Guatemala's Revolving Door
Emma G. Martínez
After the euphoria in January over the triumphal return of 2,400 refugees, February and March were very tense months for those who supported them, as well as for those who pressured for Guatemala to be sanctioned by the United Nations' Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Those who insist on defending human rights continue to pay for this mortal sin and are currently the targets of a new wave of threats and aggression against the media, human rights organizations and the popular movement.
The attacks and threats increased as the time neared for the decision to be made in Geneva whether or not to move Guatemala from category 21 where violations are not considered systematic to category 12, where they are organized and systematic and require the naming of a relator, which is seen as a sanction. This year the decision on Guatemala's case was more conflictive than on previous occasions due to pressure from the European Community and many national and international organizations that wanted to censure Guatemala. In spite of this pressure, however, the commission finally opted to leave Guatemala in category 21 and extended the mandate of Christian Tomusohat, independent expert in human rights for the UN.
National tension increased with the reinitiation of the dialogue between the URNG and the Guatemalan government in Mexico after months of impasse. As is customary, the February talks were accompanied by a wave of bombings in the capital and declarations from both sides. After meeting in Mexico with the URNG before the talks, several political party leaders received death threats from a group known as "Army Officers." In a communiqué, this group accused the government, the High Command and politicians of "negotiating the armed forces' future."
Who Pays the Geneva Bill?Rosalinda Tuyec, from the National Coodinator of Guatemalan Widows (CONAVIGUA), told a local paper, "The UN organization could be an accomplice to future human rights violations in the country, among which one cannot discard the possibility of bloody events such as those that have taken place over the last 30 years."
The UN decision not to punish Guatemala was deplored by numerous sectors, particularly human rights and development organizations. And while the European Community called it "a disgrace," Latin American governments, led by Mexico, and the new US administration came out in favor of the Guatemalan government. In Geneva, Cuba and Haiti were the only Latin American countries censured, in spite of serious violations committed elsewhere.
The Catholic hierarchy was ambivalent about the decision. In his speech before the Geneva Commission, auxiliary Bishop of Guatemala City Monsignor Juan Gerardi emphasized the state's responsibility in attacks against the press and human rights organizations. In particular, he questioned President Serrano's willingness to improve the situation, saying, "I must, with great sorrow, point out that citizens with a high level of government responsibility do not demonstrate an attitude that would contribute to developing an institutional and participatory framework. Serious efforts to inform and to debate are assumed as personal attacks or subversive conjurings." Gerardi added that the statistics cited in different reports on human rights violations were only "the tip of the iceberg."
But in spite of this criticism, one week before the Geneva decision the Church changed its tune. Gerardi said that condemning Guatemala would harm the population more than the government and that "the spilt milk would be the country's loss because many sources of development would be curtailed."
Months before the Geneva meeting, there were attempts to silence various national groups. In November and December, the campaign centered on the Guatemalan press: several journalists were threatened or attacked, press associations were bombed and distributors of certain media were assaulted. One of the most noted cases was the February 10 exile of Omar Cano, Siglo Veintiuno reporter, who received death threats against himself and his 10 year old son after returning from covering the refugee return to Ixcán. Cano is the third Guatemalan journalist forced to leave the country during Serrano's administration.
These attacks on the press and others were accompanied by a vociferous defamation campaign by the army against those who defend human rights, popular movement leaders and foreigners. In February and March, the campaign centered on Rosalina Tuyec, who the army accused of having been a guerrilla. Every day, Tuyec is more in the national political spotlight, and the organization she directs, CONAVIGUA, is leading the campaign against forced recruitment.
There is nothing new about this kind of persecution; the novelty is in Tuyec's and others' reaction. Instead of leaving the country, as is customary in these situations, Tuyec publicly denied the accusations and demanded that the army present some evidence for its charges. She further fueled the fire of Defense Minister General José García Samayoa's anger furious at such audacity coming from an indigenous woman by challenging him to a televised public debate. The General, extremely annoyed, declined.
"We're fighting a very large monster, like ants against an elephant. It's so hard to face this kind of accusation. Many times you feel so alone, and the first thing you think is: when are they going to kill me? They want you out by the next day. But our people have dignity, and I'm part of an organization of more than 13,000 women. If I leave, what happens to the rest? We understand that this revenge is because we have taken up the issue of forced recruitment. That must disturb the army a great deal," explained Tuyec.
In One Door...The refugees that returned to Polygon 14 in Ixcán elected local leaders and baptized their new home "the January 20 Victory Community." Demonstrating that great organizational capacity and unity that Guatemalan authorities so fear, in two months they have transformed the locale from a simple clearing in the jungle to a village with a clinic, school, meeting center and crowded marketplace.
Their neighbors, soldiers from a military post seven kilometers away, had their "welcome" well prepared. During the second week after the refugees' arrival, the army began helicopter overflights of the new community, and civilian patrols surrounded the Polygon. On February 15, the returnees sent a small land committee to explore and choose parcels in the area assigned to them. The delegation encountered and was interrogated by a military patrol, after which it decided to abandon its mission and return to the village. On the road back, near where the committee had found the patrol, a returnee stepped on a mine that partially exploded, causing him minor wounds.
The government and army immediately accused the URNG of mining the area in order to blame the government. The returnees accused the army, citing the patrol's presence and also the fact that a military post had been located inside the Polygon for a year and half before their arrival. One week before the refugees' return, President Jorge Serrano had ordered the post's withdrawal, as established by the government in accords with the refugees last October. That decision was surely repudiated by local soldiers.
It is known that the area was mined years ago by both guerrillas and the army. According to an official of the National Commission for Attention to Repatriates, Refugees and Displaced Persons, the army had cleared the area of mines before the refugees' arrival, and he argued that the incident demonstrates the need to have the armed forces in the community, since only the military is capable of deactivating explosives. "The army must mine sweep and clean the area. The returnees have to understand and reflect on the role of the army in this zone."
The army soon began to get back at those who had supported the return. On February 23, the Permanent Commissions (CCPP), which represent the refugees, announced that residents of Chisec and Ixcán had received death threats from civilian patrols. Hundreds of Chisec residents had taken to the streets to give a warm welcome to the refugees when the caravan stopped there for a night. For this reason, the patrols accused them of being guerrillas.
Another group of refugees, which should have returned in February to an area in Huehuetenango, postponed their journey indefinitely. The government has not been able to buy them land in that region, where costs have quintupled due to speculation by large landowners who hope to get the greatest possible benefit from the return.
...Out the OtherIn terms of repatriation, Guatemala is a revolving door: while some return to their country, others continue to flee by the back door in the middle of the night. On February 21, over 1,000 indigenous people from the Population in Resistance Communities (CPR) fled army bombardments in northern Quiché, seeking refuge in Chiapas, Mexico. Among those who arrived were twelve children who had been wounded by bullets. The CPRs include thousands of indigenous people who took refuge in the mountains in the 1980s, thus becoming internally displaced peoples. They have survived due to their high level of organization and ability to keep moving under constant military pursuit. The army, which accuses them of being the guerrillas' social base, launched a military offensive in January and February in the zone of the CPR.
With scenes that recall the horrors of the early 1980s, Guatemalan soldiers made incursions into Mexican territory at least five times in March, according to the Mexican government, in pursuit of these new refugees. The refugees were protected by officials from the UN High Commission on Refugees and non governmental organizations. When Mexican authorities asked some of the kaibiles elite Guatemalan army troops, famous for bloodshed what they were doing a kilometer inside Mexican territory, they replied that they were lost. After an official protest by the Mexican Foreign Ministry, the Guatemalan army admitted that it had crossed the border. The Defense Minister then declared that "Mexico was only penetrated; there was no incursion," and that "the penetration was accidental."
The attacks on the CPR and incursions into Mexico came after the first massive visit made by land to the CPR by 410 representatives of national and international organizations between February 15 and 25. The objective of the trip was to support the CPR in opening a road that would allow them to market their products and thus emerge from isolation. The army, which resists recognizing these communities as civilian, did not look upon the visit favorably. The group had barely left the area when verbal and physical attacks against its members began. The Defense Minister accused participating foreigners of "manipulating the population and acting in an abusive and arrogant manner," warning that "those who cultivate storms and thorns will harvest storms and thorns."
Carlos Ranferi Gómez, a union leader who participated in the visit, was shot and critically wounded when he returned, riding in a public bus that was stopped by several masked armed men. They took a video he had made of the CPR and then shot him point blank. They did not attack or rob any other passengers. The video contained numerous charges made by CPR members information presumed to be death sentences for those who appear in it. The popular organizations blamed this incident on the army, since it is the only group with any motive and because the national police neither aided the victim nor pursued his attackers. This behavior is typical of military intelligence missions. Military spokesperson Captain Yon Rivera said the incident was "a common assault."
Justice, Guatemalan StyleThe legal case regarding the assassination of Michael Devine another incident considered by the US Embassy and some human rights organizations as additional proof that the legal system is nonfunctional took a turn for the worse in February. Devine, a US citizen who lived in Petén, was assassinated by the military in 1990. Some Guatemalan military officials have stated that Devine was a CIA agent.
Enrique González Rodríguez, lawyer for Devine's widow, disappeared for three days at the end of February, only to reappear in a hospital semicomatose, and with multiple fractures. González was to undertake the public hearing of the crime on March 9 and only "appeared" after the US Embassy publicly expressed its concern and warned that if he was not found alive, it would affect the decision in Geneva. Before his disappearance, the attorney had received several death threats.
Various versions were reported in the Guatemalan press, speculating that González had been kidnapped by the security forces. According to the official version, however, he "was in a car accident" and was taken to the hospital by firefighters on February 28, the day of his disappearance. But, the story goes, since he was not carrying identification, the hospital did not know who to inform. Several days later, when González began to speak, he said it was all an accident.
The US Embassy expressed doubts about this version and has no further hopes for the Devine case. Captain Hugo Roberto Contreras, who according to soldiers ordered Devine's assassination, was acquitted by a military court. Contreras is an intelligence officer with powerful friends close to President Serrano. These officials operate as a special "clan" inside the army and always defend each other.
Nevertheless, the Devine case is not closed. Four soldiers from a Petén military base who were acquitted stated that Contreras had ordered the killing. The four wanted to make a declaration at the public hearing but were prevented from leaving the base by their commander. They made the charge afterward and asked for protection from the Archbishop and the Attorney General for Human Rights. Now the four are in general headquarters in the capital as "guests" for their protection.
Members of the military had never before asked for the protection of the Catholic Church, and there are currently several legal cases in Guatemala in which rank and file soldiers are being sentenced for carrying out their superiors' orders. This appeal for protection from the church could be a sign that the base of the army largely indigenous and forcibly recruited is beginning to react, in a country where the guerrilla war erupted 30 years ago from a schism in the army.
The First Brick FallsOn February 12, the judge hearing the case dealing with the assassination of Guatemalan anthropologist Myrna Mack sentenced former sergeant Noel de Jesús Beteta to 30 years in prison. When he committed the crime, Beteta was working in an elite military intelligence unit in the Presidencial High Command.
"I'm not afraid, nor have I been threatened," said the judge, Carmen Figueroa, while her lower lip visibly trembled. She was the thirteenth judge on the case after all her predecessors rejected it or resigned under pressure and threats. During this legal process, which has taken two and a half years so far, six witnesses have gone into exile and some 30 Guatemalan journalists have received death threats for covering the case. José Mérida Escobar, head of the department of homicides and author of the police report that pointed to Beteta as the key suspect, was assassinated in front of police headquarters in 1991.
"The first brick in the wall of impunity has fallen. It is a historic and unprecedented sentence. It is also an indictment of the policy of terror promoted by the Presidential High Command for 30 years. But we have won only the first battle, and we hope to continue waging the rest until the sentence remains firm. Military regulations are very clear, and immediate supervisors should respond for their subordinates. Beteta could not have killed my sister without receiving an order," said Helen Mack, the victim's sister. Mack added that she would appeal the sentence because it stipulates that the case against Beteta's superiors is closed. They include General Hector Godoy Gaytán, former head of the Presidential High Command.
Beteta was sentenced just at the time the Guatemalan government was trying to improve its international image prior to the Geneva decision. Beteta is also appealing, and many doubt that he will actually serve the 30 years he was given. He has been seen outside jail on various occasions and clearly receives preferential treatment. The local press call him the "Pablo Escobar" of Guatemala. In January, high level officials from the health ministry paid him a visit in jail and were surprised to find that he was not there at that moment. The young man appears to have a very busy social calendar.
The process continues with great tension, and there are new threats against the witnesses. Workers from the research center AVANCSO, where Mack worked, have received death threats and are under surveillance. Two key witnesses left the country in February due to threats.