How Goes the War Process?
In Guatemala poor people have known how to change: in organization, in methods of civic struggle, in strategies. But the economic and military powers have not changed at all. They continue to kill to defend their privileges. Will peace be possible?
Trish O' Kane
Retired General Efrain Ríos Montt, responsible for thousands of deaths during the 1980s, dominated the recent congressional elections and assured his control over the new legislature. Electoral abstention, however, was more than 79%, a new record. The general's victory was thus somewhat pyrrhic; only 6% of the 3.4 million Guatemalans of voting age voted for him. Despite his ambitions, these results do not give him the support he needs to declare himself a national and legitimate political leader. Nonetheless...
He Could Be the Next PresidentRíos Montt's political party, the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), won 32% of the national vote and 32 of the 80 congressional seats, thereby guaranteeing it 41% political control in the Legislature. According to analyst Gabriel Aguilera Peralta of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO), the FRG only needs 8 additional votes to legislate all of its desires.
Aguilera and other analysts believe it will be relatively easy for the FRG to ally with the party that came in second in the new Congress, the National Advancement Party (PAN), made up of supposedly modernizing rightwing businessmen. The PAN won 23 seats, giving it 29% control in the legislature. If the two parties do make an alliance, they will control 70% of the votes.
"This congress will be honest, efficient and rightwing," comments Aguilera. "The members will be more careful, working to rebuild the institution's image. But the majority of Guatemalans, who are poor, do not see themselves represented in the Congress. The high levels of abstention weaken the legitimacy of the Congress."
The new Congress will play a determining role in the country's future, since its members are in charge of legislating the changes that are agreed to in the government URNG talks. Human rights activists also fear that Ríos Montt will sponsor an amnesty bill for military members who committed human rights atrocities during the years of merciless guerrilla persecution. Given the results, it further corresponds to Ríos' party to name the new Supreme Court justices in October. "Whoever controls the Court controls everything," declared Helen Mack, of the Myrna Mack Foundation.
According to the current Constitution, Ríos Montt and other coup leaders cannot run as presidential candidates. But if the FRG makes an alliance with the PAN, the general would have the two thirds vote necessary to reform that constitutional article. "It is very likely that Ríos Montt will be Guatemala's next president," adds Mack, with evident concern.
The Caudillo and AmnesiaHow can the electoral results so favorable to Ríos Montt be explained? There are various reasons. He and his advisors counted on electoral apathy and boredom and took advantage of collective amnesia resulting from the terror of the 1980s. It was easy for the general to avoid the topic of human rights during the campaign; he simply refused to answer questions related to those events, or blamed administrations previous to his. Even though several clandestine cemeteries were dug up during the campaign, exhuming numerous cadavers overwhelming proof of the massacres committed during his regime he succeeded in confusing voters and the amnesia triumphed.
According to Aguilera, Ríos Montt's success is also due to the fact that he is "a classic Latin American caudillo," in a country with a long tradition of despotic dictatorships. Still another factor is the racism of ladino or mestizo voters, forever enemies of the indigenous population, which suffered most from the "scorched earth" war ordered by Ríos Montt. Many ladinos think the army only killed "the Indians" because they were "being upstarts" and were communists.
"In Guatemala we live a paradox," considers Aguilera. "Former President Serrano is currently being prosecuted because of his self coup. Yet nothing is done about Ríos Montt, who committed heinous crimes against humanity. There is no arrest order or prosecution. He lives without restrictions and can participate in politics. This is an aberration in a democratic system."
Marcelina's ViewThe majority of the population in the capital showed no interest in the legislative election results. But in rural areas, many indigenous have not forgotten the violence and express fears about the future.
"We became very afraid when we learned of the results," commented Marcelina, a 32 year old Kakchiquel woman from the Comalapa region. "Many indigenous did not vote because all the parties are the same and only speak lies. Those who voted for Ríos Montt are from the capital and do not know about everything that happened here, the violence of the 1980s, how they killed people in their homes or in the markets."
More than 200 of the 600 people who lived in Marcelina's community were murdered during those years of violence. When Ríos Montt came to power in 1982, she and her family took refuge in the mountains because they were afraid to return to their homes. Some of their neighbors who ran away with them tired of the difficult conditions, and began to believe the general's Sunday radio speeches which encouraged peasants to go back home, saying they would be safe. Soon after returning to the community, they were kidnapped and have never been found, dead or alive.
"Ríos Montt has not changed his thinking and we indigenous have to be alert to hear all he says," says Marcelina. "There could be a return to the same violence of 1981 and 1982."
The Straw that Broke the Camel's Back"Do you want to know how the peace process is going? It would be better to ask me about the war process," was the response of a diplomat when questioned about the interrupted peace dialogue.
After advances in the talks between the URNG and the Guatemalan government from March to June, the negotiations are once again at a standstill. But in August, Guatemala's guerrillas reappeared on the national and international scene by carrying out military attacks near the capital. For years, their powerful military actions were restricted to the northern jungles, which allowed most Guatemalans to ignore the war.
The straw that broke the camel's back for the guerrillas was the URNG government agreement about the Truth Commission, signed in June in Oslo, Norway. This accord caused significant discontent among the URNG's combatants and base in Guatemala, as well as among sympathetic grassroots organizations. It appears to have exacerbated divisions in the guerrilla organization, which continues operating clandestinely. "Now the URNG wants to go back to the negotiating table, but this time with force, because they feel they suffered a serious blow in Oslo," commented a diplomatic source.
Some Guatemalans fear that the URNG will divide, perhaps even before signing an overall accord. "This accord is a retirement plan for the comandantes," voiced an angry guerrilla sympathizer.
And Human Rights?On August 4, the URNG leadership publicly conditioned the continuation of the peace process on the Guatemalan government's fulfillment of the already signed accords. Since the general accord on human rights signed in March, violations of these rights have been on the rise. "It is inadmissable that four months after the global human rights accord was signed and became law, violations have increased and terror, repressive practices and threats menace more and more. If this situation is not immediately corrected, the negotiation process will inevitably lose credibility, become non viable, and increase the great frustration of Guatemalan society," reads a URNG bulletin.
War Near the CapitalAn alarming increase in URNG military actions occurred throughout the country in August. On August 9, the army discovered the largest URNG arms cache to date, hidden in an auto repair shop on the outskirts of the capital. Two weeks later, on August 22, the URNG guerrilla column called "Augusto César Sandino" attacked a military outpost in Chichicastenango, Quiché, less than 50 miles from the capital. Officials report that 2 soldiers, a civilian woman and 3 guerrillas died in the combat, which lasted hours and left 25 injured. The URNG claims it inflicted 30 army casualties among killed and wounded. It has been 10 years since the guerrillas carried out such a significant action in the zone.
During the attack, according to army information and investigations by the archbishop's office, the guerrillas opened fire on an interurban bus that refused to stop at a check point, killing one civilian and injuring five. The URNG denied the claim.
The day after the combat, Defense Minister General Mario Enríquez put the army on a "state of alert" in case of imminent attacks. For the first time in over a decade, military actions took place just outside the capital, and the discovery of the arms cache gave rise to speculations about urban military actions.
Returning to ChiapasIn other departments of the country, the renewal of the war increased tensions and caused problems both for Mexicans and Guatemalans. In the southwestern department of Huehuetenango, in the community of El Quetzal that borders on Mexico, skirmishes between the URNG and the army caused panic among Mexican refugees who had fled there from Chiapas when the conflict between the Zapatistas and the Mexican army started. Many of these refugees decided to return to Chiapas at the beginning of September, considering their situation to be worse in Guatemala.
In the northern jungle region of Ixcán, the tension was palpable between Guatemalans recently returned from Mexico and army soldiers. Diplomats fear the outbreak of major conflict between civilians and the military in a zone that has suffered so much, and served as the inspiration for the testimonial book Jungle Massacre, by Jesuit Ricardo Falla.
On August 5, a column of soldiers tried to pass through a resettlement community of returnees in Vera Cruz, Ixcán. The community members joined together and would not permit the soldiers to enter, repelling them with sticks and stones. Although this time the conflict did not escalate beyond verbal attacks of "Assassin!" on both sides, it was a disturbing precedent because the zone has continuously experienced conflicts.
Not Even With PressureEvents of the last two months should serve as a good lesson to the international community, which has been pressuring heavily for the signing of a peace accord in Guatemala as soon as possible and in any way. It is evident that the unrest in the URNG bases resulting from the weakness of the last accord translated into pressure on the negotiating comandantes to slow down the process and increase military actions.
Since the URNG continues to operate clandestinely, it is hard to know the exact dynamic between leaders and the base, popular organizations and sympathizers. Recent events, however, demonstrate that the leaders listen to the base. All the pressure in the world will not help resolve this 33 year old conflict unless it is based on a real willingness to end the dire poverty and repression that started the war originally.
This is a reality that perhaps not everyone wants to accept. The head of the government negotiating team, Héctor Rosada, referring to Rigoberta Menchú and "other ideological relatives of the URNG," commented on August 5 that "they are becoming even more extremist than the URNG comandantes. The comandantes are managing this negotiation process with great political maturity, but these 'sidebars' of the revolutionary project are putting up obstacles, because they don't understand the political aspect of such things."
This Will Explode"This is going to explode, whether a peace accord is signed or not," warns lawyer Antonio Argueta, defender of many agricultural workers who are today fighting for land and a fair wage.
On the morning of July 18, 76 workers on a cattle ranch in the southwestern region of Coatepeque, Quetzaltenango, put their last cards on the table in their fight for survival. All of them had worked for years at the San Juan del Horizonte ranch, where the owner continually refused to pay them the minimum wage. All of them lived on the ranch in houses without running water or a health post. There had already been two cholera cases in the small community.
At the beginning of 1994 the workers decided to fight for their right to a minimum wage and for the first time they organized a union. They were earning 180 quetzals a month, which was not enough to support their families. "We realized that by law we have to be paid 11.20 quetzals daily. Before we lacked the courage to make demands, but we gradually woke up and organized ourselves," explains Héctor, a farm worker with four children.
The owner responded to the union with an attitude historically typical in Guatemala; he fired all the workers. But they went to the courts and the judge ruled in their favor, ordering the rancher to reinstate them.
The rancher ignored the judge's order. The workers went months without a salary and, desperate, decided to play the only card they had left: take over the ranch. In August, the Ministry of Labor subpoenaed the owner three times to dialogue with the workers and reach a peaceful settlement to the conflict. But he never showed up.
On August 24, at 11 a.m., the workers finally received the overwhelming response of the owner and the authorities. An enormous tractor broke down the ranch's gate and 400 anti riot police penetrated, attacking the families with tear gas and bullets. Children, adults and elderly ran like trapped animals and hid behind trees while motors roared overhead; three private helicopters belonging to neighboring ranchers had begun to shoot down on the people. The ranchers incited the police to "finish them off." At the end of the massacre, 2 peasants were dead, 11 injured and 45 captured.
Two days later, the body of a third victim, a leader of the group, was found in a ravine over 25 miles from the farm. He had been injured during the destruction, and the workers saw the police drag him to one of the helicopters. They suspect he was thrown out of the helicopter while still alive, as often happened to kidnap victims in the 1980s.
"This was the cruelest attack yet. An organized persecution from helicopters shooting bullets. This was more than brutality," denounced the Coatepeque parish.
Where Will It All End?The incident provoked a torrent of editorials and commentaries in the press defending the right to private property and blaming the incident on "foreigners" and union organizers "who are inciting the peasants."
"It appears that no one wants to demand accountability of the sectors and individuals who manipulated the situation to the extreme of provoking this new drama," wrote a Prensa Libre editorialist on August 25. "Who is truly responsible? What is clear is that people, no matter how poor they are, cannot decide to take away property from legitimate owners. Where would this all end if the right to private property were deliberately destroyed by professional agitators, by irresponsible people or by those who want to benefit vicariously from someone else's anguish?"
Ramiro de León Carpio, formerly Human Rights Solicitor and now President of the nation, justified the use of violence in defense of private property, forgetting that above all other rights is the right to life.
The War to ComeAnalysts see the tragedy of Coatepeque as a sign of what is to come. Antonio Argueta, legal adviser to the National Indigenous and Peasant Coordinating Body (CONIC), has 40 cases of labor conflicts and farm takeovers pending. Given the slowness and inefficiency of the Ministry of Labor's courts, many agricultural workers have seen no other option than to take over the farms they work on. And, although the courts pronounce in favor of the workers, many ranchers, as always, simply ignore the law.
Argueta recounted the recent case of the Alta Verapaz farm, where the workers live in virtual slavery. The courts called the owner in because he did not pay the minimum wage. He tore the subpoena into pieces in front of the judge, shouting, "This piece of shit doesn't matter to me!"
"We have advanced in the subjective area, in growing consciousness, in how we put forward our demands at the organizational level," explained Argueta. "But they, meaning the economic, political and military powers, have not changed and continue using the same instruments of repression. They talk pretty about democracy, but in practice they still act like cavemen. And to the degree that the demands get stronger and more organized, their violence will be even more severe."