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Human Rights Developments

The human rights situation in Guatemala deteriorated in several important respects during 1994, even while the promised installation of a United Nations verification mission raised hopes for significant improvement. The government and guerrillas made important human rights commitments with the signing of a comprehensive human rights accord on March 29, 1994, but then proceeded to violate these commitments flagrantly. And although the accord called for the establishment of a U.N. mission to monitor human rights "at the earliest possible date," the U.N. did not formally approve financing for the mission until September 1994, and the mission was not expected to be fully staffed and operational until late November.

The peace process created the impression that Guatemala is a society in transition, embodying hopes for an end to the cycle of human rights violations and impunity that had produced tens of thousands of disappearances and extrajudicial executions in the last three decades. Besides the human rights accord signed in March, the government and the URNG guerrillas also reached an agreement regarding the resettlement of refugees and displaced persons, and the establishment of a truth commission to document human rights violations and violations of the laws of war by both parties during the thirty years of armed conflict. Unlike the human rights accord, however, these last two agreements were designed to go into effect only upon the signing of a final accord between the two sides. Several difficult issues remained to be negotiated before the final accord would be reached, including indigenous rights, land reform, and the strengthening of civilian control over the military. Moreover, the record in 1994, in which the government shrank from all meaningful reforms that threatened the army's power, suggested that the signing of agreements might not in itself fundamentally change the human rights situation in Guatemala.

During the eight-month delay between the signing of the human rights accord and the establishment of the U.N. mission, human rights violations surged, yet the government showed no sign of undertaking serious efforts to investigate and prosecute those responsible. According to the statistics of the government's own human rights ombudsman, there were 109 extrajudicial executions and sixteen forced disappearances between the signing of the human rights accord on March 29 and the end of July. Press reports and statistics compiled by the Human Rights Office of the Archbishop of Guatemala also indicated a continued high level of killings in August and September. Meanwhile, a series of violent attacks and threats against judges known for their integrity and independence dimmed prospects for building an independent judiciary capable of prosecuting human rights violations, which is fundamental to bringing those violations to an end.

Also victims of violent attack were trade unionists, journalists, and human rights monitors. Violence against street children intensified, after a relative lull during the first months of the new government.

Much of the deterioration in the human rights situation could be traced to the government's retreat from the series of reforms undertaken shortly after the June 1993 inauguration of President Ramiro de León Carpio, the former human rights ombudsman. During his first months in office, de León Carpio sought to bring Guatemala into compliance with the recommendations of U.N. Independent Expert Christian Tomuschat and his successor Mónica Pinto by thoroughly demilitarizing the National Police, and placing civilians committed to police reform in key positions; these efforts were, however, abandoned early in 1994. The sacking of reformist Interior Minister Arnoldo Ortiz Moscoso and National Police Director Mario René Cifuentes was followed by renewed infiltration of police ranks by elements connected to the army, an upsurge in police violence, and an end to what had been a brief period in which the police genuinely sought to investigate human rights abuses. Moreover, the October 14 murder of a high-ranking police officer, César Augusto Medina, prompted the new interior minister to suggest that several thousand members of the military be assigned to the police. If carried out, such a move would bury hopes for investigations into human rights violations and dramatically enhance the army's power.

Two cases spoke volumes about the change in behavior of the police since the reformers were ousted. One was the August attack by riot police on workers occupying the San Juan del Horizonte farm in Coatepeque. The second was the reaction of the police to the kidnapping of a National Police agent assigned to protect a judge whose life had been threatened.

On August 24, several hundred riot police stormed the San Juan del Horizonte farm to arrest workers who had occupied the property in a work protest. Although the government, through the executive branch human rights commission COPREDEH, claimed that heavily armed workers fired at the police, all independent investigations, including those by Human Rights Watch/Americas, the Catholic church, and the human rights ombudsman (an independent government official elected by the Congress), concluded that the workers were not armed, except with machetes. During the assault, the riot police shot fifteen workers, savagely beating and kicking several of them as they lay injured on the ground. One of the workers, Basilio Guzmán Juárez, died on the farm, and another, Efraín Recinos Gómez, died en route to the hospital. A third worker, Diego Orozco García, was captured by the police and taken to an undisclosed location. His body was found the next day some sixty kilometers away with a gunshot wound and signs of torture. Two of the riot police were treated for minor injuries at the hospital in Coatepeque and three others in Guatemala City. No charges had been filed against police agents for this brutal attack as of this writing.

Not only was the attack notable for its brutality, it also demonstrated the government's sharp departure from practices developed during the first eight months of the de León Carpio government when Ortiz Moscoso was interior minister. Under Ortiz Moscoso, the Interior Ministry routinely invited the human rights ombudsman to send a representative to any police action with the potential for violence. The presence of the ombudsman was an important element in avoiding violence. As a result, there were no deaths during this kind of police action during Ortiz Moscoso's tenure. However, his successor, Danilo Parrinello Blanco, abandoned cooperation with the human rights ombudsman, a factor which undoubtedly contributed to the tragic events of August 24.

A second case that illustrated the changes in the police was the kidnapping of police agent Miguel Manolo Pacheco. Pacheco had been assigned to provide security for appeals court judge María Eugenia Villaseñor after she received several death threats. On the evening of August 29, Pacheco left the judge's house for what he expected to be a quick trip to a store nearby. As he approached the store, however, three armed men, two of them with the closely cropped hair typical of soldiers, grabbed him and forced him into the cab of a pickup truck. The men drove Pacheco around, beating him and interrogating him about the judge's activities as well as those of Helen Mack, sister of slain anthropologist Myrna Mack. When they released Pacheco, they warned him not to talk about his experience or they would kill him. They also told him to stay away from the judge's residence, because they were going to kill her and her roommate, Helen Mack's attorney.

Despite this serious threat to the life of a police agent for carrying out official police duties, the authorities did not open a serious investigation. Instead, they insisted that agent Pacheco was an epileptic, and most likely invented the story of his kidnapping out of embarrassment for having hurt himself in an epileptic seizure. Pacheco told Human Rights Watch/Americas that he does not suffer from epilepsy. His doctor confirmed this to the Archbishop's Human Rights Office.

Judge Villaseñor was known for her independence and integrity; she had been closely identified with the struggle for justice in the Myrna Mack case, which she handled at several points both as a district court judge and later from the appeals court. Villaseñor had also written a book about the courts' handling of the case. The kidnapping of her police bodyguard was most likely a warning to her and others pressing for prosecution of the intellectual authors of that crime.

In another notorious incident, gunmen shot dead Constitutional Court President Epaminondas González Dubón on April 1. Although the government interpreted the case as a common crime, this theory appeared highly unlikely. Attorney General Ramsés Cuestas told Human Rights Watch/Americas that the magistrate was killed by a gang who wanted to steal his car, but had no explanation for why the gang made no attempt to steal the car after killing the judge.

The Constitutional Court had several controversial cases pending at the time of González Dubón's slaying, including one involving an imminent criminal investigation into senior military officers thought to have ordered the September 1990 murder of anthropologist Myrna Mack, and another involving the extradition of a powerful ex-army officer wanted in the United States for cocaine trafficking. Shortly before González Dubón was killed, the court had also ruled that changes in the electoral law proposed by the Congress were unconstitutional. Notwithstanding the highly controversial nature of the court's caseload, the attorney general's office failed to investigate the possibility that the murder was related to González Dubón's work on the court.

On August 20, Judge Elías Ogaldez, of the Chimaltenango district court, was gunned down execution-style outside the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City. He had recently ordered the detention of an army officer and a civil patrol chief in connection with two separate murder cases. Judge Yolanda Pérez Ruiz, also from the district court in Chimaltenango, consistently faced threats, harassment, and legal action after she sought to execute a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a young man detained in the Chimaltenango military base in February.

Given the violent attacks on those judges who had the courage to make decisions that defied army interests, it was no surprise that there was only one prosecution in a human rights case during 1994, the conviction of a police officer for the murder of a student in Chiquimula. In other human rights cases, judges faced obstruction by the police and army. In several important cases, the police simply ignored the arrest warrants that judges issued for civil patrollers or police officers wanted for human rights violations. For example, the police continued to ignore the warrants for the arrest of eleven civil patrollers wanted for the murder in August 1993 of human rights activist Juan Chonay Pablo of Colotenango, even though the orders were issued in September 1993. Moreover, when the judge presiding over this case held a public hearing on charges against two civil patrollers who had been detained, the army brought dozens of civil patrollers to the courthouse in Huehuetenango to demonstrate for their freedom. The chief of staff of the armed forces stated in a letter to Human Rights Watch/Americas that the patrollers rented private vehicles to arrive at the demonstration. Nonetheless, witnesses saw the patrollers arrive in two army trucks. Not surprisingly, the judge freed the civil patrollers a few days later.

For their part, the guerrillas were responsible for several operations which violated the laws of war applicable to internal armed conflicts. On March 11, 1994, guerrillas fired on a truck filled with civilians on the road between Nebaj and Chajul in the northern Quiché department, injuring a nineteen-year-old boy. On August 22, guerrillas launched a surprise attack on the military base at Chupol, on the inter-American highway. In the attack, the rebels stopped civilian vehicles on the highway to block traffic and fired on several that refused to halt. One civilian was slain and several more wounded when the insurgents opened fire, according to the Human Rights Office of the Archbishop of Guatemala. Besides violating the applicable international laws of war, these attacks on civilians also violated the commitments made by the guerrillas in the March 29 human rights accord. Finally, the archbishop's office documented the September murder by the guerrillas of an army officer in Chimaltenango after his capture in violation of the absolute prohibition on attacks on captured combatants contained in Article 3 common to the Geneva Conventions.

The government, too, honored the human rights accord only in the breach. Among the commitments undertaken and then ignored by the government was the commitment to "combat any manifestation" of "clandestine security machinery." Yet the government made no effort to investigate the continued pattern of killings, abductions, threats and harassment of members of popular organizations, trade unionists, human rights monitors, and journalists, although many of these abuses were perpetuated by armed men in plainclothes, often driving vehicles with no license plates.

The government also vowed to cease using press-gang methods to round up youths for military service, and to end the discriminatory practice of recruiting exclusively indigenous or poor ladino (mixed race) youths in this forcible manner. During the months of May, June, and July, however, the army launched a massive recruitment campaign, rounding up hundreds of indigenous and poor ladino youths without previous citation or family notification, and disregarding completely required exemptions for those who were the sole support of their families or under draft age. After facing a hailstorm of criticism from human rights groups and the press for this abusive campaign, the defense minister, General Mario Enríquez Morales, admitted to "errors" in the recruitment process. The human rights ombudsman, Jorge Mario García Laguardia, obtained the release of 333 youths who had been illegally recruited, including 148 minors.

The repatriation of Guatemalan refugees from Mexican camps proceeded at a snail's pace due to governmental delays in facilitating land acquisition and credit. Approximately 5,900 refugees had returned as of November, and two thousand more were tentatively scheduled to return before the end of the year. Over 40,000 officially recognized refugees, and perhaps as many unrecognized, continued to face uncertainty in conflictive southern Mexico. Refugee communities and church sources reported ongoing tensions in return sites inside Guatemala, including army attempts to foment local opposition to returnees. One repatriate, Manuel Lopez, was found murdered on October 27 in Centro Veracruz in the Ixcán, and as of this writing, no official inquiry into the death had been undertaken.

The Right to Monitor

The persecution of human rights activists in Guatemala by the army and its agents since the formation of the first rights organization in 1984 has been so severe that a special section of the human rights accord signed by the government and guerrillas was dedicated to their protection. In the accord, the government committed itself to "take special measures to protect" human rights monitors; nonetheless, the army and civil patrols, as well as unidentified individuals, continued to persecute them with impunity. José Sucunú Pajol, an active member of the human rights group CERJ, disappeared on October 29 in Guatemala City. He had been repeatedly interrogated by civil patrollers and military commissioners about his human rights activism. On June 22, a leader of the Mutual Support Group (GAM), Guatemala's oldest human rights organization, Sara Poroj Vásquez, was stabbed and seriously wounded by unidentified men in the capital. Poroj, like other GAM leaders, had received death threats and come under surveillance after the group's office was raided by unidentified men in October 1993. In January and April, the commander of army troops stationed in Chel, a village in the municipality of Chajul, threatened to kill members of a human rights commission. Dozens of civil patrollers in San Pedro Jocopilas burst into a parish meeting of a local human rights commission on May 27, accusing the participants of engaging in guerrilla activities and threatening to kill them. Rosalina Tuyuc, the leader of the National Coordinating Committee of Widows of Guatemala, suffered several incidents of intimidation by the army, as did members of her family. On at least two occasions in 1994, army officials publicly accused Tuyuc of being a guerrilla commander, without offering any evidence to support the charge, but with the clear intention of intimidating her. Meanwhile, neighbors and family members of victims of disappearances committed in the early 1980s in villages near Rabinal faced threats and intimidation from the second in command of the Salamá army base after they helped a forensic team exhume the remains of hundreds of victims of army and civil patrol massacres in the area.

U.S. Policy

The United States was active in the so-called Group of Friends, six countries working to support the United Nations-mediated peace process in Guatemala, and as such was deeply involved in diplomatic efforts to get the military and guerrillas to sign a final accord. Certainly these efforts were important contributions to future improvements in the human rights situation. Nonetheless, at times, the desire to keep the army committed to the peace process caused the Clinton administration to remain mute on human rights issues when its leadership would have been constructive. For example, the administration resisted calls from human rights groups to take a position on the establishment of a truth commission, a critical element in the effort to account for the horrendous human rights violations committed during thirty years of armed conflict. The administration refused to publicly condemn the army's disappearance after capture of Efraín Bámaca Velásquez, a guerrilla commander married to U.S. citizen Jennifer Harbury, even after she fasted for thirty-two days demanding an explanation of his fate. Similarly, late in the year, the administration appeared reluctant to support the renewal of the mandate of the U.N. independent expert on human rights, an issue due to be reconsidered in Geneva in early 1995.

The government of Guatemala was eager to end the mandate of the independent expert, who was named by the U.N. Human Rights Commission and was not part of the U.N.'s effort to mediate between the government and the guerrillas. It was, however, precisely that independence from the U.N.'s diplomatic efforts in Guatemala which made the expert's continued work so important. Although Guatemala was expected to have a large body of international monitors stationed in the country at least through 1995, those monitors would inevitably be less free to publicly denounce abuses and structural problems than would the independent expert. Because of the tremendous influence that the United States wields in the U.N. Human Rights Commission, the mandate of the independent expert was unlikely to be renewed without U.S. support.

U.S. military assistance had been suspended since December 1990 because of human rights abuses, but the administration announced in 1994 that approximately $4.6 million that had been frozen would be transferred to a "peace fund" once a final peace accord was signed, a move Human Rights Watch/Americas supported. Nonetheless, military training continued, as did joint exercises between the U.S. National Guard and the Guatemalan army. Those exercises boosted the image of the Guatemalan army in rural areas where its power remained excessive and where memories of the scorched-earth policies of the 1980s had not faded.

The administration also spent $36,000 providing military training to the army in fiscal year 1994; it requested $125,000 for fiscal year 1995. Human Rights Watch/Americas urged the administration to use this continued assistance to the army, albeit limited to training and exercises, as a vehicle for raising human rights concerns, in particular regarding cases that directly involved the army. For example, we urged the administration to press the army regarding the failure of the military police to act on arrest warrants issued by the judge in the Colotenango case, described above, before agreeing to bring army officers to the U.S. for training in 1994. Although the U.S. Embassy told us that it had raised this case several times with army officials, the army still failed to act on these warrants, which had been issued more than a year previously against civil patrollers who worked directly with the army. Because diplomatic pressure was fruitless, we believe the Clinton administration should publicly condemn the army's obstruction of justice in this case.

In fiscal year 1994, the adminstration provided the de León Carpio government with $11.5 in economic support funds, which had been suspended because of human rights violations during the previous government, but were released as a sign of confidence in the new government's first steps. The administration requested $2 million dollars in this category of assistance in fiscal year 1995.

Meanwhile, a decision by the United States Trade Representative regarding lifting or extending the review of Guatemala's labor rights practices, a review that was mandated as a condition for benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences, was pending as of this writing. Human Rights Watch/Americas urged the administration to extend the review and thereby continue to pressure the government, because of persecution of trade unionists over the last few years, including the police assault on the workers at San Juan del Horizonte described above.

On the positive side, the U.S. Embassy remained accessible to human rights monitors and was quick to intercede privately with the authorities over specific cases of human rights abuse.

The Work of

Human Rights Watch/Americas

Human Rights Watch/Americas sought through frequent visits and publications to take advantage of the unique opportunity offered by the inauguration of a former human rights ombudsman as president of Guatemala and by the continued peace negotiations, to encourage the government to address fundamental human rights issues. At the same time, we continued to press for action on individual cases by mobilizing interest in the U.S. Congress and by presenting cases to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States.

In June, we issued a comprehensive report titled Human Rights in Guatemala During President De León Carpio's First Year. In September, we released the book in translation in Guatemala City. In November, we led a delegation pressing for an explanation of the fate of U.S. citizen Jennifer Harbury's disappeared husband, Efraín Bámaca Velásquez, described above.

Through the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), we successfully requested the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to issue an injunction requiring the government of Guatemala to protect several human rights activists and witnesses to the murder of Juan Chonay Pablo after they were threatened or physically attacked by civil patrollers in the Colotenango area. With the injunction, the level of intimidation dropped significantly. We also successfully lobbied the IACHR to press the government to protect the life and guarantee the freedom of expression of a Claretian priest, Father Daniel Vogt, who had been falsely accused of sedition and threatened with death or expulsion from his parish, and to protect the lives of witnesses in the case of Jorge Carpio Nicolle, murdered with three companions, by elements connected to the army in July 1993. In September, we formally asked the commission to submit the notorious "white van case" for trial at the Inter-American Court, a case that we had pressed through the inter-American system for over five years. The case involved the abduction, torture, and murder of university students by Treasury Police agents during the late 1980s.

In May, we publicly called for the release of four peasants who had spent ten months in pre-trial detention, falsely accused of the Carpio murder. Within days of our press release, the peasants were freed; weeks later, a group of civil patrollers and military commissioners who had been implicated in the crime were detained and charged. (They were later granted provisional liberty.)

In June, we wrote to U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor calling for an extension of the review of labor rights practices in Guatemala; that review was extended for an additional three months.

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