Events of 1992

Human Rights Developments

The human rights situation remained bleak in Guatemala in 1992, with selective assassinations, disappearances, and torture by the security forces casting a shadow of fear over the population. Anonymous death threats against trade unionists, human rights monitors, members of the university community, journalists and others reinforced the message that those who challenge the status quo do so at great personal risk. Army-organized civil patrols continue to act as agents of repression in many rural areas, intimidating those who refuse to patrol, join human rights groups, or seek to investigate or prosecute the abuses committed by the patrols. Forced patrolling continues in conflictive areas, despite valiant efforts by human rights groups to free communities from this unconstitutional burden. Impunity remains the rule for those who violate human rights, although the government has initiated criminal prosecutions in many cases and has won convictions of low-level soldiers in a few token cases.

Statistics on the violence compiled by the office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, an official elected by the Congress, and the Archbishop of Guatemala's Human Rights Office suggest a decrease in the number of extrajudicial executions and disappearances in the first half of 1992, compared with the same period one year earlier. While there may indeed be a decline in these human rights abuses, the figures undoubtedly understate the true number of violations, because fear prevents many victims and witnesses from reporting abuses. Moreover, the climate of intimidation that for decadesprevented the formation of domestic human rights groups in Guatemala continues to obstruct the work of these groups, which are unable to investigate the vast majority of violations which occur.

Investigation by Americas Watch into violations of the laws of war by guerrillas uncovered several cases of summary executions of military commissioners in the departments of Chimaltenango, Sololá and the Petén in the years 1989 to 1991. Guerrillas may also have been responsible for the January 24, 1992 murder of military commissioner Regino Paniagua and his brother Genaro Paniagua Yol in the village of Rincón Chiquito, in Chimaltenango.

Peace talks pursued intermittently throughout the year deadlocked over human rights issues, although a partial accord was reached on the civil patrols. The agreement calls on the Human Rights Ombudsman to verify on a case-by-case basis whether patrollers are serving voluntarily. New patrols will be formed only after village authorities hold a public meeting, attended by a representative of the Ombudsman, to determine whether villagers freely want to form a patrol.

Meanwhile, the government and representatives of more than 40,000 refugees who have lived in camps in Mexico for the past decade reached an agreement on conditions for the refugees' return. Among the key points agreed upon, the refugees will return to their areas of origin, they will be given land and identification papers, they will be exempt from military service for three years, and they will not be obliged to form civil patrols. The agreement also calls for an as-yet-undefined mechanism to monitor the human rights situation in the regions where the refugees return. Optimism over the agreement has been tempered by the murder, apparently by the army, of Lucas Pérez Tadeo, a peasant in the hamlet of Guaxacaná, municipality of Nentón, in Huehuetenango. Pérez Tadeo disappeared on August 31, and his body was found on September 3. The crime occurred in the area where the first massive repatriation of some 5,000 refugees was scheduled to begin a few months later. Villagers to ld church investigators that if another army killing occurred in their village, they would all flee to Mexico.

Civilian control over the police – a priority for both curbing and seriously investigating human rights abuses – remains a myth, disguising continuing army dominance. Although the elected government of President Jorge Serrano has paid lip service to the goal of civilian law enforcement, its actions have enhanced military authority.

One facet of this militarization was the inauguration in March of the "Hunapú Task Force," a combined military and police patrol aimed at combatting urban crime. Hunapú bears a close resemblance to an earlier military-police task force, the Civilian Protection System (SIPROCI), created in October 1988 in response to military pressure to reverse the efforts of the Vinicio Cerezo government to wean the police from army control. While SIPROCI combined patrols of the National Police, Treasury Police and Mobile Military Police, Hunapú includes these three units plus soldiers from the Justo Rufino Barrios military barracks. Hunapú units operate under army command. The United Nations Independent Expert, Christian Tomuschat, in his January 21, 1992 report, called for the immediate abolition of SIPROCI so military and law enforcement functionswould be strictly separated. Although SIPROCI was never officially disbanded, the authorities have resurrected it with another name: Hunapú.

The Hunapú Task Force has been involved in a series of violent abuses in 1992, including the unprovoked shooting death of university student Julio Cu Quim and the wounding of six others on April 10. Several Hunapú agents have been detained and face prosecution – soldiers in military courts and police in civilian courts – for the murder of Cu Quim. Hunapú agents have also been involved in brutal beatings of street children on numerous occasions.

Another facet of this militarization is the new drive to recruit former military personnel into the National Police. According to one former police official, as many as 100 members of the military, mostly from the feared military intelligence branch, had joined the ranks of the police by late August. With military intelligence representatives looking over their shoulders, police are less likely than ever to investigate cases of human rights abuses in which the trail of responsibility leads to the army's door. Another former police official, in sworn testimony given to the Archbishop's Human Rights Office, said that since the naming of a new police director in May, the National Police has effectively been taken over by the army, which has placed military officers in charge of each section of the police. The civilian police director carries out purely administrative functions, according to this source. In a November 1992 interview with Americas Watch, the director of milita ry intelligence, Colonel Otto Pérez, confirmed that six army officers had been transferred to the different departments of the police. He asserted that they act only as advisors.

Riot police used excessive force and illegal tactics such as pre-dawn raids in repressing a series of demonstrations, marches and land invasions launched by the urban and rural poor in 1992. The most disturbing incident occurred on July 21 in Guatemala City, when hundreds of riot police violently dispersed about 500 peasants who were peacefully demonstrating in the central plaza. Although the march was legally authorized, the police threw tear gas and beat demonstrators, leaving at least ten wounded. Several police agents have been charged with abuse of authority in connection with this action.

The university community – a cauldron of radical views that has long been the subject of army repression – suffered a wave of attacks in 1992. Powerful explosions damaged the offices of the University Students' Association (AEU) of the public University of San Carlos (USAC) in January and October, and student leaders received death threats on several occasions. On February 10, gunmen dressed in civilian clothes shot dead university professor Manuel Estuardo Peña. Peña was known for his leftist views and had received anonymous telephone death threats prior to his death. The judicial investigation into his death had produced no suspects by early December. Three other professors connected with the USAC and several students were murdered in 1992 under circumstances that remain unclear.

The continued use by the army of clandestine detention centersfor individuals suspected of ties with leftist guerrillas was reaffirmed in 1992 by two cases investigated by Americas Watch. Details of one of these cases cannot be made public, because of an explicit threat by the army of retaliation against the victim's family. A similar threat was made in the case of Maritza Urrutia, but she has decided to make her story public nonetheless.

Maritza Urrutia was kidnapped by three men driving a white vehicle with smoked glass windows after she dropped her son off at day care on July 23, at about 8:25 a.m., in Guatemala City's Zone 13. The men covered her head with a jacket and drove her to what appeared to be a military base, possibly in Guatemala City's Zone 6. She spent most of her eight-day unacknowledged detention handcuffed and blindfolded. On the rare occasions in which the blindfold was removed, she caught glimpses of olive green knapsacks and military weapons; and although her captors kept a loud radio playing in her cell night and day, she could hear the sounds of drums most days over the radio's blare. At one point, her captors bought her new clothes whose label indicated they were purchased from a store in Zone 6. One of her captors assured her she was in the hands of the army. (Americas Watch has previously received credible reports that a clandestine torture and detention center is maintained next to the installations of the Mobile Military Police in Zone 6.)

Over the course of five days, her captors made her videotape a scripted statement in which she declared that she had not been kidnapped, but had gone into hiding in order to leave the guerrilla movement. The taping sessions were repeated for six or seven hours a day in an effort to make her statement appear spontaneous and natural. She was told that she, her family, and the family of her former common-law husband would face violent reprisals if she later contradicted the falsified version of events she was forced to declare on camera.

The video was dropped off at Guatemalan television news stations, which promptly aired it on July 29. Urrutia was released on July 30 with express instructions to apply for an amnesty for supposed subversive activities, and to hold a press conference in the Attorney General's office repeating what she had been forced to say on the video. She was also instructed to remain inside the country and to meet her captors at a prearranged date, time and place. Instead, Urrutia, with the help of the Archbishop's Human Rights Office, left early on the morning of August 3 for the United States, where she publicly contradicted the official story and filed a complaint at the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights against the Guatemalan government for her temporary disappearance.

This case reflects badly not only on the army, which carried out the illegal detention and later covered it up, but also on civilian officials, who insisted that there had been no kidnapping, even though witnesses had seen Urrutia forced into the white car on July 23. Bernardo Neumann, president of a cabinet-level executive branch human rights commission, unquestioningly accepted and repeated that the kidnapping had not occurred. Worse still, in letters to President Serrano which were widely distributed in Washington by Guatemala's lobbying firm, Neumann and Attorney General Acisclo Valladares suggested that the Archbishop's Human Rights Office had acted improperly in offering Urrutia the church's protection, when it most likely was responsible for saving her life. President Serrano later repeated these accusations, suggesting that an attorney for the office was responsible for covering up a crime. The president's public relations secretary also accused Human Rights Ombuds man Ramiro de León Carpio of covering up a crime because, although Urrutia had told him of her kidnapping before she fled the country, he abided by her request to keep the information confidential until she felt secure enough to go public. These accusations reflect bad-faith efforts to smear de León Carpio and the Archbishop's Human Rights Office for having assisted Urrutia.

Impunity for those who violate human rights remains the rule in Guatemala, although the government, much to the credit of Attorney General Valladares, has shown itself more willing to initiate criminal prosecutions in human rights cases than its predecessors. However, Guatemala's extremely weak and ineffective judicial system is no match for the security forces, as the meager results of the government's prosecutorial efforts attest. Only two cases in 1992 yielded convictions of soldiers for murder:

  • The military justice system convicted two soldiers and sentenced them to death for the January 17, 1992 massacre of a displaced indigenous family in Ciudad Peronia, a squatter settlement on the outskirts of Guatemala City. To the government's embarrassment, the two soldiers later escaped from the army's general barracks in Guatemala City; one of them has since been captured. The Constitutional Court has ordered the Supreme Court to form a panel of three magistrates and two military officers to hear a final appeal in the case.
  • A military tribunal sentenced five soldiers to 30-year terms for the June 1990 murder of U.S. citizen Michael Devine. However, the only officer under indictment, Captain Hugo Contreras, was acquitted of murder. Charges of covering up the crime are still pending.

Other cases suffered notorious setbacks:

  • Members of the Pacific Naval Base charged in a military court with the 1991 massacre of ten men and one woman whose bodies were found on the road between Taxisco and Escuintla were acquitted in September 1992, despite President Serrano's testimony for the prosecution. That decision is under appeal.
  • Civil patrol leaders Manuel Perebal Ajtzalam III and Manuel León Lares, accused of doublemurder and causing serious injury to human rights activists near the village of Chunimá in the highland El Quiché department, were also acquitted of all charges. The decision flies in the face of eyewitness testimony identifying them as among the six killers, as well as a long history of Perebal Ajtzalam III and León Lares threatening to kill the victims. (Charges against Perebal Ajtzalam III for the October 6, 1991 kidnapping and murder of human rights activist Sebastián Velásquez Mejía were dropped without explanation). The Attorney General has appealed the acquittal. The case gained notoriety in 1991 as Perebal Ajtzalam III and León Lares remained at large, threatening and harassing human rights monitors in Chunimá for seven months after warrants were issued for their arrest. They were finally detained on July 30, 1991, as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights prepared to hold a hearing on the case.

One of the few convictions of security force personnel ever to have been upheld on appeal, the conviction of four police agents for the March 1990 murder of 13-year-old Nahamán Carmona López, illustrates the danger faced by witnesses in human rights cases. A policewoman whose testimony implicated her colleagues in the murder was forced to flee the country because of death threats in 1991. In 1992, members of her family were followed, threatened, kidnapped and assaulted in apparent revenge by individuals acting on behalf of the convicted policemen.

The continuing vicissitudes of the case of anthropologist Myrna Mack, murdered by army intelligence in September 1990, illustrate the reasons why judges, prosecutors, witnesses and police investigators fear confronting the army. Noel de Jesús Beteta, formerly employed by the Estado Mayor Presidencial, an elite military intelligence unit, is standing trial for the assassination. But the case has been riddled with irregularities and multiple layers of cover-up, with murder and intimidation the only reward for those who seek to establish the truth. Eleven different judges have had and then relinquished jurisdiction over the case; the police report naming Beteta was initially covered up and, once submitted to the judge, its author, police investigator José Miguel Mérida Escobar, was murdered; military officers have offered contradictory statements; and reporters and court officials working on the case have been threatened. The army has also pursued an elaborate cover-up of its responsibility for the slaying of police investigator Mérida Escobar, by capturing two apparently innocent men and forcing one of them, under threat of death to himself and his family, to videotape a confession to the slaying. Both set-up suspects were acquitted in 1992, and there is no ongoing investigation to determine the real authors of the crime.

The Right to Monitor

As in the past, those who seek to monitor violations of human rights in Guatemala face daunting persecution, including threats, intimidation and murder.

  • The staff of Casa Alianza, which defends the rights of street children, suffered numerous threats as well as drive-by shootings at their refuge for street children in Guatemala City's Zone 1.
  • Amílcar Méndez, president of the Council of Ethnic Communities "We Are All Equal" (CERJ) suffered repeated death threats, a grenade attack on his house, and a slander campaign by the army. Although in 1991 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights enjoined the government to guarantee the safety of Méndez and thirteen other individuals threatened in connection with the above described Chunimá case, President Serrano continued to repeat the slander that Méndez was working with the guerrillas, a baseless statement which effectively invites attacks on him.
  • At 3:30 a.m. on October 22, CERJ members Alberto Calvo González and Juan Ren González were arrested by police, blindfolded, and interrogated while bound hand and foot. The two men were turned over to a judge at 6:00 p.m. on October 23, in violation of Guatemalan law, which mandates that detainees be placed at the disposition of a court within six hours of their arrest. Alberto Calvo González, who does not speak Spanish proficiently, was not provided an interpreter. Nonetheless, he allegedly implicated CERJ leader Amílcar Méndez in providing him with guerrilla pamphlet bombs. Juan Ren González denies these accusations. Nonetheless, the judge in the case issued a warrant for the arrest of Amílcar Méndez based on this flimsy evidence. Méndez, who was out of the country when the arrest warrant was issued, returned on November 22 in the company of a delegation of U.S. attorneys organized by the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, with participation by Ameri cas Watch. Following his appearance in court on November 22, the judge ordered Méndez released on provisional liberty.
  • On May 17, two unidentified men stabbed and seriously wounded José Alberto Nerio Osorio, a representative of the Center for theInvestigation, Study, and Promotion of Human Rights (CIEPRODH), in Chiquimula.
  • Members of conavigua, a national widows' group, and villagers who have pressed for exhumations of clandestine cemeteries in which victims of the army's scorched-earth campaign of the last decade are buried have suffered repeated threats and harassment.
  • On October 12, the office of the Mutual Support Group (GAM), Guatemala's oldest human rights organization, was seriously damaged by an explosive. The attack marked the second bombing of the group in the past four years. The GAM works to establish the whereabouts of the disappeared.
  • Following a comment published in the magazine Newsweek in which forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow compared members of the Guatemalan army who carried out massacres in the early 1980s with serial killers, Guatemalan Defense Minister José García Samayoa threatened to sue international human rights groups for defamation. García Samayoa's crude threats, accompanied by his aggressive assertions that the army has never committed abuses, underscore how little the army has changed under civilian government.
  • In early November, Defense Minister García Samayoa and President Serrano accused human rights monitors attending a conference on in Washington, D.C., whose subject was the practice of torture in Guatemala, of doing the work of the guerrillas.

U.S. Policy

The Bush Administration continued to suspend military aid and commercial arms sales to Guatemala, a policy in place since December 1990 because of human rights violations and the impunity granted the perpetrators. Nonetheless, anti-narcotics aid continued to be channeled to the Treasury Police; U.S. national guard "civic action" exercises continued to be held with the Guatemalan military; U.S. training of Guatemalan soldiers and officers resumed; and the administration has continued to provide Economic Support Funds (ESF), which consist of cash aid to the government and are classified as security assistance. In October 1992, the administration notified Congress of its intention to provide $15 million in fiscal year 1992 ESF funds to Guatemala. As of November, congressional committees had held up the funds because of human rights violations. The administration has requested $10 million in ESF for fiscal year 1993. These symbolic acts of support for the military and cash ass istance to the government are unwarranted and weaken the message of disapproval sent by the continued suspension of military aid.

Congress adopted a tougher position in its fiscal year 1993 foreign aid appropriation to Guatemala. The legislation prohibited military aid outright (thus preventing the administration from unilaterally resuming such aid) and continued a requirement that the relevant congressional committees be notified 15 days before any aid is provided. In addition, the legislation barred an administration plan to use Black Hawk helicopters for drug interdiction in Guatemala, arguing that it would send the wrong signal given the nation's poor human rights record. Unfortunately, the Congress stopped short of banning commercial arms sales to Guatemala, which theoretically could resume in the future, although the State Department would have to notify congressional committees prior to any arms transfer.

The chapter on Guatemala in the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in 1991, issued in January 1992, blamed the security forces and civil patrols for "numerous and serious" human rights violations. But the tough message sent by the Report was diluted by the U.S. position at the annual meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, where Washington held out for continued gentle treatment of Guatemala through approval of advisory services (advice on improving the human rights record of an ostensibly well-intentioned government) rather than the appointment of a special rapporteur (an act of condemnation coupled with ongoing public reporting of abuses).

The administration in 1992 made several important symbolic gestures of support for human rights in Guatemala, including a statement by Defense Secretary Richard Cheney upon arrival in the country in February highlighting the importance of human rights in bilateral relations. That this message came from the U.S. Defense Secretary was significant in the Guatemalan context. U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Thomas Stroock attended a memorial service on the second anniversary of the murder of Myrna Mack and made a point of visiting and being photographed with Archbishop Próspero Penados after the government had criticized his office's human rights report. In October, the Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, Bernard Aronson, wrote to the Guatemalan Ambassador in Washington urging the government to address important evidentiary issues in the Mack trial. And in November, Ambassador Stroock made a strong statement in defense of human rights monitors whom President Serrano and his defense minister had denounced as guerrilla supporters. Also in November, Assistant Secretary Aronson telephoned Serrano and Supreme Court President Juan José Rodilo to express U.S. concern over the efforts to prosecute Amílcar Méndez described above. The senior official at the U.S. embassy at the time, chargé d'affairs John Keane, accompanied Méndez and the delegation of attorneys from the time of their arrival at the airport on November 22 until Méndez was granted provisional liberty late that night by a judge in Santa Cruz del Quiché.

Finally, U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills accepted a petition for review of labor rights practices in Guatemala filed by church, labor and human rights groups – a move the executive branchhas resisted for many years. Under U.S. law, Guatemala stands to lose trade benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences if a pattern of labor rights violations is found. A decision on the petition is expected in the spring of 1993.

The Work of Americas Watch

Americas Watch conducted several fact-finding trips to Guatemala in 1992. Americas Watch representatives met frequently with government officials and members of non-governmental human rights groups, and traveled extensively to gather first hand testimony of abuses.

Early in the year, Americas Watch sought through meetings, correspondence and a press release to encourage the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Human Rights Commission to lobby for designation of a special rapporteur for Guatemala, a designation reserved for the most serious human rights violators worldwide. In February, we wrote two letters to Defense Secretary Cheney: the first suggesting he avoid a planned trip to Guatemala on the grounds that it might be interpreted by the Guatemalan brass as a sign of U.S. approval, and the second, once it became clear the trip would go forward, urging him to raise specific human rights cases in his meetings in Guatemala.

Also in February, we brought human rights activist Amílcar Méndez Urízar and exiled judge Roberto Lemus to Washington to testify before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in connection with the above-described Chunimá case. In response, the Commission issued provisional measures calling on the government to protect the lives of Méndez and other human rights monitors involved in the case.

On September 11, Americas Watch again wrote to Defense Secretary Cheney to protest the Pentagon's sponsoring of a visit to Washington by the Guatemalan army spokesman, Captain Alberto Yon Rivera, shortly after he had participated in an army campaign to defame Amílcar Méndez and the human rights group he leads. Americas Watch also met with Captain Yon Rivera to protest the army campaign.

On September 23, Americas Watch joined with Physicians for Human Rights in issuing a press release rejecting the threat by Guatemalan Defense Minister José Domingo García Samayoa to sue for defamation international human rights groups that criticize the Guatemalan army. On November 17, an Americas Watch representative met with the director of military intelligence to protest continued statements by the military linking domestic human rights monitors with guerrillas. And on November 22, Americas Watch Vice Chair Steve Kass joined a delegation accompanying Amílcar Méndez back to Guatemala.

Throughout the year we wrote numerous letters to President Serrano and his newly formed presidential commission for human rights pressing our concerns over cases of extrajudicial execution, disappearances, police brutality, and threats. Often we engaged members of the U.S. Congress in these efforts.

In October, Americas Watch met with a leader of the guerrilla group Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity to discuss violations of the laws of war by rebel forces. Americas Watch presented the insurgent leader with a list of summary executions attributable to the guerrillas and asked for an investigation into the allegations and discipline for those found responsible.

This 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.