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Guatemala: A Human Rights Update
Human Rights Testimony Given Before the United States Congressional Human Rights Caucus

Daniel Wilkinson
Human Rights Watch

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Representative Van Hollen, Members of the Caucus:

Thank you for the invitation to address the Human Rights Caucus on the human rights situation in Guatemala.

Human Rights Watch has been monitoring human rights conditions in Guatemala for over twenty years. The situation we find there today is both frustrating and alarming. It is frustrating because, seventeen years after the return of civilian rule and seven years after the signing of peace accords, Guatemala has made little progress toward securing the protection of human rights and rule of law that are essential features of a functioning democracy. It is alarming because on-going acts of political violence and intimidation threaten to reverse the little progress that has been made in recent years.

At the same time, a promising new initiative has emerged that offers cause for some hope. It is a proposal to create a special commission that will investigate the groups responsible for recent acts of violence and intimidation and, in the process, work to strengthen the country's justice system.

The United States should do all it can to help Guatemala seize this important opportunity.

A Precarious Rule of Law
The rule of law in Guatemala is threatened on several fronts. The most immediate threat in the eyes of average Guatemalans is violent crime, which is fueled by extreme poverty, inequality, and the lack of effective law enforcement. Guatemala has the third most unequal distribution of income in the world, with over half the population living in poverty and nearly a fifth in extreme poverty. The lack of adequate tax revenue, combined with widespread corruption, undermines the state's ability to provide basic services, including effective law enforcement.

In addition to the problems associated with common crime, Guatemala is still suffering the effects of an internal armed conflict that was, in some respects, the most brutal in the region during the last century. A UN sponsored truth commission estimated that as many as 200,000 people were killed during the 36-year war that ended in 1996. Government forces were responsible for the vast majority of the killings. Their victims were mostly unarmed civilians. Their methods were often extraordinarily cruel. To give just one example, in 1982, in the village of Las Dos Erres, Guatemalan soldiers killed over 160 civilians, burying some alive in the village well, killing infants by slamming their heads against walls, keeping young women alive to be raped over the course of three days. This was not an isolated incident. Rather it was one of over 400 massacres documented by the truth commission-some of which, according to the commission, constituted "acts of genocide."

The armed conflict left a country awash in weapons and people accustomed to using them; it left widows, orphans, and whole communities traumatized, and the general population deeply distrustful of public authority; and it left a large number of human rights violators determined to escape justice for their crimes.

Over the past decade, local rights groups have struggled to push human rights cases through the Guatemalan courts. The cases include the massacre at Las Dos Erres, the 1990 murder of anthropologist Myrna Mack, and the 1998 murder of Catholic bishop, Juan Gerardi. Twenty-one indigenous communities are currently pressing charges against former military commanders-including the current presidential candidate, Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt-for crimes against humanity, including genocide, committed in the early 1980s.

The efforts of these groups have been stymied by several obstacles. One is the weakness of a justice system that relies on prosecutors and investigators who receive grossly inadequate training and resources. Another obstacle has been the climate of intimidation that has grown with each advance made toward accountability.

Over the past two years, there have been an alarming number of attacks and threats carried out against Guatemalans seeking justice for past abuses. The targets have included human rights organizations, justice officials, forensic experts, plaintiffs, and witnesses involved in human rights cases. They have also included journalists, labor activists and others who have denounced abuses of authority.

There is a widespread consensus among local and international observers that the people responsible for these acts of intimidation are affiliated with private, secretive, illegally armed networks or organizations, commonly referred to in Guatemala as "clandestine groups." These groups appear to have links to both state agents and organized crime-which give them access to considerable political and economic resources. The Guatemalan justice system, which is ill-prepared to contain common crime, has so far proven no match for this powerful and dangerous threat to the rule of law.

U.S. Policy
Given these daunting obstacles, and the lack of progress to date, it is fair to ask why the US government should bother supporting efforts to promote the rule of law in Guatemala.

One reason is that the stakes are much larger than the individual cases involved. The lack of accountability for political violence-past and present-has contributed to a general climate of insecurity in Guatemala, which has in turn eroded citizen confidence in democracy and increased the country's vulnerability to corruption, illegal drug trafficking and organized crime. Given Guatemala's position as both the largest economy in Central America, and a major transshipment point for the illegal drug trade, any further deterioration of the country's rule of law could have implications far beyond its borders.

Another reason for the United States to support these efforts is that it shares a degree of responsibility for some of the worst violence in Guatemala's past. In 1954, the US government orchestrated the overthrow of a democratically elected government in Guatemala and installed a repressive military regime which would govern the country, in various guises, for the next thirty years. Successive US administrations supported this regime as it engaged in widespread human rights violations. Although direct U.S. military assistance to Guatemala ended in the late 1970s, the US government continued to provide significant financial and political support, including publicly defending Guatemala's human rights record, even as the Guatemalan military was carrying out hundreds of massacres and possibly even "acts of genocide." In 1998, President Bill Clinton issued a public apology in Guatemala for the United States' role in supporting the country's abusive regimes.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has played a more constructive role in promoting human rights and accountability in Guatemala. The US government helped finance the truth commission; it has supported efforts by forensic anthropologists to exhume clandestine cemeteries; and it has backed local rights groups who have pressed charges against major human rights violators.

These efforts point to a third reason for continued US engagement in Guatemala on this issue: while progress in strengthening the rule of law has been limited, the efforts supported by the US government have produced some very positive results. The truth commission offered thousands of Guatemalans an opportunity to denounce the abuses they had suffered and the forensic anthropologists have allowed families to give decent burials to their loved ones. Together, the two efforts have provided irrefutable proof regarding the scope and nature of the killing that took place. The local rights groups, meanwhile, have had a few significant court victories and, in the process, have done more than anyone to make Guatemala's justice system begin to fulfill its function as the guarantor of human rights.

A final reason for continued engagement is that an opportunity now exists that could break significant new ground, countering the most pressing threat to the rule of law and, in the process, strengthening the Guatemalan justice system.

Earlier this year, the Guatemalan government, human rights ombudsman and civil society organizations agreed to create a commission to investigate and promote the prosecution of the "clandestine groups." The CICIACS (Commission to Investigate Illegal Groups and Clandestine Security Apparatuses) would consist of three commissioners-one representing the United Nations, one the OAS, and one the Guatemalan state-and a team of both national and international investigators.

The proposed CICIACS has multiple objectives. Its immediate goal is to curb attacks and threats carried out against human rights defenders, justice officials and other targeted groups. Its medium term goals include severing the links that may exist between these groups and some state agents, as well as disarticulating the groups themselves. Its longer term goal is to strengthen the capacity of domestic law enforcement mechanisms to investigate and prosecute the criminal activities engaged in by these sorts of groups.

It will achieve these objectives by providing the Public Prosecutor's Office with investigative leads and evidence for criminal prosecutions, providing state institutions with information necessary to purge corrupt officials, and providing the general public with a clearer understanding of who these groups are and how they operate.

It will not be an easy task. Unlike standard truth commissions, which examine past human rights abuses, this commission will be examining forms of organized crime that are presently active and highly dangerous. Such investigations are notoriously difficult, given the criminals' capacity to infiltrate the institutions that investigate them and to corrupt, intimidate and murder the investigators and witnesses who are involved in the cases against them. To be successful, the institution carrying out the investigation must be able to avoid infiltration and resist external pressure.

A key feature of the CICIACS proposal is that it seeks to ensure that the commission has the independence necessary to achieve results, but also engage with-and ultimately work to strengthen-the local institutions that are responsible for law enforcement in Guatemala.

The Guatemalan government submitted the CICIACS proposal to the United Nations and the OAS last March. The United Nations has since developed recommendations for modifying this proposal and apparently plans to submit these to the Guatemalan government any day now.

In addition to the participation of these multilateral bodies, the success of the CICIACS will also depend on the financial and political support it receives from the international community. It will need political support to ensure its legitimacy and, more concretely, financial support to cover its operating expenses.

Without adequate resources and personnel, it is unlikely that the commission will be able to achieve its ambitious goals. Not only would this outcome be disappointing, it could also be counterproductive-as half-baked investigations might facilitate the acquittal of dangerous criminals and reinforce the climate of impunity in which they thrive.

Ambassador John Hamilton has been an outspoken proponent of human rights in Guatemala. He and his staff have been very supportive of the CICIACS proposal. It is our understanding that they have already sought financial support for the commission here in Washington.

Given the severity of the problem, the United States should make supporting the CICIACS a top priority. The initiative represents the best opportunity Guatemala has had in years to make progress in strengthening the rule of law. If successful, it will greatly facilitate the efforts of local rights groups to promote accountability for past abuses. And it may also serve as a useful model for other countries in the region that are struggling to contain political violence, corruption and organized crime.