The "Changing" Country and the Real One
The peace conversations between the URNG and the government make the country look different from what it is, but the real Guatemala is the same: terror is still in charge, and the army is still giving orders.
Trish O' Kane
The way the international news media has it, many things appear to be changing, and at an accelerated pace, in Guatemala. After days of negotiation in Oslo, Norway, and strong international pressure to avoid breaking the dialogue, the URNG and the Guatemalan government finally agreed on June 23 to create a Truth Commission. This step, so long in coming, has been presented as an omen that the military conflict will end soon and as proof that the peace process is on track.
The international community wasted no time before congratulating itself for these achievements. Guatemala, the country of institutionalized terror, is being added, after El Salvador and the Middle East, to the list of successes the current efforts at international pacification are having. Jean Arnault, the UN's mediator in this process, is assured a place in diplomatic history as a result of his untiring efforts in favor of peace.
Will the Real Country Please Stand UpFor those living in the country, however, the Guatemala spoken of with such enthusiasm might as well be on another planet. Human rights violations still take place as usual, despite the human rights accord signed in March. And the Guatemalan army is using the peace process to guarantee its continued control over civil society in the future.
The armed forces are so sure of themselves that they have even decided to launch a dozen retired military officers as candidates in August's congressional elections. The group includes five former generals, among them none other than Efraín Ríos Montt, responsible for so many horrifying massacres in the country during the last decade.
"The most serious point is that the negotiation is transmuting into an instrument by which to legitimize a project promoted by the current military ruling group," warned analyst Danilo Rodríguez in a June 30 editorial in the news daily Siglo Veintiuno. "Its most important objectives are to politically defeat the URNG, see that no authentic Truth Commission is formed, define its own conversion without civilian participation and retain the armed forces as the principal factor in state power." And, adds Rodríguez, "they are achieving that."
A Parade Full of SignsEach June 30, Guatemala celebrates Armed Forces Day, in which the army marches triumphantly through the streets of the capital. This time around, the army also displayed its best war machinery. For hours, tanks, trucks and thousands of pairs of boots echoed through the city's center while Air Force helicopters and planes flew overhead. The mounted forces and trained dogs also took part in the parade. A small boy, just able to walk, was even in the parade dressed as a little "Kaibil." The Kaibils are an elite force much like the US Green Berets known and feared for its brutality.
But the most unusual thing this year, clearly different from previous parades, was the impressive presence of thousands of unarmed civilians. They were members of the civilian self defense patrols the much questioned PACs. Their number far surpassed that of the actual troops. All were dressed in civilian clothing, many in the traditional indigenous dress of their respective region.
The parade also had a huge float, from which the Queen of the army fluttered her hand at the population like a fairy godmother. The float carried a small school and a soldier working with an indigenous family. This display was graced by the phrases "Community support work" and "Guatemala's Army: bastion of the country's development."
The message was clear: though a reduction of the army's troop strength is virtually inevitable, the army is prepared for the future. Its tentacles are solidly extended into all spheres of society.
"We can expect an army that is smaller in quantity, but greater in quality," enthused President Ramiro de León Carpio during the ceremony, "one that is better equipped and with access to improved technology, efficient to fulfill its constitutionally mandated mission and able to face the new challenges presented by peacetime."
The parade was a show of strength at a critical moment for the armed forces. During the ceremony, De León announced the end of forced recruitment it will now be "voluntary" and the apparent end of the civil patrols once peace is signed. Another important change he announced was the creation of a civilian intelligence corps. To date, Guatemala's only intelligence forces have been under military authority.
Defense Minister General Mario Enríquez made a somber speech, calling on the soldiers present to look to the future. "As the Guatemalan nation can perceive, although it causes suspicions among some incredulous parties, I can say with great satisfaction that the army is prepared to face the future," declared Enríquez. "We are ready for the post conflict epoch, ready to take on new and varied tasks."
Weaponless, But WealthyThe new tasks that the Guatemalan military forces like their other Central American counterparts speak of for the post war era include combating drug traffic, conserving the environment, providing support for national infrastructure and the like. The modernizing sector of Guatemala's army known as the "institutionalists" recognizes that the new theater of battle in post war Guatemala will be economic. International funds will be channeled to development projects rather than arms.
The eventual dismantling of the civil patrols is part of the institutionalists' new strategy. In 1993, the defense minister announced that, once peace was signed, the PACs would be transformed into "peace and development committees." That is in fact beginning to happen in different parts of the country, although so far the patrols have changed only their names; their functions remain essentially the same.
The abuses and human rights violations committed by the PACs continue. According to Human Rights Ombudsman Jorge García Laguardia, the government is forcing the population in the Petén to organize itself into the new committees, thus violating the general agreement on human rights signed in March.
Human rights defenders are fearful about the PACs' future "transformation," since channeling development funds through these "new" bodies would only strengthen the paramilitary corps. There is no doubt that disarming them would be an advance, but if their structures are not wholly dismantled and their weapons are merely replaced by millions of dollars, the patrols will maintain the local power they currently have and will continue to be a source of conflict.
A Weak CommissionMany human rights activists praised the URNG government accord that established a Truth Commission. "It is a positive step towards recovering our memory of so many horrifying events," says Carlos Aldana, of the Archbishop's Human Rights Office. "It is an instrument, a moral sanction, to avoid these kinds of events in the future."
But, at the same time, they expressed concern over its structural weakness. The commission will be allowed to point out institutions involved in certain crimes, but not to identify any specific individuals responsible. It will also have no legal power. In addition, the commission's members have only a year, maximum, to investigate more than 30 years of human rights violations.
"It will be impossible in this kind of time period to investigate all the violations," says Aldana. We must be critically skeptical and not too optimistic. What we're seeing is virtually a prior amnesty, which could create a situation of impunity."
A number of grassroots leaders insist that internationally known human rights defenders form part of the commission. They proposed Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and Ernesto Sábato, also Argentinean, but the Guatemalan army rejected both names.
UN mediator Jean Arnault will be on the commission, and will choose the other two members a university representative and an "independent" member of Guatemalan society subject to the approval of both parties to the accord. It is not yet clear who will serve as support personnel and how they will be chosen.
Despite the commission's legal weakness and the scant international representation in it, the mere agreement to form the commission triggered negative reactions among some military officers. "Those looking for victories or revenge at the negotiating table should make no mistake; they lack the moral conditions to promote actions that would hurt us," categorically warned General Victor Manuel Argueta in his retirement ceremony. "They should remember that the army is unyielding."
Some were surprised by the fact that the army would even accept a Truth Commission. Staunch opposition to its creation would have been proverbial, as is the armed forces' decision to cover up the atrocities it has committed. The change in position is explained both by the legal weakness undermining the Commission and by the dominance that the institutionalist sector now holds over the army.
"This sector wants to end the war and the Truth Commission was the most difficult point in the negotiations," explains analyst Fernando López. "These officers are looking towards the future; they are very intelligent and seek to preserve military power. It would have been very damaging if the Commission pointed to certain generals as responsible for atrocities; it would further divide the army. But now the younger officers coming up through the ranks could argue that those who ordered the massacres were officers from a different era."
Even if it cannot name names, the Commission will have no choice but to point to the army in general as the side mainly responsible for the more than 100,000 "disappeared" persons since 1960, in Latin America's longest, bloodiest "dirty" war.
Why the URNG AcceptedSome were surprised and others disgusted by the URNG's acceptance of such a weak Commission. According to Rosalina Tuyuc of CONAVIGUA (Guatemalan National Council of Widows), the guerrilla forces gave in under strong international pressure. "This accord doesn't make us happy, mainly because it will only be naming institutions," she declared. "We want names, clearly spelled out. But, of course, if the URNG had not accepted this point, the entire process would have broken down."
The international pressure, particularly from Norway and the United States, was intense on both sides. The day the accord was signed, the State Department announced that President Clinton would ask Congress to release some $6 million in military aid. The money, frozen by President Bush in 1991 after the murder of Michael Devine, a US citizen, is now to be transferred to a "peace fund" for Guatemala. (US officials did not explain how the fund is to be used, but the Guatemalan army already has plans to assign it to "new" PACs.)
The position of the guerrilla forces can also be explained by their political and military weakness relative to Central America's other revolutionary movements at the moment of negotiations. On the eve of the FMLN's definitive negotiations with the government, for example, it controlled entire zones of El Salvador and had just launched a major military offensive in the capital itself.
Ever since the organizations in the URNG were virtually wiped out in both the rural and urban areas at the beginning of the 1980s, they have been unable to recover their military strength. Since that time, the URNG has been more of a nuisance than a threat to the Guatemalan army.
Some analysts believe that political ambition is behind the URNG comandantes' concessions in the political negotiations. "The comandantes are willing to end the war if they can get minimum concessions from the government," comments FLACSO analyst Gabriel Aguilera Peralta. "If they want to participate in the 1995 election, they'll have to wind up the process quickly so they can return to the country and form a political party."
In general, grassroots activists and groups in Guatemala are skeptical about the real impact that the peace process will have inside Guatemala. "The army is using double speak, trying to change its international image," says grassroots leader Nineth Montenegro. "But, inside the country, it continues to use the same threats and violent methods it always has; it still refuses to respect the law."
Land and the UprootedOn June 15, a week before the Truth Commission accord was signed, the URNG and the government also reached an agreement in Oslo to benefit the displaced population. But the accord is both ambiguous and contradictory. Given that the government has not complied with the earlier accords it signed directly with the refugees, many doubt its promises today that it will grant them both land and security. In fact, many returnees do not even understand the substance of this new accord.
The "real" country in the zones of return is very different from the one portrayed by the flowery phrases uttered in Oslo. To date, the government has not kept its promises to resolve the multiple land conflicts created by the army. After thousands of peasants fled the massacres in the Ixcán during the regimes of Generals Lucas García and Ríos Montt in the early 1980s, the subsequent government, headed by General Mejía Victores, decreed that the lands of those killed or forced to flee to Mexico were "voluntarily abandoned." The army moved thousands of other displaced people in to occupy them.
Now that the refugees are returning, the situation in these zones is very tense and some fear that violence will once again break out. Sadly, the following words written by anthropologist Myrna Mack, murdered by an employee of the Presidential Chiefs of Staff in 1990 are proving prophetic. "The army promoted settlements of new people poor, landless peasants on the lands of those who were in Mexico or hiding in the jungle. This policy will later lead to a scenario of very serious conflicts."
Human Rights Work is Still Risky Many Guatemalans are disappointed by the Truth Commission accord, but still have faith in efforts by the human rights organizations to get to the bottom of the many atrocities perpetrated over the last three decades. The whole of these efforts the thousands of cases registered and the investigations into the most prominent ones are, in fact, the authentic Truth Commission in Guatemala. And recent events around two of the most famous cases suggest that those in Guatemala who dare to continue see king the truth will still risk paying for their audacity with blood.
Only four days after the accord was signed, relatives of President de León Carpio himself were forced into exile after repeated death threats. The threats to Karen Fischer de Carpio and her children were due to her unceasing investigations into the assassination in July 1993 of politician Jorge Carpio her father in law and the President's first cousin.
The Carpio family publicly accused various members of the Civil Patrols in Quiché of having committed the murder. According to Carpio's widow, Marta Arrivillaga de Carpio, members of military intelligence are among those who masterminded her husband's assassination.
A significant breakthrough was made in the case on May 31, when, acting on judicial orders, police arrested three presumed material authors of the crime: the head of the civil patrol in San Pedro Jocopilas, Quiché; the former governor of Quiché province and the current mayor of San Pedro Jocopilas. A week later, however, the same judge ordered that the men be released, alleging that there was insufficient evidence to justify their detention.
A columnist in the daily El Gráfico posed the essential rhetorical question: "In Guatemala, impunity continues to reign, because, if the law is incapable of punishing the parties responsible for a crime involving a public man with the national and international prestige that Jorge Carpio had, what hope is there for the families of so many simple, virtually anonymous people who are assassinated day after day?",
Suicides, Lies and VideotapesThe second key case in the struggle against impunity revolves around the assassination of Myrna Mack. It is continuing to move forward, but with difficulty.
Prisoner Noel de Jesús Beteta, who worked for the Presidential Chiefs of Staff until sentenced to 30 years for killing Mack, made news once again in June. In only four days, he supposedly tried to kill himself twice, using a towel. At the end of last year, there was a veritable "epidemic" of such towel suicides in the prison where Beteta is being held. It is believed that these prisoners were in fact killed to make Beteta himself think twice before talking.
And, in fact, Beteta's own two recent "suicide attempts" occurred right after he began to offer information regarding the crime. Since March, Beteta has been interviewed a number of times on tape by Jorge Lemus, a former prison friend who is now released. Lemus, known popularly as "el Buki" because of his likeness to the lead singer of the famous Mexican group, claims he is trying to contribute to the fight against impunity. Some people close to the case, however, think he may in fact be working with a sector of the army seeking to muddle investigations into the crime.
In the tapes, which include a video, Beteta admits to having assassinated Myrna Mack for being "an intellectual part of the guerrilla forces." He declares that the order came from General Edgard Godoy Gaitán, head of the Presidential Chiefs of Staff at the time. Beteta emphasizes that it was a political crime in the context of a war, and asks for amnesty, anticipating the upcoming arrival of the UN Verification Commission and the installation of the Truth Commission.
El Buki insists on the veracity of his tapes and on the urgent need to act. But Beteta, speaking later to international journalists, denied everything and very confidently declared that he would soon call a "spectacular" press conference in which he will disclose the truth.
One more piece of information on the case: on June 17, under as yet unclear circumstances, prisoner Julio César Soto, known as "El Flaco," died in a riot inside the same prison. It was he who had videotaped Beteta's confession for Lemus. Three days after his death, President De León ordered "maximum protection" for Beteta.
There is no way of predicting the final outcome of this case, which has already cost the life of the key police investigator and meant exile for six witnesses and death threats to more than 30 journalists. The reason for its unpredictability is that the real Guatemala is just the same as always.