The Military Wall that Won't Fall
Guatemala’s civil society keeps moving ahead, learning tolerance, training in debate, imagining a new country. It is still surrounded, though, by the high, menacing wall built during decades by the military, which protects impunity and insures an unending history of violence.
Trish O' Kane
Guatemala's political and socioeconomic scene is still confusing. Although there are no official presidential candidates yet, the possible candidacy of retired General Efraín Ríos Montt for the November elections darkens the political horizon. Meanwhile, the moribund peace process continues to show some signs of life, most recently with the UN attempt to revive it, in the midst of the pre election fever.
Finally, the now traditional annual battle took place between human rights organizations and the government before the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva in February. While representatives of the organizations and government officials fought each other with statistics and words in Switzerland, bodies of "anonymous" people continued to appear on streets and highways in Guatemala. There are too many clouds in an already ominous sky.
An Endless History of ViolenceOn March 3, for the seventeenth time since 1979, the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva took up Guatemala's case. The United Nations decided not to change Guatemala's category, extending the mandate of an "independent expert" whose task is to visit the country with some frequency and prepare an annual report.
The UN decision was a defeat for the De León Carpio government, which had hoped that the mandate would not be extended. In fact, President De León rushed to Geneva to make a speech to the UN only an hour before the decision was made.
In his presentation, the President declared that the human rights situation in Guatemala had "improved considerably." But even as he spoke, four bodies, all with signs of torture and finished off with a bullet, were found in Guatemala, new victims of an epidemic of violence in February.
In only 48 hours, the bodies of 22 young men were found on February 20 21, abandoned on streets of the capital and several provincial cities. All bodies showed the same signs as those found at the beginning of March. Leonardo Franco, head of the UN Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA), said almost all of the bodies had their hands tied with blue cord. Is this a message from some shadowy group to another group or to society in general? Speculation was rampant about possible conflicts between the army, drug traffickers and gangs.
Helen Mack attributes the new wave of violence, which has lasted several months now, to the relationship between the gangs and the security forces. "I can believe," she says, "that at some point, when these elements become dangerous, the army needs to 'cleanse' its ranks of collaborators and informants. But since there are always deaths within the gangs, it's very hard to verify the political origins of this kind of violence".
There were also attacks against an NGO worker and a human rights activist from the Mutual Support Group (GAM) in February, as well as threats against and kidnappings of union members. The University of San Carlos was also touched by the violence. A professor was "disappeared" and two unidentified bodies were discovered on February 27 in the university city. On March 1, another student was "disappeared" in broad daylight in the center of the city, when armed men forced him into a pickup truck.
The Military WallIn early February, Próspero Penados, the archbishop of Guatemala City, delivered a harsh criticism of President Ramiro de León Carpio, holding the state responsible for the serious human rights situation and the impunity that still reigns in the country. "If the state wants to get close to the people again, it must get free of its jailers," declared Penados, alluding to the government's dependence on the military.
"Today we are seeing extra judicial executions, temporary kidnappings, psychological warfare, shadowy campaigns, threats and ongoing terror, all calculated and perverse," says Penados. "Those who are doing these kinds of things are the same: a kind of elite whose domain in state security turned it into a mafia."
The archbishop's criticism was made public at the same time as the annual report of the Archbishopric's Human Rights Office (ODHA) appeared. The report is always a headache for whatever government happens to be in office, given the Catholic Church's considerable credibility. As was to be expected, the report continues a bleak analysis of the situation, all reiterated in the archbishop's remarks.
During 1994, the average number of extra judicial executions was one a day, of which 60% were never identified and were buried as "XX". According to the report, 16% of those murdered were working for social change: 14 of them were students, 3 were politicians, 7 unionists, 3 human rights activists, 2 journalists, 25 peasants and 1 NGO worker.
The document underscores the existence of a state policy of persecution of and control over the civilian population, which it describes as "a military wall that buttresses impunity and, in fact, establishes it as a state norm."
Threatened Judges"The violations are now more calculated and criminally sophisticated," declared Penados. "Many political crimes are disguised as common criminal activity."
The ODHA points to a new tendency of these violations: the persecution of security force members who dare to fight against the prevailing corruption and investigate certain cases.
"They talk about strengthening citizen security," explains Penados, "but Augusto Medina, a police chief who tried to demilitarize the police in El Quiché, who wanted to break through the impunity of the civil defense patrols in the Jorge Carpio case and got rid of corrupt police officers who were assaulting civilians on the highways, was murdered. This crime remains unsolved, like those of other assassinated policemen."
The archbishop rejects government claims that significant judicial reforms have been made and alleges that judges who have been identified with the human rights cause have been marginalized within the courts, threatened and even killed.
The ODHA report cites the example of Judge Edgar Ogáldez, shot down inside the University of San Carlos in August of last year. Ogáldez committed the fatal error of heading a legal process against an intelligence officer. "Our investigation suggests that the people who committed this crime are collaborators of the Presidential High Command," says Penados.
The accusation is very thorny for De León since the President depends on this special unit for his own personal security. Colonel Otto Pérez Molian, one of de León's most important allies within the army, heads the Presidential High Command.
A Criminal StateThe ODHA report details an operation carried out by a death squad at a military base in Cobán. The squad seems to be part of the government's recently announced plan to combat crime. Shortly after its formation by an army captain, the tortured bodies of notorious thieves from the zone began to appear on local highways.
"What sort of rule of law is this," asks Penados, "when those who pledge to combat crime become criminals themselves? And all of this is happening before our very eyes. But the most unfortunate thing of all is that the situation continues even with international observers here."
Impunity also figures in the case of Father Alfonso Stessel, knifed and shot to death in December as he returned from celebrating a Christmas mass with his parishioners. At the end of February, the three suspects in the murder of the Belgian priest managed to "escape" from prison and flee to El Salvador.
"Stessel's assassination was a warning to the Church," Penados says. "He had taken a clear stance in support of the liberation of the poor. Perhaps the wealthy don't want the poor to wake up and demand their rights and thus found Father Alfonso's sermons irritating, even dangerous. His was a very selective death; they were sent to kill him. Nobody believes they escaped to El Salvador; they were let go. And the impunity continues."
Resuscitating the DialogueIn February, the UN convinced the Guatemalan government and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) to come back to the negotiating table in March and continue discussing indigenous rights and identity. The talks had broken down around this point last October.
The UN also pressured for a new negotiating timetable, suggesting the same framework as 1994: discussing one topic a month and thus working toward signing a general peace accord. This monthly rhythm has been too fast if the idea is to get to the essence of negotiation issues as complex as land problems and the army's future role. But the UN officials want to end the negotiations before the November elections, at all cost.
The indigenous issue will be discussed from March 1 to 15. From March 15 to April 15, the agenda item is strengthening civilian power and the role of the army. From April 15 to May 15, the talks will focus on socio economic issues and the agrarian situation. The ceasefire will be taken up from May 15 to June 15, while the following month will deal with constitutional reforms and the electoral situation. The signing of the peace accords is scheduled for August.
But, even before the UN could revive the faltering peace talks, Guatemala's Bishops Conference issued a "no confidence" vote on the process. On January 31, Bishop Rodolfo Quezada Toruño withdrew as mediator in the talks and as president of the Assembly of Civil Society (ASC), an entity charged with presenting documents to the negotiating table regarding the different points of debate.
The ASC an initiative without precedent in the country was constituted as part of the agreement signed between the URNG and the government in January 1994. A broad range of civil organizations from the whole political spectrum participate in it, from Ríos Montt's political party to leftwing organizations.
Quezada Withdraws"The Bishops Conference of Guatemala feels it cannot lend itself to the political games that have been underway during this long impasse that the process is currently suffering," wrote the bishops in a letter to the UN explaining Quezada's resignation.
His withdrawal from the process touched off concern and sent various sectors into crisis. The bishop's personality had helped make the ASC a more coherent organization and the Church's participation gave it more credibility.
Although there were contradictory positions within the ASC on precisely how to deal with the crisis, all involved agreed on the need to continue working and advance as far as possible. After many meetings lasting well into the night, the ASC decided in mid February not to elect another president, but rather continue to work with the same structure Bishop Quezada had created.
One thing that will make it hard to maintain the fragile consensus within the ASC is that the current crisis erupted just at the beginning of the presidential campaign. As the campaign heats up in the coming months, the ASC will become increasingly vulnerable to the interests of the different groups represented in it, especially those hoping to use it as a political platform.
The crisis is serious and the possibilities of division are many. But in a country where the political system has lost so much prestige and most of the population does not participate or even have any real channels for participation, the ASC has been a unique alternative for engaging in politics, which strengthens it.
With Its Fingernails"This is a very fragmented society. None of us trusts each other, we have no real political formation and don't have a vision that goes beyond the immediate present," comments Arlena Cifuentes, a political expert who is part of the ASC. She explains this phenomenon as "the result of the repression this country has suffered the population that has had to defend itself with its fingernails, everyone their own way, the best they can."
"The ASC is a space for coming together and talking about crucial and deep rooted problems," she says. "We have to be tolerant there and listen to sectors we have never listened to before. Everybody has to cede a little bit of territory; that's the richness of the ASC."
Looking at this forum only from the perspective of the immediate, complex and uncertain situation is to condemn it to the failure hoped for by those in power. The Minister of Defense, and even the President himself, could barely hide their relief at the Catholic Church's withdrawal from the ASC.
Those applauding now are the very same who bet, from the beginning, that the ASC would never function. "At the beginning, the ASC was just what the government needed something to show off to the international community as proof of its desire for peace and dialogue," wrote an editorialist in El Gráfico. "The government, however, assumed that the ASC would soon break down into bitter infighting, given that such heterogeneous sectors are involved, and that it would never come to any agreement. Clearly, the government's calculations were way off."
The First SeedTo really understand and appreciate the contributions made by the Assembly of Civil Society, we must look to recent history, a history some would just as soon forget.
The ASC emerged out of a peace process that began in 1987 as part of Central America's Esquipulas II Peace Accords. In August 1988, the URNG met with the National Reconciliation Commission, created in the framework of the Esquipulas process to promote a national dialogue among the country's different social sectors. The Guatemalan government rejected any participation by the guerrilla forces in the dialogue, and the army and private sector both refused to participate, but a broad range of civic groups got involved in the experiment. Many of these organizations various churches and religious organizations, grassroots movements, university groups, unions, academic and human rights organizations were barely lifting their heads after the terror of the 1980s. The national dialogue gave them the opportunity to have a public voice for the first time in their existence.
The national dialogue did not last even a year. It died in May 1989, victim of a military coup attempt and the confusion and instability surrounding it. But the seed of what would become the ASC had been planted.
In the Oslo accord between the URNG and the government in March 1990, the government agreed to a series of bilateral meetings between the guerrilla organization and various political, economic and social sectors. Bishop Quezada was named as "conciliator" in the peace process and the presence of the UN as international observer was sought.
These meetings with the different social sectors ended in April 1991, when direct talks got underway between the URNG and the government in Mexico. At that moment, civil society lost its space for participation in the peace process, and did not regain it until the ASC was founded in 1994.
Despite its exclusion from the talks over the next three years and the secrecy that has shrouded the government guerrilla agreements, civil society did not sit idly by. In November 1991, the religious sector called on all sectors that had participated in bilateral talks with the guerrillas to pressure for direct participation in the peace negotiations. At the beginning, almost all of them heeded the call, including CACIF, the umbrella organization of big business associations.
The result of those meetings was the formation of "the Civil Sectors." That grouping, albeit fragile, maintained its alliance for three years, even though there are serious differences among such dissimilar organizations. More than anything, it gained experience in the difficult art of debating and coming to consensus.
By Sheer PluckThe seed planted during the 1989 national dialogue bore fruit with the creation of the ASC as part of an agreement signed by the government and the URNG on January 10, 1994. The ASC was not the idea of either party to the talks but rather a result of the civil sectors' activism and their militant demand to participate. "The space they have was not benevolently given them by either the government or the URNG. They have won it by sheer pluck, in the exercise of their rights as citizens," said Quezada in February.
For all that, the space they won in the peace process was exceedingly small. According to the agreement, the ASC's task consisted of presenting consensual proposals on a number of issues which would not be binding documents and ratifying the accords agreed to by the negotiating parties on these themes. Any decision not to ratify would be purely symbolic because, according to the January 1994 agreement, the accord would have effect with or without the ASC's seal of approval.
The Achilles' heel of the ASC is what Quezada calls the "self marginalization" of the government and the army from the ASC from the outset. The big private sector represented by CACIF also bowed out. Since the ASC had to formulate proposals on issues dealing with the government, the army and the private sector, it was to be expected that the proposals would not have the backing of these three actors which is precisely what happened.
Titanic LaborEven with all these structural limitations, the ASC was able to do much more than the URNG and the government. Complying with its mission, it formulated consensus documents on the five topics assigned, and within the agreed upon time frames. In five months, it carried out the titanic labor of reaching agreements about extremely complex issues, the majority of which had never been discussed in Guatemala: resettlement of the populations uprooted by the armed confrontation; rights and identity of indigenous peoples; socioeconomic aspects and the agrarian situation; strengthening of civilian power and the role of the army in a democratic society; and constitutional reforms and elections.
As the ASC completed its last document in October 1994, the guerrilla forces and the government had barely begun to discuss the second topic the indigenous question. And they got stalemated on it.
The ASC documents, which call for radical changes in the power structure, sparked strong criticism from the Minister of Defense, who accused the Assembly of being "guerrillas." At the end of 1994, the URNG embraced the ASC documents as its own and challenged the government to sign accords based on their proposals. The government responded with a resounding "no" and launched a media campaign against the Assembly.
We Took Ourselves ApartWhile the media are busily trying to discredit the ASC's arduous labor, most Guatemalans are unfortunately not even aware of it. But, despite everything, the Assembly members agree that the search for consensus was a rich experience, one that left many lessons for the future. They also feel that, in a society like Guatemala, where alternatives to authoritarianism and violence are sorely lacking, the discussion process that took place to formulate these documents is the seed of a real and participatory future democracy.
"We took ourselves apart here to reach consensus," says Baltazar Rod, a representative of the Maya sector in the Assembly. "We reached it through almost daily meetings for two months, sometimes starting at 8:00 a.m. and finishing at 3:00 the next morning. The theory of consensus works, but it takes a lot of time; we learned that."
Mayas and WomenThe ASC also facilitated the cohesion of two majority and key sectors: Mayas and women. According to Sandra Marán, women have been participating in the peace process since its 1987 inception, but never from a gender perspective and always dispersed among unions and grassroots organizations. During the ASC discussions, however, the women's sector was able to unite around gender identity. This advance in unity is very important in Guatemala, which has never had an active and militant women's movement as in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
The Maya sector made up of numerous and very diverse organizations was also able to reach unity during the discussion of the second document, on indigenous identity. Earlier attempts at unity had never gone beyond coordinating bodies of the most politicized grassroots indigenous sectors. Today's Coordinating Body of Maya Organizations (COPMAGUA) is really the first coalition that joins together Mayans from across the political spectrum.
Despite the crisis within the ASC in the wake of Bishop Quezada's resignation, COPMAGUA continues to grow. According to its representatives, more Maya organizations were still lining up to join in February. With or without the ASC, this sector now has a life of its own, thanks to its search for and achievement of consensus.
Another extremely important contribution the ASC made was to put the issue of Mayan identity and rights on the table for public debate. "Before, the topic of Mayan rights was taboo," says Manuel Mucía, from the Maya sector. "But the ASC helped us heighten our profile and now, for the first time, the topic is being debated and discussed at the national level."
According to other Maya groups participating in the ASC, it is also the first time Mayans have had the opportunity to give their points of view about other national issues the agrarian question, the role of the army and not be exclusively limited to debating the indigenous issue.
Ever since the ASC's birth, its fate has been wholly linked to the peace process. Bishop Quezada's withdrawal leaves the ASC up in the air, but the civil sectors, who spent more than five years winning their space through "sheer pluck," have come through harder problems. Even if the ASC as such were to disappear, the experience it has gained and the tremendous boost it gave the Maya sector are priceless achievements for Guatemalan civil society.