The Armed Wing of the "Hidden Powers" in Action
Threats, intimidation, political kidnappings and killings.
The "hidden powers" are using their well-trained armed wing
to smother civil society with violence. Can we act in time to keep the ghosts of the past from reviving yet again?
Juan Hernández Pico, SJ
On March 20, at 6:30 in the evening, several armed men ransacked the offices of the Association for the Advancement of Social Sciences (AVANCSO), a social science research institute in Guatemala. They waited nearby when the guard went out to buy his dinner, then grabbed him when he returned and made him let them into the building. AVANCSO’s offices are located across from the San Sebastian park and church of the same name, where Bishop Juan Gerardi was assassinated almost four years ago and barely three blocks from the National Palace, the Presidential Palace and the offices of the Presidential General Staff and the Presidential Guard. The armed men struck the guard with a pistol, then went straight to AVANCSO’s rural development research office, where they broke down the door to get in. They did the same to the publications design office, yet took anything. It was an obvious case of pure intimidation.
Intimidation in response A week before these events, AVANCSO had published a book by historian Matilde González, titled Se cambió el tiempo ("Times have changed"). The result of seven years’ work, the book traces the history of the arrogant theft of communal lands in the predominately indigenous municipality of San Bartolo Jocotenango, in El Quiché, beginning with the Liberal Reform of 1871. It documents the oppressive presence of large landowners in this municipality, most strongly felt through the labor contractors charged with finding workers for the big plantations on the coast. It looks at the gradual shift from ladino to indigenous contractors, and the army’s use of the latter first as military commissioners and then, starting in 1980, as leaders of Civil Self-Defense Patrols. It describes the massacres, enslavement and repeated rape of surviving women by these army agents, and the continuing presence of military power in San Bartolo by means of these men. The day of the break-in itself, March 20, AVANCSO and another 19 civil society organizations had taken out a paid ad in the daily El Periódico denouncing the false accusations and death threats against the bishop of San Marcos, Alvaro Ramazzini, and several priests who work with peasant farmers. The ad expressed solidarity with the people threatened and demanded solutions to the problems faced in rural areas.
Threatened and attacked, In a communiqué published on March 22, a dozen human rights, pro-justice, women’s and peasant organizations joined AVANCSO to express their alarm at the raid on the office. The statement noted that the raid "occurred in the context of a series of intimidation and threats against forensic anthropologists in three different human rights organizations working on exhumations in clandestine cemeteries, and against Casa Alianza, pro-justice organizations, activists in local human rights organizations, Catholic priests in both El Quiché and San Marcos, including Bishop Ramazzini, and peasant farmers who defend the right to a dignified life and development."
one by one
In another communiqué, which was actually a summons to Vice President Francisco Reyes López, coordinator of the government’s Security Cabinet and acting President during Portillo’s recent trip abroad, the same organizations released a copy of the document they delivered to him titled, "Security is not negotiable." It addresses the same issue but from a broader perspective, noting that "since April 2000, social and human rights organizations and defenders have borne witness to deteriorating security conditions. One by one, numerous sectors have been threatened and attacked: organizations and individuals working on issues related to human rights, justice, development, women, gays and lesbians, children and youth, as well as people involved in exhumations, peasant farmers, unions, academics, journalists, politicians and religious leaders. Many communities have also been subject to threats and attacks, including Santa María Tzejá in Ixcán; Lanquín II, Cerritos and Chocón in Izabal; and Río Bravo and San Basilio in Suchitepéquez, among others."
Two more assassinationsThis deterioration of the security situation did not begin with the break-in at AVANCSO. It worsened markedly immediately after the Consultative Group meeting in Washington on February 11-12, where in response to the demands of representatives of Guatemalan civil society, President Portillo and members of his Cabinet pledged to carry out the necessary concrete reforms to improve public security and eliminate impunity.
Since then, two people, César Rodas and Jorge Rosal, were killed in what appear to have been politically motivated murders. Rodas was a key witness in the case of pamphlets slandering the Chamber of Commerce president Jorge Briz, which were illegally produced in the wake of last August’s mass demonstrations, allegedly on the orders of Vice President Reyes López’s ;a petition has been filed to strip his immunity in the case. Rosal, in turn, was one of the main figures in the Patriot Party currently being formed under the leadership of retired General Otto Pérez Molina. Three days earlier, Pérez Molina and his political allies, including Alvaro Colom, a probable presidential candidate in 2003, had led a demonstration to demand that the President and Vice President resign in light of the latest corruption scandals.
In another serious case, the National Police Anti-Narcotics Department ran an operation near Chocón, a small town in the department of Izabal, that turned the town into a battlefield for several days and resulted in several shooting deaths. Witnesses concur that the siege was led by the department’s second-in-command and that three peasant farmers from the area were arrested and imprisoned for two to three months without a trial in what is a presumed cover-up; the suspicion is that the killings will be pinned on them.
A politically-motivated, In the early hours of the morning of February 25, Lizardo Sosa, president of the Central Bank of Guatemala, was kidnapped. Sosa is one of the most autonomous officials in the current government, and has firmly supported its intervention in the "Twin Banks" owned by Francisco Alvarado Macdonald. A close friend of President Portillo’s, Macdonald helped finance his campaign, co-signed the rental agreement on his elegant house and lent him money for his Mercedes Benz and other cars his bodyguards used. Alvarado’s lawyers filed a civil suit against Sosa and other Monetary Board members last year in an effort to embargo their property to compensate for alleged losses by the "Twin Banks" attributed to the intervention.
Sosa has also strongly defended the need for four reforms to the financial system, including a law to prevent and punish money laundering. Not surprisingly, Guatemala’s "country-risk" index rose significantly in the days after Sosa was kidnapped. No one believes that the kidnapping was a common crime or was motivated by monetary interests. Once again, the crime was clearly intimidating and political in nature.
On the morning of February 28, 72 hours later, Lizardo Sosa was freed after a ransom was paid. A few days after that, several vehicles of the National Police and, allegedly, the army converged at a site in the capital where Army Intelligence keeps a house, and a shoot-out ensued. One person in civilian clothing who stepped out of the car used by the presumed army officers–all of whom were dressed as civilians–was shot down, despite having reportedly called out, "Don’t shoot! We’re the same as you!" The witnesses, who saw what happened from neighboring houses, told the media that they believed the vehicles were being used to transport the dollars from the ransom paid by Lizardo Sosa. After a few days of rest, Sosa returned to work and continues to press for the approval of the financial laws.
The Nebaj parish house burned At 3:00 in the morning of February 21, a fire broke out in the parish house in Nebaj, the most important municipal seat in the "Ixil Triangle" in the north of El Quiché, which witnesses say was arson. There were no victims, since the priest was in the departmental capital that night and the two people sleeping inside the house were able to escape, even managing to save some computers, so not all of the parish documents were lost. Nevertheless, in addition to the original parish records of baptisms, marriages and other community events, the flames consumed original documents related to the Recuperation of Historical Memory (REMHI) investigation and others belonging to the team of forensic anthropologists who have been carrying out exhumations in Nebaj. It is well known that several communities known as Populations in Resistance were established in the Ixil Triangle at the time of the terrible scorched-earth operations against towns in the three municipalities and especially in Nebaj in the early eighties. The leading role played by the diocese of El Quiché and its bishop, Monsignor Julio Cabrera, in preparing the REMHI report are also well known, as is that of Nejab’s priest, Father Rigoberto Pérez, in the Peace and Reconciliation Commission in the diocese of El Quiché.
and forensic specialists threatened
Forensic specialists threatenedEight days later, forensic anthropologists working in three human rights organizations received death threats. With each passing day, former Civil Self-Defense Patrol (PAC) members and retired military officers in general are becoming more rigidly opposed to the exhumations of people killed in massacres during the war. Amnesty International’s extensive, detailed and impressive 2002 report on Guatemala, Guatemala’s Lethal Legacy, which documents impunity for past crimes as well as new human rights violations, reports that soldiers and former PAC members have "warned possible witnesses" in suits filed in Guatemala City against former President Lucas García, former head of state and now president of Congress Efraín Ríos Montt plus members of their governments for responsibility in these massacres. "Forget the bones," is the warning. "If you want to make noise about what happened in this town, it’s going to happen again."
Threats against priests In March, Bishop Ramazzini received new death threats. They began during President Arzú’s term in office and have come in response to his brave defense of peasant farmers’ right to land and decent salaries as farm workers. Guatemalan Farmers and Ranchers Association members such as Gustavo Anzueto, accused by many witnesses in the REMHI report of lending his planes to the army to use in repression, and Chamber of Agriculture president Humberto Pret have denounced Ramazzini as a "Marxist priest."
and a bishop
Since the 1980s, Ramazzini has shown his concern over the unjust situation in which peasant families live. During those years, he visited the Civilian Populations in Resistance in Ixcán as a member of a special commission, and is now in charge of the Land Pastoral in the Ecclesiastical Province of Los Altos. He has spoken out on behalf of Father José María Aldaz, who has also received death threats for justifying land invasions by peasant farmers in his parish. At around the same time, Father Francisco Cuevas, in charge of the Panajachel parish on Lake Atitlán, was also slandered and threatened.
The coffee crisis and the land issueBehind these conflicts lies the structural conflict in the coffee sector and the government’s failure to comply with the Peace Accord on Socioeconomic Issues and the Agrarian Situation. According to figures from peasant organizations, 150,000 jobs were lost in 2001 due to the coffee crisis, some 90,000 have already been lost in the first few months of 2002 and another 90,000 are expected to be lost in the coming months. Moreover, most coffee producers are not even paying the minimum wage, and they often fail to provide the legally mandated severance pay due to rural workers who have been laid off. To top it off, the politicization of the National Peace Fund and the Social Investment and Community Development Fund has aggravated the problem of access to land for poor peasant farmers. Over five years have passed since the Peace Accords were signed, but no serious steps have been taken towards carrying out a national cadastral study, the only possible basis on which to reorganize agrarian property and put an end to property disputes.
A deep-rooted culture of violenceAs we have noted before, the nearly 350 lynchings in the country from 1996 to 2001 reported by the United Nations Mission for Guatemala (MINUGUA) is evidence of the culture of violence that has taken deep root in this country. It began with the Spanish conquest, has been marked by racism and classism, and was exacerbated by 36 years of an armed conflict in which kidnapping, disappearances, torture, assassination and massacres were used with incredible cruelty to sow terror through strategic state terrorism and, to a far lesser degree, revolutionary terrorism.
State terrorism’s most perverse invention may well have been the Civil Self-Defense Patrols. These took advantage of ethnic and racial differences, set poor ladinos against poor indigenous people, and manipulated the class differences within ethnic groups, however small, between "rich" and poor indigenous people in each community as well as the religious differences between traditional Mayans, Catholics and Evangelicals. There are previous examples in our history. Historical memory reminds us of the help the Tlascaltecos gave to Hernán Cortés in destroying the Aztec empire, the Mexicas’ support in the fight against the Quichés, and the way the conquistadors took advantage of the conflicts between the Quiché and Cakchiquel kingdoms to subjugate them both. The history of the independent republic as well as the colonial period was a violent one of action and reaction. Indigenous people were subjugated by measures ranging from the encomiendas, in which entire villages were placed at the disposition of Spanish settlers, to the forced labor and vagrancy laws that remained in effect until the democratic revolution of 1944. The over three hundred indigenous rebellions studied by Severo Martínez Peláez, whose main 20th-century examples included the Patzicía rebellion of 1944 and the long revolutionary war of 1972-1999 (there was little indigenous participation in the first guerrilla movement of the 1960s), were all brutally repressed. These precedents created models of violence in our culture.
Violence under President ArzúAlvaro Arzú’s presidency was stained with the blood of Bishop Juan Gerardi, who was assassinated immediately after the public presentation of the REMHI report revealing the scale of the violence committed by the parties to the war. It was also stained by the violent deaths of Edgar Ordóñez Porta, a businessman who Amnesty International identified as a potential competitor of military officers in the oil refining business, and prosecutor Silvia Jerez, who was determined to go ahead with a case against one of the organized crime rings. It was further marked by the assassination of Rosa Pec and the disappearance of Carlos Coc, both indigenous peasant farmers in the area of El Estor and both at the hands of invading landowners. Also, many of the homeless people who were sleeping in the San Sebastián Park on the night of Gerardi’s assassination appear to have been killed or disappeared.
In 1998, Alvaro Arzú went so far as to call his critics, including human rights organizations, "traitors to the nation." In 1999, in his welcoming speech to the OAS General Assembly meeting in Guatemala, he charged that these critics were being used as puppets by foreign governments.
More violence under PortilloAlfonso Portillo’s presidency is being questioned for constant acts of repression. In 2000 and 2001 these included the third political disappearance since 1994, of Mayra Gutiérrez, a professor at the University of San Carlos who was looking into illegal adoptions. There was also the killing of Erwin Haroldo Ochoa, legal advisor to the National Council for Protected Areas, and his assistant Julio Armando Vásquez in Puerto Barrios, Izabal. They had first received death threats for investigating environmentally harmful and illegal activities in the Laguna del Tigre National Park by the Basic Resources oil company (now mainly European-owned, although the military maintains a significant share) and for protesting illegal deforestation in Izabal to build a landing strip for drug trafficking. The journalist Mynor Alegría was also assassinated in Puerto Barrios, after receiving death threats from the mayor for denouncing corruption.
The communiqué "Security is not negotiable" charged "private security forces acting with support from elements of state security" as responsible for the murder of several people, including a man shot from a National Police radio-patrol car while demonstrating with a group of peasant farmers in Sololá to demand land, and another who was a 7-year-old boy.
Byron Barrientos, In September 2000, human rights and pro-justice organizations denounced the absurd anti-human rights statements, full of threatening omens, made by the man who had just become Minister of the Interior, Byron Barrientos. Barrientos had previously been a major in military intelligence but had been forced to leave the army in the late 1980s for his role in one of the aborted coup attempts against President Vinicio Cerezo. "We have information," he claimed, "of groups that want to cause instability, to create chaos and anarchy." He went on to suggest that certain groups were planning to "set off bombs that will scatter propaganda leaflets when they explode... they will also burn the central offices of NGOs." Two days later, the Congressional leadership announced that "the interior minister and the director of the National Police have informed us that some individuals who claim to be human rights activists want to create instability in the country by causing confrontation."
a provocative minister
Given this background, it was only to be expected that when, one after another, NGOs had their offices ransacked, computers searched and files stolen, not to mention all the threats against their personnel, Minister Barrientos suggested with monotonous irresponsibility and patent bad faith that it was all due to common crime.
Increasing militarization: The increasing militarization of the Cabinet is also worrying. After Barrientos was forced out of the Ministry of the Interior by corruption scandals, Division General Eduardo Arévalo Lacs was named to succeed him immediately after leaving the Ministry of Defense. In response to civil society protests, the government contended that Arévalo was a retired military officer and thus a civilian. In fact, these nominations clearly violate the letter and spirit of the Peace Accord on "Strengthening civilian power and the role of the army in a democratic society."
Three military ministers
According to Amnesty International, relatives of victims of the Dos Erres massacre claimed Arévalo had trained the military patrol that carried it out. Representatives of several women’s pro-justice organizations in the Penitentiary Reform Commission spoke indignantly and with repugnance of the hateful authoritarian way in which this former military officer treated them in one of the commission’s meetings.
After assuming the post, Arévalo named former military officers to important posts in his ministry, including the vice-minister slot. In response to numerous protests, even from diplomatic representatives, President Portillo, before traveling to the Consultative Group meeting in Washington, ordered the minister to withdraw these nominations but said he "would not backtrack" on Arévalo’s appointment. Although the minister complied to keep up appearances, he did not name successors to these posts, presuming that the former officers would remain in their positions in the interim.
Arévalo recently ordered National Police stations to present detailed daily reports to military bases. This goes far beyond the Army-National Police collaboration authorized by the Constitution to guarantee security in especially serious situations. Another retired General, Luis Felipe Miranda, was more recently named director of the Guatemalan Tourism Institute. Thus, Guatemala’s internal security, the entry of foreigners into the country and the country’s tourism policies are now in military hands.
Violence against In order to see the diverse tentacles trying to suffocate civil society, it helps to classify the various types of increasing violence. The first is political violence against opposition movements and parties, as well as against the press to prevent it from fulfilling its investigative and critical work. This violence seems to be promoted by groups that exercise political power or have special influence on current authorities, and see their discrediting and possible electoral defeat as a blow to their own interests.
the opposition and journalists
This is the context for the killing of César Rodas, a key witness in the pamphlet case, and Jorge Rosal, leader of the Patriot Party. The murder of journalist Mynor Alegría, who denounced corruption in Puerto Barrios’ municipal government, would also fit in here. Another example is the kidnapping of journalist Silvia Gereda, director of El Periódico, one of the main people responsible for the newspaper’s investigative reporting.
The newspaper has revealed several major scandals, including the tremendous irregularities committed by former National Mortgage Credit Fund director Armando Llort Quiteño, now a fugitive from justice; corruption in the banks, finance and luxury car import businesses belonging to Francisco Alvarado Macdonald, who has been evading the courts through his lawyers’ legal maneuvers; and the use of state funds to build a paved road to a farm belonging to the wife of Congress president Ríos Montt. The various kidnapping and assassination attempts against General Pérez Molina’s wife and daughter, which forced them temporarily into exile, also fall into this category, along with many other recent events.
Intimidating the judicial branchThe second kind of violence is aimed at obstructing justice and is directed against people in the justice system itself, including magistrates, judges, prosecutors and other Public Ministry and judicial branch personnel, along with lawyers, witnesses and plaintiffs.
According to investigations carried out by the Myrna Mack Foundation, "there were 337 acts of intimidation related to legal cases from 1997-2000. In 1997 (under the Alvaro Arzú presidency) there were 53 cases, while in 1998 the number fell slightly to 49. The phenomenon grew significantly in 1999, an election year, with 88 cases, a 55.7% increase. In 2000, the first year of Alfonso Portillo’s presidency, the number increased to 147 cases, or another 60% increase." In the first two months of 2001 alone, six lawyers received death threats and five were killed.
These figures do not include all cases, since many of the people affected do not talk publicly about what happened to them and even if they do denounce it to the authorities, they often do so on the condition it not be made public. In the case of the assassination of Bishop Gerardi alone, one judge, two prosecutors and several witnesses went into exile between 1999 and 2001.
The violence against people working in the justice system stems largely from several kinds of organized crime: all kinds of trafficking—in drugs, arms, children, human organs, stolen cars, women for prostitution—as well as kidnapping, bank robberies, depredation of forest resources, theft of artistic patrimony and other such crimes. Much of the violence against human rights defenders and prominent political figures is also preceded by attempted bribery and other kinds of corruption.
Death squad-style violenceThe third kind of violence is aimed at preventing people from uncovering and clarifying the past or complying with the recommendations made in the REMHI and Historical Clarification Commission reports. Based on these reports, people are conducting exhumations in clandestine cemeteries, searching for the disappeared, trying to ascertain what happened to them and making proposals to legally resolve their situation and the situation of their surviving relatives regarding such things as property, inheritances and debts. Suits have also been filed by the Justice and Reconciliation Association with the support of the Center for Legal Assistance on Human Rights against the people presumed ultimately responsible for the massacres, including former President Lucas García, General Ríos Montt, and top-level officials of their respective governments.
The arson in the parish house in Nebaj is one example of this kind of violence. Others include the death threats against forensic anthropologists working on exhumations and the pervasive intimidation that has made it impossible to conduct exhumations in several towns where the perpetrators still wield a great deal of power. The threats against the Federation of Friends and Relatives of the Disappeared in Guatemala and so many other human rights and pro-justice organizations, the tailing and persecution of historian Matilde González, the ransacking of AVANCSO’s offices to intimidate those who dare to continue scientifically investigating what happened and is still happening in Guatemala, using social science methods, all fall into this category. The assassinations of Myrna Mack in 1990 and of Bishop Juan Gerardi in 1998 are the two most prominent examples.
These crimes have all been marked by the stamp of the old death squads and paramilitary forces created in the shadow of operations carried out by Army Intelligence and the Presidential General Staff, which has still not been disbanded despite the mandate to do so established in the Peace Accords.
Violence against A fourth tentacle of violence lashes out against peasant organizations and peasant farmers personally. It is also aimed at those who protect or defend them or demand their rights, and those who have pressed the state to address the severe shortage and lack of access to land by using the National Peace Fund and the National Land Fund established to this end to buy land, recover lands illegally acquired in the northern part of the country and the Petén, and, supported by the constitution, expropriate idle land, or those who have tried to use the Land Conflict Resolution Commission to resolve property disputes.
the rural population
The murder of Rosa Pec, Carlos Coc and many other members of peasant organizations fall into this category. It also covers the army maneuvers taking place in this time of "peace" in Ixcán to divide cooperatives, communities that made up the Populations in Resistance, and the Catholic Church, as well as the death threats against Bishop Ramazzini and false accusations against Father Aldaz and Father Cuevas.
All of this violates the spirit of dialogue that runs throughout the Peace Accords. The people who are most likely involved in these crimes belonged to the paramilitary bands organized by some of the most abusive and recalcitrant landowners, some of whom have been taken to court and freed time and time again, in collusion with corrupt security forces.
Violence and impunityThis effort at classification does not cover all kinds of violence. For example, the armed assault on the town of Chocón by the National Police’s Anti-Narcotics Department, which resulted in the death of several townspeople, is related to the murky world of drug trafficking. It may be the result of an effort to involve the whole town in these operations, or to silence witnesses of the department’s own questionable operations. Or it may have been yet another expression of the violent arrogance rooted in the customs of the armed security forces.
The killing of Erwin Haroldo Ochoa and Julio Armando Vásquez was also related to drug trafficking. And Edgar Ordóñez’s murder cannot be understood without looking into the world of the military’s businesses and their refusal to allow any competition.
Other areas that remain to be explored include the way the police and army are using the violence created by youth gangs, the role of global criminal capital in many of these violations, and the violence involved in common crime. As Amnesty International pointed out, "Impunity not only encourages new abuses, but also reduces the citizenry’s faith in the rule of law and contributes to an increasing crime rate."
A single hidden powerIn trying to classify the root causes of the current violence in these times of peace, we are working on the hypothesis that the hidden powers are actually a single hidden power, which forms a complex nucleus whose convoluted branches are carefully concealed.
We are not playing with the ghosts of an "axis of evil" to fanatically convert a ghost into a necessary enemy, but recalling that Guatemala has been ruled for centuries by an oligarchy that has never hesitated to resort to violence to defend its interests. Since 1870, this oligarchy has relied on the army and has often given it direct control over the government, creating an alliance full of conflicts that is nonetheless hard to sort out.
Many members of this alliance were unhappy with the Peace Accords. Many military officers were deeply vexed by the fact that what they believed they had won on the battlefield was snatched away from them at the negotiating table. Equally vexing was that they believe this only happened because of the changes in the international scene with the end of the conflict between communist socialism and anti-communist capitalism, and because of the political influence the URNG was able to win among the Group of Friends of the Peace Process, including Norway, Mexico, the United States, Colombia, Spain and Venezuela. Many civilians were also unhappy with the agreements, including many from the oligarchy’s most rightwing sectors and some of its intellectuals, who were not invited to the negotiating table and felt that the peace process took place behind their backs.
A shadow stateThe Myrna Mack Foundation has studied "the hidden powers" for many years. Some time ago, it provisionally defined them as "illegal forces that have existed for entire decades and have always exercised real power in a parallel fashion, at times more forcefully and at times less, in the shadow of formal state power." It has also identified their members: "Civilians and military officers who are or were part of the state structures, officials of various ranks, businesspeople and people from various sectors of national society in general."
Perhaps it seems too audacious or even rash to speak in this way. Nevertheless, in its report, Guatemala: Memory of Silence, the Historical Clarification Commission concluded by highlighting the "persistence and significance of the participation of political parties and economic forces in initiating, developing and continuing the violence." And among those responsible for the acts of violence associated with the armed conflict, it names "economically powerful people at either the national or local level, large landowners often acting jointly with agents of the state and powerful businesspeople in close collaboration with security forces."
The army bears a huge responsibility for creating and sustaining this state within a state. Furthermore, it is clear that such abuses provide fertile ground for corruption and are never more widespread than in an already corrupt atmosphere. This is the vicious circle formed by corruption and the abuse of power, whether that of arms, money or lineage.
Politics as the continuation of warIn her book The Guatemalan Military Project: a Violence Called Democracy, Harvard University researcher Jennifer Schirmer quoted General Héctor Alejandro Gramajo, then Minister of Defense in the Cerezo government, who made these impressive statements during a seminar to which the army had invited many people from civil society: "Our strategic objective has been to turn Clausewitz’s philosophy of war upside down, to affirm that in Guatemala, politics should be the continuation of war. This doesn’t mean that we’re abandoning the fight, but rather that we’re waging it in a much broader way, within a democratic context. We can revise the methods we use in this struggle but we’re not abandoning them. We are continuing our counterinsurgency operations against international subversion because the Constitution so mandates."
Politics should be the continuation of war! Until this statement is revoked, it appears to be the Guatemalan Army’s philosophy. It is no wonder that President Portillo has named a retired general to head up the office to prevent and fight terrorism. In this he is more like Bush than Bush himself, who named a civilian to the same post. Terrorism, here and now, serves as the current face of "international subversion."
Military officers: There is no way that the new violence that has been created can be understood without taking into account the influence of top army commanders over the country’s most recent Presidents. Names like General Espinoza (with Arzú) and General Arévalo (with Portillo) have the ring of "eminences grises." Then there is General Francisco Ortega Menaldo, a former member of military intelligence and former head of the Presidential General Staff. He is now presumed to be an advisor to President Portillo, who has been unable to shake off allegations of ties to the general no matter how much he has denied them. The US government has just revoked Ortega Menaldo’s visa because of his involvement in drug trafficking.
In an interview with El Periódico after his visa was cancelled, Ortega Menaldo admitted he had been "one of the founders of that office on the 18th floor of the Finance Ministry," under Lucas García. And without being asked, he offered this information: "I never had any connection with Customs, or with the head of Customs at that time." According to the general, the purpose of that office was to stem the increased "flow of arms and urban subversion."
He and General Manuel Callejas y Callejas, both colonels in 1980, were in charge of army intelligence then, and Callejas was director of Customs at one point in his career. Together with other officers, they have been named members of a kind of internal army fraternity called "La Cofradía" (The Brotherhood) which, according to the REMHI report, was made up of military intelligence experts "associated with common crime and administrative corruption in the period of Lucas García." In some ways, this group was opposed to another military fraternity led by General Gramajo, which he himself named "El Sindicato" (The Syndicate), which was pushing for a "stabilization" strategy rather than all-out victory over "subversion."
There were too many military labyrinths for a democracy as fragile as Guatemala’s in the 1986-1991 transition years to function well. And there are still too many military "eminences grises" for the still-fragile democratic transition from 1996 to the present to function well.
Ghosts from the past?Prominent Guatemalan academics have warned that the country is crossing the tolerance line with the new violence and that the ghosts of the past are taking real shape. Perhaps that is not yet the case. We can still speak of only a couple of disappearances since 1994, and people still write freely and bravely in the press and speak freely on the radio.
Nonetheless, the document "Security is not negotiable" denounces a range of serious violations. "From phone calls, tailings, surveillance and interception of calls, faxes and email communications to ransackings, kidnappings, assaults and assassinations—these are all things that have happened to us in recent years. It is important to emphasize that the threats have increased since February 8 of this year. The state has responding by doing nothing or hiding evidence, and some officials have even made direct threats against human rights activists as well as peasant leaders and peasant farmers in general".
In an interview with Prensa Libre, Helen Mack, sister of the murdered AVANCSO researcher Myrna Mack and head of the foundation bearing her name, said that in the "tense and confused environment we live in, it will be very difficult to prevent the violence from increasing in tone because the people responsible for it have a very hard modus operandi." The organizations that signed the document "Security is not negotiable" correctly point out that "the illegal security forces and clandestine apparatus cannot operate without state acquiescence, so we cannot accept the state’s response when it alleges that it is unaware of their existence or that they are beyond its control." For this reason too, Helen Mack believes it makes no sense to demand that the President and Vice President resign, as the Civic Movement organized by Colom, Pérez Molina and others is doing: "The murky apparatus is in all state institutions and these two people are like fuses that can be changed at a given moment by the people who have control over them."
Probable scenarioThe most likely scenario is that President Portillo will conclude his term in office and the FRG will try to stay in power by controlling the recently named Supreme Electoral Tribunal. The greatest obstacle to their ambitions may come from the Constitutional Court, which could well decide that the Electoral and Political Party Law recently proposed by the FRG is unconstitutional. The FRG will also try to control the imminent nominations of the new Public Prosecutor, Attorney General and Comptroller.
In the current international context, it is unlikely that movements to replace the President would be allowed to succeed, whether they are instigated by opposition parties or fronts or the maneuvers of private enterprise. The fact that macro-economic stability is being maintained in Guatemala and that the US and global recession seems near an end would support a scenario in which Portillo concludes his term in office.
Carrousel of corruption: The whirling carrousel of state corruption is likely to be slowed at least somewhat by the message the United States sent recently when it revoked the entry visas of several people implicated in corruption, including General Ortega Menaldo; the banker Francisco Alvarado Macdonald; César Medina Farfán, who was allegedly involved in the embezzlement within the Interior Ministry and borrowed the presidential airplane to carry out his shady business deals in Panama; Armando Llort, for his corrupt management of the National Mortgage Credit Fund; and Adolfo Lacs, for his illegal appropriation of shares in the Workers’ Bank.
US visas cancelled
If that carrousel were to stop turning and President Portillo appeared to be a clear and undeniable part of it; and if evidence were found of the misuse of funds from international cooperation, such as the Consultative Group; and especially if it turned out that Portillo were implicated in drug trafficking, then everything would most likely change. If this were to pass, the diverse domestic forces pressing for his resignation would probably have the US government’s approval to try to force the President out of office before his constitutional term ends.
This scenario could also occur if skillful politicians were able to take advantage of a social explosion along the lines of Argentina’s, but that seems unlikely. Nor should it be assumed that the Vice President would accompany the President in his fall. It would simply be too risky for too many forces to leave the presidential succession and the task of concluding Portillo’s period in the hands of a Congress presided over by General Ríos Montt.
Guatemala, never again!In either of these two scenarios, the intimidation and increasing violence on the part of the hidden powers seeking to suffocate society will probably not decrease. The alarm has thus been sounded at an appropriate moment. The task now is to try to stop the armed wing of the hidden powers and demand the revival of the Peace Accords, beginning with those points that are most feasibly implemented and of greatest scope, and working over time to achieve the points that require education to bring about a change of cultural habits.
In a situation like the current one, only if civil society organizations and individuals are willing to energetically participate and the international community is prepared to pay attention to what is happening in Guatemala will we be able to stop this trend before the ghosts of the past once again become terrifying realities. In these circumstances, MINUGUA’s role and responsibility have become even more vital. It must act with greater urgency and precision, making the most of its information and communications policies. This is a difficult time, and we must continue listening to Bishop Juan Gerardi and demanding that in Guatemala, the past not return: Guatemala, never again!