No Justice, But Peace (For Now)

Piet van Lier


Give me a U. Give me an R. Give me an
N. Give me a G. What’s it spell? U-R-N-G! I can’t
hear you. U-R-N-G! U-R-N-G! U-R-N-G!" It sounded like a
high school basketball game, but several hundred
representatives of Guatemala’s popular movement were
doing something they never had the chance to do
before—openly express their sympathy for the Guatemalan
National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) as they waited for the
legal arrival of the four guerrilla comandantes at Guatemala
City’s Aurora airport.

In Guatemala, where accusations of
being a guerrilla are tantamount to a death threat, the scene
was slightly surreal, even though the signing of peace
accords between the URNG and the government were scheduled
for the next day.

This open support for the URNG is
indicative of hard-won political space that continues to open
in Guatemala, a country that remains highly militarized. The
past few months have seen the assassination of several
activists including Mayan leaders, a unionist, and a
journalist. As one Guatemalan confided, this kind of openness
has gotten people killed in the past, and it’s too early
to know whether it is safe.

Five years of negotiations led to the
peace signing on December 29, 1996, but even with that long,
tortuous process, it was hard to shake the feeling that the
final stretch of negotiations were rushed and haphazard.

Negotiations, which had been moving at
a snail’s pace, were prioritized by Alvaro Arzu’s
nascent administration even before his National Advancement
Party (PAN) won the runoff presidential elections and took
control of the congress in January 1996. Arzu met with the
guerrilla comandantes before taking office, and once in power
appointed an ex-guerrilla to his team of negotiators and
pledged to have the accords signed before the end of the

Among the obstacles to negotiations, a
faction of the URNG was implicated in the October kidnapping
of a member of one of Guatemala’s wealthiest families.
In the wake of the scandal, during which the extreme right
called for a halt to negotiations, the leader of the
Revolutionary Organization of the People in Arms (ORPA),
Rodrigo Asturias, alias Gaspar Ilom, withdrew from the
negotiations to get them back on track.

The peace accord presents a challenge
for Guatemalans who want to change the way their country is
run. At best, they present loose mechanisms for change,
democratization, and a leveling of the playing field for the
80 percent of Guatemalans who live below the poverty line. In
reality, the vague language of the accords makes for great
reading, broad interpretations of what can actually be done,
and only long-term hope for change.


An immediate challenge thrown down by
the still-powerful army, and presented in a law approved by
Congress and signed by President Arzu, has been the issue of
amnesty for human rights violations committed by the military
and paramilitary organizations who have held sway for so long
in Guatemala. In a country with a population of about 10
million, at least 140,000 civilians were killed or
"disappeared" and more than 1 million people became
internal refugees, while another 200,000 left the country.
The army’s counterinsurgency war caused most of the
suffering: by its own count, the military’s
scorched-earth campaign destroyed 440 villages in the early

The army has long been a target for
those wanting justice, but now a new procession has begun as
accused killers ask for amnesty under the Law of National
Reconciliation that went into effect the day before the peace
signing ceremony.

Leading the parade on January 6, barely
a week after the signing, were the army officers who
allegedly gave the orders in the 1990 assassination of
Guatemalan anthropologist Myrna Mack Chang. Mack’s
assassination has been one of several high profile human
rights cases that have slogged through the Guatemalan
judicial system and tarnished the image the army has tried to
create in recent years. Helen Mack, the victim’s sister,
helped found the Myrna Mack Foundation, one of many human
rights groups in Guatemala. As of this writing, the accused
in five other human rights cases have come forward to request
amnesty, including the ex-soldier convicted of stabbing Mack
to death, and soldiers involved in the 1995 massacre of 11
returned refugees.

Although the law is laden with
ambiguity, a broad range of critics, from the solicitor
general and members of congress to human rights leaders and
the United Nations, say the general and two colonels
implicated in this case cannot receive amnesty because Mack
was not directly involved in the armed conflict.

Last year, a coalition of human rights
groups formed to advocate a limited amnesty pardoning only
political crimes, such as taking up arms against the
government. The Alliance Against Impunity is now leading the
fight against the National Reconciliation Law and requests
for amnesty by the military and paramilitary groups.

Amnesty is discussed in the context of
four categories of crimes: political crimes, politically
related common crimes, common crimes, and crimes against
humanity. There is little argument about political crimes,
such as rebellion against the state. This type of amnesty
applies to the guerrillas, and is included in the national
reconciliation law. Most also seem to agree that politically
related common crimes should be included as well, although
here interpretations diverge. Some say that the taking of
hostages during a political uprising, for example, qualifies
as a politically related common crime, while other
interpretations are broader. All say common crimes are not
included, but here the contest begins: which "common
crimes"—extra-judicial executions, killings,
abductions.—were part of the armed conflict?

The lawyer representing the officers
implicated in the Mack case says the killing was political
because Mack, an anthropologist, was carrying out research
about internally displaced Guatemalans. The military’s
case even cites a 1992 statement by the Human Rights
Ombudsman’s office, a government watchdog with no legal
powers, saying Mack’s studies "were considered high
risk because they concerned policies of the Guatemalan
government." The military’s argument is that the
political sensitivity of Mack’s work, even though she
was a civilian, is enough to qualify the murder as political
and pardonable under the law. A February decision did reject
amnesty for the officers in the Mack case, a ruling likely to
be appealed by the defendants.

Even so, amnesty for many human rights
violators may be a done deal. "Politically, I believe
that this was the pact through which the army has permitted
some changes in its role and powers, in exchange for this
amnesty," says Victor Hugo Godoy, of the Human Rights
Ombudsman’s office.

It stands to reason that the army,
which has been responsible for the vast majority of human
rights violations, would not sign on to the peace process
without guarantees that its wall of impunity, so carefully
constructed over the decades, would hold and protect most of
its members from crimes committed in the past. Without the
support of at least one faction of the army, no peace accords
would have been signed.

Godoy points to previous amnesty laws
passed in Guatemala, none of which were written in such broad
terms. "They realized the gap that existed in previous
amnesty laws," he says, and made sure the new law opened
up the possibility for the pardon of a wider range of crimes.

"The government threw a hot coal
to the judiciary," says political analyst Edgar
Gutierrez, affiliated with the Myrna Mack Foundation.
"The government knows (the judiciary) is weak. Congress
should have opened a true national debate so that the law did
not have so much ambiguity, so many gaps and

The military may well have home-field
advantage in the Guatemalan court system, because the
judiciary is known not only for its corruption and
vulnerability to intimidation, but for a lack of background
in applicable human rights law, say lawyers and activists.

Combined with the court system’s
historic corruption, especially in high profile human rights
cases, this lack of expertise puts the outcome in doubt.
"Against public opinion, even though members of congress
and the solicitor general say the law doesn’t apply in
this case, even though MINUGUA (the United Nations Mission to
Guatemala) says it’s not applicable, everyone says the
law does not apply in Myrna’s case…anything could
happen. Taking into account the ignorance, and adding bad
faith, anything could happen," says Gutierrez.

One of the main goals of MINUGUA, which
arrived in Guatemala in 1994, has been to strengthen
Guatemalan institutions, such as the judiciary, so they can
function more effectively and help support the rule of law in
Guatemala. Various countries, including Spain and the United
States, have programs, both governmental and non
governmental, that work to strengthen the courts and security
forces. The recent implementation of oral trials is an
example of reform in the court system.

This work to strengthen the judiciary
has not been effective, say many Guatemalans. According to
Gutierrez, in 1995, the courts suffered a "20-year
setback because the appointment of judges was politicized,
and the political judges marginalized judges who had been
handling human rights cases and handing down positive
sentences. And this setback has been notable in spite of the
presence of MINUGUA and other institutions."

Cases such as Myrna Mack’s, are,
in a sense, just the tip of the iceberg. The issue these
cases represent runs deeper, as the name of the Law of
National Reconciliation suggests. How, in a militarized,
deeply-divided society that has seen terrible violence for
decades, do people put the past behind them? It was time for
the war to end. And yet the divisions, hatred and fear are so
ingrained that reconciliation is still just a word.
Reconciliation means the settling of differences, restoring
harmony, a coming together of society. In a predominantly
agrarian society where two percent of the population still
owns 70 percent of the land, true reconciliation seems a
distant dream, and not a primary concern of those who hold
power nationally and internationally.


The day after the peace signing,
Rigoberta Menchu, Mayan activist and 1992 Nobel Peace Prize
winner, invited journalists and representatives from both
sides of the conflict on a trip to the interior. In
attendance were the defense minister, members of the
government’s negotiating team, leader of the Guerrilla
Army of the Poor (EGP) Ricardo Rosales, alias Rolando Moran,
and other commanders of URNG units. The soldiers who came,
including the Defense Minister, all wore uniforms of the
Kaibil, the army’s elite, most bloodthirsty unit. The
trip’s purpose was to "promote the peace" in
two conflictive rural areas in the Ixcan and the Peten.

Aside from addressing the people who
came to listen, talking about what peace meant and how
Guatemala was changing, the rebel leaders and soldiers spent
a lot of time embracing, talking about battles fought, and
visions shared for Guatemala’s future. But it was not
all hugs and smiles. At Cantabal, the first stop, a leader of
the Ixcan Grande Cooperative accused the army of trying to
annihilate the indigenous of the Ixcan region and demanded
more governmental attention to the problems facing the area.
The audience in Cantabal was divided—just under half,
mostly from the Cooperative, supported their representative
and shouted enthusiastically on seeing the rebels, while the
other half of the crowd politely clapped through it all. The
quiet half, according to two different analyses of the event,
was either forced to attend by the army or was loyal to the
Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), former General Rios
Montt’s right-wing party. Either analysis paints a
picture of a polarized community.

Rigoberta Menchu spoke forcefully in
Cantabal. "Reconciliation is not a decree or something
we can do in one day," she said. "I tell you I will
never accept that the torture of my mother was necessary for
the future. I simply will promise myself that this will never
happen again."

While soldiers and rebels may now claim
friendship, reconciliation certainly will be a long process
for much of the civilian population. "Perhaps with the
guerrillas and the army, they were in equal situations, two
armies with weapons," says Lesbia Tevalan, of the
Association of Guatemalan Jurists. "The civil society,
we didn’t have weapons. We suffered at the hands of the
military, of the state. It’s very difficult."

And it could be worse in the rural
areas, says Rosalina Tuyuc, Mayan activist leader of
CONAVIGUA (National Coalition of Guatemalan Widows) and one
of six members of Congress belonging to the New Guatemala
Democratic Front (FDNG). The FDNG grew out of the popular
movement and participated for the first time in the 1995
elections. "I believe it’s going to take 5, 10, 15
years" before the wounds start to heal, says Tuyuc.
"In my village, popular movement organizations still are
not accepted, they still say, ‘well, they’re
guerrillas’ even though they aren’t, and it’s
going to be worse" when people openly representing the
URNG start working in the communities. Among other plans, the
former rebels are creating a political party to contest
elections in 2000.

The roots of a solution could have been
planted in the peace accords, with mechanisms to investigate
the massacres and killings of the past, but the accords are
especially weak in this area. What began as negotiations for
a Truth Commission ended with an accord for the
"Historical Clarification of Human Rights
Violations," which not only does not provide for the
prosecution of suspected criminals, but will not even name
names. While this was not a surprising outcome given the
balance of power in Guatemala, it could make any efforts at
true reconciliation much more difficult. While President Arzu
called for pardon and forgiveness in his speech at the peace
signing, it will be hard to expect victims to forgive when
the truth is not even acknowledged, let alone justice served.

Piet van Lier is a freelance journalist
and photographer based in Cleveland, Ohio. He lived and
worked in Guatemala as a volunteer for Peace Brigades
International in 1994 and 1995, and continues his work there
as a journalist.