Human Rights Developments
The reports produced by MINUGUA, as the U.N. mission was known, highlighted numerous cases of torture, extrajudicial execution, and disappearances by the security forces, as well as official links to organized crime and "social cleansing" operations. The victims included students and teachers, trade unionists, human rights workers, peasant activists, individuals resisting participation in army-organized civil patrols, and common criminals.
The government adopted a two-pronged approach to MINUGUA's presence: maintaining a considerable openness in public at the same time that members of the military or its agents sought to undermine MINUGUA's work behind the scenes, without suffering any sanction for this obstruction.
Two positive steps in 1995 were the naming of a respected attorney as interior minister and the removal of a high-ranking military official who served as vice-minister. In addition, the announcement by President Ramiro de León Carpio that the function of military commissioners_civilians employed by the army, responsible for many human rights violations_would be abolished, was a welcome step, although its impact was not immediately clear.
As had been the case in prior years, the government of Guatemala failed to investigate or punish those responsible for human rights violations. Under such conditions, human rights violators felt no compunction about their behavior. Indeed, while the de León Carpio government consistently failed to bring to justice those responsible for human rights violations, a sort of underground system regularly meted out retaliation against those who pursued justice through the courts. Not only were witnesses, plaintiffs, and relatives of victims of human rights violations targeted for violence and intimidation, but prosecutors, judges, and police who attempted to bring violators to justice also suffered reprisals.
With rare exceptions, the team of prosecutors headed by Attorney General (fiscal general) Ramsés Cuestas Gómez was notorious for its negligence, ineffectiveness, and infiltration by the security forces. However, blame for the failure to prosecute human rights violations lay not entirely at the attorney general's feet. Cuestas's weakness and lack of leadership simply opened the door for the military to infiltrate and intimidate the institution charged with perhaps the country's most sensitive task: investigating crimes.
Failures of omission included lack of investigation and prosecution of the steady stream of well documented cases MINUGUA provided the government. More direct obstruction was evident as well. In the months preceding MINUGUA's full deployment in late 1994, and to some extent in 1995, the army and its civilian auxiliaries_the civil patrols and military commissioners_in several rural departments spread disinformation about the mission's presence.
Perhaps the most serious attack on MINUGUA occurred on June 28, when a local civil patrol chief in the Ixcán village of San Antonio Tzejá took hostage five international humanitarian workers, including two MINUGUA observers, for twenty-six hours. Although a warrant had been outstanding for the arrest of the patroller, Raúl Martínez Pérez, since May, as of this writing the authorities had made no effort to detain him.
A MINUGUA military officer came under direct attack by the guerrillas of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union (Unión Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca, URNG) on March 27 in the Ixcán. Guerrillas fired on the MINUGUA military liaison officer as he inspected a URNG poster after talking to a group of peasants. The officer was wearing a uniform displaying the United Nations emblem and driving a marked U.N. vehicle. Although the officer was not hit, one of the vehicle's tires was.
In addition to firing on the MINUGUA observer, the guerrillas continued to commit violations of international standards applicable to internal armed conflicts, with "war taxes" and attacks in which care was not taken to minimize danger to civilians. The demand for payment of war taxes usually was accompanied by the direct or implicit threat of violence against civilian property owners, prohibited by the laws of war. On March 28, according to MINUGUA, a guerrilla projectile aimed at a military base at Raxrujá, Alta Verapaz, killed fifteen-year-old Ofelia de la Cruz García as she walked on an adjacent road. In addition, several civilians died after stepping on mines apparently laid by the URNG during 1995.
MINUGUA argued that the sabotage of internal infrastructure such as electric pylons by the guerrillas violated the rules of proportionality derived from principles of international humanitarian law. On January 23, MINUGUA won agreement from URNG leaders in Mexico to desist from this type of attacks. The URNG had lived up to this pledge as of late 1995.
MINUGUA also found cases of participation of minors under age fifteen in the army and in guerrilla units, as well as in the army-organized civil patrols, in violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by Guatemala in 1990.
After the October 5 army massacre of eleven returning refugees, President de León Carpio obtained the resignation of Defense Minister Mario Enríquez Morales, and the Cobán military commander responsible for the patrol. He also named a special investigative commission, and stated that those responsible for the killings would be punished. The soldiers involved in the incident were remanded to a military tribunal in Jalapa, where they have been charged with homicide and inflicting injuries. Guatemalan refugees in Mexico suspended indefinitely the repatriations of roughly 2,000 people which were planned for the following months. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) denounced the massacre as a violation of the "principles that inspire the return process and the fundamental instruments that govern it." This marked the largest army massacre of civilians since the December 1990 slaying of thirteen villagers of Santiago Atitlán who had gathered outside a stockade to protest army violence.
Several trade unionists suffered threats and attacks, including incidents of kidnapings related to their organizing activities. Debora Guzmán Chupén, an organizer in a maquiladora (garment assembly plant) in Amatitlán and the wife of union activist Felix González, was kidnaped on February 28 by heavily armed men who drugged her, beat her, and threatened to kill her. Her captors forced her to telephone the office of the Guatemalan Workers' Federation (UNSITRAGUA), and warn that she would be killed unless her husband left the union affiliated to the Lunafil thread plant. Guzmán and her colleagues at the maquiladora MJ Modas had also received death threats before her kidnaping.
Alexander Yovani Gómez Virula, the treasurer of the RCA maquiladora, was kidnaped on March 13. His body was found in a ravine on March 19, evidently beaten to death.
Violence and the threat of violence continued to stalk members of the news media, especially those covering human rights issues. On February 13, men driving a pickup truck that was later determined to belong to a military officer followed and threatened José Rubén Zamora Marroquín, director of the daily Siglo Veintiuno.
Other journalists_including North American film producer Sky Callahan and Guatemalan reporter Gerson López_were briefly abducted, threatened, and beaten by armed men apparently linked to the security forces.
Street children continued to suffer abuse at the hands of police and private security forces. On June 23, 1995, a group of street children were gathered on a Guatemala City street when two of the youths attempted to rob a pedestrian. A plainclothesman who identified himself as a member of the police Criminal Investigations Directorate (Dirección de Investigaciones Crimino-lógicas, DIC) fired shots into the air and then shot Edwin Americo Orantes, seventeen, in the face and eighteen-year-old Nicolás Cruz in the ankle. The gunman reportedly shot and killed Americo as he lay on the ground, saying, "All the thieves on 18th Street will end up like this."
MINUGUA's reports described several cases in which the security forces tortured detainees. In one case in November 1994 in which the victim's name was withheld by MINUGUA, soldiers picked up a man whom they accused of being a guerrilla. They denied having detained the individual for several days, until MINUGUA contacted the armed forces general staff. During his interrogation, soldiers placed a plastic bag over the victim's head to suffocate him, inserted a spike into his palate, beat him on the soles of his feet, and removed a gold crown from one of his teeth with a knife.
Cases in which there was considerable publicity provoked some movement. Unfortunately, as the case of "disappeared" guerrilla combatant Efraín Bámaca Velásquez showed, each positive step taken in these high publicity cases was accompanied by obstruction. Bámaca disappeared after a firefight with the army in the department of Retalhuleu on March 12, 1992. The government for years maintained that Bámaca had shot himself to avoid capture and was buried in the general cemetery in the departmental capital, but an exhumation failed to locate him. After the third hunger strike by Jennifer Harbury, Bámaca's North American wife, a U.S. lawmaker revealed that her husband had indeed been secretly detained, tortured, and extrajudicially executed by the army, with the direct participation of an informant in the pay of the Central Intelligence Agency, Col. Julio Roberto Alpírez.
This news breathed new life into the investigation. In May, Julio Arango Escobar launched a vigorous investigation after being named special prosecutor for the case. A military specialist, Nery Urízar García, testified that he saw Bámica, chained to a bed, being interrogated at an army base. Shortly after Urízar testified, the U.S. Embassy received a tip that Bámaca might be buried in a military base in San Marcos called Las Cabañas, information which the State Department passed on to Harbury. The army blocked a court-ordered exhumation, however.
Army officers or government officials sought repeatedly to challenge MINUGUA's right to follow the case, despite language in the human rights accord establishing the mission which gives it authority to verify due process violations and accompany government officials investigating human rights cases.
Shortly after being named special prosecutor in the Bámaca case, Arango, who pursued the case with integrity and courage, began to receive threatening phone calls and to be followed. On June 22, while Arango worked at his desk on the sixth floor of the Public Ministry, a shot fired through a window lodged in the fifth floor ceiling below his desk. In early July, Arango resigned from the case, which was paralyzed thereafter.
The judicial process for the 1993 slaying of Jorge Carpio Nicolle, the president's first cousin, and three of his traveling companions was also punctuated by repeated threats and harassment of the victims' relatives and the special prosecutor, Abraham Méndez. In addition to threats and surveillance, Méndez suffered an assassination attempt on a highway in November 1994. Like Arango in the Bámaca case, Méndez had worked hard to bring the perpetrators of the crime to justice.
Torpor and fear marked the judicial investigation into the possible participation of senior military officers in the September 1991 extrajudicial execution of anthropologist Myrna Mack, in the hands of a military court. While tremendous pressure brought the conviction in 1993 of army Sgt. Noel de Jesús Beteta for murder, the Public Ministry and the courts failed to proceed against the intellectual authors of the crime, in what MINUGUA called "a denial of the right to justice."
Armed civil patrollers violently obstructed the return of Guatemalan refugees from Mexico to villages in the Zona Reina del Ixcán, Quiché province, endangering the safety of repatriating refugees. A regional association called ARAP-KSI, composed mainly of civil patrollers headed by local strongman Raúl Martínez Pérez, physically obstructed access to Zona Reina villages, using death threats, assaults, and hostage-taking to intimidate Guatemalans and international officials involved in the repatriations.
Following an accord signed with the Guatemalan government, roughly 300 refugees crossed the border in April to return to the Zona Reina. On May 7, Martínez and ARAP-KSI detained, in Kaibil Balam, an International Organization for Migration employee, a government official, and an army major. They freed the detainees unharmed on May 9 when the defense minister personally intervened and, contradicting previous accords, publicly acceded to their demands for permanent land titles and a halt to refugee returns to the area. Nonetheless, on June 27, the returnees who had been sheltered by the church in Cantabal walked for two days to their village, San Antonio Tzejá. Just outside the village, ARAP-KSI members forced them to halt. The following day, ARAP-KSI members led by Martínez seized as hostages two MINUGUA observers, a UNHCR official, a representative of the World Council of Churches, and a nurse with Doctors of the World. An army colonel present in San Antonio Tzejá throughout the incident refused to report the detentions by radio, in violation of the government's commitments to cooperate in guaranteeing the security of U.N. mission members. Following the incident, government-led negotiations with the perpetrators and returnees led to the latter group's resettlement on lands south of San Antonio.
Although a judge issued an arrest warrant against Martínez on May 25 after the first hostage incident, the authorities failed to apprehend him. And while the police and local military commander told Human Rights Watch/Americas they could not locate Martínez, our researcher had no difficulty finding and interviewing Martínez at his home in early August. On August 29, the judge issued seven additional warrants for patrollers and others involved in the hostage incident; these warrants were also ignored.
Ongoing insecurity from the simmering armed conflict in Chiapas, Mexico, made it an increasingly inhospitable place for Guatemalan refugees. Organized repatriations to other areas in Guatemala proceeded slowly, mostly due to the laborious and often contentious process of securing lands and credits. Guatemala's National Commission for Attention to Repatriates, Refugees and Displaced (CEAR) reported that 6,256 refugees had repatriated from Mexico during the first half of 1995.
The Right to Monitor
Three days after the exhumation, a death threat signed by the "Avenging Jaguar" (Jaguar Justiciero, a name believed to be used by members of the security forces to sow terror) was delivered to the Human Rights Committee of Panabajal, a village in Chimaltenango. The threat referred to Saquic's murder as the first of twenty-four on a "black list" that included Vitalino Similox, general secretary of the Conference of Evangelical Churches of Guatemala (CIEDEG); Blanca Margarita Valiente de Similox, his wife and president of the Kakchiquel Presbytery in Chimaltenango; Sotero Similox, his father; and Lucio Martínez of the Human Rights Office of the Kakchiquel Presbytery. A second, similar threat was delivered to the Kakchiquel Presbytery a month later. On August 7, a Chimaltenango judge issued a warrant for the arrest of military commissioner Víctor Román Cutzal for the Saquic murder, but as of this writing, the Guatemalan police had not arrested him. Saquic's murder and the subsequent death threats appeared to have been a reprisal for efforts to bring Román to justice for the August 1, 1994 murder of Pascal Serech of the Panabajal Human Rights Committee.
Other human rights monitors faced threats and harassment, and the government failed to investigate these threats. In January, a member of the security forces warned Amílcar Méndez Urízar, until recently the leader of the Council of Ethnic Communities Runujel Junam (CERJ), that a plot to kill him was being organized by the head of military intelligence for the department of Quiché, where Méndez lives, and the Quiché head of the Treasury Police. In April, Méndez's teenage son, José Emanuel Méndez, was twice threatened with death by armed men in Guatemala City. CERJ is a rural, grassroots human rights movement formed in 1988; more than twenty members of CERJ had been the victims of disappearance or extrajudicial execution as of late 1995. In October, after Méndez joined the electoral campaign of the New Guatemalan Democratic Front, his home was ransacked by armed men.
On April 9, María de León Santiago, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of Guatemalan Widows (CONAVIGUA), was attacked at her home in the hamlet of Vitzal, in the municipality of Nebaj, Quiché, by unidentified individuals, who hit her with a rock and punched and kicked her. Santiago, who had been threatened and harassed previously for her membership in CONAVIGUA, was hospitalized for her injuries. Military commissioners threatened to burn down the house of CONAVIGUA member María M. Miranda in April, according to MINUGUA.
The Clinton administration's human rights policy toward Guatemala was driven by unprecedented public attention to the plight of U.S. citizen Jennifer Harbury, wife of disappeared guerrilla leader Efraín Bámaca. Harbury's struggle against the lies, intimidation, and extravagant coverup mounted by Guatemalan authorities brought to U.S. public attention a reality all too familiar to Guatemalans. In addition, her pressure for answers from the U.S. government prompted the unraveling of a series of revelations about the Central Intelligence Agency's secret assistance to abusive military institutions and officers in Guatemala. Indeed, the scandal revealed a secret policy that for many years had made all but irrelevant Washington's public postures on human rights in Guatemala.
Harbury pressed both the U.S. and Guatemalan governments to account for her husband's whereabouts as of late 1993. On March 10, 1995, days before Harbury was to begin her third hunger strike, this time in front of the White House, the Clinton administration announced a suspension of military training for Guatemalan officials. To explain the suspension, the State Department cited the lack of progress in five notorious human rights cases: the disappearance of Bámaca, the extrajudicial executions of Myrna Mack, Michael DeVine, Nicholas Blake and Griffin Davis, and the secret detention and torture of Dianna Ortiz_all U.S. citizens excepting Mack and Bámaca.
While U.S. officials had met with Harbury and discussed her case with Guatemalan officials, it later became clear they had not told her about information the U.S. government had about her husband's fate. Washington was shaken when, on March 22, Cong. Robert Torricelli wrote to President Clinton revealing that Bámaca had indeed been tortured and murdered by the Guatemalan army_with the apparent participation of an officer paid by the CIA. Torricelli's letter also alleged that the CIA informant, Col. Julio Roberto Alpírez, was involved in the June 1990 slaying of Michael DeVine, an American innkeeper in the department of the Petén, whose unresolved murder provoked the Bush administration to cut off military aid and arms sales to Guatemala in December 1990.
A Defense Department document declassified in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by Harbury revealed that as early as September 1993, U.S. sources knew Bámaca had been killed in secret army detention. But Harbury was told nothing of the sort until Torricelli's revelations in March 1995, nineteen months and two hunger strikes later.
In the ensuing cascade of revelations, it became clear the agency had secretly provided millions of dollars in assistance to Guatemala's notoriously violent military intelligence unit even after the Bush administration cut off overt military aid and sales. Clinton ordered most of the spy agency's assistance to the Guatemalan military_with the exception of anti-narcotics funding_suspended in the wake of the scandal.
The career of Alpírez, the Guatemalan colonel implicated in both the Bámaca and DeVine cases, showed how closely the United States had embraced the most abusive elements of the Guatemalan army. Alpírez twice attended the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, with a curriculum including human rights training. In the late 1980s, the CIA reportedly recruited him while he was working at the notorious intelligence unit "Archivos," a presidential agency which for decades has exerted central control over political repression. The CIA did not cease payments to Alpírez even when he became implicated in the 1990 murder of U.S. citizen DeVine and the subsequent coverup. Indeed, sometime in 1992, when Alpírez was again implicated in an extrajudicial execution_this time of Efraín Bámaca_the CIA rushed to pay him $44,000 upon severing the relationship.
The scandal prompted President Clinton to order an executive branch probe by the never-before convened Intelligence Oversight Board, whose study was due by the end of 1995. The CIA inspector general produced a report of more than 700 pages on the issue, of which a four-page summary was made public on July 26. The summary suggested the report was a whitewash, concluding: "No evidence has been found that any employee of the Central Intelligence Agency in any way directed, participated in, or condoned the murder of Michael DeVine." Perhaps Alpírez, an agency informant in the field, was not considered "an employee."
Nonetheless, the new CIA director, John Deutch, announced on September 29 unprecedented sanctions against eleven CIA officials, including firing the chief of the Latin American Division of the Directorate of Operations, for their role in the affair. Deutch stressed that the Guatemala scandal required greater "management control" of assets in the field and keeping congressional oversight committees informed. Deutch's actions were important, but insufficient to ensure that the agency would not again become complicit in human rights violations. Human Rights Watch presented specific reform proposals to President Clinton and the congressional intelligence committees.
A group of U.S. lawmakers requested that the Clinton administration declassify government documents regarding dozens of the most notorious human rights violations over the past twenty years. The administration had not yet announced a decision as of this writing. A thorough and timely declassification would be extremely helpful to many victims' relatives, who_against incredible odds_have persisted in seeking to prosecute those responsible for human rights violations. Moreover, it would greatly facilitate the work of the planned Historical Clarification Commission, which was foreseen in the peace negotiations as a means to establish the truth about human rights abuses during the thirty-four-year armed conflict, once a final peace agreement is signed.
U.S. military aid to Guatemala remained suspended in 1995 and was not requested for fiscal 1996. Several million dollars in military aid which had been appropriated for Guatemala before the 1990 cut-off was channeled into a peace fund to support the work of MINUGUA and the peace process.
In October, Congress approved an amendment to the Foreign Aid Appropriations bill for fiscal 1996 which would cut off all security assistance_including police training and anti-narcotics support_pending progress in the prosecution of several dozen notorious cases. At this writing, the bill had not yet become law.
The chapter of the Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1994 on human rights conditions in Guatemala was overall an accurate portrayal of the discouraging situation. In addition, the U.S. Embassy remained extremely receptive and open to both domestic and international human rights monitors.
The Work of Human Rights Watch/Americas
We worked both in Washington and in Guatemala to preempt an amnesty for gross violations of human rights in Guatemala. In Washington we pressed the Clinton administration to take a clear position against such a sweeping amnesty and in August, we cosponsored an international conference on amnesties in Guatemala City with the Myrna Mack Foundation.
At this writing, we had undertaken litigation in nearly a dozen cases of human rights violations in Guatemala through the inter-American system of human rights protection. One of these cases, regarding the disappearance, torture, and extrajudicial execution of several students in 1988 by treasury police agents, became in 1995 the first case against Guatemala referred to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for trial. Two other cases we presented_the extrajudicial executions of Jorge Carpio Nicolle and companions and of a human rights monitor in Colotenango_prompted the court to issue injunctions calling on the Guatemalan government to protect the lives of witnesses who have been threatened. The Carpio injunction, in which we sought protective measures for the government's own prosecutor, Abraham Méndez, marked the first time the Inter-American Court had ordered a government to protect one of its own officials.