Human Rights Developments
Political violence waned in 1996 as the government of President Alvaro Arzú Irigoyen made progress in peace talks with the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union (Unión Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca, URNG). The Arzú administration undertook several bold initiatives to address longstanding human rights problems and also demonstrated a greater degree of independence from the military than any previous civilian government.
The presence for a second year of a professional and effective United Nations human rights verification mission, MINUGUA, undoubtedly contributed to the decline in politically motivated human rights abuse, by almost guaranteeing international scrutiny to those abuses that occurred.
Yet while human rights violations such as Adisappearance@ and extrajudicial execution motivated by ideology sharply declined during the Arzú government=s first year, criminal violenceCin many cases with the involvement of current or former security force elementsCsurged. Popular desperation at the unchecked violence prompted several lynchings in different parts of the country. At the same time, journalists, human rights monitors, political activists, trade union and peasant organizers continued to face terror tactics including abductions, torture, and death threats, in many cases from current or former security force members or their civilian allies who stalked their victims with impunity.
And while the government took several potentially significant steps towards ending impunity, none had produced concrete results at the time of this writing. In January and again in September, the government took the unprecedented steps of dismissing high-level army and police officers allegedly involved in organized crime. Among those cashiered were officers linked to notorious human rights violations. With U.S. encouragement, the government formed a special crime task force composed of police and prosecutors to solve new cases in which the security forces were implicated, or in which judicial or police authorities, human rights monitors or international observers became victims. The effectiveness of this unit was difficult to measure in its first months of operation.
In what may become an important precedent for the hemisphere, the Congress in June approved legislation channeling all trials of common crimes committed by the military into civilian, rather than military courts. Military courts would henceforth be limited to handling infractions of the military code of justice. A constitutional challenge to this legislation, filed by military officers, was not yet resolved by the Constitutional Court as of this writing. And in August, the Congress passed legislation creating a judicial protection unit to coordinate protection for judges, prosecutors, witnesses and others connected with criminal prosecutions who might come under threat, although this unit had not been funded as of this writing.
Unfortunately, the accumulated weight of decades of terror rendered the judiciary unresponsive to such stimulants. Prosecutions of notorious human rights violations remained stalled in 1996, and in some cases suffered setbacks. While fear of the potential violent consequences of prosecuting human rights violators explained much of this inaction, negligence on the part of some prosecutors and judges also played a large part.
MINUGUA reported that members of the guerrilla URNG threatened civilians from whom it sought to collect Awar taxes@ early in the year, although these incidents dropped off after the guerrillas agreed in May to suspend the war tax. In October, the guerrillas turned over an elderly woman they had abducted in exchange for a guerrilla commander detained by the government.
Street children continued to suffer at the hands of police officers and private security guards. In April, two police officers raped sixteen-year-old Sandra Esmeralda Gómez Guevara while a third kept watch. Despite detailed testimony from the victim and an eyewitness, including physical descriptions and the names of two of the attackers, the police internal affairs unit did nothing to investigate the crime.
In June, two private security guards were sentenced to thirty years in prison for the murder of two street children and wounding of a third in 1994. This conviction, a rare achievement, was overturned by an appeals court on August 26, on the basis of a flimsy technicality. The owner of the security firm that employed the guards was a high-ranking and powerful former military officer.
During 1996, various street children and youths were the victims of shootings, many of which appeared to be linked to efforts at Asocial cleansing@; police and/or security guard involvement was suspected. Nine minors died as a result of these shootings, while three other youths were knifed to death near Guatemala City in June. On September 20, sixteen-year-old street youth Ronald Rafael Ramos was shot in the head and killed by a uniformed Treasury Police officer in the town of Tecun Uman, on the western border with Mexico. The officer was not apprehended.
In September, on the other hand, Guatemala set a negative precedent for the hemisphere, becoming the first country in the region, outside of the Caribbean and Guyana, to use the death penalty in more than a decade. Two peasants convicted of raping and murdering a four-year-old girl in 1993 were executed by firing squad, despite international protests including a request from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States to delay the executions until due process defects in the men=s trial were resolved. The men had no attorney for several weeks after their arrest and were subsequently defended only by a law student.
On August 14, the Arzú government announced it would begin a gradual dissolution and disarming of the army-organized civil patrols which, since the early 1980s, have been responsible for innumerable human rights violations in rural areas. Human Rights Watch/Americas and others had pressed for the patrols= dissolution for many years but faced determined resistance from the military, which relied on the patrols for intelligence-gathering, political control of remote communities, and to carry out its dirty work of political repression. The welcome announcement that the patrols would be dissolved and disarmed encountered some resistance in subsequent months, including from patrollers and members of the army.
This announcement followed the 1995 dissolution of the network of military commissioners, civilians deputized by the army to carry out intelligence-gathering and local military recruitment. Yet many individuals who previously held that position continued to exercise power through intimidation in rural communities. This phenomenon was expected to reproduce itself with the civil patrollers unless the government aggressively investigated, prosecuted, and punished former patrollers and military commissioners who committed abuses.
Police feared former military commissioners and civil patrollers because they perceived these individuals as protected by the army. The Arzú government had little more success than its predecessors in detaining notorious patrollers or former commissioners wanted for human rights violations. Former military commissioner Victor Román Cutzal, wanted in connection with the murders of two human rights monitors in the department of Chimaltenango in 1994 and 1995, remained at large as of this writing, although a warrant for his arrest was issued in August 1995. Román had been briefly detained in 1994, but was released after the judge who ordered his detention was murdered in a still unresolved case. Three patrollers wanted for the murder of human rights monitor Tomás Lares Cipriano in April 1993 remained undisturbed in their communities near Joyabaj, Quiché, as did a group of patrollers wanted for the slaying of three villagers from Chel, in northern Quiché department, in December 1990.
Raúl Martínez, a former civil patrol chief in the Ixcán region who on two separate occasions took hostage representatives of international humanitarian organizations, continued to defy a May 1995 arrest warrant for several months in 1996. On April 30, 1996, in an apparently choreographed maneuver, Martínez appeared in court on a day in which the regular judge was sick and his substitute released Martínez on bond. Martínez=s bond was later revoked, and on August 26, he was sent to prison in Cobán.
Other cases suffered disheartening setbacks in 1996, including the murder of human rights monitor Juan Chonay Pablo at the hands of civil patrollers as a human rights demonstration was winding down in August 1993. On April 25, a district court judge in Huehuetenango acquitted civil patrollers linked to the slaying after dismissing evidence from several eyewitnesses on the specious grounds that their participation in the demonstration disqualified their testimony. An appeals court subsequently remanded for a new trial.
Prosecution of the alleged masterminds of the 1990 extrajudicial execution of anthropologist Myrna Mack Chang took one step forward and two steps back. The forward movement, including the indictment of Gen. (ret.) Edgar Godoy Gaitán, Lt. Col. Juan Guillermo Oliva Carrera, and Col. Juan Valencia Osorio by military judge Eriberto Guzmán, resulted from the persistence of the victim=s sister, Helen Mack, and the special prosecutor handling the case, Mynor Melgar. But in June, new legislation transferring cases of common crimes to civilian courts brought a transfer of the case to a district court judge, who declined to take the case on the grounds that Guatemala=s old criminal procedures code, rather than the code implemented in 1994, should govern the procedures. Helen Mack and prosecutor Melgar each appealed this ruling, without success at the appellate level, and were awaiting a decision by the Supreme Court as of this writing. Two years of investigatory work in the case would be discarded were the Supreme Court to ratify the district court judge=s ruling. Fear of military reprisal pervaded the six-year proceedings in the Mack case; more than a dozen judges handled and passed it on; nearly all the witnesses fled the country; the police investigator was murdered, and one magistrate=s bodyguard kidnapped, beaten, and threatened.
In proceedings for the October 1995 massacre of eleven repatriated refugees in the hamlet of Xamán, the judge hearing the case in Cobán released eight soldiers on bond a few hours after receiving the 5,000-page judicial file on the case. Although the judge was later fired by the Supreme Court and the soldiers= bond revoked, the case did not move forward in 1996. Nor was progress made in the case of Efraín Bámaca Velásquez, a guerrilla commander married to U.S. citizen Jennifer Harbury, Adisappeared@ and apparently extrajudicially executed after capture by the army in March 1992. Instead of pursuing strong evidence of Bámaca=s murder at the hands of the army, Attorney General Acisclo Valladares expended considerable effort in a successful bid to convince the Constitutional Court to rule the Harbury-Bámaca marriage invalidate, so that Harbury could no longer pursue the case in Guatemalan courts. Meanwhile, inaction by the prosecutor assigned to the case, Sylvia Jerez, enabled the army to further obstruct the judicial progress.
The military struggle that had provided the pretext for repression through the 1980s and early 1990s was coming to an end. On September 19, the government and the URNG signed one of the most significant and contentious of the substantive accords designed to form the basis for a comprehensive peace agreement. In the AAccord on Strengthening Civilian Power and the Army=s Role in a Democratic Society,@ the government vowed to reform the constitution to remove from the military its role as the guarantor of internal security, and to grant it responsibility only for defending the nation from external threats. A single civilian police force was planned, the Mobile Military Police would be demobilized, and the army=s troop strength reduced by one-third. The accord also allowed for a civilian defense minister for the first time. Additional provisions in the agreement were designed to disentangle the army from domestic spying, a practice which had enabled the army to identify and eliminate successive generations of civil society leaders.
Operational issues surrounding the formal end of armed conflict remained to be discussed between the government and guerrillas before a comprehensive peace accord could be signed; several aspects of this and previous accords, including the formation of a truth commission, would only come into effect at that moment.
The repatriation of refugees from Mexico slowed to a trickle in 1996 due to a combination of factors including continued concerns for physical safety following the Xamán massacre, limited access to land and material assistance, and the possibility of permanent resettlement in Mexico.
The Right to Monitor
Those promoting respect for human rights continued to suffer threats and harassment, and the government made no serious effort to investigate the threats. Journalists reporting on abuses by security forces also continued to be targets of harassment.
On February 28, four armed men driving a black vehicle with smoked-glass windows kidnapped radio reporter Vinicio Pacheco in downtown Guatemala City. The men drugged and tortured Pacheco and questioned him about his coverage of corruption and kidnapping rings before releasing him near Lake Amatitlán.
On April 1, residents of the village of Guineales, including civil patrollers, and a former military commissioner, attacked Julio Ixmatá Tziquín, of the human rights group Defensoría Maya. The group threatened to kill Ixmatá because of his human rights work and was about to set him on fire when relatives and neighbors intervened.
The bishop of San Marcos and attorneys working in his human rights office received death threats in February, and members of an indigenous human rights group in Chimaltenango were threatened by the so-called Avenging Jaguar (Jaguar Justiciero, JJ), which appears linked to current or former security force agents.
In April, May, and June, Father Daniel Vogt, a parish priest in El Estor, Izabal, who has faced repeated harassment and threats from local authorities because of his defense of peasants jailed on fabricated charges, received anonymous threatening telephone calls. In addition, Father Vogt and other residents of El Estor who had protested arbitrary acts by local authorities were threatened in obscene flyers distributed broadly in El Estor in June, September, and October. Although the government had committed itself, under instructions from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, to protect Father Vogt, it failed to investigate the threats he received.
In June, Carlos Federico Reyes López, a member of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Team, was twice threatened by unidentified armed men. A caller to the forensic team office proffered new death threats in August.
Widows of men massacred by the army and civil patrols in the early 1980s in the Rabinal area were threatened by former military commissioners, who stated in early September that there would be mass killings on September 15, the date the widows planned to commemorate the massacres.
Former human rights activists who in January became congressional deputies received death threats on several occasions. The AGroup for the Recovery of the Guatemalan Army@ (Por la Reivindicación del Ejército de Guatemala, PREGUA) issued public threats against deputies Rosalina Tuyuc, Amílcar Méndez, Nineth de Montenegro, as well as human rights monitors Carlos Aldana and Frank LaRue and several government officials. In September, the same deputies were again threatened, this time in a communiqué signed by JJ, which also listed labor and student activists, human rights monitors Ronalth Ochaeta, Carlos Aldana, Mario Polanco, and Helen Mack, and the human rights ombudsman, Jorge Mario García Laguardia, as potential targets.
The Role of the International Community
As noted above, the United Nations played an important and increasingly successful role in moderating peace talks with between the government and guerrillas and in monitoring human rights violations through its respected verification mission, MINUGUA. Indications early in the year that the U.N. might allow a blanket amnesty to be included in peace agreements prompted Human Rights Watch/Americas to write to Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and foreign ministers of nations assisting the peace process to insist that any amnesty negotiated between the government and guerrillas not include gross violations of human rights. On August 8, U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Marrack Goulding responded, assuring us that the U.N. could not condone any agreement that would violate the principles of human rights and international law upon which the United Nations was founded.
Guatemala also continued to benefit from scrutiny by U.N. Independent Expert Mónica Pinto, who through her December 1995 report maintained pressure on broad issues such as the end to the civil patrols, the removal of military influence from law enforcement, and demilitarization of the intelligence services.
The Clinton administration=s policy towards Guatemala remained entangled in the threads of a scandalCthe 1995 revelation that a Guatemalan army colonel implicated in the coverup of the murder of U.S. citizen Michael DeVine and the torture and possible execution of Efraín Bámaca had been on the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) payroll even after his involvement in one of the cases had come to light.
In May 1996, the State Department declassified nearly 5,000 documents regarding human rights violations suffered by U.S. citizens or their relatives in Guatemala, as well as a handful of human rights violations against Guatemalan citizens since 1984. The declassification was a welcome move, which unfortunately was not followed by other agencies whose files were more likely to contain relevant information. U.S. intelligence and military agencies maintained intimate contacts with Guatemalan human rights violators for several decades and did not generally share information with the State Department. Intelligence agency files were thus more likely to contain information valuable to relatives of victims and prosecutors seeking to bring to justice those responsible. Not only have U.S. intelligence agencies and the Pentagon refused to open their files, they have also, according to press accounts, barred the State Department from releasing a handful of documents which attribute human rights violations and other criminal acts to the CIA-linked Guatemalan implicated in the DeVine and Bámaca cases.
A lengthy investigation into the Guatemala scandal conducted by the executive branch=s Intelligence Oversight Board was made public on June 28. The report confirmed that Aseveral CIA assets [Guatemalans on the CIA payroll] were credibly alleged to have ordered, planned, or participated in serious human rights violations such as assassination, extrajudicial execution, torture, or kidnapping while they were assetsCand that the CIA=s Directorate of Operations (DO) headquarters was aware at the time of the allegations [of abuse].@ The IOB also found that the agency Aviolated its statutory obligation to keep the Congressional oversight committees >fully and currently informed=@ of these instances and also neglected to inform officials within the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala, the State Department, or the National Security Council.
While the IOB=s report was hardhitting, its recommendations were insufficient to prevent recurrence of abuse. The report praised new guidelines issued by the CIA in February which Agenerally bar@ asset or liaison relationships with human rights abusers, but allow such relationships Ain special cases when national security interests so warrant.@ The IOB added that the CIA operatives in Guatemala had previously ignored headquarter recommendations to avoid hiring assets involved in human rights abuse. Clearly the agency cannot be left to police itself on this matter, and the fact that the IOB report accepted CIA assurances at face value detracted from the report=s credibility.
Overt U.S. military aid and training remained suspended for Guatemala, although the CIA reportedly maintained aid to military intelligence, purportedly on counternarcotics grounds. The administration resumed criminal investigations training programs for the police, which had been suspended in 1995. This move was warranted by the Arzú government=s commitment to police reform.