Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 192 | Julio 1997



War Embedded in the Culture

Despite the long-awaited peace agreement, war is still embedded in Guatemalan culture, a culture of violence with historical roots in the state, but also a culture consented to and encouraged during decades by many people’s silent complicity.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

Guatemala's political climate has changed drastically in the last five months, according to the media. The moderate approval given the government for signing the peace and the happiness with the end of the conflict have been followed by an eminently negative view of the government and mutual aggression between it—especially President Arzú—and the majority of both the media and the opposition.

The government, particularly the President, accuses the media of giving too much coverage to mediocre economic results, insecurity around life and property, and the lack of legislative agreement between the PAN majority and the opposition, whose minority vote is still necessary for legislation requiring more than a simple majority. With a clear tendency to generalize, governmental personalities, again including the President, have labeled all journalists hacks, accusing them of only writing in exchange for fat checks.

In turn, the media accuses the government, and especially the President, of not tolerating criticism or accepting the media's democratic role as a counterweight against state power, of pressuring the media by offering or retaining publicity contracts, of trying to resolve problems with image rather than efficacy, of nepotism and even of a dictatorial and authoritarian tendency.

War of Images

And how do the Guatemalan people view the government? In the January-February edition of envío we cited Generis Latina (of the daily Siglo XX), which said that 70% of those polled in the capital approved of Arzú's work, calling it "very good" or "good." We don't have new polls by the same agency or with the same questions, but the weekly La Crónica states that "in a similar poll" by Aragon and Associates two months later, Arzú's work is considered "good" by only 34% and a scant 4% consider it "very good." In January Generis Latina did not include the category "average," but Aragon and Associates did and it was the choice of 49% of the respondents.

La Crónica definitely gives the impression that the Arzú government's approval rating (or his work as President) has shrunk by half in two months (from 70% to 34%), but it does not take into account that perhaps the drop wouldn't appear so dramatic if those polled had been able to choose "average" in January.

Why so much twisting and turning? To illustrate the depth of the war of images between the government and the media. Any weapon is valid as long as it disqualifies the contender, even if it makes the capital population appear fickle.

Peace Holds Little Weight

The impact of the peace signing on the population's opinion of the President's work is undervalued by media and overvalued by the government.

The signing doesn't appear to have ever had first place in the interests of capital residents who have been interviewed. An example: on Sunday, May 2, in a meeting of residents of popular neighborhoods from parishes with a social orientation, in other words people sensitized with a relative religious militancy, virtually no one mentioned the peace signing as among the most important events of the last six months. In first place they listed both impunity and lack of public safety, because of crime and delinquency, especially kidnappings and assassinations. In second place they cited economic problems: unemployment, low salaries, high and increasing cost of living, illness, poverty, lack of educational opportunities, etc. Only at the end did someone mention the peace signing.

Who would be surprised by that? The polls would probably have other results in the rural departments where war and repression—and their consequent polarization—have left deep marks. But the war wasn't felt in the capital for many years before peace was signed. The mass media met the terrible massacres carried out by the army to "take the water away from the [guerrilla] fish" with a fearful or complicit silence. The exodus of tens of thousands of refugees was a reality only in the depths of rural Guatemala, and the return of those refugees a passing event in the capital that did not capture the news. The tremendous division in rural areas of the country between guerrilla members and sympathizers and the members and sympathizers of the civil self-defense patrols and army had no equivalent in the capital.

In the capital, the demographic changes growing out of massive displacements— largely as a product of the war, but not appreciated as such in the cities—have caused overcrowding, brutal competition for jobs, an uncontrolled increase in the informal economy, migratory movement and the importation of gang models and other forms of street violence.

30 Years of "Kidnappings"

The kidnappings are a special reality. Very few people and even fewer institutions are brave enough to point to the real problem. The kidnapping and subsequent release of Olga de Novella by guerrillas in October 1996 is a paradigmatic case. It's easy to forget that this was not the first time a member of the wealthy Novella family was kidnapped. It had already happened once in the 1970s and analysis at that time suggested the desire of military capital to break the family's monopoly on the cement industry. That analysis remained a reasonable hypothesis, since it is extremely unlikely that it and other kidnappings of wealthy people in the 1970s and 1980s will be legally investigated.

The first kidnappings by the paramilitary right and the leftwing armed revolution took place 30 years ago. For example, the kidnapping of Archbishop Mario Casariego by a squadron from the National Liberation Movement, and those of German Ambassador Von Spretti and US Ambassador J. Gordon Mein were highly publicized at the time.

Kidnapping became a macabre national industry in Guatemala after those years. Above all, it was used for political repression by the army and other security bodies. It should never be forgotten that kidnapping was a fundamental part of the strategy of repressive terror centered on disappearance. In the more than 35 years of armed conflict, the Guatemalan state kidnapped then "disappeared" thousands upon thousands of citizens. How many? No one speaks of fewer than 40,000. Only the Commission of Historical Clarification, if loyal to its commitment to humanity, could illustrate the true magnitude of the numbers for us.

Kidnapping also turned into an extortionist tool, into financial kidnapping, through which the squadrons, bands and groups connected with state security forces tried to wring economic benefits from wealthy civilians. This is one of the origins of today's criminal capital. Of course, these cases were never taken to the courts.

Yesterday's Silent Accomplice

It is very serious that the same media that remained silent for decades about the magnitude of this national tragedy are now complaining about ineffective public security, impunity in the courts and Arzú's failure to fulfill his promises to control the wave of kidnappings.

The media's former silence or informational under-evaluation of the massive pathology of disappearances—which always began with kidnapping, and whose personal drama usually ended in extrajudicial execution, frequently preceded by torture— raises the suspicion that fear kept the media quiet, or that the East-West conflict, the cold war, the containment of communism, the defense of liberty or private property or some other similar ideological banner offered justifications not to raise any voice.

Today, on the other hand, fear has diminished and the planet has entered an era in which there are no longer confrontations between world systems but just the victorious and globalizing security of the transnational capitalist system. Today the media offer profuse information about every kidnapping and any assault or assassination.

The Case of Mincho

In the kidnapping of Olga de Novella, MINUGUA, the UN Mission to verify the peace accords, has had to look into the accusation, based on clues leaked to the press that, in addition to Isaiah, the guerrilla exchanged for Novella, another guerrilla known as Mincho was also implicated in the kidnapping and is still disappeared. Despite the thorniness of the case, the media insists that it is impossible to sustain the rule of law using means such as disappearances, even to combat crime and even when dealing with a guerrilla kidnapping of a powerful person.

If that's so in the case of Mincho, those conclusions should have had been just as valid during the war years. No defense of liberty or of the rule of law, no security for western Christian civilization, no claim regarding the inviolability of private property should be built on a mountain of thousands upon thousands of disappeared people. But since attempts were made to build on those foundations then, it's not strange that the edification is now so costly.

Despite the signing of peace, the war remains embedded in the culture of violence, in business that has economic kidnapping as one of its key expressions. Sow the winds and one will harvest tempests. The guerrillas and the armed branch of the state sowed kidnappings and disappearances, the latter over far vaster terrain. What other harvest could there be today?

It Won't Be Easy

To kidnap, just as to make disappear, requires a strong logistical system and infrastructure. It's unlikely that the rash of kidnappings that is now getting so much media attention is the work of private individuals acting on their own. It's evident that the kidnapping networks that remain hidden, or whose intellectual godparents have impunity, have the same influence and the same resources to prevent their unmasking as those of the army and security bodies had during the war to keep them from being discovered as responsible for the disappearance strategy.

The guerrillas normally publicized their kidnappings. They worked from an ideology in which revolutionary change justified tactical means, particularly to inflict blows on the capitalist classes, considered enemies. The state, on the other hand, could not make its disappearance policy public, because it constituted a publicly unjustifiable violation of the code obliging it to adhere to a democracy committed to human rights.

That's why the peace agreement dealing with the Commission of Historical Clarification excludes mentioning those responsible for atrocities that are clarified. Impunity remains in place by establishing that the Commission's results will have no legal effects.

The National Reconciliation Law, although excluding the crimes of genocide, torture and forced disappearance from this extinction of responsibility, is not explicit about the crime of extrajudicial execution with which forced disappearances in Guatemala habitually concluded. It may be that this exception is implicitly contained in the mention of other imprescriptible crimes or those that do not permit the extinction of penal responsibility due to international treaties ratified by Guatemala.

Whatever the case, it unquestionably will not be easy to fight impunity in the Guatemalan judicial system, one of whose courts already acquitted a former civil defense patrol member, Cándido Noriega, accused of 54 bloody incidents in El Quiché, and against whom 36 people testified.

Pending Demilitarization

The difficulty of the struggle against impunity leads to another concern: the kind of results that the government is seeking in its desire to increase public safety. This desire could generate a tendency to put efficacy before scrupulous respect for human rights, due process, etc. And it could lead to the maintenance of predominantly military government structures which according to the peace accords should disappear, among them the Presidential High Command. What is at stake is the success or failure of the Guatemalan state's demilitarization policy, the army's new role in a democratic society and the strengthening of civil power.

Alvaro Arzú's presidential term began with unexpected measures that left over half a dozen generals and some two hundred relatively high-level officers out of work. And until the end of 1996, virtually during Arzú's whole first year of government, high-level military officers, including colonels and generals, who appeared linked to criminals or to cases of crime or corruption, were rapidly suspended from their posts, as in the case of Moreno, presumed head of a contraband ring. Even more surprising was that the army spokesperson at the time did everything possible to accept the accusations and publicize them.

Since January 1997, however, that has reversed. The new army spokesperson has done everything possible to disconnect the army from any military officer questioned as a criminal or delinquent. Five months after the peace signing, there are no indications that the Presidential High Command will be replaced by a civilian body charged with guaranteeing the security of the President, Vice President and their family members. Nor are any visible steps being taken toward creating a strictly civilian secretariat of strategic analysis, under the President's direct authority, even though the period for doing it is between April and December of this year.

It is true that the Constitution must be reformed to make the army's habitual participation in domestic security tasks unconstitutional, But it is no less true that the spirit of the peace accords already demands that the army stop inspecting cars on the country's highways and in city streets, whether or not this action is viewed positively by public opinion. In fact, the army is participating more and more in roadblocks, a task that the President should only request when it is judged that "ordinary measures to maintain public order and domestic peace are insufficient." After the still pending constitutional reform required to meet the peace accords, the President will only be able to use the army for domestic security tasks in exceptional circumstances, dependent on and in subordination to Congress.

Struggles in the Army

Behind these tendencies can be discerned the reemergence of the dispute between different sectors of the Guatemalan army: hardline traditionalists, determined institutionalists and modernizers. Some analysts interpret a recent series of incidents as aimed at undermining the influence of the current Defense Minister, General Julio Balconi, and the sector he represents. These events include the change of the army spokesperson, substitution of the deputy chief of the Defense Ministry's High Command—in charge of intelligence—and above all, the revolt at the end of January in the general quarters of the Itinerant Military Police. According to the peace accords, this police force should disappear in 1997 to make way for a single Civilian National Police.

Many of these analysts predict that Defense Minister Balconi will be replaced on June 30, Army Day, a common date for promotions and demotions. There is talk of General Sergio Camargo, current head of the Army High Command, as the possible new minister. Almost since the day Balconi was named there was talk of Camargo as his successor, and it is unclear if his naming would lead to a change in tendency. There is also talk of General Otto Pérez Molina, the only military member of the peace accords negotiating team during the Arzú government; his naming would seem to be congruent with the Balconi line. There is even talk of General Ventura, deputy chief of the High Command under Camargo, and of General Marco Tulio Espinoza, head of the Presidential High Command. The naming of either of these would indicate a triumph of those who defend continuation of the army's predominant functions in the government.

What's Happening In Ixcán?

In this context, the serious conflicts in Ixcán cannot be interpreted as just local ones. This zone was the heart of the war and is where some of the most brutal massacres occurred. It is also where General Balconi and ex-URNG guerrilla commandante Rolando Morán could be seen greeting veterans from both sides immediately after the peace signing.

They may appear local conflicts superficially, given that they are between members of cooperatives founded in the 1970s by Maryknoll missionaries, These members include refugees returned from Mexican, others forcibly placed by the army and still others who are legally incorporated ex-URNG combatants. A conflict with roots in a political dispute between the army, the URNG and the Rigoberta Menchú Foundation has been poisoned until it has become the irrational source of accusations about the horrors of war and repression.
But other fishermen can also catch fish in such stormy waters, including those who ended up with the cooperative land that was refused to the ex-URNG combatants, and are now selling it at high prices to oil or lumber companies who want to exploit the Ixcán subsoil and the tropical forests. In reality, this dispute in the heart of the war zone is over the heart of peace; will the army's power structure continue or not?

It's Government, Not a Business

One can hypothesize that the dispute between the press and the government, which is largely being played out between the President and the print media, reveals an attitude among the main PAN leaders that is common in and more appropriate to private enterprise.

For those with this attitude, everything that brings government problems to light contradicts business logic and endangers the effective meshing of the government's gears. The same goes for any interference in official proceedings by social forces not hired to do the government's executive work.

The media quite evidently are a social force that continually interferes in government procedures and brings to light everything it does. But it is quite right that they do. In any type of society the government is a public resource and those who govern can't run it like a private business.

Things get even more complicated if, in addition, too many officials in the government not only work with habits more appropriate to the private sphere, but also apply rules of publicity to government work, seeking success through images rather than concrete results. Few officials of the current government would dare publish a summary of their work the way the Foreign Minister evaluated himself in January: "We've passed the test, but just squeaking by." To evaluate oneself that humbly requires an understanding that the goals are now high and that for many years the government worked with very low ones, with basically only the single goal of containing subversion, which meant governing with a truly base vision. It also requires understanding that a government needs to cleanse itself occasionally to stay honest and qualified.

A Formula of "Encounters"

To make fulfillment of the peace accords possible, the government has tried to break the blockade that prevents reaching consensus or viable majorities. To do this it has called some "updating encounters" with the political opposition and other civil society forces (business associations, university organizations, unions, churches and other religious groups, human rights organizations, etc.).

The meetings risk running out of steam by focusing on just one issue: whether the government's preferred agenda for them (state modernization laws, civil service and pension reforms) should or should not expand to include issues of enormous importance like security, impunity, or economic functioning. The dialogue threatens to break down even before that due to the question of the number of invited guests.

After coming from Santiago, Chile, to moderate the first sessions of these meetings, Guatemalan economist Gert Rosental, executive director of the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA), reminded everyone that Guatemala today enjoys sympathy and support in the international arena because of the peace accords. "In Washington and in Europe one only hears praise," he chided, "while here everyone is in a bad mood, perhaps because there are many unresolved tensions or because the significance of the accords is not understood."

The Media Should Be More Serious...

The urgent need for a change is evident everywhere. The media can't continue to pretend that the people are fighting windmills. It can't continue to try to make us believe that those who are governing are a group of arrogant people with no positive results. The peace accords, the economic support offered by the international community to fulfill them and the first steps taken against military arrogance and corruption by a government that is more honorable than any previous one constitute facts that should not be undermined.

The conflict of economic interests (many newspapers disputing a small market of readers with a tendency to prefer sensationalist news) should not overshadow or eliminate the serious analysis that requires the government to be honest and more firmly civilian.

...And the Government Less Arrogant

For its part, the government can't afford the luxury of arrogance, or support itself through image inflation, or surround with secrets what is essentially public. Even less can it flag in the coherent and consistent battle to demilitarize the state and the country.

Following the vote in March by the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva to withdraw Guatemala from the status of nation requiring an independent human rights monitor, and after the UN even chose Guatemala to occupy one of the posts on that commission, two representatives of the UN Secretary General came to Guatemala to carry out a sort of audit of MINUGUA. Once again, the international community observed the Guatemalan government, which has forcefully questioned the MINUGUA report's conclusions about the situation of guerrilla Juan José Cabrera (Mincho).

The government faces two paths: arrogance or coherence. The repetition of arrogance and sarcasm would reveal how little it is interested in constructing the rule of law with absolute respect for human life, even if it is the life of a kidnapper. This arrogance was revealed in President Arzú's response to the press when asked about the location of Mincho, whom MINUGUA claims is "disappeared." "Who?" asked Arzú, "Pancho, Lencho, Juancho, Chencho?"
The alternative path is of coherence, of being consistent and going to the core, whoever falls, so that bit by bit the truth is clarified. The truth of what happened to Mincho and to all. So that it will be true, finally, that all Guatemalans are overcoming arbitrariness, repression and the loss of historical memory.

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


From Environmentalism To Radical Ecology

Coffe and Sesame: Mirrors on the Solution

Is There a Bridge Over These Troubled Waters?

El Salvador
A Leftwing Mayor In the Continent's Most Violent Capital

War Embedded in the Culture

Popular Pressure In a Sea of Violence

End of Century, End of a Regime

Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development