De León in his Labyrinth
The peace plan proposed by Ramiro de León Carpio reflects hard positions and pressures from the army. The president is losing his great opportunity to achieve peace.
Emma G. Martínez
September's rumor of the month was that President Ramiro De León Carpio was going to resign. In October, the rumor was of an imminent coup. Finally, after five months of the new administration, a "little" attempted coup took place a faction of the army came and "knocked on the President's door," according to presidential adviser Héctor Rosada. Meanwhile, the political war between the different branches of the state, provoked by the President's purge campaign, continued.
Executive v. LegislativeWhen the congressional deputies to be purged entered into session again after a long and thoroughgoing stalemate in congressional activity, they decided to discuss proposals to reform the Constitution rather than whether they should resign en masse.
Guatemalans from many walks of life agree on the need for constitutional reforms. Parliamentary immunity and other legal traps written into the Constitution have become a cover for the mafia who openly operate within the state. But none of those who want reforms with the exception of Congress feel that the changes to be made should be left in Congress' hands.
While the deputies dubbed "thieves," "snakes" and worse by the people use the task of reforming the Constitution as their excuse for not resigning, De León continues his project of carrying out a popular referendum on that very issue. The referendum on November 28 only asks whether or not people agree with a mass resignation, but cannot oblige the deputies to resign, as it holds only moral value.
Grassroots and indigenous organizations, along with other sectors, criticize the referendum. They would like the contents broadened to include topics of more importance, such as the existence of the civilian patrols and military detachments. The President has rejected moves to broaden the referendum, so millions of quetzals will be spent on a referendum dealing only with a topic that has already begun to bore Guatemalans.
A Knock at the DoorAt the beginning of November, the Catholic Church offered to mediate between Congress and the President. The deputies seem to be more interested in dialogue than the President. He responded that he would insist on asking for the deputies' resignation and would not cancel the referendum. The Church and other sectors fear that, if the crisis of ungovernability continues, the most rightwing sectors of the army and private business will provoke a coup to restore "order."
There are signs of much discontent in the army and the private sector due to this prolonged political crisis. While the army's inner circle continues to be close to the President, middle level officers at the war fronts and some retired generals with presidential aspirations are studying the situation to see how they can best make use of the country's instability.
According to presidential adviser Héctor Rosada, several commanders from the combat zones "knocked at the door" of the Presidency on October 19. They represent those within the army who are unwilling to negotiate with the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) under any conditions. Although Rosada declared that the crisis had been overcome, he admitted that the situation was complex and persuasive work still needs to be done with the middle level commanders. "The army's logic is not to lose politically what has been won militarily," he explained. "Those commanders dislike having to cede to forces they consider defeated. It's hard to convince them of the need to negotiate."
Peace Plan?At the beginning of October, De León presented the final version of his peace plan with the URNG. Many had hoped that this plan, set forth by someone who had been a good Human Rights Ombudsman, would mean an advance towards peace. Nevertheless, the Rosada Plan so named for its author, Héctor Rosada touched off angry criticisms from a number of sectors. The URNG immediately rejected the plan, which could mean stepped up war activity.
The Rosada Plan is the final version of the proposal De León made public in July. At that time, grassroots organizations and the guerrilla forces were already criticizing the proposal for separating technical negotiations for a cease fire from negotiations about socioeconomic and political themes, the real roots of the 33 year conflict.
According to that proposal, the URNG and the government would hammer out an end to the war at the negotiating table in Mexico, while in Guatemala a wide range of civilian sectors would take part in a national dialogue to discuss socioeconomic issues. The civilian sectors which represent a wide range of union, student, indigenous and religious organizations demand direct participation in all talks, evoking the Salvadoran peace process.
Something novel in the July proposal was the offer of safe conduct to the guerrilla commanders so they could participate in the national dialogue. The proposal also considered direct mediation and verification by the United Nations.
After making this proposal public in July, De León met with a number of groups, seeking suggestions for the final version which was to be ready in October. Everything indicates that he heeded only those suggestions made by the army and the private sector, because the Rosada Plan includes none of those made by the grassroots organizations and is even more inflexible.
"This plan comes from the most recalcitrant sector of the army and represents an enormous step backward. It was formulated to be rejected," said union leader Bryon Morales, who headed a coalition of organizations demanding direct popular participation in the negotiations. "It has the same objective the Serrano plan did: the URNG's unconditional surrender, leaving up in the air the serious socioeconomic, political and ethno cultural problems that led to the conflict."
Bishop Quezada SidelinedAccording to Rosada, it was decided at the insistence of the army and the powerful business association CACIF to withdraw the safe conduct offer and instead offer an amnesty, which the insurgent commanders have always rejected. UN mediation was also eliminated, although the UN will continue to function as an observer.
Mediation by the UN would imply that there is a conflict here between two states and that both are belligerent parties," explained Rosada. "CACIF does not accept this. That was the situation in El Salvador, where the FMLN had control over some territory, but the URNG controls no territory here."
The plan marginalizes Bishop Rodolfo Quezada, who has served as mediator during the five years that the peace process has been underway. The URNG, the Catholic Church and other civic groups demand that Quezada continue exercising his role as conciliator.
Before De León made the Rosada plan public, Bishop Quezada had proposed his own peace plan, which was supported by a number of sectors and ignored by the government. According to some analysts, the army does not want Quezada to continue as mediator because in the past he publicly accused the government and army of lacking the will to negotiate.
No Guarantees or WillAnother criticism of the plan is that it offers no serious guarantees for the respect of human rights, this in a country that continues to head the list of Latin American nations in terms of human rights violations.
The document does not even mention the role of the army, ignoring its responsibility for the deaths of thousands of Guatemalans in the 1980s. Nor does it include the possibility of creating a Truth Commission in the Salvadoran style.
Before the peace talks were suspended with the Serrano coup of May 25, the government and the URNG had discussed the possibility of signing an accord regarding human rights.
The plan includes a vague statement on this topic, but it is not backed up by any concrete guarantee.
In terms of the civilian patrols, the government pledges not to organize new ones "as long as the events motivating their formation no longer exist." This would allow the government to continue to set up new paramilitary units.
In the opinion of Fernando López of the Archbishop's Human Rights Office, "The plan is a clear hardening of the army's positions and demonstrates the lack of will to sign an accord. De León is losing a tremendous opportunity to achieve peace.
As the former Human Rights Ombudsman, he knows that the principal cause of human rights violations is the war, and he could have made history by hammering out a good peace accord. With De León as President and General Mario Enríquez as Defense Minister, it would seem that all the conditions were there to sign this accord. Some thought that Enríquez represented a more conciliatory line, but the only difference seems to be that the new military leaders are more intelligent than their hard line predecessors."
Rosada: A KeyImmediately after the President announced the plan, Major Berta Edith Vargas, army spokesperson, issued an ultimatum to the guerrilla forces, declaring that if the commanders did not accept the proposal, the army would refuse to recognize them as leaders of the insurgency.
Analysts believe that two other factors have contributed to this crisis in the peace process. One is Rosada himself, author of both the July proposal and the most recent plan. He is a military ally and De León chose him to head up the government's negotiating team in the talks with the URNG.
Rosada is an academic who has dedicated his life to studying the armed forces. At age 14, he voluntarily entered a military academy, but was rejected as underweight. He hides neither his fascination with military life nor his closeness to the military institution. "Some officers invited me to teach in the military intelligence school. It's the highest level of acceptance that a civilian can achieve," declared Rosada. "I'm going to continue studying the army because, as José Martí said, `I'm inside the belly of the beast.'"
The other factor that contributes to weakening the peace process is that the President thinks he still enjoys broad popular support and great legitimacy in the international arena.
"De León thinks his credibility is so great that he doesn't have to negotiate," explains political analyst Gabriel Aguilera. "When the Cristiani government took a similar position in 1989 and refused to negotiate, the FMLN launched its massive offensive and the mortars practically reached the presidential residence. But it would seem that the URNG doesn't have the military capacity to force the government to negotiate."
Do the Guerrillas Have Power?The question of the URNG's military capacity is asked by most Guatemalans. In recent years, the war has developed more at the political and diplomatic levels, more in the forums of Geneva and New York, than in the mountains of Guatemala.
However, only 24 hours after De León presented the Rosada plan, the insurgents and the army had their most hard fought armed confrontation of the last two years. In the department of San Marcos, a group of 20 30 guerrillas attacked the army and combat ensued for a number of days.
The army officially admitted 30 casualties (three killed and 27 wounded) and reported one guerrilla as killed. However, local journalists commented that there were more army wounded than the area hospitals could deal with. An army spokesperson, Colonel Fabriel Rivas, said the guerrilla forces were not fighting the troops and that the casualties were the result of mines placed at the foot of trees.
Rivas said that, in military terms, the insurgents are merely a "bother" as the armed combatants number no more than 1,000. He does, however, recognize that they have thousands of civilian sympathizers, particularly among the communities of the population in resistance in Ixcán and Quiché.
Even if this is true, the guerrilla forces can continue to inflict considerable economic damage on the country. According to the local press, they have caused more than $25 million of infrastructural damage due to sabotage in the last two and a half years. The day the URNG formally rejected the peace plan, the guerrillas blew up a bridge on the southern route to Mexico, causing significant damage.
There has been increased guerrilla activity in recent months, and some Guatemalans believe that the insurgents are planning actions in the capital in the near future. At the end of the 1970s, they had a military presence in Guatemala City, but their urban front was completely eliminated by military intelligence in 1981.
"The peace process is in much danger and we are entering another dimension. When one side questions its opponent's real force, it is logical for the opponent to try to demonstrate its capacity," speculates Byron Morales.
"For years, the war has not been felt in the capital, but the day it arrives and everyone begins to really feel it, the reactions will be different."
Press Conference of the CenturyOn October 11, two soldiers convicted of murdering a US citizen offered what could be characterized as the press conference of the century. The prisoners, Francisco Solbal and Tiburcio Hernández, who worked with military intelligence, declared before television cameras that they belonged to a death squad operating from the Santa Elena military base in El Petén between 1987 and 1991. The two were sentenced to 30 years, along with four other soldiers, for the murder of Michael Devine in 1990.
"We received orders from the high command. We're tired of only the soldiers having to serve out their sentences. It's time that the high command is imprisoned, to serve out their sentences with us," said Solbal.
The improvised press conference was held in a meeting room in a capital city prison. Journalists from a number of different media had no problems entering the prison, since it is a civilian installation, and the press has access to prisons within Guatemala's civilian penitentiary system. This conference would probably never have taken place inside a military prison.
Between 1987 and 1991, Solbal and Hernández killed approximately 50 people they considered "subversive." They described how the victims were tortured with electrical shocks during interrogation and later knifed or strangled so as to leave few marks.
They Confess"I killed 20 or 30 people, but many more died. We killed all kinds of people and, if we had not fulfilled the orders to do so, we would have met the same fate. We thought we were doing this for our country, but, being here in prison, we realize it was all against the Guatemalan people," said the 27 year old Solbal, who offered to show the press a clandestine cemetery inside a military installation in El Petén, where more than 200 bodies are buried.
He added that many clandestine cemeteries and prisons can be found in military bases and academies.
The two soldiers said that, when they testify in court, they will name high level officers, including generals, who gave them the orders to kill. They also asked for protection for themselves and their families and a reduction in their sentences.
They were accompanied during the conference by Jorge Lemus, another prisoner convicted of car theft and drug consumption, who ran the press conference.
Lemus said he was a researcher and has spent months collecting testimonies within the prison among soldiers and other prisoners, some as notorious as Noel de Jesús Beteta, convicted of the murder of anthropologist Myrna Mack.
"If President Ramiro de León helps us, it will be a tremendous step against impunity. If he doesn't respond to our call, we ask for the support of the Guatemalan people. We're sick of being here.
There are some 900 criminals in this prison. The majority are here because they work for somebody powerful. If our effort today is successful, they are also willing to talk," explained Lemus at the end of the conference.
The declarations were like a bombshell among political circles and human rights organizations. That same day, De León declared that he would "not cover up for or be the guarantor for anyone," and asked for even more protection for the prisoners. "The charge is very grave and unique in the country's history," commented current Human Rights Ombudsman Jorge García Laguardia.
An army spokesperson minimized the importance of the statements made at the press conference, declaring them part of a URNG defamation campaign. He also charged that the prisoners had received money from grassroots organizations such as CONAVIGUA.
They RetractIt came as no surprise to political analysts and human rights activists that, only two days later, Solbal and Hernández publicly retracted everything they had said, claiming they had invented it all and that Lemus had manipulated them by offering them money. "We think they received threats," commented Fernando López from the Archbishop's office.
Lemus stood by everything that was said, adding that he has no money with which to pressure anybody. He and other prisoners confirmed that members of the Presidential Chiefs of Staff visited the prison the day before Solbal and Hernández made their retraction, and that both changed their stories after receiving threats.
The day the soldiers took back their statements, they were separated from Lemus and transferred to another area in the prison. Three weeks later, Lemus was taken to another prison.
"They've said enough; now all that remains is to find out who the base commanders at Santa Elena were between 1987 and 1991," said Lemus later, fearful of reprisals.
The army's public relations office did not respond to five requests made regarding the list of these commanders. At least one former defense minister, General José García, is on one of these lists.
They Clam UpHours after the retraction, Hernández told foreign journalists that he had not lied, but he feared for his life. He added that he would only talk if he received asylum in an embassy. "In the meantime, we're unable to talk, we're risking our skin here."
Only two weeks after this press conference, four prisoners from another prison, where Beteta is serving time, were found hanging in their cells. When the first two were found, on October 21, they were declared suicides. But when two more "suicides" were discovered several days later, an investigation was carried out and several prison guards and officials were indicted for murder.
According to Fernando López, "They are killing the people who could provide information about army officers involved in drug trafficking and car theft. But it's also a clear warning to Beteta, because all the dead were friends of his. The message is: don't say anything, or this will happen to you."
The assassinations are also a message to the soldiers who talked. It would be illogical to kill Beteta and the other prisoners in the Devine case right now, given their high international profile.
On November 3, a delegation of US lawyers from an international human rights organization came to Guatemala to investigate the Devine case as well as conditions inside the prison. They offered OAS protection to the prisoners in exchange for more statements, but, except for Lemus, who maintains his position despite his fear, the prisoners no longer have anything to say.