Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 168 | Julio 1995



Is the URNG Moving To the Center?

While accusations rain down on military leaders and the country begins to move towards elections, the URNG has made a “proposal to the society” that is original. The guerrillas, on the verge of ceasing to be such, do not propose spectacular transformations, but only concrete measures within the present rules of the game.

Gonzalo Guerrero

A new front has opened against the Guatemalan army and its attacks will be hard to dodge this time, since they come from within the military ranks. Ex officers are accusing other officers of specific cases of assassinations, extortion, car theft and intimidation of witnesses.

The revelations coincide with new information linking both the US Embassy in Guatemala and the State Department to cover ups in the case of disappeared guerrilla leader Efraín Bámaca. They also take place in the context of the sentencing of Chilean and Venezuelan military leaders for assassination and corruption, and of the "mea culpas" by various high level Argentine military officers.

Many human rights activists in Guatemala view this situation optimistically because it opens new cracks in the wall of impunity. Others express concern about the imminent reaction of the affected sectors. "The tiger is wounded," says Edgar Lemus Orellana, of the Public Ministry's General Council, "and it will cause much violence."

The US Government Knew

Former military intelligence (G 2) officer Angel Nery Urízar García accused two army officers of ordering the death of a G 2 member in order to bury him and claim it was Bámaca's body. The victim was Cristóbal Ché Pérez, once a guerrilla who later joined the army and was chosen to be killed because he looked like Bámaca and had no relatives to claim him. Urízar García states that when he turned over photos of Ché Pérez to then Major Mario Ernesto Sosa Orellana, he saw Bámaca shackled to a bed while being interrogated by several officers at the Santa Ana Berlín base in San Marcos.

Urízar García's accusation was made to the press, the Human Rights' Office and the United Nations Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA), after surviving an attempt on his life in Palín, Escuintla. According to his declarations, he spoke out because he believes that the armed institution wants to eliminate him.

Although the army has tried to dismiss Urízar by saying he is a corrupt ex officer involved in illicit businesses, his accusation coincides with new revelations about the Bámaca case by the intelligence office of the US Defense Department. In response to requests by the lawyer of Jennifer Harbury, Bámaca's widow, the Defense Department released a two page document on June 2 covered with blacked out sections to conceal classified information revealing that Bámaca was "captured, interrogated several times and killed."
According to this document, the Defense Department informed the US Embassy in Guatemala about the Bámaca case in September 1993. José Pertierra, Harbury's lawyer, issued an indignant response: "Jennifer Harbury risked her health and her life in October and November 1994, during a hunger strike in Guatemala that lasted 32 days, because she believed that her husband was alive and being tortured by the Guatemalan army. The official US government response was that it had no information about her husband's whereabouts. It is now clear that the United States government knew since September 1993 about Mr. Bámaca's death at the hands of the Guatemalan army."

Why Go Up Against a Stone Wall?

The new evidence in the Bámaca case provoked the Guatemalan government to do an about face. Until recently, it has emphasized the lack of proof and argued that the implications devastating for Washington of a CIA Guatemalan army scandal made new revelations unlikely. "As long as the accusations are without evidence, it is difficult to initiate judicial processes," stated President Ramiro de León Carpio.

But since the evidence has become increasingly damaging, the government is now starting to emphasize the jurisdictional question. "The illicit acts that took place during 34 years of conflict will be the competence of the Commission of Historical Clarification," insisted the President. "It's not fair to put people on trial for defending their country." And, he concluded, "I'm also not going to crash into a wall."
Urízar's declarations are not the only ones. Two months ago, Edwin González Barrientos was kidnapped, tortured and left for dead in Santa Lucía Cotzumalguapa. But Edwin did not die. He made it to the Archbishop's Human Rights' Office, where he accused Santa Lucía chief of police Ricardo Antonio Sánchez and three others of kidnapping and torturing him. He then took exile in Costa Rica.

He returned to Guatemala in May, after his family had received death threats. But instead of keeping quiet, he opened a Pandora's box that those involved will find hard to close. Although González Barrientos states that he is a student with no links to the army, there are serious rumors that he has been a member of the intelligence section "the archives" of the Presidential High Command. According to González Barrientos, Generals Marco Antonio Gonález Taracena, army chief of the High Command, and Horacio Soto Salan, together with Colonels Mario Salvador López Serrano, commander of the Santa Lucía military zone, and Max González are involved in a number of murders, car theft, drug trafficking and extortion.

"The Campaign" vs. The Army

Among the cases mentioned by González Barrientos are the killing of Marist religious brother Moisés Cisneros, a university professor and two other people. These claims received greater credibility when one of the bodies was found in the place indicated by González, who is under the protection of the Public Ministry while his case is being heard in the courts.

There are also the accusations by former soldiers Jilzon Urízar Cabrera and Francisco Solbal Santay. Urízar Cabrera accuses the army of torturing and killing peasants at the Chimaltenango base 302, and also offered information about the alleged participation of Colonel Luis Fernández in car thefts. Solbal Santay one of five convicted soldiers in the Michael Devine murder case accuses Colonels Mario García Catalán and Julio Roberto Alpírez and Captain Hugo Contreras of participating in Devine's death and claims to have information about a clandestine cemetery where 28 victims of extrajudicial executions are buried. He says he is willing to speak out against the armed institution because he feels it is unjust for soldiers to be in jail for crimes ordered by their superiors.

The army has tried to discredit each of the accusers, saying they are corrupt or are part of an international campaign to attack the armed institution. The government and the URNG will be discussing the role of the army in a democratic society in the coming months and, according to Defense Minister General Mario René Enríquez, this rain of criticism is part of a campaign to weaken the institution before beginning to negotiate its future.

There are even more accusations. Many army officers have been posing as guerrillas to assault vehicles on the highways, charging "war taxes" to farmers on the South Coast. This confirms what has been an open secret for a long time: the insurgent war has become an important source of illicit enrichment for a good number of military officers.

For 34 years, Guatemala's security forces have managed to systematically undermine the country's legal judicial system in order to carry out a war that did not "legally" exist, but in which more than 100,000 people have died. With an "end justifies the means" pragmatism reminiscent of the Cold War, it has almost managed to transfer the benefits of impunity and monopoly of access from the political military sphere to the economic sphere.

Negotiating Kidnappings

There was a notable increase during May in the operations of kidnapping bands throughout the country. The National Police receives an average of six complaints a week, although the great majority of cases are not reported to the authorities.

According to data offered by members of the National Congress, there were over 100 kidnappings in 1994, with ransom costs reaching US$40 million. Based on the complaints so far this year, the "kidnapping business" will double, placing it, in income terms, among the three largest traditional exports.

This business has reached impressive levels of sophistication. The kidnappers have access to the victims' financial and banking accounts and operate with all the organization and efficiency of a formal business. One group among the five identified by the National Police functions with a six member team: one is in charge of choosing victims and evaluating financial capacity; two others carry out the capture; a cook housekeeper takes care of the kidnap victim; another is the negotiator; and the other picks up the ransom.

Members of the security forces have been fingered as responsible in various kidnapping cases. Congresswoman Flora Marina Escobar de Ramos recently accused "criminal elements within the army" of involvement in the kidnapping business. "The families don't dare report it because they fear future consequences."
The increased frequency of kidnappings appears to be linked to the perception that the prime conditions for kidnapping will soon diminish, so they must be taken advantage of now. Advances in the peace process, the greater presence of international observers and the pressures to reduce human rights violations, reorganize the civil police and improve the judicial system all point to a future with fewer opportunities for state linked criminal organizations.

Nonetheless, improving the judicial system and cleaning out or reducing the security forces could have undesired effects if the result is the massive firing of agents, soldiers and officers. Two years ago, an international team of experts in civil security came to Guatemala to analyze the situation of the National Police. After an exhaustive study, it concluded that the only hope of controlling corruption would be to close down the institution, fire all the agents and begin from zero. "Converting" the military institution is a complicated challenge for the post war stage, and "converting" fired members will undoubtedly be an even more difficult one.

URNG: An Innovative Document

During May the URNG circulated a 33 page document titled "Guatemala: A Proposal to Society." There is no openly class bias in the text; the historical demand for agrarian reform has become a call for the "modernization of agriculture"; and major importance is put on the struggle of women and the indigenous. The words exploitation, oligarchy and agrarian reform do not appear at all in the document.

The majority of the changes the URNG recommends are achievable within the country's current political and economic structure. The criticisms are directed towards violations of the rules of the current game: corruption, human rights violations, militarization of society, the lack of social participation in political decision making and the centralization of power and resources at the urban level.

Commentarists in the Guatemalan press see the document as a major URNG shift towards the center. "The comandantes of the last insurgent movement in Central America no longer talk of socialism, but rather of how to improve capitalism," states Félix Colindres, of La Crónica magazine.

Beyond what could be considered a moderation of its discourse because of the coming elections, these changes have their roots in a simple reality: the correlation of forces in Guatemala today leaves no space to propose systemic changes, even though the country's socioeconomic and institutional crises demand these changes.

Reality also demonstrates, however, that the gap between these "rules of the game" and the political, social and economic reality leaves a big area for play. "Without traumatic changes, without spectacular transformations, but with precise and concrete measures, it is possible to channel our society in another way," proposes the URNG in its document.

Among the proposal's objectives are: "To construct a new pluricultural and multilingual nation, establish real democracy and the demilitarization of the state and society, eliminate state corruption and implant morals, and strengthen a viable and just social model."
To achieve these objectives, the URNG proposes various fiscal, economic, legislative and public spending reforms. For agriculture, it promotes modernizing property registration, taxing idle land, credits for small producers and promoting communal forms of property ownership and production. It suggests decentralizing the state and changing rural urban relationships, sanctioning tax evaders and the free organization of civil society. It also recommends an ecologically sustainable development policy and health and education reforms that assure that both are not "privileges, but citizen rights."

No longer the Vanguard

Taken together, these changes promoted by the URNG look like an electoral platform designed on the eve of the elections. None of the proposals are any more innovative than those that the various sectors that would benefit from them have been putting forward.

The document demonstrates that the URNG has been listening to the voices of sectors represented in the Association of Civil Society (ASC). This in some way marks the end of the "vanguard" concept of social struggle that this revolutionary force has advocated over the last decades.

The distribution of the document platform coincided with a paid ad in local newspapers in which the URNG publicly called for participation in the elections to prevent "abstention from legitimizing the minority." The URNG General Leadership stated that "electoral indifference should be a thing of the past so that, through the exercise of popular sovereignty, the people can elect authorities and make demands, legitimize institutions and put forward a national project."

Elections: Two Prospects

The guerrillas' optimism about November's general elections raises a question; who will the URNG ally with? There is no possibility of joining the Great National Front made up of the Christian Democrats, the Social Democratic Party and the National Center Union.

Two new possibilities have been amply discussed in recent weeks in political circles. The recently formed Authentic Integral Development Party (DIA), which has a presence in rural areas, especially in the Altiplano and in the west, has initiated discussions with the URNG General Leadership in Mexico. DIA has joined with members of nongovernmental development organizations and Rolando Torres Casanova, national director of the Christian Children's Fund, is mentioned as its probable presidential candidate. President De León Carpio, the president of the government Peace Commission and moderate army members attended a recent ceremony sponsored by that organization.

A meeting on May 29 initiated the other possibility among members of diverse popular groups and well known personalities of the left to unite their forces for the general elections. An impressive gamut of groups and leaders attended the meeting, including delegates from the Communities of Population in Resistance (CPR) and Guatemalan refugees in Mexico; the director of the daily La Hora, Oscar Clemente Marroquín; Nineth Montenegro, from the Mutual Support Group; Rosalina Tuyuc, from the Coordinator of Guatemalan Widows and various dissidents from the Christian Democrats and the Social Democratic Party.

Members of this new group met on June 3 to discuss principles, electoral strategies and the organization of this new association. Given speculation that the URNG could link up with this group, its representatives were willing to include the URNG as one voice among the others. "However, we should wait until the baby is born," insists Alfonso Bauer, government minister under Arbenz and currently legal adviser to the Guatemalan refugees in Mexico. Bauer and Clemente Marroquín are mentioned as possible presidential candidates of this new political group.

The URNG has not yet resolved the mystery about its electoral participation. It is innovative that it is supporting the electoral process, after more than two decades of rejecting elections. It is also novel for a broad front to form in which historically marginalized social sectors are participating in the electoral processes.

The Inhibited General

At the other extreme of the spectrum are Alvaro Arzú from the National Advancement Party (PAN) and General Efraín Ríos Montt of the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG). The polls reflect Arzú's growing popularity over the General. Between April and May those polled who intended to vote for Arzú increased from 28% to 47%, while those in favor of Ríos Montt dropped from 38% to 25%; no other candidate received more than 2%. Although the undecided vote dropped from 31% to 22%, there is still a significant number of undecided voters. The drop in FRG popularity appears to respond to a general rejection of Ríos Montt's candidacy by the media, political parties and civil sectors. Ríos Montt is legally prohibited from running for President because he came to power through a military coup.

On May 18 the Supreme Electoral Tribunal formally convoked Guatemalans to general elections on November 12. This closes the door to new political parties and eliminates the possibility that future reforms of the Electoral and Political Parties' Laws could affect these elections. Without such reforms, the Electoral Registry remains the first obstacle to Ríos Montt's candidacy. In 1990, the Registry rejected the General's application and the current head of the Registry has affirmed that he would reject Ríos Montt again if he tries to register.

The last card in the General's hand electing new Supreme Electoral Tribunal magistrates does not appear to be sufficient to achieve his goal of participating in the elections. The committee of academics and lawyers charged with selecting 30 candidates for the 9 Tribunal positions excluded pre candidates thought to favor Ríos Montt from its list.

Although the General's followers insist that Ríos Montt will participate in the elections, there are indications that the FRG is preparing an alternative candidate. The new public profile of the General's wife Teresa is sparking rumors that she could be the presidential candidate.

Businessmen Speak

On May 23, the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations (CACIF) made public its document, "Guatemala; Reflections on the Past, Considerations for the Present and Recommendations for the Future." This document is CACIF's contribution to the current round of negotiations between the URNG and the Guatemalan government, in which discussions are focusing on socioeconomic aspects and the agrarian situation.

For CACIF, the main obstacle to Guatemala's development has been "the absence of national direction." In its recommendations, CACIF advocates a direction that, instead of drowning in tax reform, goes through privatization, the adjudication of state lands to individual property and public spending reductions. "It means that more Guatemalans can enter active economic sectors, without destroying what already exists," says CACIF.

CACIF's proposals do not address the most controversial issues: access to land, freedom of organization for workers, taxes on idle land and sanctions for tax evaders. The generic treatment the business sector gives to the country's macroeconomic problems resembles reports from international financing institutions and distances it from what should be the position of a sector immersed in the socioeconomic crisis strangling the country.

In the second part of its document, CACIF analyzes the investment in infrastructure and human capital needed to reach development goals before 2020. The business representatives calculate that the country would need to invest $66 billion to cover housing, education, employment and infrastructure deficits.

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of the business sector proposal is its analysis of Guatemala's level of underdevelopment. It considers that the state would have to triple its current tax income and dedicate 100% of public spending to investment to obtain the amount of money needed to pull the country out of its backward state before 2020.

To reach this ambitious goal, the fiscal policy recommended by the same document does not recommend tax increases; it suggests "adjusting government spending to available tax income." A sublime paradox.


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