The State of Law in a State of Coma
Less than one year after the “Serranazo”, President De León Carpio conisders imposing a state of exception. The reverses are evident, and violence and impunity still prevail.
Emma G. Martínez
After six years of negotiations and almost a year of total stagnation, the Guatemalan government and the National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) signed a general human rights accord on March 29. Its most important point was the government's agreement to allow in a United Nations verification mission.
The problem is that what the URNG commanders and the government's negotiating team signed in an elegant hotel in Mexico has little to do with Guatemala's reality. While the international community was congratulating itself for the fruits of its intense pressure on both sides, the country was falling apart.
An Unholy MonthMarch was filled with setbacks. For one, changes in the Ministry of the Interior and the National Police remilitarized those bodies, rolling back the limited autonomy from the army they had acquired in the first months of Ramiro de León Carpio's administration.
For another, a campaign against foreigners began early in the month. It reached a peak with attacks on several North Americans, the last of which took place the Tuesday before Easter, the very day the human rights accord was signed.
The death squads also decided to work during Holy Week, taking many by surprise. On Good Friday, Judge Epaminondas González Dubón was gunned down at point blank range in front of his home. González was president of the Court of Constitutionality, the country's most important legal authority. During former President Serrano's coup in May 1993, González played a key role by declaring the coup illegal. Forces interested in destabilizing the government must have decided to finally make him pay for that.
Accord Despite DiscordThe accord that was signed did not grow out of any genuine understanding between the two rivals; it is purely the result of international pressure.
Diplomatic sources say that "friendly countries" are fed up with so much disorder in this Central American country, and want to close the Guatemalan chapter. According to these sources, the URNG has lost a lot of international prestige due to the problems in Chiapas, which has affected its financial support. Guatemalan and Mexican intelligence is also making the URNG's stay in Mexico and its security there increasingly problematic. US government pressure on the URNG has also increased with Washington's growing concern about Mexico's problems.
All this led the guerrilla organization to make a concession as controversial as postponing discussion of the so called Truth Commission, despite the disgust of grassroots groups representing the victims of Guatemala's violence.
The Guatemalan government, too, is feeling the screws of international pressure. Washington will not admit Guatemala to the "paradise" of the North American Free Trade Agreement as long as armed conflict continues in the country. This explains why the government caved in on the point about immediate international verification, even though it caused apoplexy among powerful army officers. They have always argued that Guatemala is not El Salvador and the URNG is not a legitimate belligerent force, thus there is no need for such a mission.
The accord gives the UN mission the right to move freely throughout Guatemalan territory, entering state dependencies including military bases and URNG camps without prior notice. The mission will have a one year renewable mandate, and will support the work of both the Human Rights Attorney General and the judicial system, with a mandate to evaluate and criticize their actions.
A UN delegation will come to Guatemala within three months to evaluate conditions for setting up a verification mission. Right now at least, conditions could hardly be worse, thanks to some brainchild within the army.
Friendly Foreigners or Pernicious Ones?In March, a macabre campaign against foreigners reached an unprecedented peak. In recent years, hundreds of people from a range of countries have played a key role, accompanying and observing Guatemala's dramatic reality. Operating on the premise that killing a foreigner would be politically very costly for the army, organizations such as the Peace Brigades and Witness for Peace have served as a human shield to protect the grassroots movement, refugees and the Communities of Population in Resistance.
Indications that the army was getting tired of this interference on behalf of human rights could already be observed by December 1993. In that month, some refugees who had recently returned to Ixcán, Quiché, decided to march to an army outpost to protest military presence in their area. The refugees requested international accompaniment to assure that the soldiers would not shoot at people, as has happened on numerous other occasions.
The strategy worked and the march was a success, but the next day, the army spokeswoman made declarations claiming that the foreigners had actually organized the march. An editorial in the influential daily newspaper Siglo Veintiuno titled "Pernicious Foreigners Out of Our Country!" echoed the vitriolic tone against the international accompaniers.
"This direct provocation," it argued, "in which a number of foreigners with known ties to revolutionary and terrorist movements in Latin America participated as agitators, illustrates to Guatemalans their disrespect for life and dignity.... The President, fed up with this, is obliged to order their expulsion.... What is certain is that the general thinking of Guatemalans is different, not like the gullible ones from other latitudes, who allow themselves to be surprised by falsehoods and lies...."
The First VictimThat was the beginning of a campaign that found its first victim the hot afternoon of March 7, as Melissa Carol Larson, a young tourist from New Mexico, sipped papaya juice in the central park of Santa Lucía Cotzumalguapa. This peaceful southern town of 12,000 inhabitants is known for the Mayan ruins that Larson had gone to visit, never imagining that she would be the first target of a master trap.
Several weeks before her arrival, rumors had begun to circulate in this tourist town that gringos were robbing children to sell their vital organs abroad. "They" were saying that bodies of mutilated children had been found with hundred dollar bills stuffed into their stomachs together with a message in English saying, "Thank you for your collaboration."
The seed of truth in this rumor is that there is a traffic in Guatemalan children for illegal adoptions. It has become a real problem, and grows out of the unjust international economic situation. The law of the market has been imposed on everyone and in its shadow everything becomes saleable merchandise, including children. The citizens of wealthy countries in the North, where there is a demand, come to buy the children of the poor countries in the South, where there is always a supply.
In medical terms, however, it is almost impossible to extract an organ in one country and use it successfully in another, particularly without doing prior compatibility tests. Furthermore, transplanting organs is a delicate operation that normally must be done in situ.
But on March 7, no one in Santa Lucía was questioning the veracity of the rumors or asking if any children had disappeared. Small town, big inferno, into which entered Larson, just like any of the thousands of tourists who visit such places. Larson is an artist, a vegetarian and a solidarity tourist who worked in Nicaragua building houses in 1989, and came to Guatemala to learn about Mayan culture. The furthest thing from her mind was that she would barely escape with her life and end up spending 19 days in prison. Others would not be so lucky.
Two hours after finishing her juice, she was in the Santa Lucía jail, surrounded by an enraged crowd that wanted to lynch her. The police sent her from jail to jail, and city to city, to guarantee her security. "What I learned from this experience," said Larson after several days in the Guatemala City jail, "is the power of a lie. It's pathetic, but more people are moved by a lie than by the truth. It's the law of the world. This was a racist attack, because I'm a foreigner. God only knows why."
People were still riled up the following day. "They" were saying that the police had accepted a $135,000 bribe from "la gringa" to free her. The crowd, now swelled by agitators from neighboring towns, burned down the police station and attacked the police with weapons, sticks and stones. Scenes of the police running out of town were televised, astonishing many Guatemalans, but delighting many others who are tired of the civilian security force's long history of abuses, bribes and ineptitude.
Just like in the movies, the glorious army finally rode into Santa Lucía in tanks to "restore order." Meanwhile, 32 police officers had been hurt. All this happened in a town known for its tranquil citizenry.
Gringo ChildknappersThe Guatemalan press dedicated two weeks to publishing unfounded reports about the kidnapping of children and trafficking in their organs. The campaign unleashed a collective hysteria. The phrase "Gringo Childknappers" began to appear on walls in the capital and foreigners felt the campaign's impact each time they passed a Guatemalan family on the street and saw the parents become anxiously protective with their children.
What the media did not publish was what the Archbishop's Human Rights Office and diplomatic sources verified: among the 50 detained rioters were two military intelligence agents and several collaborators from Santa Lucía's military base.
In the week following the Larson incident, the US Embassy started receiving phone threats: gringo children would be killed to avenge the kidnapping of Guatemalan children. The US government requested tourists and the resident community in Guatemala to keep a "low profile" and avoid appearing in public with children.
Guatemala's government, meanwhile, ignored the problem. When De León was asked on March 21 how he planned to provide security to foreigners, he responded that the phenomenon was being "exaggerated" abroad.
The Second VictimEight days later, June Weinstock, a 52 year old journalist, environmentalist and defender of indigenous rights from Alaska, stopped for lunch in the central market of San Cristóbal, Alta Verapaz, in the northern part of the country. After finishing her chicharrones with lemon she started snapping a few photos of market children.
Suddenly, an indigenous woman screamed that her son had disappeared. A group gathered immediately and went after Weinstock, beating her then dragging her off toward the local justice of the peace office. Within moments, the son of the woman who had sounded the alarm reappeared; he had wandered off to watch a Holy Week procession. Although the mother tried to stop the crowd, it was too late for reason.
Despite the intervention of a bishop, the police, an official from the local Human Rights office, journalists and townspeople themselves, no one could save June Weinstock. The crowd, which had grown to some 500 people, ripped her clothes off, stoned her unconscious, raped her with a stick and finally left her for dead.
Army troops from the local base arrived on the scene five hours after it all began, by which time Weinstock, still lying in a pool of blood, was in a coma. The base commander's justification for this delay was incredible: the army wanted to let civilians resolve the problem before intervening.
Well Mounted CampaignBy the beginning of April, June Weinstock was still in a coma and a few other aggressive incidents against foreigners had been reported in different locales. The campaign against foreigners was still going on, and having mounting success.
Fear had overtaken the foreign community residing in the country. The US Peace Corps moved all its volunteers into the capital for an indefinite period. Accompaniers, journalists, religious workers and foreign employees in NGOs began canceling their trips into rural zones and rethinking how long they would stay in the country and whether they could continue working in such dangerous conditions.
There is still no clear proof of who was behind this well prepared and executed campaign, although Claudio Porras, an investigator from the Public Ministry, holds that it was planned by an institution able to act in different zones of the country and armed with a network of collaborators to plant the rumors and incite the population. Only two institutions have this capacity. One is the army, with its network of commissioned officers and a legion of patrols. The only other is the church.
Analysts find various motives behind this campaign, which also explain why it has been unleashed at this particular time. The first ones are the most obvious: make life impossible for foreigners in general now, and specifically for the UN mission in the future. Another could be to divert attention from those really responsible for the childnapping in Guatemala.
Childnapping Begins at HomeAlthough two North Americans have been accused of participating in illegal adoptions in Guatemala, the participation of foreigners in this dirty business is generally minimal compared to that of some powerful Guatemalans, according to Attorney General Telésforo Guerra Cahn.
"One of the country's most important traffickers in children is the current Supreme Court president, Juan José Rodil Peralta," says Guerra. "We've tried to process him, but it's useless, because he controls the judicial system and enjoys parliamentary immunity. He's an example of the crisis of our system."
At the beginning of the year, both the Guatemalan media and the police began trying to find out who was really behind these particular networks. In February, María Azucena Hurtarte Samayoa, the wife of an important army colonel, was detained then released on bail for running an illegal foundling home in the capital. Her arrest caused some upheaval in Guatemala, even though it was not the first time that relatives of officers were shown to be involved in such a lucrative business. The sister of General Mejía Victores, who headed Guatemala's military government in 1983, was arrested for the same offense.
Take Away One CrutchYet another important objective of the anti foreigner campaign is to cause further deterioration in the relationship between De León and the US government. It is jokingly said in Guatemala that the President walks with two crutches: the army and the US Embassy. According to a European diplomatic source, this perception also a reality has created great resentment in the army and among the large capitalists.
Marilyn McAfee, the recently arrived US ambassador, aimed one of her first speeches at the private sector, admonishing it for not paying its taxes. Among Latin American countries, Guatemala is second only to Haiti in tax evasion. This is one of the main reasons for the state's economic crisis in general, and particularly the crisis of public services offered.
McAfee also pressured around the issue of human rights violations, sparking a wave of editorials criticizing "Barbie" as she is jokingly called for pointing the finger so directly at both the army and military intelligence (G 2). The military's view is that the President depends too much on Embassy dictates. Officers long for the 1980s, when the United States cut off military aid and Guatemala was isolated from the world. That was when the army achieved its economic autonomy.
"The new gringo policy toward the region is to weaken Central America's armies," commented one officer. "They want to be the Central American police through the DEA, which acts with impunity. But the Guatemalan army isn't just any army. We have a lot of pride and won't let them stick their noses in here like they do in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and other areas. If we had more military might, we'd be Iraq."
A State of ExceptionThe country's political situation deteriorated seriously in March as well. So much so, in fact, that by the beginning of April the government was considering the possibility of declaring a state of exception. Less than a year after Serrano's self coup, De León began to think of taking similar measures suspending civil liberties and militarizing the country.
His justification is the violence against both foreigners and Guatemalans and his age old argument is "to impose order." Some warn that such measures, far from alleviating the situation, would weaken even further what little remains of a state of law which, like June Weinstock, is already in a state of coma.
"Be careful with the state of exception," warned Human Rights Attorney General Jorge García Laguardia; "it could provide a cover for impunity and those attracted to violence." García said in a televised interview that he was considering resigning his post because the government does not respect his recommendations. "I'm feeling very frustrated, weak and powerless," he said.
An Alarming RetreatOne decision that could have long term consequences was De León's replacement of Minister of Government Arnoldo Ortiz Moscoso and National Police Director Mario René Cifuentes both civilians with individuals linked to the army. According to a European diplomatic source, these changes represent "an alarming retreat, the remilitarization of the civilian security forces." One government analyst suspects that these changes will allow the army to transfer its whole intelligence apparatus to the civilian forces.
The newly named minister of government is Danilo Parrinello, a former parliamentarian from one of the extreme rightwing parties. His new vice minister is Colonel Mario Alfredo Mérida, the director of military intelligence. The European diplomat says that "the new minister is a puppet and the army is retaking control of the ministry through his vice minister." Parrinello had no problem admitting to reporters that he has no experience in security issues and would depend on his vice minister, adding that repressive force would be used if needed.
These changes mean a loss of the little demilitarization gained after De León appointed Ortiz Moscoso, a respected lawyer and human rights proponent, as minister of government shortly after taking office.
The Sins of OrtizOrtiz tried to replace all the military personnel in his ministry with civilians. He also stressed the importance of dialogue before repression, and refused to use tear gas, dogs or bullets, as is customary in Guatemala.
He named Cifuentes, who had worked on human rights issues, as national police director, and the two men's teams worked together to gain some autonomy from the army. This "sin" infuriated the military officers and the capitalists more than any other. As one diplomat tells it, "General Mario Enríquez, the minister of defense, called Ortiz several times and told him he had to fire Cifuentes. Ortiz refused and told the President that he would never accept army interference in his ministry."
Ortiz also established open relations with the grassroots movement. For the first time, human rights activists could go to the Ministry of Government to ask for protection against death threats. This new relationship was another sin that the military officers and big business interests could not pardon, interpreting it as a sign of weakness.
The emphasis on dialogue before repression was the straw that broke the big landowners' backs. When over 30 haciendas were occupied by landless peasants, Ortiz sent the police in unarmed to avoid bloodshed. In most cases, the dialogue did not lead to an eviction of the squatters and the farms remained occupied. "The land problem is a time bomb in Guatemala," said the same diplomat. "The big landowners didn't see Ortiz as willing to defend their interests, and that was a major sin."
Yet another was his determination to investigate the murder of Jorge Carpio, the President's cousin, assassinated in July 1993. The investigation pointed to army involvement through the civil patrols. Another objective of the substitution thus seems to be to eliminate the archives gathered during investigations into military involvement in such crimes.
No One Is SafeThe excuse for replacing Ortiz and Cifuentes was the growing violence and a situation that was getting "out of control." But right after the changes were made, a political assassination at the highest levels of government demonstrated that no one is safe in Guatemala, including President De León Carpio himself.
The murder of Epaminondas González, president of the Court of Constitutionality, provoked terror in very diverse sectors, particularly those who up to now believed that position and international ties guaranteed them certain protection.
"Those who are behind all this want to provoke a state of exception and isolate us from the world again," stated Claudio Porras of the Public Ministry." That is the hidden face of this reality. They want to go back to that past in which everything was fixed with a military coup. Many people desire a dictator."