Where is the Guerrilla's Tomb?
Public opinion has been moved by the case of Efraín Bámaca, the guerrilla leader who was “disappeared” in 1992, and that of Jennifer Harbury, his U.S. wife who is on a hunger strike in front of the National Palace. The President has been placed on the spot, and even the CIA has become involved.
Trish O' Kane
By the end of October, Guatemalans were already waiting for the UN Verification Mission in Guatemala, MINUGUA, which had announced its arrival for mid November. The presence of 220 international observers in some of the country's most conflictive areas had given many hope that the human rights situation would improve.
All Eyes on MINUGUA"Up to now, the commission is the only real advance in the peace process and it represents a threat to the interests of human rights violators," says Juan León of the Maya Defense Group, a human rights organization working in the country's rural areas. "The government thought it could confuse MINUGUA, but the two preliminary commissions that have already come maintained their independence and the government wasn't been able to order them around."
According to León, the army is already trying to undermine MINUGUA, pressuring people in the more remote areas not to make formal charges to the UN body. Another strategy to impede and delegitimize the mission's work, according to León, is to prepare people to make false charges.
Meanwhile, many human rights organizations throughout the country are also preparing, but they are preparing to support MINUGUA and counteract the army's campaign. The main problem will be in the countryside, where effective control by the civil patrols still exists and people are much more fearful of speaking out.
"MINUGUA," says León, "is a hope in the countryside, but there is a certain lack of confidence among people. They say that MINUGUA might be close to the Guatemalan government since it is backed by foreign governments. For the mission to be effective, it will have to maintain its independence."
Talks Begin AgainOver half a millennium after the conquest, Guatemala's Mayas are still fighting for full recognition of their rights, trying to participate in the peace talks between the URNG and the government. After three days of negotiation (October 20 23), the URNG and the government reached no agreement regarding the issue of indigenous peoples' identity and rights. According to presidential adviser Hector Rosada, the debate was "very confrontational." These were the first negotiations between the URNG and the government since June, when the talks broke down.
Both parties returned to the negotiating table between November 4 and 9 to continue discussing the same topic, which is turning out to be one of the most difficult ones taken up this year. According to the calendar agreed to in March, agreements on a series of different themes were to be reached before the signing of a cease fire and a definitive peace accord supposedly in December. That original calendar assumed the signing of one agreement per month, but there have been a number of delays. The first agreement, on human rights, was signed in March. In June, an agreement was signed regarding the displaced populations, as was one regarding "historic clarification" the Truth Commission.
Themes still pending include identity and human rights of the indigenous peoples, the country's socioeconomic situation, land tenure and the army's role in a democratic society. After arriving at some agreement on these themes all thorny and complex a cease fire will be negotiated, as will the URNG's demobilization, which it is now estimated will take place in mid 1995.
The agreement signed in June about the "Commission of Historic Clarification" strongly disappointed many URNG supporters and popular organizations members. URNG sympathizers say the agreement exacerbated divisions between the URNG high command and the rank and file, which is why the high command took so long to return to the negotiating table and decided to be inflexible about the indigenous issue. It does not want to further wound its supporters.
The Maya ProposalThe Coordinating Body of Mayan People's Organizations of Guatemala (COPMAGUA), however, expressed discontent with the negotiations because not one Maya was at the table, on either side. COPMAGUA brings together some 300 Maya organizations representing diverse currents and is the first coordinating body of this historically very divided movement. "We are not at the negotiating table, which is clear evidence of discrimination. We are the majority in the country and cannot continue to be left out of decision making," says Juan León, whose organization belongs to COPMAGUA.
Although the Mayas have no representative in the negotiations, COPMAGUA drew up a proposal that it presented to both sides. This, too, is historic, since it is the first time so many diverse organizations have reached such an important consensus.
The far reaching changes the Mayas put forward would mean constitutional reforms, which the government has opposed. The demands include the reorganization of the educational system, a change in the Labor Code, thorough decentralization of the state and a review of regionalization taking linguistic, cultural, economic and ecological criteria into account. The proposal also calls for respecting Mayan organizations in the administration of justice and the importance of recognizing the exercise of Mayan law including the right to property and land tenure in both individual and community forms. In the interest of national unity, the proposal calls for respect for the current state with Mayan participation. It also calls for recognition and full respect for Mayan authorities at the local, municipal, regional and national levels, as well as of the Mayans' right to use their languages in all arenas of public and private life and demands that these languages be awarded official oral and written status. "We will not accept any agreement that does not contemplate a change in the Constitution", insists León. "The current Constitution does not recognize the fact that Guatemala is pluricultural and multilingual."
The issue of Mayan rights has touched off a huge controversy among ladino commentators and politicians, who warn that the proposal could "Balkanize" the country and spark dangerous ethnic conflicts. "We must be realistic. We are all Guatemalan. What do we want here, another Yugoslavia?", replied Hector Rosada, when asked his opinion of the Maya proposal.
The Poorest of the PoorThe indigenous population suffers discrimination and marginalization at all levels, as is made evident by some statistics published in the local press. Only 48% of indigenous people know how to read and write. Life expectancy for indigenous women is 47 years, while for ladino women it is 64. The fertility rate for indigenous women is 7.20, while it is 5.20 for ladino women.
Only 25% of primary students, 10% of high school students and 5% of university students are indigenous. Even though indigenous people are the overwhelming majority in Guatemala, they are still invisible to many ladinos. It is interesting to note that in a country where many ladino children know about and celebrate Halloween, the Mayan New Year, a beautiful and important day in the Mayan calendar, goes by virtually unnoticed.
The Efraín Bámaca CaseA case that underscores the lack of compliance by both the government and army with agreements already signed is the "disappearance" of Comandante Everardo (Efraín Bámaca Velázquez) one of the URNG's most important indigenous commanders, during a battle in 1992. The case made it to the front pages, both nationally and internationally, when Bámaca's wife, 43 year old US writer and lawyer Jennifer Harbury, decided to begin a hunger strike in front of the National Palace, in an attempt to force the army to free her husband.
Harbury accuses the Guatemalan army of detaining her husband in a clandestine jail. In a war that has already dragged on for 33 years, the army insists that it has no prisoners of war, although human rights organizations have long denounced the army's practice of capturing guerrilla combatants and torturing them for information. They are later killed, their bodies never appearing.
The URNG also says it holds no prisoners. Harbury states that, on some occasions, the guerrillas capture soldiers, but always frees them. She says it would be difficult to hold prisoners given the constant movement of the guerrilla forces and that they would also be potential sources of damaging information to the army. The army holds that the URNG has tortured some of the captured soldiers and later killed them.
"The Bámaca case is proof that the Guatemalan is negotiating in 100% bad faith," declares Harbury. "They are seated at the negotiating table, telling the URNG to lay down its arms, to go home, to trust them. But, meanwhile, they are holding one of the URNG's founders in a clandestine prison, pulling out his fingernails. They are also violating the human rights agreement signed in March, which stipulates that all prisoners of war should be presented to the Human Rights Ombudsman."
Her Passport a ShieldJennifer Harbury has said she will continue her hunger strike until the army hands over her husband, dead or alive. Protected by the shield of her US passport, this woman has been able to hold high a banner that thousands of Guatemalans, relatives of disappeared combatants and civilians, never could. It is the first time anyone has defended the right of a URNG combatant to fair and legal treatment including a trial and medical attention as stipulated by international law.
Harbury met Bámaca in 1990, when she was doing research for a book of URNG combatant testimonies. Bámaca, from the Mam indigenous group, was the commander of one URNG group Harbury visited. They fell in love while Harbury was in the camp, at the base of a volcano, and later married when he left Guatemala on a mission.
On March 12, 1992, Bámaca "disappeared" during a battle with army troops in the western department of San Marcos. Shortly thereafter, the army said it had recovered a body and buried it as XX in a local cemetery.
Harbury assumed her husband was dead until December of that year, when a URNG combatant escaped from a military base where he had been detained in a clandestine prison and said he had seen Bámaca there, chained to a metal table and horribly swollen. The army, he said, was torturing Bámaca to get information.
The combatant, named Carlos, who had survived almost two years in prison, testified before the UN in Geneva and recognized 35 other URNG prisoners who were in clandestine prisons.
"It was a blow for me," says Harbury., "It had never occurred to me that my husband was still alive and suffering." In August 1993, Harbury travelled to Guatemala to exhume what the army had said was Bámaca's body. But the body was of a much younger man, and the dental structure was completely different.
"Everardo, I Love You"Jennifer believes that Bámaca's detention is part of a G 2 project: keeping important prisoners alive instead of killing them, to turn them into informers. According to her, the Jesuit priest Luis Pellecer who was captured by the army, at the beginning of the 1980s and later publicly confessed his member ship in the URNG was the first puzzle piece in this macabre undertaking. Pellecer today continues to work for the army.
After ascertaining that the body was not Bámaca's, Harbury began her battle to find out where he was. In September 1993, she carried out a one week hunger strike in front of a military acade my in the capital, but nothing happened. Despite repeated visits to Guatemala in 1993 and 1994 and a number of meetings with military officers, Bámaca, like thousands of other disappeared Guatemalans, did not appear.
"The army has decided it can kill anybody," says Harbury. "It's in the middle of negotiations and knows the international community does not dare cut its funding right now, since that would be an obstacle to the peace process. Thus, human rights violations have increased since the first agreement was signed in March. I think I have only until Christmas to save my husband's life because, once a definitive accord is signed, everything is over. That's why I decided to take this drastic action."
On November 5, Jennifer Harbury was camped out in front of the National Palace, this time after 26 days of a new hunger strike. She sleeps in a sleeping bag inside a huge trash bag to protect herself from the strong rains. She sits day and night in a chair donated by a hotel, surrounded by candles and flowers that grace a small banner reading, "Everardo, I love you; your life is my life. I wait here until the end."
Surrounded by PeopleWhile Guatemalan authorities try to ignore her presence, the Guatemalan people have reacted with surprising and massive support. Night and day, Jennifer is surrounded by a circle of people who want to talk with her. They bring flowers, candles, poems. They ask for her autograph and share with this gringa the stories of their own disappeared relatives.
"It was November 20, 1982. My father went out shopping and never returned. We are still waiting for him. What a beautiful Christmas they give people here!" a man of 30 tells her, speaking from under his umbrella one rainy morning.
"I saw you on television and I have to really be careful because I don't want anybody to see me here," said a woman quickly before disappearing into the crowd. "We're afraid, but we thank you. One day your name will grace a constellation in the heavens. Like me, there are many who don't dare to greet you, to congratulate you, to say to you: 'adelante, compañera.' But I know that many of us are with you, many."
Not everyone has responded this way, however. The rejection of Harbury's tenacious presence in the capital city's central plaza has had sometimes comic and other times sinister effects. "Your husband was a bad man and he's dead. Go back to your country and look for a good husband!", a woman screamed one day. The Guatemalans around Harbury jeered the woman so she would leave. "You're nuts, the army is paying you!," one woman hissed.
On October 16, Jennifer Harbury was interviewed by a Guatemalan news team. Hours later, as she slept, a car stopped in front of her, and a man pointed a shotgun at her. The car then sped off into the darkness. "The army wanted to let me know that they didn't like my television interview," Jennifer recounted later, laughing. "The communication between us is good: I really gave it to them on television and they let me know how angry they were."
Does the President Know?Nobody knows what the outcome of the Bámaca case will be, but Jennifer Harbury's presence in front of the National Palace is a big headache for Ramiro de León Carpio and the Guatemalan army.
It has also provoked tensions between the US Embassy and the army, because Ambassador Marilyn McAfee is pressuring the army to make Bámaca "appear." The ambassador's position is delicate: if she doesn't make some gesture of support for Harbury, a US citizen, US public opinion could turn against her.
The case has put President De León on the line. When the URNG's high command learned of Bámaca's disappearance in 1992, it suspected the army was torturing him and contacted then Human Rights Ombudsman Ramiro de León Carpio to request his support. De León answered the request in a letter offering information about the body buried as XX. His letter also gave a detailed and exact description of Efraín Bámaca.
Where did he get such precise information about both the unknown body and about Bámaca, one year before Harbury exhumed XX? The answer to this question could cost the President the only support he has left in the army.
Bámaca, a founder of the Organization of People in Arms (ORPA) one of the four organizations that make up the URNG was the highest level indigenous person inside the guerrilla forces. A comandante with 17 years of combat experience, he was an extremely valuable information source. His capture was a hard blow for the URNG high command, both tactically and in terms of morale.
Because Bámaca is such a high level prisoner, the military officers surrounding the President, who take an institutional line, inevitably had to become implicated in the case. De León's most important military ally Colonel Otto Pérez Molina, now chief of the Presidential High Command was working in military intelligence when Bámaca disappeared, as was current Deputy Minister of Government Colonel Mario Mérida. Will they say what they know? And will Comandante Everardo appear ever , dead or alive?