Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 December 2017, 11:55 GMT

Guatemala: Information on military commissioners and human rights abuses

Publisher United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services
Author Resource Information Center
Publication Date 29 July 2002
Citation / Document Symbol GTM02004.ZNK
Cite as United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, Guatemala: Information on military commissioners and human rights abuses, 29 July 2002, GTM02004.ZNK, available at: [accessed 14 December 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Is an applicant who served as Assistant Military Commissioner of San Pablo, San Marcos department during the civil war likely to have been involved in human rights abuses?


Specific instances of human rights abuses by military commissioners or their subordinates are rarely documented in sources available to the Resource Information Center. However, sources often report that military commissioners and their subordinates were responsible for numerous human rights violations, in general.

According to the report, GUATEMALA NEVER AGAIN, published by the Recovery of Historical Memory Project at the Human Rights Office (REMHI) of the Archdiocese of Guatemala, "at the Army's behest, the military commissioners were often responsible for organizing the civil patrols and supervising their activities...Following the period of massacres and mass murders, the commissioners' role was to maintain military control in communities. They imposed their authority through the civil patrols, personal intimidation, and threats against social or political groups." REMHI also reported that "the civil patrols are identified as the perpetrators in nearly one in five massacres...while the military commissioners are identified in one in twenty. Taken together, these irregular government forces were responsible for one out of every four collective murders" (REMHI 1999, 120).

Another source, INSIDE GUATEMALA, reports that "the Civilian Defense Patrols (PAC), [were] first formed in Alta Verapaz in 1976 and expanded in mid-1981 by the Lucas García regime, became a central element in the counterinsurgency strategy of the Ríos-Montt government aimed at breaking guerrilla links with the population. By late 1984, there were more than 900,000 members of the civil patrol system...Organized by local military commissioners (retired Army officers who enjoyed impunity and other military privileges), the civil patrols function as part of the nation's repressive apparatus by keeping tabs on popular movements" (Barry 1992, 52-53).

In 1998, Jennifer Schirmer reported that at the end of 1982, there were 300,000 civil patrollers in 850 villages. By 1984, that number had increased to 1,300,000 adult males according to Schirmer. "As an 'auxiliary force,' they must respond to the directives and commands of...military of the most traumatic tasks for Civil Patrols was their 'forced voluntary' complicity in killing villagers in their own or neighboring village...or be killed themselves." Schirmer also reported that military commissioners, having been appointed by the Army to lead Civil Patrols, found themselves in powerful positions in their villages (Schirmer 1998, 90-92).

According to Susanne Jonas, a primary purpose of the PACs was "to compromise a growing number of people in repressive activities...even in carrying out massacres of fellow villagers" (Jonas 1991, 51-52).

Civil patrols and military commissioners played an integral role in intelligence gathering at the local level by reporting to the military any suspicious activities by their neighbors. Commissioners and members of civil patrols were often former soldiers who had been forced to kill and maim (Green 1994, 232, 234). Military commissioners also participated in the forced recruitment of Indian youths. Recruits were abused, humiliated, harassed, and trained to kill their own people (Davis, Hodson 1982, 30-31).

Military commissioners (ex-soldiers, armed and paid by the military to act on their behalf within the communities) assisted with surveillance and control duties in villages and reported suspicious behavior by neighbors to the local Army base commander. Commissioners were often secretly appointed by the military and were responsible for intelligence reports and conscription into the Army (Jay 1993, 19-20).

Villagers who refused to join the Civil Patrols risked being killed. Patrollers who attempted to leave the patrol, if captured, were subject to torture and ultimate death (AI 1987, 98-99).

With regard to the Department of San Marcos specifically, the Washington Office on Latin America reported that it was a transit corridor for the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG) insurgents and home to illegal marijuana and poppy crops. While the area had not been hit as hard by intense violence under military rule as the Indian highlands, in the late 1980s there were increasing accounts of disappearances and discoveries of unknown cadavers. In September 1989, at least 27 peasants were kidnapped and killed or disappeared (WOLA 1989, 59).

While there is very little documentation on the role of military commissioners or their assistants in San Marcos, the information above attests to the magnitude of human rights violations committed by civil patrols and military commissioners in general. Assistant military commissioners would also, presumably, have been responsible for some of these violations. Though San Marcos experienced fewer violations than the departments with the most intense conflict, Quiché and Huehuetenango, documentation in the National Security Archives database on the Guatemalan military characterizes it as one of the most conflicted areas of the country.

This response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the RIC within time constraints. This response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum.


Americas Watch. CLOSING THE SPACE: Human Rights in Guatemala, May 1987-October 1988 (New York: The Americas Watch Committee, 1988).

Amnesty International (AI). GUATEMALA: THE HUMAN RIGHTS RECORD (London: AMR 34/04/87, 1987).

Amnesty International (AI). "Memorandum to the Government of Guatemala Following an AI Mission to the Country in April 1985." (New York: AMR 34/85.27 1986).

Barry, Tom. INSIDE GUATEMALA (New Mexico: The Inter-Hemispheric Education Resource Center, 1992).

Commission for Historical Clarification. GUATEMALA: MEMORY OF SILENCE, Report of the Commission for Historical Clarification; Conclusions and Recommendations. American Association for the Advancement of Science web site. [Accessed on 17 January 2002].

Davis, Shelton; Hodson, Julie. WITNESS TO POLITICAL VIOLENCE IN GUATEMALA: the Suppression of a Rural Development Movement (Oxfam America, 1982).

Green, Linda. "Fear as a Way of Life." CULTURAL ANTRHOPOLOGY (American Anthropological Association, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1994).

Jay, Alice. PERSECUTION BY PROXY: the Civil Patrols in Guatemala. (New York: The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights, 1993).

Jonas, Susanne. THE BATTLE FOR GUATEMALA: Rebels, Death Squads and U.S. Power. Latin American Perspectives Series (Boulder: Westview Press, No. 5, 1991).

Pro Justice & Peace Committee of Guatemala. HUMAN RIGHTS IN GUATEMALA 1988 (World Council of Churches, 1989).

REMHI. GUATEMALA NEVER AGAIN: Recovery of Historical Memory Project at the Human Rights Office (REMHI) of the Archdiocese of Guatemala (New York: Orbis Books, 1999).

Schirmer, Jennifer. THE GUATEMALAN MILITARY PROJECT: A Violence Called Democracy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998).

Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). THE ADMINISTRATION OF INJUSTICE: Military Accountability in Guatemala (Washington, DC: December 1989).

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