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  Number 136 | Noviembre 1992
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Guatemala

Everything the Same?

Envío team

Nothing seems to change in Guatemala. After initially trying to strengthen civilian power, President Jorge Serrano seems to have completely abandoned this effort.

Serrano apparently learned more quickly than his predecessor, Vinicio Cerezo—who suffered various coup attempts—that it is more convenient, healthy and even enjoyable to leave the country in the hands of those who actually run it—the military. Serrano has stopped speaking of human rights and other thorny issues and now dedicates himself to travelling to different countries accompanied by an entourage of friends and relatives, buying farms in the northern part of the country, and promoting horse raising and racing.

While the President plays, one of Latin America's longest and dirtiest counterinsurgency wars continues. Some Guatemalans joke that the US, Israeli and Chilean military advisers come to Guatemala to learn, not to teach. What they are learning, however, is that the most sophisticated repressive machinery cannot detain people emerging from terror-inflicted paralysis and acting in their own defense.

It is too early to say that the Guatemalan people are rising up. The popular movement has not yet fully recovered from the massive violence of the early 1980s and is weak and divided. There are signs of dispersed and spontaneous resistance in various important sectors, but they are still reactions to the moment.

Interminable dialogue

At the beginning of August, after six months of standstill, the Guatemalan government and the URNG reached a partial accord regarding the "civil defense patrols." The government agreed not to promote their formation because they foment human rights violations and the militarization of the countryside. Captain Julio Alberto Yon Rivera, the army's spokesperson, said, however, that if the insurgents continue attacking the civilian population, it will have every right to organize a patrol to protect itself, insinuating that the patrols will continue. On August 11, after the accord was signed, the army reiterated this position in a press release noting that "the Guatemalan army will fully respect the accord reached in the recent meeting in Mexico. No more Voluntary Civil Defense Committees [the civil defense patrols] will be formed, as long as the enemies of peace, liberty and democracy do not do the contrary. The people's dignity must be built and defended."

The URNG has demanded that these paramilitary bodies be totally dismantled. The Guatemalan popular movement and the national and international human rights organizations have also insisted for a long time that the government eliminate them. Because the issue of the patrols has been one of the most difficult to negotiate, the accord was seen as a small advance, despite its weaknesses.

A general accord on human rights has not been signed, however, as hoped for in September. The mediating bishop, Quezada Torufio, suspended the discussions on August 23 due to profound differences between the two sides regarding the application of international humanitarian law and the forming of a "truth commission" to investigate human rights abuses committed in the past. The government argues that such a commission should only include Guatemalans and should begin its work after the signing of a general peace accord. The URNG insists on international participation by well-known persons as in El Salvador, and wants the commission formed immediately.

Bishop Quezada Torufio announced that the talks would resume on September 11. They did not, however, and on September 12 the URNG published a paid ad denouncing the government- and army-sponsored campaign of "infamy and lies" against them. At the end of September no new date had been set to try and sign an accord on the touchy subject of human rights.

And the war goes on

On August 15, the insurgents attacked a military detachment in El Chajul, El Quiché and also are said to have killed 14 soldiers in an attack on the President's "Santo Tomas" farm on September 10, according to the Guatemalan press. On September 13, the army presented on television the bodies of three guerrillas killed in combat near Palín, south of the capital.

The Guatemalan army is continuing its psychological warfare to discredit the URNG and promote a climate of terror. The strategy is to attack the guerrillas' strongest flank: their political-diplomatic offensive against human rights abuses committed by the security forces. The army campaign's targets include national and international human rights organizations; the Communities of Population in Resistance (CPR), which are groups of internal refugees who have been hiding in the mountains and forests for 10 years; and the approximately 50,000 refugees in Mexico, who are planning a massive return at the end of the year. During August and September the army presented to the press a series of guerrilla "deserters," and made declarations linking them to the CPR, the refugees, popular movements and foreign organizations.

Maritza Urrutia, a former history student at the capital's San Carlos University who was kidnapped at the end of July, was one of the first "deserters" within this campaign. Urrutia was kidnapped in broad daylight while taking her child to school.
After a national and international campaign demanding her freedom, a video of Urrutia declaring that she had deserted the URNG voluntarily and gone into hiding was distributed to the television channels. The URNG confirmed that she was a member, but charged that she had been kidnapped by the feared G-2, the army's intelligence body, and demanded that she be treated as a prisoner of war and handed over to the human rights solicitor.

Urrutia reappeared on August 1 requesting amnesty in the Public Ministry. During a press conference, she repeated what she had said on the video and added that she had no reason to leave the country because the government would protect her. Immediately afterwards she took refuge in the human rights offices of the archbishop of Guatemala, from which she left on August 8 for exile in the United States, accompanied by her family.

The case provoked a "minor" crisis between the US Embassy in Guatemala and President Serrano, according to the Embassy.

First, US senators wrote a letter to the government demanding that Urrutia be set free. Embassy officials then told Serrano that they knew the army had kidnapped Urrutia, which was somewhat embarrassing for the President, since he did not seem to know who was holding her. Serrano was angry because Urrutia obtained a visa to go to the US and demanded that the official responsible, George Chester, leave the country. It was finally agreed that Chester would go in three months.

The archbishop's human rights office was also instrumental in obtaining Urrutia's release and helping her leave the country. Based on the license plates seen by witnesses, investigators discovered that the vehicle in which she was kidnapped belonged to the Presidential Guard. As revenge, Serrano threatened to expel a US lawyer, Dan Saxon, who works in the archbishop's human rights office. Archbishop Prospero Penados met with Serrano and convinced him to allow Saxon to stay.

Attracting insects

Given the clumsiness with which it was carried out, this "desertion" was not a great success for the army's propaganda war. Nonetheless, Guatemalan analysts consider that the army achieved various objectives. First, it demonstrated to the URNG that the army knows its urban guerrilla structure and its middle-level cadres. The fact that Urrutia declared herself a guerrilla may cause fear among the popular groups that publicly campaigned in her favor. They will be reluctant to get involved with future victims because of the association with the URNG.

Other analysts think that the army may have had a more sinister motive in the kidnapping: use Urrutia as a "trap to attract the insects." Through the campaign organized in her defense, the army was able to identify guerrilla sympathizers as well as potential popular movement leaders. They came out of secrecy and silence and into the public light due to the kidnapping.

Wind-up guerrillas?

Despite several army efforts to put on more "shows," the "deserters" who have followed Urrutia in the last two months have been barely coherent in their press communications. On August 26, Jaime Agustín Recinos, supposedly known as "William" in the guerrilla movement, was presented to the press as an URNG deserter. He said he had been living in a refugee camp in Campeche, Mexico, when he was recruited by the guerrillas, but Notimex, the Mexican wire service, noted the following in a cable of the same date: "Second Lieutenant 'William' could never give the name of the refugee camp in Campeche, Mexico, where he claimed to have spent 18 months before joining the guerrillas.

"He also did not know who provided food or what the routes are to return to Guatemala He claimed that 45 members of the Communities of Population in Resistance joined the guerrillas in 1991, but he could not say from which communities and ethnicities they came." Notimex added that when "Carlos," the other deserter, took an AK-47 rifle apart for the press, he had a hard time reassembling it.

Still another deserter, María Angela Simón Misa, presented on August 21, said she had been a radio operator in the URNG for ten years, but could not explain to the press how to send a message.

On September 10, another deserter from Quiché province told the press that his role in the URNG was to be a link between the guerrillas and the popular movement to maintain international solidarity. On September 12, various popular organizations publicly denied the link and added that the army would be responsible for any retaliation against them.

Objective: The CPRs

"The Communities of Population in Resistance comprise the political and ethnic arm that allows insurgent groups to survive," Defense Minister General José Domingo García Samayoa said in August. "They are the front that the insurgent groups put on and take off whenever they want."
Between August 20 and 22, a multi-sector commission of international human rights observers, church and development organization representatives and the Guatemalan government's human rights office visited the CPRs in the Ixil and Ixcán regions in Quiché. The commission went to investigate claims of bombings by the Guatemalan air force against the communities. The mission confirmed that one person had died and another was injured by the explosion of a 40 mm bomb.
In a press conference on August 22, the commission declared that "this commission confirmed that the Communities of Population in Resistance are no more than peoples living in inhumane conditions and dying of hunger." The government's adjunct human rights solicitor, César Alvarez Guadamuz, who headed the commission, denounced the army's bombing campaign on television, but the screen was cut off halfway through his declaration.
Since the commission's visit, the army's campaign has centered on the CPR. On September 4 the army presented two CPR members to the press, one month after they had supposedly gone to the army seeking protection. The two said that the guerrillas constantly harassed the communities and forced them to take up arms.

"Gringos non grata"

In the last two months, Defense Minister García Samayoa has made a series of claims in the local press about "foreign interference" in human rights cases. The role of the US lawyer working in the archbishop's office around the exile of Maritza Urrutia and the multi-sector commission's visit to the CPRs appeared to be the last straw for the minister, who has threatened foreigners who come to Guatemala "to incite and interfere in the government's administration of policy." The minister did not identify particular individuals or groups, but said that the offenders are supported by "certain organizations that are abusive and disrespectful" toward the armed forces.
On September 7, the indignant minister announced that the army will take legal action against those individuals and international human rights groups that have accused the army of being responsible for massacres. García Samayoa specifically named US archaeologist Clyde Snow, who headed a team of Latin and US forensics who discovered 20 skeletons in a clandestine cemetery in Quiché in August. Snow was made famous by his excavations of repression victims in Argentina. The discovery was the first of the year and the proof Snow found confirms the claims made by widows of the victims, who state that local civilian patrol members killed their husbands in 1982.

The people react

The popular organizations are becoming increasingly outspoken in demanding participation in the dialogue between the government and the URNG. A coordinating body of civilian organizations was formed recently with representatives from the Maya sector, national development organizations, human rights groups, the church, unions and the popular movement.

This coordinating body attended the talks in August and presented a proposal for its participation, but discussion of the proposal was postponed until a general human rights accord is signed. According to analysts, the powerful business organization CACIF (Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Business, Industrial and Financial Associations) and the army have pressured the government to prevent its participation.
While the coordinating body has not yet gained participation, the campaign has served to further unify the organizations and to get them heard.
Spontaneous protests against the civil patrols have also emerged in rural communities against. On August 10, a group of peasants, headed by municipal authorities from Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán, Sololá, petitioned the President and the defense ministry to disarm the civil patrol in the area around Guineales. "The so-called Voluntary Civil Defense Committees, as the government euphemistically calls them, have not benefited the community," they told the local press. "In fact, they have violated citizens' rights constantly, causing discontent among the population."
As in many towns in Guatemala, the problem with the Santa Catarina and Guineales patrols is intertwined with political and land conflicts. Some citizens of Santa Catarina have land in Guineales and are afraid to work it because of the patrols. The situation became violent when 45 patrol members from Guineales entered Santa Catarina on August 10, armed with pistols and grenades. The army had to intervene and escort the patrol members out of town.

The mayor of Santa Catarina demanded that the defense ministry prosecute the head of the patrol and the local military leader.
On August 18, the ministry declared that any crime committed by the patrol members would have to be processed in the normal legal channels, ignoring the demand of the citizens. One week later, Santa Catarina residents took to the streets in a massive protest and said that if the army does not disarm 800 civil patrol members in the zone, they will mobilize their 40,000 residents to disarm them themselves.

The struggle for land

Indigenous peasant of Cajolá have been camping out in the San Carlos University for two months, in a struggle that could be an example for thousands of landless peasants. The 500 peasants (including 125 children) are waiting for the government to fulfill its promises to resurvey the lands of the "Pampas del Horizonte" farm and establish who the real owners are.
On July 22, anti-riot squads violently kicked the peasants out of the capital's central plaza while they were protesting peacefully and with a permit. The actions resulted in 20 protesters hospitalized, including a one-year-old baby. The scenes were televised, which provoked a wave of national protest against police brutality. It appears that the orders to attack the indigenous came directly from the acting President, Vice President Gustavo Espina (Serrano was at the Olympics). Espina is a cousin of the owner of the farm in dispute.
After the scandal created by the security forces' actions, the government promised to resurvey the farm, and the peasants have been waiting ever since. On August 31, they requested material assistance from the international community to continue their struggle in the capital. In September, in the midst of negotiations over the university budget, the government began to pressure university authorities to kick out the Cajolá residents.
By the end of September, the peasants were still at the university and students had begun to organize to help provide them food.

Will there be justice?

In Guatemalan history, the heroes and heroines are usually dead or in exile, but this also appears to be changing. For the last two years Helen Mack, the sister of murdered anthropologist Myrna Mack, has been fighting in the courts to bring to her sister's murderers to justice, or at least to make clear to the whole world that Guatemala's judicial system is no more than a sad joke.
Myrna Mack was killed on September 11, 1990 by members of the security forces, according to the conclusions of the government's human rights solicitor. Mack was a pioneer in investigating the displaced peoples and the Communities of Population in Resistance, groups the army considers "subversive." The trial is historic because it is the first time high-level military officers and even an ex-President have been forced to testify.
Helen Mack, who was never interested in politics and did not even know about her sister's work, has not rested in her fight despite incredible obstacles. The trial has already gone through 12 judges, and the current one is trying to transfer or resign, as others have done out of fear. Key witnesses do not appear and even go into exile. Guatemalan reporters receive threats or their superiors tell them "not to work so hard" on this case.
The primary police investigator, José Merida Escobar, who named former army specialist Noel Beteta Alvarez as one of the killers in his report and defined the crime as "political," was shot to death in front of the central police headquarters in 1991.
Beteta, the main defendant, was working for the Presidency when Mack was murdered. He comes to the trial dressed in expensive suits, flashing gold rings and exuding confidence, with large smiles and slaps on the back for his friends when he comes out of questioning. The Guatemalan press jokingly calls him Guatemala's Pablo Escobar, because of the special privileges he enjoys in prison.
Judge Oscar Alcides Sagastume gets angry with Mack and insults her. One day he rejected 72 of the 75 questions from the prepared interrogation; on another day, he only admitted 3 of 41. Helen Mack patiently questions former defense ministers and Beteta's former superiors without losing her temper, even though all seem to be suffering collective amnesia.
She is demanding 30 years in jail for Beteta, not the death penalty. "My principles don't allow me to think of the death penalty," Mack explains. "We are seeking justice, not vengeance.
"Beteta is only one part of the chain and we want to find the intellectual authors of this crime."

Mea culpa

On August 27, the Bishop's' Conference published its first pastoral letter of the year, entitled "500 Years of the Gospel," asking pardon for all the errors and atrocities committed by the Catholic Church against indigenous people since the Conquest.
The document also calls for the development of "an indigenous church, with its own face, heart, philosophy, pastoral agents and organizations," recognizing in this way a phenomenon that is already reality in some Guatemalan communities through the mixture of Catholicism and Maya traditions. The pastoral letter coincides with the anniversary of the Conquest of America in October.

The document also included points directed at the Serrano government, which did not fail to irritate the President. Among them are the following extracts: "A society which gives privileges must create slaves to maintain the system. The health, housing and infrastructure conditions in which so many Guatemalans are forced to live are the clear expression of a marginalization that shames us and calls us to reflect and to change... The majority of the population lives in extreme poverty; dishonesty, fraud, corruption in public and private administration... Economic policies carried out by the last two governments—which experts consider successful from the macro-economic point of view—have brought advantages only for those who have economic power. The policies do not translate into more social investments in economic development... The gap between rich and poor is wider and wider. The people are disenchanted, disillusioned and frustrated, and the consequences can be glimpsed...."

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