Guatemala: Between Justice and Terror

the past year, a new wave of repression has swept through
Guatemala. One of the many anonymous letters received by the
country’s human rights activists reads, “In a war
there are no guilty parties, and it is not your place to judge
us.” Another simply warns: “You had better take
care, you son of a bitch, we are going to shut you up.”

With several recent murders, Guatemala’s resurgent death
squads proved that they are prepared carry out their threats.
In late April, Guillermo Ovalle de León, from the prominent
Rigoberta Menchú Foundation, was killed. On September
6, unknown assailants abducted and tortured Manuel García
de la Cruz, a rural activist involved in exhuming clandestine
wartime cemeteries. Journalists investigating his murder were
followed and had their equipment stolen.

The renewed acts of violence and repression are designed to
silence activists seeking to prosecute military officers for
genocide and other war crimes. In May 2000 and June 2001,
representatives of indigenous communities belonging to the
Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR) filed two
cases in the Guatemalan legal system. They charged former
dictators Romeo Lucas García and Ríos Montt, along
with members of their high commands, with genocide and crimes
against humanity. Complementing these efforts, Nobel Laureate
Rigoberta Menchú Tum previously filed charges in December
1999 in the Spanish courts against the two generals and six
other Guatemalan officials.

The genocide cases and the attacks against human rights workers
have brought mainstream attention back to a country that faded
from international view following the passage of Peace Accords
in 1996.

Since the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) came into power
in 2000, human rights violations have increased dramatically,
reaching their highest levels since the 1996 Accords. Examples
of abuses abound. Anselmo Roldan Aguilar, president and legal
representative of AJR, was stabbed in July 2001 by a person
with links to the army. This August Roberto Romero, a key
lawyer in a trial attempting to prosecute three Guatemalan
army officials for ordering the assassination of anthropologist
Myrna Mack, received several threats on his life. Shots were
fired at his home and, a few hours later, two anonymous callers
warned him to abandon the case. Since the trial began on September
3, Romero and his family have been the targets of further
death threats, surveillance, and intimidation.

Continuing violence has impeded efforts to take meaningful
steps toward justice and reconciliation. The country has yet
to collectively reckon with the 1.5 million people displaced
and the 669 massacres, which took place throughout the countryside—a
situation that a 1999 UN-backed report acknowledged as genocidal.
Two hundred thousand Guatemalans were killed or disappeared
during the country’s 36- year-long war, when death squads
linked to the U.S.-backed military targeted analysts, activists,
and journalists who spoke out against state repression.

Recent human rights violations, while not directly committed
by the government as they were during the war, are often carried
out by clandestine groups with links to the State. Guatemalan
civil society, the United Nations Mission in Guatemala, and
the governmental Human Rights Procurator report the existence
of “hidden” power structures parallel to the State.
These Mafia-like power cells, linked to the economic elite
and laced throughout the government and military, carry out
surveillance, intimidation, threats, political assassinations,
and extra-judicial executions. In a clear moment of double-speak,
President Portillo’s spokesperson Byron Barrera recently
denied the existence of clandestine groups, yet admitted that
such groups are responsible for some human rights violations.
Meanwhile, many wartime human rights violators continue to
wield influence in Guatemalan politics. Former dictator Ríos
Montt currently serves as Head of Congress. According to a
survey by the daily newspaper Prensa Libre, most Guatemalans
consider him the most powerful person in the country. The
government has failed to follow the Peace Accords’ mandate
to abolish groups responsible for wartime atrocities, groups
like the Presidential guard and military intelligence units.
Congress has also elevated the army’s budget to levels
that violate the Accords.

The social and economic problems at the root of Guatemala’s
civil war also remain unaddressed. The government has abandoned
Peace Accord mandates calling for wide-ranging reforms in
social services and the judicial system—changes aimed
at creating an inclusive and democratic society. As a result,
injustices endure: 86 percent of Guatemalans live in poverty,
including 69 percent in extreme poverty. Unequal land distribution
plagues the rural population: while 96 percent of producers
hold only 20 percent of the country’s arable land, a
mere 0.15 percent control 70 percent of productive lands.

The United States regularly expresses concern when grave human
rights abuses occur in Guatemala. But U.S. activists have
reason to doubt the government’s sincerity. In 1999,
President Clinton apologized for the U.S. role in the Guatemalan
genocide. The Bush administration, however, effectively rescinded
the U.S. apology with its move to “unsign” the agreement
assuring its participation in the International Criminal Court.
In a 2001 meeting with U.S.-based solidarity groups, U.S.
Ambassador Prudence Bushnell rejected the suggestion that
the U.S. government assist in providing reparations payments
to Guatemalan war victims.

Moreover, the U.S. has shown little interest in pressuring
the Guatemalan government to adopt the social service reforms
of the Peace Accords, or in otherwise unsettling Guatemala’s
economic elites. Human rights concerns do not extend to labor
rights. One egregious example involves the TECO power plant
in Guatemala City, where union members were illegally fired
in 1999. Although the Overseas Private Investment Company
(OPIC)—a public agency—partially funds the plant,
the U.S. government has done nothing to pressure the company
to comply with a Guatemala Supreme Court ruling to reinstate
the workers.

It would be a mistake to assume that the United States still
favors the School of the Americas-trained generals that ruled
over many of its client states in the 1970s and 1980s. Its
Cold War motives of anti-Communist containment have been replaced
by a desire to enforce a neoliberal hegemony. The new ideal
is provided by leaders like Mexico’s Vicente Fox—vigorous
“free trade” advocates reared in the suites of U.S.-based

But despite the shift from anti-communism to neoliberalism,
the protection of its economic interests serves as the consistent
force behind U.S. policy in Guatemala. Much has changed since
the United States government orchestrated a coup in 1954 in
order to protect U.S. agribusiness interests. Yet human rights
still seem less important to the Bush administration than
having leaders in place who will support measures like the
Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), legislation
that regulates commerce on terms that favor corporate investors
over indigenous peoples seeking self-determination.

Justice in the Courts?

the genocide trials effectively address these injustices?
Ironically, many human rights activists risking their lives
to prosecute the cases in Guatemalan and international courts
don’t expect to succeed in convicting the country’s
past dictators. Hinting at a much larger series of difficulties,
the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH), the non-governmental
organization providing legal assistance to the AJR, acknowledges
“the pressures that there will be against the investigation
of this case.” Nevertheless, these groups believe the
tactic can have important effects both inside and outside
of the legal system.

Skeptics base their pessimism about actual convictions on
the fact that most human rights cases in Guatemala languish
in the courts. A recent criminal trial charging members of
an army unit with the massacre of returned refugees in Xamán
has been riddled with delays, inconsistencies, and evidence
of courtroom bias. In May, a related civil trial was suspended
because the court had not provided the proper translators
for indigenous witnesses. Then, the case was transferred to
a nonfunctioning court in a remote part of the country. Both
domestic genocide cases remain in the investigative phase,
even though charges against Lucas García were filed over
two years ago. CALDH estimated that the investigation should
have been completed in eight months. In spite of these impediments
to legal victory, Guatemalans have hope. The attempts to prosecute
Chile’s former dictator Augusto Pinochet provided a powerful
example of what high-profile trials can accomplish. While
the Chilean General has thus far succeeded in avoiding jail
time, the prosecution brought his war crimes to the fore of
international discussion. Rather than traveling the world
as an honored statesperson, Pinochet must behave more like
a wanted drug lord—always in fear of being detained for

Activists in Guatemala are working to raise dictators Montt
and García to a similar level of infamy. Adriana Portillo-Bartow,
a co-plaintiff in the Spanish case, says, “At the very
least, we know these criminals will lose some sleep at night
and will be afraid to leave the country.” Furthermore,
they argue that new cases help to establish the precedent
that war criminals will be prosecuted internationally, even
if the perpetrators are powerful enough to avoid trial in
their home countries. “I want this case to teach a lesson
to other human rights violators around the world, that they
can’t get away with crimes against humanity,” Portillo-Bartow

High-profile lawsuits can serve not only to bolster international
solidarity, but also to transform an ossified national judiciary.
While Montt and García may prove impossible to convict,
the lawsuits make lower-ranking criminals increasingly vulnerable.
In one important example, intense public pressure succeeded
in bringing those responsible for the murder of Bishop Juan
Gerardi to justice. In 1998, barely two days after releasing
a report attributing the majority of wartime violations to
state agents, Gerardi was bludgeoned to death with a concrete
block. Police posited a series of bogus theories, attributing
the murder first to “common crime,” then to a “crime
of passion,” and even took a priest’s decrepit dog
into police custody, claiming it had played a key role in
the murder.

Although observers initially despaired at the progress of
the case, international outrage ultimately forced officials
to conduct a serious investigation. The Guatemalan human rights
community rejoiced in 2001 when Colonel Byron Disrael Lima
and 2 other military officers were sentenced to 30 years in
prison for Gerardi’s murder. This ruling dealt a remarkable
blow to Guatemala’s long-standing culture of impunity
for the army.

A second extraordinary blow fell even as this article was
going to press. On October 3, a Guatemalan court sentenced
Colonel Juan Valencia Osorio to 30 years in prison for ordering
the murder of Myrna Mack. On September 11, 1990, not long
after publishing a crucial study demonstrating that the army’s
counter-insurgency campaign was responsible for the massive
internal displacement of indigenous communities, Mack was
stabbed 27 times outside her Guatemala City office. Although
a low-ranking officer had previously been jailed for carrying
out the murder, Mack’s sister and other campaigners pressed
to convict those who ordered the execution. In the most recent
trial, the two high-ranking officials were freed (with judges
citing “lack of evidence”) even as Valencia was
convicted. Nevertheless, by successfully prosecuting a senior
military officer, activists have paved the road for further

A New Human Rights Movement

rights activists see the AJR’s demands for justice as
key to broadening the political space for Guatemalan war survivors
to speak out about not only about past atrocities, but also
about on-going political and economic abuses. “At the
very least we have publicly named the perpetrators of the
massacres,” says a witness in the genocide case against
García. “Our speaking up gives other victims, other
survivors, the strength to stand up for their rights.”

Witnesses further explain that when survivors speak about
their experiences during the war, they are empowered to strengthen
their political participation and denounce current violations.
Miguel Angel Albizurez of the human rights group Alliance
Against Impunity argues that massacre trials allow those denied
a voice in national politics for decades to “retake their
right to demand justice”—creating the possibility
for activists to highlight economic injustices that elites
prefer to keep unmentioned.

Today, labor and farmworker organizers who fight for their
social and economic rights, journalists and analysts who expose
companies’ exploitative practices, and activists who
question inequalities continue to be the targets of political
violence. In April, journalist David Herrera was abducted
while on an assignment with a U.S. National Public Radio (NPR)
reporter regarding human rights issues. Bishop Alvaro Ramazinni
and other Catholic clergy who advocate peasants’ rights
have received death threats. Union organizers at a Liz Claiborne
factory were attacked with rocks and bottles. In a four-day
period in June, three farmworker leaders were killed by paramilitaries.

Guatemalans in the human rights movement connect these current
violations with the need to obtain justice for wartime atrocities,
which were linked to the government’s desire to maintain
the social system of privilege and inequality. Between 1980
and 1982 the army and local paramilitaries carried out five
massacres in the Río Negro area because Achi Maya residents
protested a World Bank-funded dam that flooded their ancestral
lands. Having learned from such examples, Guatemalans who
denounce wartime massacres see them as intimately connected
with a whole system of abuse. In the process of bringing the
genocide case charges, spokespeople from indigenous communities
gain power as political leaders. AJR leaders have gained skills
in organizing workshops and rallies, giving press conferences,
and rebutting critics’ comments. Roldán and others
have participated in international speaking tours and conferences.
Association members who had never been further than ten miles
from their homes have traveled through the country to share
their stories. Many are learning about the judicial system
for the first time. One witness proudly states that despite
his lack of formal education, he is struggling to read the
Constitution in order to understand “the commitments
and duties that the State has to its people, and the rights
and duties that we have as citizens.”

Because of the genocide trials, political crimes that have
remained hidden from national scrutiny for years have been
vigorously condemned in the national press. An increasingly
critical media has been more willing to cover human-rights-related
legal cases, union campaigns, ethnic discrimination, plantation
occupations, and the government’s unwillingness to deal
with the land crisis. Headlines in mainstream newspapers reading
“Judge Named in Genocide Case” and “Government
of the Rich in Country of the Poor” represent equally
remarkable developments in Guatemala’s political culture.

As they assert their humanity in trials against past dictators,
the Guatemalan people grow increasingly willing to resist
neoliberal plans undemocratically designed to “develop”
the country on the terms of transnational corporations and
local elites. Tired of being ignored by authorities and large
landowners, organized landless peasants have taken direct
action. In February, farmers in San Marcos occupied the San
Luis finca (plantation) to use for subsistence farming and
to pressure the government for solutions to the two-year famine,
historic land inequalities, and worsening poverty, unemployment,
and malnutrition. Throughout the country, activists currently
control lands taken in 53 such occupations.

On August 21, approximately 15,000 farmworkers occupied 2
major highways, blocking traffic for hours, to demand land
reform and an end to repression against activists. “The
killings, threats, and arrest warrants against farmworker
leaders are meant to worsen our political, social, and economic
situation even further,” noted the Committee of Peasant
Unity. These acts “are done in response to the struggles
that we are undertaking alongside peasant communities that
lack even a bit of land to cultivate in order to survive.”

In March, 34 Guatemalan organizations and 64 groups from other
countries held a forum in La Quetzal, Petén to discuss
and plan actions against Plan Puebla-Panamá (PPP). PPP
is a series of proposed industrialization projects throughout
Central America and Mexico that would displace hundreds of
indigenous communities and destroy wetlands and rainforest
ecosystems. The grassroots groups presented a series of demands
that intertwine political and economic rights and denounce
both past and current abuses. They call for “justice
for those responsible for state genocide,” “an end
to persecution, intimidation, forced disappearance, death
threats,” and “an end to the imposition of projects
that do not emerge from communities and peoples themselves.”

An AJR witness who lost his wife, mother, and children in
a 1982 massacre relates these campaigns to attempts to use
the courts to challenge war criminals: “This country
needs to change a lot. There is so much poverty, inequality,
and lack of democracy. Governments are used to doing what
they want and following their own economic and political interests.
This legal process can make a huge difference by challenging
the long-time impunity that governments have enjoyed, by proclaiming
that we who have always been marginalized are not going to
just let them do what they want. What we are doing serves
as an example for other people.”

With finca occupations and claims to economic rights, survivors
of the country’s civil war show that the process of healing
and justice is incompatible at key points with a neoliberal
economic agenda. The genocide cases are working both to speed
the transformation of a still-entrenched judiciary and to
further activist campaigns throughout the country. The survivors
coming forward as witnesses insist that the powerful will
someday be held responsible for the crimes. As they inspire
wider acts of resistance, they envision a time when the tragic
inequalities will finally disappear.

Engler, a writer and activist, has worked with the Arias Foundation
for Peace and Human Progress in San José, Costa Rica
and the Public Intellectuals Program at Florida Atlantic University.

Alexandra Durbin is the editor of the quarterly
Report on Guatemala and co-coordinator of the Guatemala
Accompaniment Project for the Network in Solidarity with the
People of Guatemala (NISGUA)