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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 147 | Octubre 1993



Ramiro de León: the Military's Dream?

The purging of the Serranists who remained in the Congress is at once a distraction and an attraction. Still, Guatemala has more serious problems: the economic crisis and the war. The country needs deep changes, not cosmetic changes.

Emma G. Martínez

After almost three months of Ramiro De León Carpio's new government, a joke is making the rounds in Guatemala: Since becoming President, Ramiro has changed his name to "Ya no miro" (I see nothing).

The new President has admittedly begun a purification of the government at all levels, which could have a long lasting impact. Changes have also been made within the armed forces hierarchy and a more pragmatic line is pushing the hardliners to one side. But it seems that the former government human rights attorney general no longer sees the human rights violations that continue to occur at an alarming rate, and in fact have increased since he took power. He also does not see that the army is still harassing the Communities of the Population in Resistance (CPR), or that the civil patrols still threaten and murder the rural population.

Steps Forward

In the past three months, De León has taken the first steps to make some changes, beginning with his 180 day government plan and the promised purification of the state apparatus. His government plan, made public in June, stresses health care, education and municipal development. The structural adjustment measures continue, but with a "more human face," according to De León. He also emphasizes the importance of consolidating democracy.

Almost all sectors of society applauded the plan, from business associations to the popular organizations. Rosalina Tuyuc, from the National Widows' Commission (CONAVIGUA), characterized it this way: "It expresses a strong stance against impunity and corruption and is a real effort to begin to resolve the problems of poverty." She added that the popular organizations are pressuring the government to comply with the plan.

On August 1, De León announced that all followers of ousted President Serrano who remained in the government are being purged, including departmental governors, local development committee presidents, state bank managers, and the directors of the national police and the CEAR a government body attending to the refugee population. He promised a "thoroughgoing purge" of the police forces at all levels due to the many crimes committed against the civilian population.

The refugees still in Mexico and those who returned could benefit greatly from these changes. José Mauricio Rodríguez, the new CEAR director appointed by De León, has a very different attitude than his predecessor, who called the thousands of refugees who returned in January "thieves." Rodríguez promised to purge the CEAR from top to bottom and facilitate credit policies to finance land purchases and agricultural projects.

The possibility of turning the CEAR into an institution that really attends to the refugees and does not see them as subversive is a considerable advance. Nonetheless, one institution cannot change such a desperate reality as the Guatemala to which the refugees are returning. In a country where the term "agrarian reform" is still taboo, these families are coming back to interminable conflicts over land, certain misery and an environment of rural violence, where in many places the civil patrols still call the shots.

"The difference between before and now is that today the government has the political will to help the refugees," says Raúl Chacones, adviser to the Catholic Church, which is working with the returning refugees. "But the President has to face enormous challenges to be able to make changes."


On August 26, the heralded purification process began. In a televised speech, De León declared political war on Congress, demanding that all 116 legislators resign and that the Supreme Court judges do the same. The two institutions are renowned for their incredible levels of corruption and are generally hated by the population.

"I am facing the challenge of changing this country's political structures. Either they go, or I go," declared De León, who ordered the freezing of the congressional deputies' salaries and threatened to call for a popular referendum if they did not resign voluntarily.

The war between the different state branches could reach levels very difficult for the new President to manage, as he has not yet consolidated his power base. De León wants to purge the Congress before the end of September, when the national budget will come before that body.

The majority of the deputies responded virulently, and in a desperate attempt to win the population's sympathy, some announced that progressive legislation will be passed in the coming weeks. One such bill is "Agreement 169", an international treaty guaranteeing the human rights of indigenous peoples. The private sector opposes this treaty because of a clause that recognizes indigenous peoples' right to communal lands. For two years, this draft legislation has been shelved despite a vigorous campaign by the Mayan organizations in its behalf.

The great majority of the Guatemalan people support De León's decision to purge the legislature. But the grassroots groups that could benefit from the intra state conflict do not agree with the partial way De León is carrying out this process.

"Guatemala has deep structural problems; it needs thoroughgoing changes, not just cosmetic ones," explains Nineth Montenegro, a leader of the Group of Mutual Support (GAM), which represents thousands of family members of the disappeared. "And in these terms, unfortunately, it is failing. We do not need a facade for export, but rather internal reforms that really benefit the population. There are many smokescreens that make people forget the very urgent problems facing the country, such as the war and the economic crisis. The purification should represent only one part of the discussion around these enormous problems, but it seems that they are not interested in resolving all of them. The purification is suddenly a topic that people like, it distracts them, it's attractive. It's true that the institutions should be purged and restructured so they can work with a social function, but only as long as nobody's making political hay out of the 'purification'."
A week before De León announced his political war, Defense Minister General Mario Enríquez publicly backed him for wanting to go forward with the purification. Some analysts do not take too well to the army's open backing of De León, and interpret it as continued interference by the armed forces in civilian affairs.

"Ramiro, just like Cerezo and Serrano, has fallen into the hands of the military. The army feels free to interfere in the purging of other state organizations, but will not allow the civilians to interfere in it affairs. The officers want to carry out a self purification and set their own rules. This is the proof that they continue to be an autonomous caste in Guatemala," says Helen Mack, sister of anthropologist Myrna Mack, assassinated in 1990 by members of the Presidential Chiefs of Staff (EMP). Helen herself received death threats at the beginning of September.

She pointed out that, as it did with previous civilian Presidents, the EMP, which is responsible for overseeing and controlling the President's activities, is managing De León's agenda and even his funds. She believes that he fell into this trap due to the inefficiency of state bureaucrats. "Now the politicians are going to war with Ramiro and he will have to depend increasingly on the army to give him support. I think that we're entering into another period of ungovernability and chaos," Mack warns.

New Plan, Old Game

In July, De León presented his "new" peace proposal with great fanfare. Héctor Rosada, a political analyst who advised the army for years and is today a presidential adviser, drew it up. The heart of the proposal is the creation of two tables within the negotiating process one in Mexico, where the government and the URNG will agree to the end of the war with the mediation of the OAS and the UN, and another inside the country, where civilian sectors will discuss the grave socioeconomic problems that led to the war. This table will reactivate the national dialogue.

The civilian sectors representing the grassroots movement, the religious sector, the Mayan organizations and others lauded this initiative, which aimed at reinitiating the talks, stalemated for months. But they criticized the creation of two separate tables for marginalizing civil society from the Mexico negotiations, in which the army and the guerrilla forces will discuss demilitarization and other topics of tremendous importance to a population so affected by the conflict. Although participation in these talks has been a key demand of the civilian sectors in recent years, they were not taken into account.

These sectors also criticized the fact that the relationship between the two tables and how their actions would be coordinated was left unclear. "If these details are not intentionally included, the proposal will be, in essence, the same as that offered by Cerezo and Serrano the URNG's unconditional surrender of its weapons," commented Bryon Morales, a leader of the grassroots movement. The URNG criticized the proposal for the same reasons.

The Same Ideas, with a Smile

The armed force have not been divorced from the changes. The new defense minister, General Mario Enríquez, has already participated in the talks with the guerrillas and is a "moderate" within the Guatemalan army. In July, Enríquez began a publicity campaign to change the image of the army, known throughout the world for its viciousness against the civilian population. The campaign began by changing the army spokesperson, Captain Yon Rivera, a hardliner, for a young and attractive woman, Major Berta Edith Cerna. It is the first time in the history of the Guatemalan army that a woman has achieved such a high ranking post. According to one military analyst, Cerna's preparation for this job began months ago, when she was sent to Washington to become familiar with the functioning of lobby groups and the international press.

Enríquez relates to the public and the press very differently than his predecessor did. He never answers questions from journalists in a threatening voice, as García Samayoa routinely did. During one of his first press conferences, Enríquez announced that future military projects will include road building, the continuation of an internal army education campaign on human rights, and reforestation. But although doing so with jokes and smiles, he expressed the same negative opinions about the CPR and the guerrilla forces and did not suggest any reduction in the army.

"We do not want to talk about a reduction while the armed conflict goes on. Once it is over, the counterinsurgency force will cease to exist. There will be a conversion and, eventually, a reduction could be considered," Enríquez said tantalizingly, then added, "but when one looks at the numbers in comparison with armies in other parts of the region, one realizes that what is needed is not a reduction, but an increase."
He also jokingly criticized the emphasis that some people put on human rights. "Today nobody wants to be a police officer in Guatemala: they could wind up in prison for violating the human rights of a criminal."

Hardliners and Moderates

In August, De León announced that the feared "archive" the intelligence unit within the EMP was to be dismantled, and that the EMP itself will be restructured. The "archive" has been implicated in various assassinations and other human rights violations. Among the most notorious cases is that of Myrna Mack.

While various sectors applauded what seemed to be a bold decision, the euphoria quickly evaporated, with the measure no more than a cosmetic change. An anonymous source made public a letter that the EMP had sent to all its employees explaining the measure. According to the letter, the issue was neither a purification nor a reduction. "All the functions and missions continue," said the letter, adding that "it is only a question of trying to improve the image." And even if the EMP were to be restructured which does not seem likely, according to this letter the G 2 (military intelligence) will continue to carry out its "work" untouched.

The recent changes in the army hierarchy are the result of a decade of internal struggles within the armed forces and not a decision by De León to impose civilian authority over such an all powerful institution. The struggle has been and continues to be between backers of different military strategies. Basically, it is a struggle between the most militaristic factions, who dogmatically stick to the national security doctrine, and those who defend what is known as the thesis of national stability.

From the beginning of the 1980s, a sector of the army, headed by retired General Héctor Gramajo, has pushed this thesis as the way to overcome the guerrilla forces on all fronts, not just militarily. It is also a strategy to guarantee the survival of the armed forces in an increasingly hostile environment, where tremendous pressure for demilitarization exists. This thesis gained ground during the 1980s, particularly when Gramajo was defense minister, but lost it again when Jorge Serrano won the 1990 elections and once more imposed a hard line.

An Effective Civilian Facade

With the changes, some of the military officers who formed this school, also known as "developmentalists," return to power. Today, they are more sophisticated in managing public images and more sensitive to worldwide transformations. The changes being promoted today prove that the officers learned that they must also fight on the international political front, where they have been losing battles, especially due to the violations of human rights in the last decade. For this more astute military sector, De León will be a much more effective civilian facade to recover international prestige than they had in the two previous civilian presidents, Cerezo and Serrano.

"The army must understand that this President is the card the institution never dreamed of having, even though many opposed his arrival," commented former military officer Gustavo Díaz López to the weekly Crónica. Díaz was retired from active service after participating in the failed 1989 coup.

It would seem that the army's dreams are finally coming true. At the end of July, AID Director Brian Atwood visited Guatemala and declared that the Clinton administration was "thinking about" renewing military aid to Guatemala, cut off years ago due to human rights violations. Days later, the head of the US Army and the chief of the Southern Command visited Guatemala. After meeting with the President and the defense minister, the two generals from the north assured their colleagues that, in the future, joint military maneuvers would be carried out between the armies of the two countries.

Unending Violence

When De León was elected, some hoped that, at the least, the violence in the country would diminish. But only days after the new President received the presidential sash, another wave of death threats, assassinations and kidnappings of union leaders, students and members of the popular movement was touched off. Some of the kidnapped union members, who were tortured and then freed, were asked by their captors about links with the guerrilla movement, in the same style of earlier counterinsurgency operations. On July 7, nine bodies with signs of torture were discovered in the Petén. Four were peasants and the others people who had disappeared months before. The Archbishop's Human Rights Office reports that violations have increased since De León took power.

According to CPR representatives, the repression against them also continues. "It is hard to believe that the repression is Ramiro De León's will, but if it is not at his order, the army is not respecting civilian power. Where we live, constitutional guarantees are suspended and the army is the only authority," states Nazaria Tum, of the CPR.

The defense minister has said that the CPRs are a population held by the guerrilla movement, a position identical to that put forth by his predecessor. At the same time, the President seems to be increasingly distanced from the population that he so ardently defended when he was the human rights attorney general. When asked his opinion of the CPR's charges, he said that, at times, they are "exaggerating" and "not everything they have said in the past is true." Since De León took power, the CPR has demanded a private meeting with him, but have yet to be granted one. At the end of July, it charged that the army was trying to impose a repressive policy against the communities on the new President .

"For several days after his election, there was silence. But then our members and those of the other peasant organizations in El Quiché and in other conflictive areas began once again to receive new death threats from the civil patrols," declared Rosalina Tuyuc at the beginning of July. "Really, nothing has changed. The patrols do not accept De León as President. They say he represents human rights groups and everybody involved in these groups are guerrillas."
Prophetic words. Days later, three members of a family were massacred in Colotenango, Huehuetenango, in the northwestern region of the country. The father of the family had refused to patrol in the area, where the civil patrol members are feared for their fanaticism.

To protest these assassinations and the local authorities' refusal to investigate this event, CONAVIGUA organized a demonstration among the local population. On August 3, thousands marched peacefully in the zone and met with the area's military commander to demand the dissolution of the patrols. The commander quickly sent them off among threats, forcing them to return in failure to their villages. When the march went by a bridge, the patrols opened fire, killing an elderly man and wounding a number of people. The President condemned the attack, but reiterated that the patrols cannot be dissolved as long as an internal conflict exists, thus backing the army's position and rejecting the very position he took as attorney general. The defense minister stated that there was provocation on the part of the demonstrators, who he said were armed.

Two weeks later, De León appeared in a demonstration in the zone, smiling amid the patrols' rifles and stating once again that the patrols would not be dissolved. This new demonstration of support came while incidents were reported of the patrols intimidating the civilian population in various parts of the country. During July and August, the Human Rights Office received at least 80 such accusations.

One of the demonstrators filmed the march that had ended in bloodshed. The film identifies at least 12 patrol members who fired against the marchers. However, after three weeks not one of those responsible had been picked up by the authorities. "The judges are not doing anything, they don't even want to listen to the witnesses," said Fernando López of the Archbishop's office. "They won't effect any punishment, because they're afraid." At the end of August, 58 residents of Colotenango had taken refuge in the CONAVIGUA offices due to threats they had received from the patrols.

Despite the President's insistence that the civil patrols cannot be dissolved until the war is over, the army obviously has no intention of ever dismantling this paramilitary network. Recently, the new military spokesperson explained that the patrols are now being converted into "peace and development committees" in the zones where there is no guerrilla presence.

A Message?

The assassination that caused the most tension in the country and called into doubt any return to constitutionality was the July 3 death of Jorge Carpio, the President's own cousin. He was also one of the country's most well known politicians and editor of one of the most important newspapers. The murder occurred at a very complex moment for the new President less than a week after De León had surprisingly replaced the former defense minister, a hardliner, with a more moderate officer, and only two days after the appointment of a new cabinet and the announcement of the government's 180 day plan. Four days after the assassination, De León was to have announced his new peace proposal.
On the night of July 3, while traveling on a highway in the militarized department of El Quiché, Jorge Carpio's caravan, on a political tour, was attacked by a group of 15 to 30 masked and heavily armed men. The group stopped the vehicles and robbed the occupants of some of their belongings, in what seemed and may even have been one of the frequent cases of common crime. However, one of the attackers shouted out as the attack began: "It's Jorge Carpio! Kill Jorge!," opening fire on Carpio and his companions. His wife and other family members survived.

The army immediately blamed the URNG, a claim officially rejected by the guerrilla command and discarded by analysts, as such a crime would only have hurt the insurgents. Afterwards, the government and the police pushed the thesis that it was a robbery perpetrated by a group of assailants that operates in the zone and frequently attacks tourists.

According to Marta Arrivillaga, Carpio's widow, it was a "political crime." She rejected the governmental and police theory, because the assailants were disinterested in the valuable jewels and other belongings that they could easily have stolen. So far this year, robbers in that area have yet to kill any of their victims. Arrivillaga also asked why the army was not patrolling in that area, as it tends to do on weekend nights.

The President ordered an exhaustive investigation. A thousand police officers and army specialists combed the area, searching houses, without legal warrants in many cases, and committing abuses against the local population, according to accusations made by human rights organizations. In a country where other similar cases are almost never resolved, it was striking that, only four days after the crime, the police presented 11 suspects, all members of a local band of thieves, according to authorities.

No evidence, however, linked any of the 11 to the Carpio killing. Jorge Carpio's political party, the Union of the National Center, rejected the preliminary police report as "contradictory and incongruent" and declared that the 11 could well be mere "scapegoats." Arrivillaga requested assistance from the UN's Human Rights Commission and foreign investigators to get to the bottom of the crime and find out who the responsible parties are, "whoever they may be."
Two months after the murder, the family and others continue to believe that Carpio's death was a message to the new President by a hard-line sector within the army.

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