Guatemala, the Procuraduria de los Derechos Humanos (PDH) later denounced the violence as being “supported, planned and executed by public employees and functionaries” of the FRG, directly blaming the Guatemalan president, vice president, the Minister of Governance, and an ex-chief of the national police. (3) Soon afterwards, the office of the PDH was broken into, its contents vandalized and its files smeared with human feces. Phillipe Combescot, head of the European Union Mission in Guatemala, stated that the PDH break-in “confirms the existence of parallel structures working for institutions controlled by the official party.” (4)
Threats and attacks on journalists also play a role in intimidation tactics in an attempt to stifle a press which currently denounces human rights abuses on a near daily basis. In addition to the July riots, many members of the press have received death threats after writing articles critical of the FRG, and some have been attacked. In one case, a bomb was thrown at a journalist’s house in the middle of the night; in another, a house was broken into by twelve armed people who herded a journalist and his family into a room, saying that “someone up high hates you” and that the journalist should stop denouncing abuses. (5)
Where fraud is concerned, dirty tactics such as vote-buying and loans conditional on FRG success have been employed, but a much larger strategy of direct ballot manipulation has recently been made public. On August 10, 2003 Alvaro Colom, UNE presidential candidate, announced the discovery of a document detailing an FRG-penned “Plan Lazaro” electoral strategy. The plan calls for a multi-faceted attack on electoral structures using all available government, military and private resources including the participation of the Public Ministry, the National Civilian Police (PNC), military officials, and various public offices. Ballot manipulation would ensure that the FRG and GANA would win the first round with 825,000 and 700,000 votes respectively. In the second round, Rios Montt would win with 56% and GANA’s Oscar Berger would come in close second with 44%. The plan also calls for massive intimidation and targeted attacks before the elections, as have been experienced to date. (6)
The violence, murder, torture, intimidation and fraud of the FRG in the pre-election months must be understood within the context of a larger battle of Guatemalan elites, consisting of two traditional oligarchical classes. On one side, the Guatemalan economic elite have traditionally controlled the means of production in Guatemala, as well as political power and the fate of the majority and impoverished population. On the other hand, the generals of the military elite have become accustomed to dictatorial power and its benefits after nearly forty years of military rule and puppet rule between 1954 and the early 1990s. During their time in power, the generals became significantly active in both legal and illicit financial activities such as the Bank of the Military and the running of narcotics cartels. Political positions were passed to civilians in 1986 in the face of international pressure, but the military has occupied itself with trying to regain (and since 2000, hold) the presidency in order to run the country more thoroughly. The economic elite, meanwhile, has successfully struggled to reap the benefits of the new economic world order through institutional power, which they held until 1999.
Although FRG violence extends beyond left-winged activists to the opposition parties of the economic elite, as represented in GANA and PAN, the exclusive structure of the Guatemalan political system allows the FRG complete impunity. Over centuries of concentrated wealth and power, the Guatemalan political system has evolved in a completely exclusive fashion, leaving all but the very rich and powerful from actual control over any aspect of national administration. Now that a military faction has tasted absolute power and is reaching for another helping, the economic elite has nowhere to turn for protection, denunciation or justice, having built the walls of exclusionary power within which the FRG now resides.
FRG electoral victory is quite unlikely, but depends completely on the success of fraud, fear and abstention. The return of the despised genocidal ex-dictator General Rios Montt could be around the corner, however, and the violent repression and manipulation tested in the past few months could again take precedence in national political strategy.
(1) Details of political murders and attacks listed below come from an August 2003 report by Guatemala’s electoral watchdog organization, Mirador Electoral: “Monitoreo de los reportes de violencia electoral de noviembre 2002 a agosto 2003.”
(2) Mirador Electoral 2003, p.5.
(3) Prensa Libre, “Culpa a gobierno del ‘Jueves Negro.’” August 30, 2003, p.6.
(4) Mirador Electoral 2003, p.6.
(5) Mirador Electoral 2003, p.3.
(6) Mirador Electoral 2003, p.6.
Simon Helweg-Larsen is working in and writing from the Guatemalan Highlands, where he will take part in human rights observation during the November presidential elections.