Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 178 | Mayo 1996



With Peace in Sight, Challenges Abound

“War is the most costly and extreme price that we have had to pay in order that the power brokers be at least a bit moved.” The price is paid, and the war is on the verge of ending.

Gonzalo Guerrero

March was a month of notable advances toward peace and disturbing shifts towards barbarity. On the one hand, important steps were taken in the negotiations to end the internal war, and on the other, a public made desperate by an unprecedented wave of criminal violence and the justice system's failures to deal with it lynched over thirty perpetrators.

Also in March, Guatemala's Congress gave a partial victory to those who proposed ratifying Agreement 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO), and the Constitutional Court decided to annul the Adultery Law. Meanwhile, military leaders accused of corruption continued to fall as a result of bold National Police investigations.

March will also be remembered for the torture of both a journalist and the sister of a union organizer who recently went into exile after receiving death threats. Legislative representatives from the New Guatemala Democratic Front also received death threats.

The Last Casualty?

On March 15, 22 year old José Rodolfo Martínez died with his legs destroyed by an RPG 7 rocket in a guerrilla ambush in the village of Cuil, in Cunín, Quiché. The news of his death, five days before the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) announced the suspension of offensive actions, received only a few paragraphs in the Current Events section on an inside page of the daily El Gráfico.

If the army and the URNG maintain their indefinite suspension of military activities, the death of this young Quiché resident could be written in history as the final casualty of a war that has already lasted 35 years.

When Martínez was born in 1974, the armed conflict now the oldest in Latin America had already been going on for 13 years. The figures of Guatemala's tragedy are alarming: 150,000 deaths, 45,000 disappeared and, in the most critical moments of the conflict, a million internally displaced and 200,000 refugees in Mexico. The policy has not been just "scorched earth" but "scorched society," and the multiple psycho social scars of this strategy have not yet been fully analyzed.

For conservative sectors, whose voices predominate in the media, the peace negotiations are more than anything a way to end a "sterile and unnecessary" war. But today, for the first time in 35 years of armed conflict, there are signs that the government is willing to accept the causes that gave origin to it.

In a recent interview published in the weekly Crónica, Gustavo Porras, coordinator of the governmental Peace Commission (COPAZ), rejected the interpretation that the conflict has been useless: "The war is the very high and disproportionate price that we have had to pay so that the country's power could be moved a little. For that reason, the peace accords make sense."

Porras' opinion was seconded by President Alvaro Arzú during a visit to Mexico on March 10. "The reasons why the insurgent organizations were created coincide fully with our objectives," said the country's leader, adding, "I am willing to run any risks necessary, maintaining any unorthodox opinion that will effectively help us move toward peace as soon as possible."

Cease Fire

On March 20, the URNG General Command announced the suspension of its military actions against National Army units. The same day, the COPAZ coordinator responded to the guerrilla initiative by announcing that the army was suspending all counterinsurgent activities.

The international community and the country's political and social sectors received the news of the suspension of military activities by both sides as a positive sign, showing the "mutual confidence" between the URNG and the new government on the eve of their second meeting at the end of March. During that meeting, the Arzú government and the URNG leaders reopened discussion of the Socioeconomic Aspects and Agrarian Situation, which had been on the negotiating table for the last ten months.

But the euphoria produced by the cease fire did not last long. One week later, a URNG armed unit occupied the town of Siquinala, in Escuintla, and brought the residents together for a political meeting. Within the logic of the pacification process, President Arzú immediately condemned the action as an act of war and demanded, as did the private sector and media, the end of both armed occupations for propagandistic purposes and the charging of war taxes. These pressures made the COPAZ coordinator include both issues in the negotiations.

Six years ago, when the URNG met with representatives of the Guatemalan private sector in Ottawa, Canada, its leaders gathered that the businessmen did not care about the armed conflict as long as their properties were not affected. According to Comandante Pablo Monsanto, that cynical attitude sparked the General Command's decision to create the war tax, to "bring the war to their homes."

The government believes that charging the war tax has opened the door to impunity and has created a conflictive environment in rural areas. Gustavo Porras claims that at most 25% of the war taxes are charged by the URNG, and the rest by delinquents who use the guerrillas' language and slogans.

Armed Takeovers

In the case of armed takeovers of towns, the URNG insists that this is still a key part of its political work. In recent weeks, the guerrillas occupied towns in Escuintla, Huehuetenango and Totonicapán. Comandante Pablo Monsanto states that the takeovers rarely lead to armed confrontations due to the guerrilla units' "tactical superiority." When the army learns of a takeover, it delays its arrival because it knows that the political actions are often attempts to lure troops into guerrilla ambushes.

Although guerrilla comandante Gaspar Ilom insists that the war tax and the town takeovers "are not negotiable," Porras announced after the last round of dialogue ended that the URNG offered to keep these actions "at a minimum level." The URNG also promised to prepare a document justifying its position in favor of war taxes and armed takeovers.

The discussion of these URNG activities "took valuable time away from the issues to be discussed," commented Ileana Alamilla in her April 2 column in La República. "So much so, that the point about the agrarian situation wasn't even addressed by the two sides," she said.

Vigilante Justice

On March 22, the residents of Nueva Concepción, Escuintla, captured two alleged kidnappers and handed them over to the town police. One of the two captured men said insolently to his captors, "Look carefully at my face, because tomorrow I'll be free!" The neighbors, incensed by the possibility that he might be right, took the prisoners out of jail by force, beat them, shot them and then burned them on the road.

In the last three weeks, over thirty alleged criminals have been lynched and at least six of them died. Since January, more than twelve people have died at the hands of enraged mobs and thirty others escaped death only through the intervention of authorities.

Over the last ten years of civilian government, many observers and analysts have warned of a "social upheaval" due to the population's growing desperation regarding the high levels of poverty, crime, corruption and impunity. The current wave people taking justice into their own hands appears to be the most concrete evidence to date that this upheaval is becoming reality.

Lynching cases have been reported in Chimaltenango, Huehuetenango, Sololá, San Marcos, Escuintla, Petén and in the capital itself. Sources from the United Nations Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA) say that the national press is not covering other cases of vigilante justice.

Among the victims are assailants, kidnappers, rapists, murderers and even someone who stole church offerings in the capital. In several cases, mob anger has been directed against MINUGUA, the National Police and the Army. MINUGUA had to close its offices in Flores, Petén, due to attacks by neighbors who accused MINUGUA of protecting criminals on the grounds of defending their human rights. In Barrillas, Huehuetenango, the National Police had to close its office after attacks by residents.

Up to now, the official reaction has been lukewarm, with Arzú asking the population to be "calm and prudent" while the government implements its security reforms. There is currently a sort of race between the population's hopes and frustrations and the government's ability to translate its reforms, plans and purges into palpable improvements.

According to the most recent MINUGUA report, progress in the fight against impunity requires changes in the National Police, the Public Ministry and the judicial system. In March, the government's initial success in all three areas was partially reversed. A Labor Court ordered the reinstatement of 118 policemen fired in January; judicial workers paralyzed the courts with a strike that lasted more than two weeks; and the unpopular head of the Public Ministry, Ramsés Cuestas, continued to ignore the multiple petitions demanding his resignation.

Many believe the lynchings to be part of a destabilization plot designed to interrupt the government's security reforms, but there is no clear evidence that they are organized by groups affected by the reforms.

Taking into account all the obstacles to a prompt improvement of the country's crime levels, two scenarios can be imagined. On the one hand, the lynchings could increase, with the tacit approval of the media and the government, until the levels drop. On the other, the army could play a more active role, patrolling the streets and controlling both criminals and lynch mobs. In recent days, the conservative columnists of the local press have begun to suggest the need to reestablish the Civil Self Defense Patrols, in this case to control street violence.

Peace Strategy

In the ten weeks the new government has been in office, it has somewhat clarified its strategy regarding international community participation in the peace process and the country's reconstruction. The strategy appears to focus on diversifying the sources of foreign political support, putting special emphasis on the international community's role in post conflict reconstruction and development projects. It also seems aimed at reducing the UN profile in the peace negotiations and human rights verification.

According to Frank LaRue, noted analyst and director of the Legal Human Rights Support Center (CALDH), there are three UN work units or "spaces" in Guatemala: mediation of the peace negotiations (Jean Arnault, under the direction of the UN Assistant Secretary), human rights verification (MINUGUA, directed by Leonardo Franco), and the financing, designing and administering of reconstruction and development projects (UNDP, headed by Ricardo Stein).

The rapprochement between the URNG and the government without UN participation, and the decision, during the most recent talks, to avoid the "pendulum" effect created by Arnault's active participation has reduced the moderator's role in the negotiations.

The new government's immediate efforts to clean out the police and army and initiate profound reforms in the security forces demonstrate that the government feels able to improve the human rights situation and combat impunity on its own. To some analysts, the fact that President Arzú has waited two months before having his first working meeting with MINUGUA's Leonardo Franco indicates that a close relationship with this UN body is not a government priority.

What does interest the government is the possibility of an avalanche of international funds as the product of a "firm and lasting" peace accord. Guatemalan Foreign Minister Eduardo Stein visited several European countries in March, where he received promises of $500 billion in economic aid, half from the European Union and half from various Union member countries. The aid will be released after the signing of a peace accord.

Post Conflict Development

That aid, and another $500 million promised by the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB), will finance government economic development projects. According to LaRue, the Arzú government considers the signing of peace as the take off point for its economic plans. The arrival of international aid would largely resolve the financial crisis the government is currently suffering. The political benefits of reconstruction and post conflict development are much more interesting to the government than issues such as verifying human rights or digging up the past.

Another element that points toward greater UN emphasis in the reconstruction area is the UNDP Director in Guatemala. Ricardo Stein is one of Arzú's closest advisers.

"The government wants to base its economic program on reconstruction," affirms LaRue, and the UNDP has already prepared a detailed study analyzing the costs of implementing programs and projects linked to each signed accord. The priority projects will cost $1.3 billion and will seek to improve governability and the administration of justice and to combat extreme poverty.

Controversial Accord

Throughout March the traditional power groups were threatened on various fronts. The challenges ranged from the Constitutional Court's decision to abolish the Adultery Law to Congress' ratification of ILO Agreement 169, while the purging of the armed forces continued forward.

One of Guatemala's laws that most discriminated against women was the Adultery Law, which was historically applied only against women. Although virtually no cases exist of women accused of adultery, the Court decision symbolically expresses a new sensibility toward gender discrimination. Other, equally discriminatory laws remain on the books, however; for example, one that differentiates between the sexes on the legal minimum age to get married, and one that prohibits married women from working outside the home if the husband does not give permission.

After several years of being shelved, Agreement 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries was ratified on March 5. This accord is causing controversy among those who believe that it creates the basis for separatism or a legal vehicle for recovery of indigenous lands.

The governing party, PAN, which also has a majority in Congress, managed to disarm an explosive conflict by including the following clause: 169 was ratified "with the understanding that the dispositions of the country's Constitution have power over said agreement, which does not affect rights acquired nor has retroactive effects." In other words, the Agreement cannot be used as legal grounds for indigenous communities to reclaim or recover lands usurped from them.

Although the amendment calmed the concerns of those who opposed 169, its constitutionality is being questioned. According to Article 171 of Guatemala's Constitution, "Congress should approve or reject international agreements, not qualify them." In Latin America, Guatemala joins Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica and Mexico in having ratified this ILO agreement.

Along with these insults to machista forces and racist land usurpers, there were frontal attacks on the shield of impunity that has protected the corrupt military. Three important officers were accused of crimes during March. Colonel Hugo de la Cruz left his post as director of the National Airport after being accused of giving refuge in his home to car thieves sought by the National Police. Colonel Mario Salvador López Serrano was suspended as chief of the Santa Cruz del Quiché military base when a police search of his house found undocumented vehicles and chemicals used in cocaine production. On March 23 Colonel Gordillo Martínez, who formed part of the triumvirate that took power after the 1982 military coup, was captured and held. National Police agents found Gordillo driving a car with plates stolen from another vehicle. He was released on bail the following day.


envío interviewed Gustavo Porras Castejón, coordinator of the government Peace Commission (COPAZ). His comments reveal the new moment that the country is living.

What does the government seek at the negotiating table?

We don't conceive of the negotiations as a way to demand that the URNG abandon its struggles to transform the country. What we ask is that it change its forms of struggle, that it move from armed struggle to working within the legal and institutional framework. The fundamental original argument for beginning the armed struggle was that other paths were closed. That was an epoch characterized by the exclusion of political forces even at the constitutional level. Before, there were laws like the law of the defense of democratic institutions, which proscribed communist or anarchist organizations or those contrary to democratic principles. Now we have consolidated pluralism, and there is no legal or real obstacle to broader political participation.

What do you think should be the final product of the negotiations?

The accords should allow indisputable national objectives to be defined, an agenda of essential points for the country. Our plan is that these peace accords emerge not from the particular vision of the URNG or the government, but that they be shared national objectives, favorable to some sectors and not opposed by others. To define major national goals so that they become a fundamental component of the nation's project. And to create the conditions so that this progressive impulse continue moving towards better and deeper transformations, knowing that peace is built every day based on the correlation of forces, and that this cannot be substituted by any pact. I always say that if this country were built on documents, it would be a very different place. If the Constitution were applied without changing a word, this country would be very different.

Is the URNG General Command willing to make a qualitative leap from the military political struggle to the political one?

I have the impression that they have already made a strategic decision about peace. Although, without a doubt, the negotiation of concrete details creates other tensions. On the one hand, the URNG needs to respond to its own support base, some with very radical concepts. As always happens, the leadership is sometimes willing to modify its point of view more rapidly than the base. On the other hand, it is undeniable that we must work seriously on some concepts that we hold very differently. It happens to everyone; the world looks different from afar than when one is riding the mule. One underestimates willingness from afar, but when you are inside, you begin to realize that you are trapped in the simplest things.

Alongside the purging of the security forces, there has been a notable increase in crime. Is this a reaction by the affected groups?

We have suggested in unofficial conversations with the URNG that the war against organized crime is fundamental for us. We knew this would happen, although fortunately organized crime is not as powerful here as in Colombia, for example. It would be extreme idealism to think that one can touch organized crime and not get any response from it.

The fight against organized crime is a fight for Guatemala's
survival. It is what most threatens our sovereignty and most affects our development possibilities. We could differ in a thousand other areas, but not in this. We are very concerned about armed confrontations serving as covers for common crime.

There has been a very distorted image of Guatemalans
and of the country over the years, as if we have a culture of violence. I don't think so. What we have is a situation of major conflict, and that is what we must disarm from the base. For us, the accord and its contents are fundamental to true reconciliation. The problem is combating impunity. I think that Guatemalan society now has a generalized tolerance for very different ideas.

MINUGUA has established that incidents exist that do not come from state decisions. It is not a formally implemented repressive state policy. It is probably a reaction by the mafias, which have profited from Guatemala's chaotic situation. We Guatemalans have to communicate among ourselves to confront and defeat them.

The agrarian issue is perhaps the most thorny issue in the negotiations. What is the solution to rural problems?

Rural development includes the land issue, but goes beyond it. If we analyze the pro land movements that have existed, a very high percentage of them had received land in the distributions made during the Castillo Armas government of 1954 55. They later sold their plots to buy a truck, a store, to open a business. Then their businesses went bankrupt and they became cotton pickers. The bottom dropped out of cotton and was replaced by soy, sorghum and corn, which use much less labor. This process left many people without jobs or a place to live, and now they want land again.

Do they really have a peasant vocation? To be able to really evaluate the land demand, more work must be offered in rural areas. I have often heard peasants say that only city people idealize the peasant life, wondering at the marvels of nature. But on marginal lands, where there's no communication, where people are reduced to subsistence level, there's nothing marvelous. The situation must be looked at more globally. To produce one also needs training, credit, access to markets. The problem of agricultural production is not only of lands.

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