Covering events from January-December 2001

Republic of Guatemala
Head of state and government: Alfonso Portillo
Capital: Guatemala City
Population: 11.7 million
Official language: Spanish
Death penalty: retentionist

Little was done to implement the 1996 Peace Accords. Recommendations in post-Accord reports by the Guatemalan church and the UN-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission, to address massive abuses perpetrated during the civil conflict by the Guatemalan military, civil patrols and military commissioners, were also virtually ignored. In June, three armed forces officers were sentenced to long prison terms for the 1998 extrajudicial execution of Bishop Juan José Gerardi. Non-governmental human rights organizations, journalists, members of the judiciary, witnesses and others involved in efforts to bring perpetrators to justice faced continuing obstacles and threats. Widespread corruption exacerbated citizens' loss of faith in the law, which in turn encouraged lynchings. Death sentences were passed; there were no executions.


When President Alfonso Portillo took office in January 2000, he promised to implement the Peace Accords, dismantle the "parallel" power structure impeding human rights protection and prosecution of perpetrators, and abolish the notorious Presidential Chiefs of Staff Unit (EMP), implicated in some of the most egregious abuses.

His failure to implement these promises appeared to reflect his loss of power within his own party to retired General Efraín Ríos Montt, former head of state and current President of Congress, who was responsible in the early 1980s for counter-insurgency campaigns in which tens of thousands of non-combatant indigenous men, women and children were massacred, often after torture including rape. General Ríos Montt and other military officers reportedly continued to operate a parallel power structure, obstructing efforts to bring human rights violators to justice and ensuring positions of influence for former military officials with dubious human rights records.

International concern

The deteriorating human rights situation in Guatemala brought resolutions of concern and visits from representatives of international monitoring mechanisms.

  • The UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers visited Guatemala in May 2001 to investigate threats and attacks, including the killings of seven lawyers between October 2000 and February 2001 and the lynching of a judge (see below). He found no improvement in the human rights situation and expressed regret that Guatemala had largely ignored recommendations made following his 1999 visit.
The human rights community under siege

Human rights advocates, judicial personnel, witnesses and survivors, involved in cases against security officials responsible for human rights violations, suffered almost daily death threats and intimidation. Anti-impunity activists had important data stolen, and reported electronic surveillance and tampering with computerized records.
  • Supporters of the Asociación Justicia y Reconciliación (AJR), Association for Justice and Reconciliation, and the Centro para Acción Legal en Derechos Humanos (CALDH), Centre for Legal Action in Human Rights, were threatened and assaulted. In February, soldiers and former members of civil patrols – adjuncts to the military during Guatemala's civil conflict – reportedly threatened AJR communities to dissuade surviving witnesses from testifying in a suit against former officials in General Ríos Montt's administration, subsequently filed in June. Threats were directed at CALDH staff and villagers involved in gathering evidence. The AJR, which brings together survivors of massacres perpetrated during the administrations of General Romeo Lucas García (1978-1982) and General Ríos Montt (1982-1983), had filed in 2000 a suit for genocide against General Lucas García and former officials in his administration, with the support of CALDH. In April 2001, CALDH employees were assaulted by government supporters brought into the capital to confront demonstrators calling for General Ríos Montt to be tried for illegally altering liquor tax legislation. In July, a community leader from a village involved in AJR's first suit was shot and killed.
  • In May the director of the association Families of the Detained and "Disappeared" in Guatemala (FAMDEGUA) and her driver were briefly abducted by armed men, despite the presence of security personnel "protecting" them following previous attacks. They were questioned about FAMDEGUA's work and threatened. FAMDEGUA actively promotes exhumations and the prosecution of perpetrators of massacres.
Conviction in the case of Bishop Gerardi

In June, after protracted international pressure, three armed forces officers charged with the murder of Bishop Gerardi were convicted and sentenced to 30 years' imprisonment. President Portillo had promised that those responsible would be brought to justice. The case was regarded as a test for the justice system's capacity to tackle sensitive human rights cases and the verdicts and sentences were widely hailed. However, those convicted immediately appealed and doubts were raised about their culpability. The case against other officers allegedly involved was left open.

The cost of pursuing justice in this case was high. Three witnesses and six other potential witnesses, indigents sleeping outside the Bishop's home on the night of the murder, were killed. Dozens of others suffered threats and harassment, including staff of the Archbishop's Human Rights Office, formerly headed by Bishop Gerardi and responsible for the exhaustive report which he spearheaded on abuses during the conflict, as well as lawyers, prosecutors and judges involved in the case. A number, including three prosecutors, were forced to flee abroad.

Petitions through the Inter-American human rights system

Some organizations and individuals have sought reparations and government acknowledgement of abuses through the Inter-American human rights apparatus. In 2000 "friendly settlements" had been agreed, between the Guatemalan government and plaintiffs under the aegis of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), in which the government had accepted generalized state responsibility for abuses. In May the government dismissed the official who had negotiated the agreements with the IACHR and later his deputy. While in most cases the settlements did not assist prosecution of perpetrators in the Guatemalan courts or timely payment of agreed compensation, the dismissals appeared to reflect the army's dissatisfaction at this approach.

The Dos Erres massacre

Compensation by the government was agreed in May and announced in December to the relatives of some 350 men, women and children massacred – the women after mass rape – in 1982 at Dos Erres, El Petén, by the Guatemalan army and their civilian adjuncts. Relatives and human rights groups, who have long struggled for justice in the face of threats and abuses, welcomed the payments but continued to insist that the perpetrators be brought to justice. They named as responsible a government minister reportedly involved in training those responsible and four officers still in active service. Although in March 2000 arrest orders were issued for nine soldiers, in April 2001 the Constitutional Court provisionally stayed their implementation on the grounds that an Appeal Court decision was still pending on whether they were immune from prosecution under a 1996 amnesty law.

Myrna Mack

In March, the IACHR filed the case of anthropologist Myrna Mack, extrajudicially executed in 1990, before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. A decision was expected in 2002. The IACHR accepted the case as the complainant, the victim's sister Helen Mack, had been impeded in efforts to pursue domestic remedies and there had been unjustified delays. Myrna Mack was reportedly murdered because her study on the displacement of Guatemala's indigenous peoples by the army's counter-insurgency policies was highly damaging to the government.

In 2000 Helen Mack had agreed to explore "friendly settlement", dependent upon conclusion of legal proceedings against those responsible within a reasonable period, and Guatemala had accepted institutional responsibility for Myrna Mack's murder and agreed compensation. However, official monitors had indicated that Guatemala was not fulfilling the agreements and asked that proceedings continue within the Inter-American system. An EMP sergeant was convicted of the murder in 1993, but progress in the trial of three officials charged with planning the killing was delayed by frequent defence appeals.

People who have struggled to bring to justice those responsible for her murder continued to be targeted. Five employees of a foundation set up in her name were threatened in April. They included retired Peruvian General Rodolfo Robles, who had testified on the likely reaction of the Guatemalan military to human rights inquiries at trials in connection with the murders of both Myrna Mack and Bishop Gerardi. In October Matilde Leonor González, a historian with a social science research institute co-founded by Myrna Mack, was threatened and followed, apparently because of her findings that the military manipulated local power structures to incite mob violence and lynchings.

Universal jurisdiction in Spain

The Rigoberta Menchú Foundation was awaiting a decision in 2001 on its appeal against a December 2000 ruling by the Spanish High Court that it did not currently have jurisdiction to hear the Foundation's 1999 suit against eight former Guatemalan officials, including General Ríos Montt, for genocide and other crimes against humanity. Since filing the suit, Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú and her colleagues have reported harassment and death threats.

Corruption-related abuses

Journalists reporting on corruption, and staff of official environment and natural resources protection agencies, have been targeted. Widespread impunity has encouraged criminal alliances of officials, business, the security forces and common criminals to control legal and illegal industries including oil extraction and refining, drugs and arms trafficking, money laundering, car theft rings, illegal adoptions, kidnapping for ransom, illegal logging and other proscribed use of state-protected lands.
  • In February, an employee of the National Forestry Institute was shot and killed in Alta Verapaz Department, apparently in retaliation for his efforts to control illegal logging and contraband trade in protected precious woods.

The UN Verification Mission in Guatemala reported that around 347 lynchings took place between 1996 and mid-2001. In over 97 per cent of cases, no one had been brought to justice. While many were perpetrated by citizens alarmed at rising crime, who took the law into their own hands to eliminate perceived wrongdoers, some "spontaneous" lynchings were reportedly planned and instigated for other reasons.
  • In March Judge Alvaro Hugo Martínez was lynched in Alta Verapaz, reportedly because of his inquiries into local corruption and efforts to crack down on car theft rings controlled by powerful local and national figures.
AI country reports/visits

  • Guatemala: Human rights community under siege (AI Index: AMR 34/022/2001)
  • Guatemala: Open letters to Presidents Portillo and George W. Bush (AI Index: AMR 34/030/2001)
  • Guatemala: Submission to Param Cumaraswamy, Special Rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights on the independence of judges and lawyers (AI Index: AMR 34/032/2001)

An AI delegation in May and June collected human rights data, raised concerns with government officials and demonstrated support for the anti-impunity efforts of Guatemala's beleaguered human rights community. AI's Guatemala Trial Observers Project monitored the trial relating to the murder of Bishop Gerardi.

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