Popular revolution, culture of impunity
Guatemala’s violent present
The country is still beset by violence and a culture of lawlessness long after the end of its civil war. Yet the West backs Guatemala’s candidacy for a seat on the United Nations Security Council.
By Paola Ramírez Orozco-Souel
THE law has supposedly been pursuing the former Guatemalan dictator General Efraín Rios Montt since the return of civilian rule to his country in December 1985 and certainly since the peace agreements that ended the armed struggle 11 years later. But he has never been caught, despite the outstanding accusations against him.
The accusations are extreme. A lawyer’s report quoted in the New York Times on 13 March 1983, when Rios Montt was in power, said: “We were told again and again of government soldiers, in uniform, arriving at a village, rounding up men and women and shooting them. But they don’t waste bullets on children. They pick them up by the feet and smash their heads against a wall. Or tie ropes around their necks and pull them until they are strangled. We heard of children being thrown in the air and bayonetted.”
In response, Rios Montt was quoted as saying: “We are not applying a scorched earth policy, but a scorched communists policy.”
In December 1999, exasperated with the inertia of the Guatemalan authorities, the Rigoberta Menchu foundation, named after the Nobel-prize winning Guatemalan campaigner, invoked universal jurisdiction (1) to charge Rios Montt in a Spanish court with genocide, torture and crimes against humanity.
This led to a lengthy debate among the Spanish legal authorities, culminating in September 2005, when the constitutional court authorised proceedings to begin against him and fellow dictator Oscar Humberto Mejía, and five other generals. As a signatory to international agreements protecting the rights of individuals and collectives, Guatemala was obliged to allow a Spanish judicial commission, led by investigating judge Santiago Pedraz, to visit the country.
Fears that Guatemala was incapable of bringing human rights abusers to justice were confirmed. Pedraz arrived on his visit this June; six days later Guatemala’s constitutional court forbade him to gather witness accounts and blocked the interviews that he had scheduled. The investigation was effectively suspended. This clear obstruction led Pedraz to issue international arrest warrants against the former generals when he returned to Spain.
This was announced on 7 July and shook the Guatemalan political and legal establishment. Under the warrants the generals’ assets and bank accounts can be blocked (2) and they risk arrest and extradition to Spain if they leave Guatemala, although there is no reason to suppose they are about to take that risk.
After a visit in May, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Louise Arbour, described Guatemala as “one of the most violent countries in the region . . . Where impunity is the rule for past violations, it should come as no surprise that it also prevails for current crimes”.
During Guatemala’s civil wars, from 1960 to 1996, military and armed civilian groups waged violent campaigns against indigenous peoples and political opponents; an estimated 200,000 were killed. Failure to punish those responsible has reinforced a culture of impunity in Guatemalan society, and it is estimated that 97% of all current murders go unpunished.
Violence against Guatemalan women gets less media attention than the notorious crimes against women in the sprawling metropolis of Ciudad Juarez, on Mexico’s border with the United States (3). Nevertheless they are beaten, tortured, mutilated, raped and killed: 2,200 have been murdered since 2001, 299 in the first six months of this year (4). The rising rate of violent death affects men too. Battles between armed street gangs (maras) are on the rise, as is the killing of street children by “social cleansing” groups who are in the pay of people anxious to protect their property.
People are now more inclined to take justice into their own hands and dispense it lethally. According to police statistics, murders in Guatemala rose from 4,346 in 2004 to 5,338 in 2005, an increase of 23% in a population of 12 million (5).
Though the security forces are not behind all the violence, their reluctance or inability to solve crimes is tantamount to consent. When they are called in to investigate murders of women they usually shelve the cases quickly and often claim that the victim had been involved in organised crime or prostitution and had got what she deserved. In little-policed areas, local people make the law by lynching presumed culprits: more than 400 cases, leading to 200 deaths, were recorded between 1996 and 2000.
All this happens against a backdrop of extreme poverty that affects 75% of the population. The government’s current economic policy is likely to worsen matters and is especially hard on women. They are the main source of labour for the maquilas, the factories that produce consumer goods mainly for foreign companies, and they work more than 70 hours a week in conditions that flout the labour laws (6).
The current president, Oscar Berger, elected in January 2004, is defiant in the face of discontent. This March his government approved the signing of a free trade agreement with the US without debate. Yet the population strongly opposed the measure, rightly fearing it would worsen matters since the deal will permit multinational companies to exploit Guatemala’s natural resources without constraint. A concession law will allow state assets and public services to be sold to private firms. Four days after the agreement was signed, a demonstration against the measures was violently suppressed after a daylong general strike and a fortnight of protest.
Given rising poverty, crime, drug trafficking and mafia activity, Guatemala barely seems to have a state, in the sense of an entity that protects citizens and their rights. Its record must surely count against its candidacy for a temporary seat on the UN Security Council (7). Yet that candidacy currently has full and vocal backing from the US and discreet approval from the European Union.
Translated by Gulliver Cragg
(1) A controversial principle in international law whereby states claim jurisdiction over people whose alleged crimes were committed outside the boundaries of the prosecuting state, regardless of any relation with the prosecuting country. The state bases its claim on the grounds that the crime committed is a crime against humanity, which any state is authorised to punish.
(2) Plus former Guatemalan president, Fernando Romeo Lucas (1978-82), also subject to a warrant. He is said to have died in Venezuela but the Spanish court is unsatisfied with the proof.
(3) See Sergio González Rodriguez, “Mexico: the city of deaths denied” in Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, August 2003.
(4) Amnesty International report, No protection, no justice – Killings of women in Guatemala, London, 2006.
6) See “Burglary/Intimidations”, FIDH, 6 June 2006, www.fidh.org/article.php3?id_articl... (in Spanish only). See also “The Struggle for Justice”, FIDH, 13 March 1999, www.fidh.org/article.php3?id_articl...
(7) Five of the Security Council’s 10 temporary seats are to be renewed in September for a period of two years. One of these should go to a Latin American country.
Paola Ramírez Orozco-Souel is a journalist