|Central American University - UCA
Number 226 | Mayo 2000
The First Hundred Days: A Foreseeable Explosion
As Rigoberta Menchú says, "If we want true reconciliation,
with no vengeance in the future, we need to uncover the truth and deal with the syndrome of fear lurking in every corner of this country." Her words are key to understanding the government response to the first outbreak of social unrest it has faced.
Juan Hernández Pico, SJ
The first great crisis in Alfonso Portillo’s presidency ended with the deaths of five people, including a press photographer. At the time these lamentable events occurred, the new President had been in office for barely 100 days.
Mayor and central government share responsibilityThe crisis was sparked by the unilateral decision of the capital’s mayor, Fritz García-Gallont, of the opposition National Advancement Party (PAN), to raise bus fares.
He decreed a 33% increase in regular urban bus fares from 0.75 quetzals to 1 quetzal (or US$0.13) and left the "preferential" urban bus fare to the market. The latter rose from 1.10 to 1.50 quetzals, not because of the market but because the bus companies agreed not to undercut each other. Responsibility for the ensuing crisis begins here.
Congress president General Efraín Ríos Montt and Vice President Francisco Reyes López, who was standing in for Portillo at the time, then did everything within their power to push the PAN mayor to the edge of the abyss.
These two men, both members of the governing Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), apparently forgot that in Guatemala, urban transport fare hikes always trigger national conflicts that challenge the central government. They also thus bear a share of responsibility for the social unrest that rocked the country.
A system with no clear accountsIn 1998, Guatemala City’s municipal government sold the urban transport companies 800 new buses to be paid for in installments. The municipality made this $50 million purchase with the help of a legislative decree that had set the money aside in a trust fund for urban transport.
The conflict began when the transport companies informed the municipality that they could not meet their payments on the buses without increasing fares. The mayor, while retaining the ultimate decision-making power, formed a multi-sectoral commission to find a solution. In its efforts to establish the correct fares, the commission had no trouble determining transport operating costs. It broke down, however, when it tried to determine the companies’ incomes, mainly because of the companies’ lack of transparency but also because bus drivers regularly skim off an undetermined amount of what they collect to complement their own low wages and pay their assistants. They can get away with this because they do not give passengers tickets and there are no turnstiles on the buses to take the money and automatically count the number of riders. The system is highly irregular and helps the companies to keep labor costs well below what they would be if they had to pay the drivers higher wages.
The commission asked Mayor García-Gallant for three to six months to prepare a report that could serve as the basis for his decision, but on March 31 a contingent of drivers decided to pressure the mayor by using their buses to block the main streets around the municipal offices. Feeling that the commission was using delaying tactics "on a highly explosive issue that couldn’t wait," the mayor precipitously announced the fare hike on April 5 without waiting for the report. The very next day, a group of people wearing masks, purportedly students, burned the first bus.
Failing to learn from historyIn Guatemala’s recent history, the population’s passionate response to increases in the capital’s urban transport fares led to unrest or riots in 1973, 1978, 1994 and 1996. Only in 1982, under the de facto regime of General Ríos Montt, with its special tribunals and executions, did people refrain from protesting fare hikes.
This year, the mayor insisted that the refusal of both the executive and legislative branches to subsidize transport left him no other alternative than to raise fares. The truth is that the only choices he considered were the market…and the market.
Is there any truth to the companies’ claim that their businesses are unprofitable? Probably not. On April 26, in the midst of the unrest, the Association of Urban Transport Companies’ own spokesperson, Luis Gómez, complained that losses for the burned bus amounted to over $70,000, "not including the 10,000 quetzals [approximately $1,300] stolen from fares obtained the day before the attack." This unexpected information made it possible to make an initial calculation of the daily income of an urban bus in Guatemala City.
A partisan cockfightIn justifying his decision not to propose a subsidy to the legislature, Ríos Montt said, "The problem is having subsidized companies that are unproductive." He added that on previous occasions the Congress "abused its authority" by decreeing such subsidies, since the rest of the country ends up paying through its taxes for a service that benefits only the capital. This is a typical Ríos Montt argument, one that never looks at the whole problem. Given Guatemala’s social structure, the capital’s economic importance for the whole country is greater than in other countries. Furthermore, 23% of the country’s population lives in the capital and have to deal with its problems.
Reyes López’s declarations revealed the true motives behind Ríos Montt’s refusal. Responding to the mayor’s statement that the government gave him no choice but to raise fares, the Vice President retorted, "He should handle his own affairs. If he doesn’t feel capable of resolving the problem, he should delegate the responsibility and return to his coffee and loan businesses." In reality, then, the government was using the transport problem to undermine the mayor.
Several days later, Reyes López shot out again: the mayor "should make better decisions and stop thinking that when he puts his foot in it, the government has to get it out." This campaign reached an extreme in the middle of the serious disturbances just after Easter week, when Reyes López, at that moment acting President, went even further. "If the capital’s mayor declares himself incompetent or incapable and formally requests government intervention, we will evaluate the situation," maintaining that such direct intervention would violate municipal autonomy.
The executive and legislative branches were clearly trying to manipulate a problem with serious consequences for the poor—who are the main users of public transport—to win a partisan cockfight. They wanted first to humiliate their political adversary so that, when the time was ripe, they could appear as saviors in the crisis.
Most in the media condemned the congressional vice president for his sectarianism. Some, forecasting what would happen, asked if he was planning to wait until people were killed to act. President Portillo was visiting Costa Rica and Nicaragua at the time, trying to catalyze a movement for Central American integration. It was his sixth trip abroad in just 100 days of government. On the eve of a crisis that he knew—or should have known—was about to blow, he left the presidency in the hands of a Vice President who had already shown signs of grotesque, sectarian behavior. Did he lack the information to properly evaluate the seriousness of the situation? Or did he want to beat Ríos Montt and Reyes López at their own game, burning them so he could later appear as a good ruler with real solution?
A foreseeable explosionThe mayor chose April 24, the Monday after Easter, as the date the increase would go into effect. That morning several students led the protest by going on a hunger strike in front of the University of San Carlos.
The protests turned violent the very next day. Several buses were damaged or burned. The National Civil Police’s special units went into action with tear gas and a show of force that seemed excessive against demonstrators who, for the most part, were peacefully protesting. Both the executive branch and the mayor dug in.
On April 26, the students decided to give the mayor an ultimatum to revoke the hike that would expire the next day at 10 am. The capital seemed increasingly empty of buses. Some people began to take advantage of the protests to vandalize and loot businesses. The Central Market workers joined forces with the students leading the protest.
On Thursday April 27, when the time limit the students set for the mayor ran out, the scene changed. The peaceful protest mixed with another, indiscriminately violent protest that seems to have involved gangs. People began looting stores and warehouses, especially for sporting goods and medicines, phone booths were destroyed, private cars and municipal vehicles were burned, and other random acts of destruction took place. The police’s special forces were unable to stop the vandalism. They dealt more intensely and effectively with peaceful demonstrators than with the gangs. Private guards for one store fired unnecessarily, killing Roberto Martínez, a photographer for the daily newspaper La Prensa Libre, and Josefina Ceballos, a Central Market vendor.
Portillo sheathes the swordThat same day, April 27, President Portillo returned to the country. The mayor declared that he would "humbly" go to the President’s office to ask him to set aside partisan attitudes "so we can sit down like serious people to solve the problems." He insisted that he and the government shared responsibility for the deaths, "since they left the municipal government on its own with a problem as great as transport."
Portillo had never spoken of the mayor with the offensive, ironic or hypocritical terms of other top officials. He received the mayor then later that night spoke to the nation. Though he began by emphasizing that it was not the government that had decreed the fare hike sparking the crisis, he also accepted that it shared in the responsibility. "Whether because of passivity, a lack of action or political will, I feel personally responsible for what happened," he said. He warned the companies that he would intervene in transport if they did not fully reestablish service by noon the following day, with the pre-crisis fares. He threatened to apply the law of public order and decree a "state of prevention" if the problems continued. And he called the multi-sectoral commission to meet with the executive and legislative branches and the municipal government the following morning to find a solution to the problem. In this way, he sheathed the sword and put a firm end to the unrest.
A cultural legacy of violenceApril 22 marked the first 100 days of Portillo’s government. The date was overshadowed by this crisis, which has sharpened the confrontation between the FRG and the PAN, and between the municipal government and the legislative and executive branches.
This confrontation is only the reflection of another, more profound crisis. In Guatemala, the desire to get beyond conflicts, the capacity to seek consensus, the willingness to learn from history and to compromise and negotiate are all scarce commodities. As a result, the culture itself is quashing peace. Though there are no longer two militarily opposed forces in the country, as in the long years of the civil war, the violent cultural heritage continues to stain social confrontations with blood. Unfortunately, the governance pact, which remains far removed from the government’s practice, even though it is a priority on the President’s agenda, could in this context degenerate into greater ungovernability.
A first step towards good governance would be to audit the transport companies’ accounting phantoms to determine whether the profit margins they operate with—they must make some profits, because if not, why would they remain in this business?—can be described as "operating at a loss." While it is proven that the drivers keep a high percentage of each bus’ daily take, some companies demand a certain level of income and thus oblige drivers to risk both vehicles and people by careening at dizzying speeds in a city congested with traffic. Driver’s salaries are low, under $120 a month. The buses are rickety and dirty and they pollute because they are not properly maintained. The owners do not reinvest the subsidies to improve the service. There are very few forums in which to propose that urban transport services be truly public, managed by a municipal company and subsidized by those who own private cars, which often just carry a single person.
Insensitive business cultureThroughout the crisis, the mayor maintained that he would like to leave the price of the "preferential" buses to free market competition, to thus benefit the public. Why not propose that a strong municipal company compete with the private businesses running public transport? History shows that the culture of Guatemala’s big business does not put a premium on wise capitalist reinvestment but rather on ostentatious spending financed with high profit margins, and now perhaps with maneuvers in the casino of global speculative investments.
Not even the slightest trace of social sensitivity can be found in this business culture, which is set up as an example for small and medium sized businesspeople in Guatemala. Will it be possible to sit down to negotiate changes in this business model without the mere proposal of municipal transport being stigmatized as a "a pro-state socialist" idea? Will it be possible to apply the subsidy principle to the capital’s urban transport, which would make municipal or state authorities responsible for doing what private businesses do not do? Will it be possible to rescue the market from neoliberal doctrine and discuss what goods or services are insufficiently guaranteed by the market when they are in private hands alone?
Achievements of the first 100 daysIn his April 27 television appearance, hours after the transport strike ended, President Portillo began by summarizing the achievements of his government’s first 100 days in office. He made it clear that he had not decreed the fare increase and recalled that, at the beginning of March, when inter-city transport held a general strike to pressure for fare increases, he solved the problem without increases of any kind in a single day.
He then spoke of other issues, saying that the 10% state budget cut had succeeded in containing inflation and reducing unnecessary public spending. He talked about stability in the quetzal’s exchange rate, $25 a month raises for state workers and somewhat lower raises for workers in the private sector, the decrease in the price of sugar, and the import of large quantities of low-cost fertilizer for peasant farmers.
He limited himself to mentioning economic achievements. He could have added that the state has recognized its responsibility in several human rights cases before both the United Nations in Geneva and the OAS in Washington.
The executive branch has tried to fulfill some of the recommendations of the Historical Clarification Commission and has reactivated the Gerardi case. And something is finally being done in the penitentiary system; among other things, measures have been taken to prevent massive prison escapes, for the first time in many years.
"Tied to the past"For all that, public opinion is critical of Portillo’s first few months in office. According to surveys, the President’s popularity has tumbled. Sociologist René Poitevin, director of the social science research institute FLACSO in Guatemala, pointed out for example that this government’s "honeymoon" ended well before the six or nine months usually granted to any new government. And he explained why: "Too many simultaneous fronts, little coherence and follow-up on too many issues, raised without reflection, without the government team having the capacity to deal with them because its members have different interests and don’t work well together. The journalist Oscar Clemente Marroquín, a former presidential candidate and sworn enemy of the Arzú government that preceded Portillo, said that the President has a "clear understanding of the national situation and the problems that are holding us back, but what’s frustrating is that despite this, he is not resolving the crisis." Another former presidential candidate, Alvaro Colom, for the leftist New Nation Alliance, has a harsher critique: "The FRG belongs to the past. It was not just Portillo who won the elections but the FRG, and this party is tied to Guatemala’s violent past. Those who thought they would have a Portillo government were dreaming and I hope they wake up before it’s too late."
Portillo followers vs the Ríos Montt cliqueThese first 100 days have revealed the tense battle between "Portillismo" and "Ríosmonttismo." In Alvaro Arzú’s PAN government, people also spoke of "Alvaristas"—people on the left trusted by the President because of their competence—and "Panistas," people on the right concerned above all with defending their partisan and business interests.
The initiatives proposed by President Portillo’s followers in line with the peace accords or the "truth reports" on what happened during the war get nowhere in Ríos Montt’s Congress. For example, the Congress voted down a bill declaring April 26, the anniversary date of Monsignor Gerardi’s assassination, as the National Day of the Dignity of the Victims. It has also not approved a proposal to include the Catholic Church’s REMHI report and the Historical Clarification Commission’s report in the school curriculum. Nor has it approved a bill to disband the Presidential General Staff and create a new civilian security structure for the President. Nor has it made any progress in considering the bill to reform the electoral law.
What is most striking in this distressing divergence is that President Portillo leaves the country so often, and when he does he leaves the presidency in the hands of Vice President Reyes López, clearly part of the Ríos Montt school of politics. He is so scathingly confrontational and belligerent that his arrogance scares off people who would like to test out the possibility of allying with the government to work for the common good.
What lies behind this incoherence? An erratic President who’s good on the stump, capable of the best, most clear-sighted speeches but unable to coordinate forces and turn proposals into government programs? Or worse yet, a President with his hands tied by a party and its boss, which made him its candidate like some people use a front man to do business they cannot do in their own name? Or should we see Portillo as a failed progressive who still uses a language reflecting social sensitivity but has become a social climber who no longer has any convictions but does have an excessive ambition to move up the social and economic ladder?
The government clearly needs to prioritize objectives and work coherently to reach them, with dialogue and flexibility. Instead, it is shooting in all directions, without clear priorities, and seesaws a lot when it must make definitive political decisions.
A nation-wide CID-Gallup poll published by La Prensa Libre on April 2 emphasized the population’s uncertainty over who is really running things in Guatemala. One third of the people surveyed responded that Ríos Montt is "the strong man," 32% believe that Portillo is, and 33% did not know or did not answer.
The oligarchy’s bitter sugarThe case of sugar is revealing in evaluating Portillo’s government. On March 24, the government published Agreement 121-2000, which allowed for the duty-free importation of up to 218,922 metric tons of sugar for both human and industrial use. The sugar industry responded by blocking highways on the southern coast with hundreds of tractors and buses carrying banners and posters expressing their indignation, and filling the pages of the newspapers with paid ads in protest. To demonstrate the popularity of their cause, they included paid aids from many owners of small traditional sugar mills. It is interesting to note that they resorted to the same methods to pressure the government used by the unions and grassroots organizations they criticize so heavily.
On April 4, Portillo said "the point is not to fight the sugar producers, but if we can get cheaper sugar on the world market, why shouldn’t we? They must understand that we will not allow an oligarchy to continue to do whatever it wants." He then added, "You now have a President who isn’t tied to any powerful group."
Talks began, and on April 11, the agreement was published in the papers. The sugar producers promised to decrease the price of sugar on the market by 20 cents of a quetzal per pound, while the government would allow the importation of only 5,000 metric tons of sugar, a quantity that would increase annually as the international markets open up.
The President denied that the whole thing had merely been a way to take the "pulse" of the sugar producers on tariff lowering, arguing that import duties can only be eliminated if other markets reciprocate. About the sugar producers, he said, "All my life, and this is not the first time I’ve said it, I have recognized the Guatemalan businesspeople who invest here and work in the country… The sugar producers are willing to compete, but I believe they are entirely right to want to do so under equal, reciprocal conditions." Finally, referring to the wage increase he decreed in February, he acknowledged that "the sugar industry has paid the increase ever since the decree was published."
Clearly, the talks were positive, but it is not positive to provoke talks through a measuring up of forces that leaves people wounded or bearing grudges. Nor is it easy to understand the change in the President’s language, the way he dropped his critical characterization of the sugar industry as an oligarchy.
Corruption: Merely chargesEven worse than these sudden language and policy changes are the government’s announcements of things it is going to do but then fails to do. A typical example is the case of TELGUA, the telecommunications company. Since well before the electoral campaign, Portillo and the FRG called for the reversal of what they maintained was a corrupt, shady privatization process through which Arzú’s government illegitimately sold the state company to LUCA, a company in which Arzú’s family owns the majority of shares. In March 2000, the government again said that the operation was "damaging" to the state and that the new sale of TELGUA to TELMEX would not prevent it from redoing the whole process.
The problem is that the government has not even published convincing extracts of its investigation into the sale, nor has it taken public legal actions to challenge it and eventually recover TELGUA. As Oscar Clemente Marroquín said, the TELGUA case has put "the government in the same situation as the boy who cried wolf: it keeps insisting it is going to do something and in the end, we find it’s all just talk. This leads us to believe that on the issue of corruption in general, it will do no more than talk."
Soccer, fertilizer and banksAlvaro Colom is much more critical: "The FRG is great at nepotism, but what has impressed me even more is its lack of transparency. They appeared to be innocent children when they won the election but now they’re acting like cheap bar girls. We’ve seen the Plaza de Toros, the fertilizers, the deposits in banks belonging to their friends."
Although Colom’s choice of words is not the most appropriate, the substance of his charge is important. The Plaza de Toros is the site of a new sports arena to be built for the World Cup Soccer tournament. The builders have already been given the work although no call was made for bids, since the project was declared to be urgent and of national importance. The Vice President has defended the whole operation. The thousands of tons of inexpensive fertilizer imported to Guatemala to be distributed at low cost to peasant farmers were bagged by MAYAFERT, a company owned by Suhel Turman, one of Portillo’s big campaign contributors. The President himself responded to rumors on this issue by saying, "He’s one of many men who supported me during my campaign, but this doesn’t mean I’ve made any kind of political commitment to him." The President also said the country should not be concerned about secondary issues: it doesn’t matter who brought the fertilizer, what’s important is that peasant farmers can acquire it at a more reasonable price than on the market. "I assure you that my only concern is the welfare of the poorest, and not just in doing business that’s personally beneficial," Portillo insisted. Not just? Did the journalist quote Portillo accurately?
It is hard to avoid the impression that we are seeing a certain lack of scruples when it comes to honesty. The government will designate the Metropolitan Bank and the Promoter Bank, in which Francisco Alvarado, another big contributor to Portillo’s campaign and a personal friend, owns large shares, as preferred institutions for the deposit of state funds. President Portillo brushed off criticisms of this decision by saying that his government did not favor depositing funds "in one particular bank or another."
It is worth noting that the monetary board and Guatemala’s Central Bank have placed very strict conditions on these two banks to rescue them from turbulent financial seas.
Gerardi: Two years laterApril 26 marked the second anniversary of the assassination of Monsignor Juan Gerardi. The Catholic Church commemorated it with three days of prayer. On April 24, a Mass was held in the Cathedral with the participation of the Bishops’ Conference and the Papal Nuncio. On the 25th, a cultural event took place in Constitution Plaza with several groups, including Nicaragua’s Luis Enrique Mejía Godoy. On April 26, people visited Gerardi’s grave in the Cathedral crypt throughout the day then made a pilgrimage from the Cathedral to the San Sebastian parish where he was assassinated, with a vigil, bells and a Mass held at the hour of the crime.
All three of these events took place at night, and none was attended by over 2,000 people. The transport strike interfered, as people were afraid of walking home at night. On the 24th, Monsignor Julio Cabrera, the bishop of Quiché, gave a homily with great religious force, courage and commitment to the recommendations of the REMHI and Historical Clarification Commission reports. The applause at the end was resounding. Cabrera responded emphatically to Ríos Montt, without naming him: "There have been massacres in Guatemala." That day, the Archbishop’s Human Rights Office symbolically presented a popularized version of the REHMI report entitled Memory, Truth and Hope: Guatemala Never Again.
The general in his labyrinthThe case filed in Madrid against General Ríos Montt and several other prominent figures in the regimes of Lucas García, Ríos Montt and Mejía Víctores, who ruled Guatemala during the height of the repression, has continued its course. The prosecutor in Spain’s National Court argued for dismissing the accusations by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú on the grounds that the peace accords effectively "closed the case." But Judge Ruiz Polanco rejected the prosecutor’s arguments.
The Mutual Support Group (GAM), founded in the 1980s to seek people who had been disappeared, joined in Menchú’s suit and extended it, for either political or legal reasons, by adding former President Vinicio Cerezo (1985-1990) and his Vice President, Roberto Carpio, to the list, among others. Many of Guatemala’s human rights and religious organizations have supported Menchú, especially after a lawyer traditionally allied with the military accused her of treason before the Public Ministry.
Ríos Montt: "They won’t succeed"The General insists that the charges have not affected his personal life "because I don’t have any complexes or suffer from emotional instability and am confident that I followed the law." He had previously denied that massacres or genocide had even taken place in Guatemala; now he denies that the government had a "scorched earth" policy, and claims that it was instead a tactic used by the guerrillas. "We couldn’t have done it because we were permanently established among the population, and couldn’t destroy what we relied on. The guerrillas warned people that the army was coming, and when people fled, they burned down their houses. As I see it, this was the kind of scorched earth tactic that was used." Why is he being accused? The general responds, "They say that Efraín Ríos Montt is the strongman. They suppose that if they break the strongman everything will come crashing down, but they won’t succeed."
The general says all this with great assurance, despite the fact that Cerezo’s defense minister Alejandro Gramajo, a leading figure in the war for many years, has testified in several books that "scorched earth" was in fact an army policy from 1980 to 1982. It was replaced by a policy called "Guns and Beans," implemented under Ríos Montt. The government used guns, scorched earth and massacres against those who did not cooperate, and gave guns and beans to those who did. A book by Harvard University’s Jennifer Schirmer, The Guatemalan Military Project: a Violence Called Democracy, gives an exhaustive account, compiled with impressive diligence and access to sources, especially in the army, of the horrendous reality that the general is now determined to deny.
Possible witnesses against Ríos MonttThroughout April, the media gave a great deal of attention to the case filed by Rigoberta Menchú. Spain’s National Court has begun to put together a list of possible witnesses, including among others congressional representative Nineth Montenegro, widow of one of the people disappeared in the 1980s; Alfredo Balsells Tojo, a member of the Historical Clarification Commission; and the Jesuit Ricardo Falla, anthropologist and author of the book Massacres in the Jungle. Some of the people who might be called to testify could be faced with hard decisions, including some of the authors of the REMHI report, like Edgar Gutiérrez and Ronalth Ochaeta, and the Historical Clarification Commission’s report, like Otilia Lux de Cotí. All three are now officials in Portillo’s government.
The syndrome of fearSome wonder how Ríos Montt can so cynically respond to Menchú’s accusations. It must not be forgotten that half of Guatemala’s population is under the age of 20 and did not live through the events being aired in this case. Nor must we forget the battle against truth waged 20 years ago, when a curtain of silence extended over Guatemala and an atmosphere of repressive terror discouraged anyone in the capital from asking about or telling what was happening in the rest of the country, especially in the departments on the Mexican border. It is on the basis of this silence that the general and his associates now deny their historical responsibilities. Many people do not want to believe that such barbaric actions have been committed in Guatemala. Menchú is right in saying that "if we want true reconciliation, with no vengeance in the future, we need to uncover the truth and deal with the syndrome of fear lurking in every corner of this country."
The case obliged General Ríos Montt to change his Easter vacation plans. He cancelled a visit to France and announced that he would take a break on Guatemala’s Caribbean coast. "I said I was going to the Mediterranean, but I meant the Central American one, not the European one" he said sarcastically, in one more of the typical "Cantinflesque phrases so characteristic of Ríosmonttismo," as Oscar Clemente Marroquín described it. Although Ríos Montt invoked God as his "only lawyer," these statements cannot hide the general’s fear. The government will clearly be obstructed if Portillo does not act soon, with great prudence and courage, to deal with the shadow that hangs over the general and his past.
Will impunity prevail in the Gerardi case?In the case of Monsignor Gerardi’s assassination, the three military officers accused by the prosecutor—Byron Lima Estrada, Byron Lima Oliva (father and son) and Obdulio Villanueva—have had to face the witnesses. Villanueva had claimed that he was in prison at the time of the crime, but this alibi was challenged by a fellow prisoner in the jail where he was incarcerated, who testified that Villanueva enjoyed special privileges and frequently left the jail, and that he left it on the day of Gerardi’s assassination and did not return until 6:00 the next morning.
In the coming days, Judge Flor de María García Villatoro will decide if the three officers should stand trial like Father Orantes and Gerardi’s housekeeper Margarita López, the other people fingered for the crime in accusations that have been widely questioned.
President Portillo has declared that his efforts "to clear up this crime, which is a national disgrace, have been internationally recognized." Helen Mack replied, "I don’t want to appear negative but I don’t believe the case of Monsignor Gerardi’s assassination will be fully resolved." Given the way the investigation was handled, she does not think there is enough proof to link the suspects to the crime beyond all doubt. And in a murder trial, there can be no doubt that the evidence links the assassins to the victim. For this reason, Mack said, "Although there are suspects, I believe in the end impunity will win out."
This year’s edition of the satirical newspaper published by university students for the "Huelga de Dolores," a celebration held annually for over a hundred years as a way of responding to repression of the student movement, printed an extract from a purported "Secret FBI Report" on the Gerardi case. The "report" states that the crime goes back to November 1997. Whatever the true source of the report, it rightly points out that the scene of the crime was irreparably contaminated in the hours between the assassination and the next morning. And although the prosecutor can do something based on the reenactment of the crime carried out over a year later and the testimony of some witnesses, the predominant impression is that only if the executive branch exerts strong pressure on the judges will anyone be sentenced. People also insist that the intellectual authors of the crime have not yet been named.
Prosecutor Leopoldo Zeissig has said that other people are involved but that he is not yet ready to reveal their names. General Ríos Montt maintains that a political motive can be "almost completely dismissed." "It seems to me that anyone who wanted to do something would have done it before the report was published," he explained. "For this reason, I don’t see a political motive." His brother Mario Enrique Ríos Montt, auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of Guatemala, says in contrast that "the power behind the throne" has blocked efforts to investigate the assassination, and he defines this power as "certain political, economic, masonic and military sectors."
Meanwhile, Gerardi’s memory is becoming increasingly well established in the conscience of the country as that of a hero for truth, while graffiti on the walls of the capital cry out his name.
Editor’s note: in last month’s article on Guatemala, we should have said that two of the Supreme Court’s thirteen (not three) members are women.