Three Stubborn Women Confront Impunity
In Guatemala human rights are still being violated, and with impunity. Now the U.N. is in the country, observing this reality. Three women, Helen Mack, Karen Fisher and Jennifer Harbury, have decided to challenge this reality.
Trish O' Kane
The United Nations Mission in Nicaragua (MINIGUA) finally began working in the country on November 21, eight months after the UN agreed to "immediately" send a verifying commission to Guatemala. The mission is made up of 220 human rights observers, 60 foreign police officers and 10 military officials. Their task is to verify compliance with the accords signed by the URNG and the Guatemalan government during the peace process.
With Neither Words nor PromisesThe mission has a mandate from the United Nations until March, but it is expected that it will be extended for at least six more months. This is the fourth time that the UN has sent a mission to verify a country's human rights situation.
The observers arrived in small groups during November and December. UN officials estimate that the mission will begin working at full capacity in February. MINUGUA will open a total of 13 offices throughout the country, some in conflictive zones like El Quiché and Ixcán. "It will not only be with words and promises that we will win the confidence of the Guatemalan people," said Leonardo Franco, MINUGUA director, at the formal inauguration of the mission. "We have to demonstrate that we are able to carry out an efficient and impartial verification process in the rural areas."
The UN has delayed the installation and contracting of MINUGUA personnel, and there are other indications of a certain reluctance to work in Guatemala. According to a diplomatic source, the UN fears that the negotiations between the URNG and the government will get bogged down and the process could break down altogether, which would put the United Nations in a difficult position. In fact, when MINUGUA arrived, negotiations were stalemated over the issue of indigenous rights and identity, after three rounds of talks in October and November.
MINUGUA: Enormous ChallengesThe UN faces great challenges in Guatemala. "How can a state of law be established in a country where impunity is virtually law?" declared Franco. "MINUGUA cannot replace the judicial authority. It is wrong to think that MINUGUA can fix everything."
The mission will have less than half the number of observers that worked with ONUSAL in El Salvador, and Guatemala is five times larger than El Salvador. The roads and communication network are also in worse shape, making it difficult for mission members to travel.
Another problem is the Guatemalan Army, the most experienced in the region and the most sophisticated in counterintelligence and disinformation campaigns. The UN observers will have a huge task simply trying to confirm the information they receive.
Just one example of the difficulties under which MINIGUA has had to begin operating is the installation of the mission's telephone lines. GUATEL, the state telephone company, is notorious for its inefficiency and, according to the local press, has tapped the phones of thousands of politicians, foreigners, journalists and human rights activists. GUATEL did not respond when MINUGUA requested a line, until UN officials finally directly petitioned the President.
Despite its official installation on November 21, the mission continues to work from a luxury hotel in the capital because it has been unable to find an adequate site. The government offered it the building of the National Reconstruction Committee (CRN), a state entity that has suffered serious labor conflicts in recent months and was occupied by striking workers when MINUGUA arrived. The mission rejected the government offer, explaining that the space did not offer the necessary conditions.
Transport StrikeDuring the first ten days of November, Guatemala was shaken by a wave of violent protests against an arbitrary increase in urban bus fares. The crisis, which could easily have been resolved in a few days, underscored the weakness and ineptitude of Ramiro de León Carpio's government. He had to resort to the army to restore "order," as did his predecessor Jorge Serrano Elías.
The root of the problem is a lack of public transport in Guatemala. The urban buses belong to private companies that accept certain municipal government controls to obtain the concession that allows them to work.
In recent months the transport drivers have threatened to unilaterally raise fares. According to them, they have not been able to make a profit since gasoline price restrictions were lifted early this year. The transport drivers gave the government until October 31 to concede some sort of tax exemption.
Guatemala City Mayor Oscar Berger tried to resolve the problem by presenting an exemption proposal to Congress. The proposal was rejected, apparently because of political conflicts between the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), headed by Efraín Ríos Montt, and the National Advancement Party (PAN). Mayor Berger is a member of the PAN and FRG members voted against the exemption in an attempt to damage the PAN's image.
A total paralysis of urban transport and various days of riots began on November 2 with the burning of 20 busses at the University of San Carlos. The disturbances spread in the following days to the streets of the capital, leaving several dead and many injured and detained. Finally, the municipal government and the transport drivers reached an agreement; the transport drivers would lower fares and in exchange would be granted a tax exemption. On November 14, transport was back to normal, with reduced fares. The municipal government also agreed to lift price restrictions on transport in January 1995.
The mayor of Guatemala City insists that a municipal public transport service will be functioning by January and that there will be no problems because the prices will be regulated by the market. But, according to analysts, the public service will not be able to cover demand and the "market" will leave many Guatemalans traveling on foot. Everything indicates that the crisis was only temporarily resolved and that the protests will resume next year.
Gang Activity Takes OffThe transport crisis turned into a serious credibility crisis for De León Carpio's government. According to analyst Gabriel Aguilera Peralta, these protests are the first phase of the struggle against privatization of public services in Guatemala.
"Traditionally," says Aguilera, "popular movements have opposed any kind of bus fare increase because it symbolizes an increase in the cost of living. The people burn the busses because they think that if they lose the right to accessible transport, the government will then take away their schools and hospitals. If the price of sugar or electricity goes up, what can the people do? But burning busses is a concrete reaction."
The violence increased as the days passed because of police and municipal government incompetence and also due to the massive presence of gangs on capital streets. For a number of nights, the local news showed gangs of young people who, out of control, burned tires and vehicles and looted stores. The police were not there or disappeared when the cameras appeared.
Aguilera holds that the presence of gangs in the riots was not coincidental, but rather had to do with a counterinsurgency strategy. "It is true that at times grassroots groups can be violent. But it is curious that every time human rights groups and organizations decide to protest, the gangs suddenly appear and loot and attack people and vehicles. It is no more than an official tactic to infiltrate the popular protests, confuse the population and infuse any future march or public demonstration with fear. They use violence to delegitimize the popular movement," says Aguilera. Other analysts speculate that some political group and or elements within the security forces could be paying the gangs to create more instability.
Brutal RepressionOn November 11, in the midst of generalized anarchy in the capital, the President ordered army patrols onto the streets. A joint police and military unit, called the Immediate Reaction Force (FRI), appeared to put down the protests. And they did so brutally. One university student died and the police invaded the University of San Carlos, violating university autonomy.
The previous night, a truck had driven by the university and opened fire on four students, injuring one of them. In protest against this paramilitary style attack, the students began to burn tires and block traffic on a street near the university. The FRI arrived shortly after, and a pitched battle between police and students ensued. The police threw tear gas and the students responded with molotov cocktails and homemade mortars. When the police opened fire, the students took refuge inside the university.
Mario López Sánchez, a 21 year old law student, was seriously injured in the leg and was bleeding profusely as some students finally got him into a vehicle to take him to the hospital. But when they tried to leave the university campus, the police detained the vehicle, pulled López out and threw him to the floor. According to witnesses, various policemen kicked at López, who was now unconscious on the pavement. He died soon after arrival at the hospital.
On November 14, Human Rights Ombudsman Jorge Mario García Laguardia condemned the brutality of the security forces, and charged that university authorities and student leaders were receiving threats and that plain clothes policemen were standing guard over the injured students in various hospitals. He requested the immediate removal of the Minister of Government and the National Chief of Police.
Prisoner in his Palace"I am ashamed to say it, because I am convinced that Ramiro de León has many good intentions, but he is isolated in his palace, surrounded by military officers with their own agenda," declared international human rights expert Christian Tomuschat during his November visit to Guatemala in November. Until 1993, Tomuschat was in charge of the human rights section of the UN in Guatemala.
The case that best demonstrates the President's powerlessness and highlights the impunity reigning in Guatemala involves the President's own family. On July 3, 1993, Jorge Carpio, the President's cousin and a high profile politician, was assassinated. Carpio was traveling on a solitary road in the militarized region of El Quiché when his caravan was attacked with heavy arms by a group of approximately 25 men who covered their faces. They killed Carpio and three of the people with him.
The assassination took place just one month after De León's inauguration and only six days after he had made significant changes in the armed forces, replacing the hard-line Minister of Defense with a more moderate one. A number of analysts believe that the assassination of Jorge Carpio was a message from the army's hard line to the new President. The Carpio family insists that he was killed because, as leader of the Congress, he headed a campaign to reject an amnesty proposal for the military officers who had supported Serrano's self provoked coup in May 1993.
"On June 5, Defense Minister General José García Samayoa called Jorge Carpio three times, pressuring him to tell his representatives to vote for the amnesty," recounts Karen Fisher de Carpio, Jorge Carpio's personal secretary and daughter in law. "Jorge refused because he saw it as a legal monstrosity and because it included a pardon for Noel de Jesús Beteta, the assassin of anthropologist Myrna Mack."
Investigation?The government investigation to clarify Carpio's assassination and the case's entire legal process have been marked by contradictions, anomalies and even sinister actions. The post mortem reports disappeared mysteriously, as did the police photos of the cadavers. The police reports about the case were altered and other key evidence was lost. Many witnesses did not dare to testify because of threats and one police investigator was killed. Of five high level military officers named to testify, only one actually showed up in court.
The only progress in the case has been achieved through independent investigations by the Carpio family and the Archbishop's Human Rights Office. At the beginning of 1994, the Archbishop announced that civil patrols from San Pedro Jocopilas (El Quiché), known as the most feared in Guatemala, were involved in the assassination.
According to the Archbishop's office, more than 30 accusations have been made against these patrols for human rights violations including assassinations, illegal captures, torture and harassment of the civilian population.
A list of 20 patrol members suspected of the crime was drawn up based on these accusations. On May 31, the police detained four of them, but the other 16 were not touched. A week later, the same judge who had ordered the detentions ordered that three of the men be freed, alleging lack of proof. Only one Jocopilas patrol member, Juan Acabal Patzán, is currently being held.
"There has been strong international pressure and the army had to sacrifice someone. Patzán should have been jailed for the murder of two other people and he was the easiest one to sacrifice," says Karen Fisher, who heads the fight to clarify the circumstances surrounding the death of her father in law.
In October, one of the policemen who had detained the four patrol members in May was shot through the back by various armed men and died. The Archbishop's office called the incident an "extrajudicial execution." Shortly after the killing, the police investigator who did the field work in El Quiché was attacked by armed men, but was able to escape unharmed.
A Very Stubborn WomanWhen the patrol members were freed in June, Karen Fisher began to publicly demand that they be detained again. On June 26, armed men crashed into her car and threatened her driver, saying they would kill his boss, who fortunately was not in the car. Fisher left the country and remained in exile until the Organization of American States declared cautionary measures for her protection.
Since Fisher returned to Guatemala, she has continued receiving constant threats by telephone and mail. On September 29, she was directly threatened by Colonel Mario Mérida, Vice Minister of Government, who warned her that she should not testify in the case because she was hurting the Army's image.
In an interview given in November, Karen declared, "He told me that I was very stubborn and that I should stop. He told me that the Jocopilas civil patrols are the best the Army has in El Quiché and that I was hurting them. Later he said that he would be my 'good enemy.' I'm afraid. I feel panic for my children. The impunity continues and the old practices have not changed. Our family is part of the private sector, part of the system, but we want justice. If they dare to do this to the President's relatives, how will they treat the rest of the population? This must change."
The so called Anti Communist Patriotic Unit sent another written threat to Fisher in November. The letter announced the immediate elimination of eight people linked to human rights work. Three women headed the list: North American lawyer Jennifer Harbury, Helen Mack and Karen Fisher. The letter accused Fisher of having become the "Patty Hearst of Guatemala" and to be working in favor of the URNG.
On November 25, armed men tried to assassinate the Public Ministry investigator in charge of the Carpio case, opening fire on his vehicle outside of the capital. "This action clearly demonstrates that there is no space open in the search for objective truth in Guatemala," was the comment of UN human rights expert Mónica Pinto, who came to Guatemala in November to evaluate the situation.
According to Fisher, the Carpio family no longer has hopes of resolving the case within Guatemala. It has not even helped that they are relatives of the President. Since Ramiro de León took over the presidency they have been unable to meet with him alone, because he is always surrounded by military officers. "His personality has changed totally," says Karen, who has joined Helen Mack to take both the Jorge Carpio case and the Myrna Mack case to the OAS.
Another very Stubborn WomanOn November 11, Jennifer Harbury, wife of disappeared guerrilla leader Efraín Bámaca, ended a 32 day hunger strike. Harbury fasted in front of the National Palace of Guatemala, demanding that the army hand over her husband, "disappeared" in combat in 1992 but captured alive by the Army, according to Central Intelligence Agency information.
"I am beginning a new phase in the struggle to save my husband. Within 30 days I have the right to file suit against various military officials. According to witnesses, they are the ones responsible for the kidnapping and torture of my husband. Therefore, I have decided to end my hunger strike, travel to Washington and meet with high level White House officials and then return here to begin the legal process against the Guatemalan Army," said Harbury when she ended her strike.
Jennifer Harbury gave the names of eight officers, including a colonel and two majors, whom she plans to accuse. She said that she will bring charges against Defense Minister General Mario Enríquez, for kidnapping and obstruction of justice. She has also decided to investigate the CIA and the US Embassy in Guatemala for having concealed information about her husband. According to information from the CIA itself, Guatemalan military sources notified the CIA in 1992 that they had captured Bámaca alive, but when Harbury began the search for her husband in 1993, US Embassy officials claimed they knew nothing. In November 1994, the Guatemalan Army continued to insist that Bámaca had died in combat in March 1992.
On November 11, the same day Harbury ended her hunger strike, Marilyn McAfee, US Ambassador in Guatemala, sent a "vigorous" letter to Ramiro de León, asking for information about Bámaca's whereabouts. The Bámaca case has provoked tensions between the US and Guatemalan governments. It has also touched off a wave of xenophobia in the Guatemalan press against Harbury and the foreigners who work for human rights. Commentators have dedicated pages and pages to accusing Harbury of trying to build a Hollywood career by "selling" her love story with Bámaca.
Xenophobia"Those who think that the end of Jennifer Harbury's hunger strike is the end of the affair are wrong. Faithful to MTV propagandistic precepts, the Harbury phenomenon was released in the gringo and Guatemalan market with a vast publicity campaign that includes videos, interviews, a book, a tour and a hunger strike. Much like REM and Madonna, the next phase of Jennifer's protest will include tours of various gringo universities." So wrote an editorialist from Siglo Veintiuno in an article titled "Harbury and MTV."
In November, immigration authorities issued an order allowing US, Canadian and Spanish citizens a stay of only 15 days in the country. At the same time, a proposed law was debated in Congress that will demand that all foreigners coming into the country sign a document declaring under oath that they will not become involved in national politics.
In the midst of this hostile atmosphere, Harbury returned to Guatemala on November 28 to begin the legal process against the military officers. A day later, Asisclo Valladares, the country's Solicitor General, announced that the Guatemalan state was suing Harbury for defamation. "I will not allow any foreigner to molest the Guatemalan state. And those who have tried to do so should feel the severity of the law," declared Valladares.
On November 29, MINUGUA and Human Rights Solicitor's Office officers inspected various military bases and outposts in search of the "disappeared" Bámaca. As was to be expected, they did not find him.