Human Rights Developments

Nearly two years after the signing of the final peace accord between the government of President Alvaro Arzú and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union (Unión Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca, URNG), hopes for an end to impunity and greater respect for human rights were overshadowed by the assassination of a senior human rights figure and the government's poor handling of the murder investigation. Moreover, the June 1998 human rights report by the Mission the United Nations for Guatemala (Misión de las Naciones Unidas en Guatemala, MINUGUA) — installed in late 1994 to oversee implementation of a human rights agreement between the parties to the conflict — revealed an increase in extrajudicial executions and torture. On a more optimistic note, however, the MINUGUA report found a decline in violations of the right to liberty, due process, and freedom of association. The tragic murder of Bishop Juan José Gerardi, one of Latin America's most prominent human rights figures, on April 26, served as a reminder that Guatemala had not yet escaped its past. The resolution of the bishop's killing presented a challenge to the government to demonstrate the seriousness with which it would pursue judicial reform and combat impunity; the results, at this writing, were extremely disheartening. Apart from the Gerardi case, most of the victims of grave human rights abuses were poor and often suspected of criminal activities. Congress approved several long delayed constitutional reforms agreed to as part of the peace accord in October, including a formal end to the military's constitutional role in internal security. The reforms did allow, however, a temporary role for the military in law enforcement for limited periods and under civilian control. Meanwhile, the desperately needed enactment of a new Minor's Code was put off until the year 2000. The continued authority of Governmental Decree (acuerdo gubernamental) No. 90-96, authorizing military involvement in the maintenance of internal security, contradicted both the letter and the spirit of the commitments made in the peace accords to place law enforcement entirely under civilian control. MINUGUA's June 1998 report indicated that the combined military and police forces permitted under the decree did not reduce crime and their actions at times violated human rights. When the decree was issued in 1996 the government stated that the army would be used only to support police officers while the new National Civilian Police (Policía Nacional Civil, PNC) was being formed. However, the PNC became operational in 1998 without any end to the use of joint military-police patrols. And although the police were nominally in command of the joint patrols, both military and police sources agreed that the army truly controlled and numerically dominated the patrols. The military also continued to play a central role in crime control through the Presidential General Staff (Estado Mayor Presidencial, EMP), an intelligence unit with a history of egregious human rights violations. In 1996, the "Archivo," the clandestine intelligence branch located within the EMP, was formally dissolved and replaced by the Center of Strategic Analysis and the Anti-Kidnapping Command or Crisis Committee. The civilian-directed center provided the president with weekly reports of political, economic, and intelligence analysis. While its director was a civilian, the second and third posts were filled by army officers. In contrast, the Anti-Kidnapping Command, whose existence the government continued to deny, was divided into three parts: intelligence gathering, criminal investigations, and operations. The intelligence component continued to use the network of informants that was set up as part of the counterinsurgency strategy. MINUGUA's June report attributed the September 11, 1997, "disappearance" of two individuals, Ricardo II Figueroa Delgado and Issac Valdés Mayen, to government security forces. The involvement of the Anti-Kidnapping Command in combatting organized crime backfired in the courts, which often rejected evidence it collected as illegally obtained and in some cases overturned convictions on those grounds. Meanwhile, the failure to curb common crime prompted many citizens to take justice into their own hands. MINUGUA calculated that between March 27, 1996, and April 1, 1998 there was an average of more than one lynching per week. Accordingto MINUGUA, most lynchings occurred in rural areas with little police presence, and in areas where the officially disbanded civil patrols had been prevalent, former patrollers often instigated the attacks. Of equal concern were the instances of "social cleansing" reported by MINUGUA and local human rights groups. In these cases, there was more apparent premeditation than with lynchings, as in the case of La Libertad, Petén, where in January 1998 a list appeared of "persons condemned to death." During the first three months of 1998, ten men on the list were murdered, their corpses often left with notes stating that the victims were thieves who should die. In its verification of these killings, MINUGUA discovered that they were committed by an organized group which included at least two ex-army officers. The administration of justice in human rights-related cases showed little improvement. The prosecution of the suspected authors of the 1995 Xamán massacre finally went to trial on April 21, 1998. The trial, however, was suspended on its seventh day when the prosecution complained of a lack of impartiality of the three-judge trial court. In August 1997 the prosecution of the intellectual authors of the assassination of anthropologist Myrna Mack experienced an important advance when Guatemala's highest court, the Court of Constitutionality, ruled the generals and other officers accused of planning the killing were to be tried under the new Penal Code and not under the old code or in a military tribunal. This court held that all prior evidence collected under the old code and by the military judge remained valid and should serve as the foundation for the second phase of the investigation. There were also a number of setbacks in the case, however. The new judge, Isaías Figueroa, exhibited partiality in favor of the military defendants and against both Special Prosecutor Mynor Melgar and the victim's sister, Helen Mack, prompting the special prosecutor to seek the judge's removal. If successful this would be the twenty-fifth time a judge assigned to the case either resigned in fear or was removed. Nor was there progress in the prosecution of a series of pending human rights cases that began with the exhumations of clandestine mass graves. The Rio Negro, Rabinal case, a 1982 massacre of one hundred children and seventy-two women, was prepared to go to trial when on May 27, 1996, the three defendant—two former civil patrollers and one soldier—applied for amnesty under a 1988 law. Their amnesty application was rejected by every lower court until February 1997, when it went to the Court of Constitutionality. That court had a maximum of fifteen days to resolve the petition, yet at this writing it had still not been resolved. The Center for Human Rights and Legal Action (CHRLA) reported that the government "lost" evidence regarding similar atrocities in the early 1980s in the villages of Plan de Sánchez and Chichupac, Rabinal. During hearings on the case in February 1997, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights admonished the Guatemalan government to actively investigate the 1982 Plan de Sánchez massacre of 268 people. The only visible response was the disappearance from the Public Prosecutor's Office of forensic reports and ballistic evidence. Meanwhile, in the case of the Chichupac massacre of thirty-five men in which various soldiers stood accused, the entire file of the case disappeared during 1998 with the Public Prosecutor's Office and judiciary blaming each other. Implementation of a crucial component in the struggle against impunity, a judicial protection program, was postponed for the second consecutive year. The dire need for such a program became sadly apparent with the murder of public prosecutor Silvia Jerez on May 20. In addition to serving as the special prosecutor investigating the "disappearance" of American attorney Jennifer Harbury's husband, Guatemalan guerrilla leader Efraín Bámaca, Jerez was also prosecuting a band of kidnappers who had killed Spanish citizen Danita Blank on December 30, 1997. In June 1998, several of these kidnappers escaped from jail. One month later, the only witness to the case, Blank's husband, Dr. Edgar Orellana, was murdered. Meanwhile, the trial for the 1982 massacre in Dos RRs, Petén was postponed because the key witnesses—two ex-members of the Guatemalan Special Forces —refused to testify without protection. The expansion of the death penalty to new crimes in Guatemala threatened at this writing to bring the Arzú government into direct conflict with the inter-American system for protection of human rights. The American Convention on Human Rights, ratified by Guatemala in 1978, precludes member states from extending the use of the death penalty to crimes to which it did not apply at the time of ratification. In 1995 Guatemala amended its criminal code to punish abduction with the death penalty—previously only applicable in those kidnappings that resulted in the death of the victim. Although some lower courts in 1997 commuted death sentences citing Guatemala's obligations under the American Convention, in October 1998 two appeals courts cleared the way for the first official executions under the expanded death penalty. At the time of this writing, the cases were pending before the Supreme Court. In an apparently related move, an attorney with close ties to the military sought a ruling from the Constitutional Court challenging the legality of Guatemala's acceptance of the compulsory jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, where Guatemala would ultimately face censure for violating the American Convention through expansion of the death penalty.

Defending Human Rights

The overall conditions for human rights monitors in Guatemala remained precarious. The June MINUGUA report noted "an increase in threats and intimidations against individuals and entities working for the protection of human rights...." The most dramatic of these was the assassination of Bishop Juan José Gerardi, the director of the Archbishop of Guatemala's Human Rights Office (Oficina de Derechos Humanos del Arzobispado de Guatemala, ODHAG). On April 24, 1998, before the eyes of the nation, Bishop Gerardi presented Guatemala: Never Again, a four-volume work documenting the human rights abuses committed by state agents and the insurgency during thirty-six years of civil war. The report—the culmination of three years of research involving nearly 600 investigators—found the military, other official forces, state-sponsored civil patrols, and clandestine death squads responsible for 90 percent of the grave human rights violations committed during the conflict, while the remaining 10 percent of the abuses were attributed to the URNG guerrilla alliance. Just two days after the public presentation of the report, on the evening of April 26, Monsignor Gerardi was bludgeoned to death by a cinderblock while entering his house in the parish of San Sebastián in Guatemala City. Although several people were detained and subsequently released, and one remained in detention, the crime was not solved as of late 1998 and its political impact continued to reverberate. On October 21, the government's prosecutor formally charged a priest who resided in the same parish house as Bishop Gerardi, Rev. Mario Orantes in the slaying, despite an absence of evidence implicating him. Throughout the investigation, the government went to great lengths to dismiss the notion that the assassination was politically motivated. On April 30, an indigent, Carlos Enrique Vielman Viani, was arrested and charged with the killing. Interior Minister Rodolfo Mendoza announced that the murder was almost solved, implying that the motive was one of common crime. Nearly three months later, Vielman was released as both church authorities and the government agreed that he had not been involved in the crime. On July 22, authorities arrested Father Mario Orantes, the priest who also lived in the San Sebastián house, along with the parish cook, Juana Margarita López. The state's main evidence against the pair rested on enlarged photographs of the corpse, which according to some experts revealed a dog bite that went unnoticed during the autopsy; the teeth marks purportedly matched those of Orantes's German shepherd. Although the corpse of Bishop Gerardi was exhumed in September, and Guatemalan and U.S. forensic specialists present concluded that there were no traces of a dog bite, the priest was subsequently charged with the murder and remained in jail. (A Spanish specialist present reportedly did not concur with his colleagues' views.) Errors and negligence in the investigation by Guatemalan authorities began at the crime scene, which the public prosecutor failed to properly secure. Despite years of training in crime scene preservation from the United States Justice Department and the Spanish Civil Guard, authorities permitted onlookers to roam freely around the site, including two who allegedly worked for the EMP. Videotapes from the night of the crime show prosecutor Otto Ardón and his investigator examining the presumed murder weapon without latex gloves and traipsing through the pools of blood surrounding the bishop's corpse. Few efforts were made to sustain the chain of custody as forensic samples were sent to the PNC and to the public prosecutor's crime lab in unsealed vials. Shortly after the murder, the government established a High-Level Commission (Comisión de Alto Nivel) to support the investigation and facilitate communication between the church and the public prosecutor's office. The commission was composed of government officials with justice and human rights-related expertise. Its work proved disappointing however; in May and June, it rejected or ignored a series of requests from the church, including that the commission ask the British government to send a Scotland Yard investigator and that commission replace the public prosecutor, Otto Ardón, because of his prior links to the military. In late May, the ODHAG provided a license plate number of a vehicle registered to a military base seen circling the parish the night of the crime as well as the names of Gen. (r) Byron Disrael Lima Estrada and his son, Capt. Byron Miguel Lima Oliva of the EMP, both of whom the office believed to be linked to the crime. The commission reportedly responded by providing publicly available information from the vehicle's registration card, denying the retired general had anything to do with the crime, and declining to investigate Captain Lima Oliva. The government disbanded the commission in July. In late July, after ODHAG coordinator Ronalth Ochaeta mentioned the two men at a press conference in Madrid, the government announced that both officers would be investigated. Following the murder of Monsignor Gerardi, members of the ODHAG were subjected to sporadic surveillance by unknown individuals and received anonymous threatening phone calls. The week following the bishop's death, Carlos Federico Reyes López, coordinator of the ODHAG forensic anthropology team, received several anonymous threatening telephone calls in his office. Reyes López was closely involved in the initial stages of the Gerardi investigation and testified before the U.S. Congress about the case. Catholic priest Pedro Nota, who worked closely on the preparation and dissemination of the Guatemala: Never Again report, also received serious threats. During the day on April 28, 1998, a double-cab pick-up truck circled his house for thirty minutes. On May 4, a white sedan with polarized windows and no license plates arrived outside his house. A man exited the vehicle, furtively took some photographs, and then drove away. Six days later, as the wife of a worker in Father Nota's parish left to go grocery shopping, she noticed two individuals behind her who were accompanied by the same white sedan. As she turned to cross the street, the two men blocked her path and told her to tell the priest to flee the country because they had him under surveillance (lo tenían controlado) and they were going to kill him if he did not leave. Father Nota left Guatemala on May 24. On July 12, a member of the ODHAG received a telephone call in which a male caller said: "We've got you under surveillance (controlado), you son of a bitch. We're going to kill you and you won't even realize it." This individual, accompanied by other members of the ODHAG and representatives of MINUGUA, had gone the day before to the El Salvador-Guatemala border to pick up a shipment of copies of the Guatemala: Never Again report. On August 16, El Estor, Izabal parish priest Dan Vogt was warned by a friend who had recently overheard individuals discussing a plan to murder Vogt in a feigned robbery. Another informant told the priest he had been questioned about Vogt's comings and goings by individuals who did not identify themselves. Vogt has been the subject of numerous death threats related to his human rights work in El Estor.

The Role of the International Community

United Nations

Officially known as the Guatemalan Historical Clarification Commission (Comisión de Esclarecimiento Histórico, CEH) Guatemala's U.N.-sponsored truth commission began its work in August 1997; its report was expected in December 1998. CEH chief commissioner Christian Tomuschat, a former U.N. Independent Expert for Human Rights in Guatemala, publicly denounced the lack of cooperation from the military in providing documents and interviews to its investigators, in violation of the accords setting up thecommission. The July 17 detention of Col. Otto Noack exemplified the military's recalcitrance. In an interview with Radio Netherlands in early July, Noack acknowledged that members of both the military and the insurgency had committed grave human rights violations. He suggested that all should testify before the CEH and if necessary apply to the Guatemalan court for amnesty. Noack's comments sparked his arrest for speaking with the press without prior consent from his military superiors, a military regulation rarely enforced. After visiting Noack in detention, Tomuschat called on other officers to follow his example of admitting past abuses and denounced the Guatemalan military for its action. The government accused Tomuschat of meddling in internal politics and announced it would file a formal complaint with the U.N. secretary-general requesting Tomuschat's destitution. After the signing of the peace accords, MINUGUA's work broadened from human rights monitoring and advocacy to include assistance with the implementation of several accords as well as extensive institution-building endeavors with the Public Prosecutor's Office, the PNC, and the Human Rights Ombudsman's (Procurador de los Derechos Humanos) office. This inevitably left fewer resources for human rights verification. The murder of Bishop Gerardi and increased threats against human rights defenders suggested that the reduction in resources dedicated exclusively to human rights verification was premature. During its annual meeting in Geneva in 1998, the United Nations Human Rights Commission, for the first time since 1982, ended the mandate of its special expert reporting on the human rights situation in Guatemala. (For several years Guatemala's expert had the status of a "special rapporteur," placing it in the category of the world's worst human rights observers. In recent years, Guatemala was assigned an "independent expert," who provided detailed reports as well as advising the government on human rights improvements.) Many of the recommendations that independent experts Christian Tomuschat and Mónica Pinto had made over the years were incorporated by the government, although several key reforms called for—such as civilian control of law enforcement and intelligence gathering and suppression of clandestine security forces— remained empty promises.

United States

Although the Clinton administration was a strong supporter of the Arzú government, the State Department's annual review of human rights conditions in Guatemala provided objective reporting on a wide range of abuses. Washington's aid to Guatemala included training for the military in non-combat-related issues such as planning, administration, and relations with civilians. Significantly, the administration provided support to a wide array of nongovernmental human rights and indigenous organizations, some of them quite critical of the government and military. The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City was responsive to communications on behalf of El Estor parish priest Dan Vogt, a U.S. citizen, and convinced police investigators to conduct an inquiry into threats he received in August.
This report covers events of 1998

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.