Human Rights Developments

Human rights issues received unprecedented official attention following the January 2000 inauguration of President Alfonso Portillo. Within two months, President Portillo declared a national day in honor of the estimated 200,000 victims of Guatemala's thirty-five-year civil conflict, ratified the Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearances, and, before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), admitted state responsibility for past violations, including the 1990 murder of anthropologist Myrna Mack and the December 1982 Dos Erres massacre of at least 162 people. President Portillo also called the brutal 1998 murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi and its botched investigation a "national embarrassment," publicly committing himself to bringing those responsible to justice. Yet, serious human rights problems remained. The country's weak judicial system continued to allow perpetrators virtual impunity. The new government's record was also marred by increased threats against and harassment of human rights activists, killings of community leaders, and retrograde steps on capital punishment. Moreover, President Portillo's political alliance with Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, Guatemala's former military ruler, who became president of the Congress in January 2000, was a worrisome reminder of the country's inability to surmount its legacy of repression.

The absence of effective law enforcement and the high incidence of common crime contributed to a climate of insecurity, and the continued use of lynching as a form of vigilante justice. The United Nations Verification Mission in Guatemala (Misión de Verificación de las Naciones Unidas en Guatemala, MINUGUA), established after the 1996 peace accords, reported twenty-two instances of lynching or attempted lynching in the first half of 2000, resulting in five deaths and thirty serious injuries to victims. In 1999, there were forty-eight deaths from lynching. In April, a Japanese tourist and his bus driver were killed by a mob in the village of Todos Santos apparently because of rumors that the tour group was planning to steal local children. Nine people were arrested in May for the lynching. In July, eight men apparently suspected of kidnapping and rape were doused with gasoline and burned by a mob of 200 villagers in Xalvaquiej. MINUGUA reported in August that military personnel were behind some of these apparently vigilante actions.

On- and off-duty officers of the National Civilian Police (Polícia Nacional Civil, PNC) were reportedly responsible for numerous human rights abuses, notably those involving excessive use of force. MINUGUA found that inadequate recruitment, selection, and training of police fostered abuses, which were further encouraged by ineffective internal disciplinary mechanisms. In February, a PNC officer in an Esquintla nightclub reportedly shot and killed a waiter. That same month, in a separate confrontation, PNC members shot and killed a marketplace vendor in Guatemala City. In May, plainclothes SIC agents were allegedly responsible for the "disappearance" of Mynor Pineda, a suspect previously in their custody, whose whereabouts remained unknown at the time of this writing. MINUGUA also found that the Criminal Investigation Service (Servicio de Investigación Criminal, SIC) of the PNC used torture to elicit confessions from suspects.

Under the 1996 peace accords, the military was to give up its role in internal security and devote itself to external defense. In June, however, Congress approved a decree allowing the military to assist the PNC in fighting common crime.

MINUGUA reported twenty-six extrajudicial killings and nineteen cases of torture from October 1999 through June 2000. In March, the body of Garifuna leader Giovanni Roberto Sanchez was found at the Livingston Hotel where he was employed; he had been hanged and his body showed evidence of beating. In May, community worker and mayoral candidate José Anacio Mendoza was murdered in Camotán, Chiquimula; his body was found in a well and also showed signs of torture. In July, Mayan leader José Quino and his colleague, María Mejía, were killed after being ambushed by unknown assailants near Lake Atitlan.

In May, Human Rights Ombudsman Julio Arango identified possible instances of "social cleansing," characterized by an apparently greater degree of premeditation than lynching, after four bodies were found with their hands and feet tied together and bearing signs of torture. MINUGUA established the possible involvement of the PNC and an ex-military commissioner in these murders.

Journalists and other representatives of the media were targeted for harassment and other abuses apparently to influence their reporting. In July, Prensa Libre columnist Eduardo Villatoro reported receiving threats demanding that he stop writing articles critical of the Mixco authorities. Earlier, in February, the television program "T-mas de Noche" was canceled apparently due to its critical stance toward the government. This sparked a national debate over the ownership of four of Guatemala's television stations by an individual with family connections in the Ministry of Communications. After an April visit to Guatemala, Organization of American States (OAS) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression Santiago Cantón recommended the implementation of clear rules to avoid any conflict of interest between public authorities and the media. President Portillo expressed concern over the "T-mas de Noche" incident and proposed the establishment of a state-run, public television channel as a mechanism to address some of the problems highlighted by Cantón.

Despite President Portillo's self-imposed deadline to bring to justice those responsible for the 1998 killing of Bishop Juan Gerardi-which occurred shortly after the bishop released a church-sponsored report on human rights violations during the armed conflict-the six-month deadline passed without any resolution of the case. In April, Flor de María García Villatoro, the third judge to handle the case, ordered that Father Mario Orantes, a close colleague of Bishop Gerardi, and cook Margarita López, stand trial for the murder. In May, Judge García Villatoro ordered that charges also be brought against Obdulia Villanueva, former member of the Presidential General Staff (Estado Mayor Presidencial, EMP), Captain Byron Miguel Lima Oliva, and his father, retired Col. Byron Disrael Lima Estrada. The trials of the five suspects were scheduled to begin in October. Witnesses, prosecutors, judges and the Archbishop's Human Rights Office (Oficina de Derechos Humanos del Arzobispado, ODHA), which Gerardi had headed prior to his death, continued to receive threats related to the case. In August, Carmen Zanabria, after receiving a series of threats, became the fifth important witness to flee the country for security reasons.

Even though President Portillo accepted the principle of state responsibility for past human rights crimes, formidable barriers to justice existed in practice. U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Lawyers and Judges Param Cumaraswamy issued a report on Guatemala in March. This described how the justice system continued to suffer from the deficiencies that it had exhibited during the armed conflict, including corruption, influence peddling, lack of resources, and threats and intimidation of lawyers and judges. Cumaraswamy found that only 10 percent of all homicide cases went to trial, and that very few of these ever resulted in convictions. He also found that the country's indigenous majority continued to face discrimination in seeking access to justice, particularly because of the absence of translation services in judicial proceedings.

In November 1999, an appeals court extended the sentences, commutable by payment, of ten of the twenty-five soldiers convicted for the 1995 killing of eleven people in the community of Xamán, to include twelve-year prison terms. However, it absolved the other fifteen defendants. In April, the Supreme Court of Justice (Corte Suprema de Justicia, CSJ) overturned these decisions, stating that the case was fraught with irregularities; it ordered the ten convicted men to remain in prison and the other fifteen to be rearrested. In July, Judge Josué Villatoro ordered the arrest and detention of ten ex-military officials accused of the murder of 162 people in the Dos Erres massacre in 1982. At this writing, the Constitutional Court had yet to rule whether the Dos Erres massacre constituted an act of genocide, which would exempt it from the application of the 1996 amnesty law and clear the way for prosecutions to proceed.

After a second acquittal in April 1999, former military commissioner Cándido Noriega-accused of 155 counts of torture, rape, murder, and kidnapping-was sentenced in November 1999 to 220 years in prison for eight murders and two homicides. In September, a judge ruled that the case against Gen. Juan Guillermo Oliva and two former colonels for the 1990 murder of anthropologist Myrna Mack should remain in the civilian courts, rejecting the defense's call for the case to be placed under military jurisdiction. At this writing, no date had been set for the trial.

On May 12, Congress rescinded the law allowing the president to grant pardons in capital cases, bringing Guatemala into violation of both the American Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Earlier in the year, President Portillo had reviewed four pending cases and, in a welcome decision, commuted the death sentence of Pedro Rax Cucul to thirty years' imprisonment. Rax Cucul, a member of Guatemala's indigenous community who was believed to be mentally disturbed at the time of the crime, reportedly had lacked an interpreter when making his deposition and been assisted only by a mental patient. In the other three cases, President Portillo denied clemency to the sentenced men. On June 29, Amilcar Cetino Pérez and Tomás Cerrate Hernández, both convicted of kidnapping and murder, were given lethal injections; their executions were broadcast live on national television.

As of late October, some thirty people remained on death row. In February, an appeals court commuted the death sentences of three former Civil Patrol members convicted of murdering two of the 143 persons killed in the 1982 Rio Negro massacre, reducing their sentences to fifty-year prison terms.

A U.N.-sponsored report released in April found that conditions in half of Guatemala's detention centers failed to meet minimum international standards.

In December 1999, Nobel peace prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú Tum filed suit in Spain against six military officers and two civilians for genocide and torture. In March, the Spanish High Court agreed to hear the case and in April it began calling witnesses. Judge Guillermo Ruiz Polanco allowed additional plaintiffs to join the case, including the family of a Spanish priest who was murdered in Guatemala in February 1981, and Guatemala's human rights ombudsman. In April, lawyer Julio Cintrón Galvez filed suit against Menchú for treason for filing the case in Spain, a charge that carries a ten to twenty year prison term.

General Ríos Montt, current president of the Congress, was among those named in Menchú's suit as being responsible for genocide and torture during the period when he ruled the country from March 1982 until August 1983. In August, his position as congressional president was threatened when a scandal erupted over his alleged participation in improperly lowering an alcohol tax, but the case had not been resolved at this writing.

On October 13, 1999, armed men detained the five-member executive committee of the Union of Banana Workers of Izabal (Sindicato de Trabajadores Bananeros de Izabal, SITRABI) and held them hostage for several hours. SITRABI represented some 2,500 workers employed by the local subsidiary of Del Monte. The gunmen forced two of the union's leaders to make a radio announcement calling off a work stoppage, planned for the next day to protest the company's failure to reinstate 918 workers who had been fired the previous month in violation of a collective bargaining agreement. In March 2000, Del Monte and the International Union of Foodworkers (IUF), representing SITRABI, signed an agreement to reinstate the fired workers and prosecute those responsible for the attack on the union leaders. In June, a court ruled that twenty-five people should be tried for coercion, illegal search, and illegal detention, but at this writing, no date had been set for the trial, nor had any of the workers been reinstated.

The Minors' Code, which the Guatemalan legislature passed in 1996 but postponed implementing until the year 2000, was again postponed indefinitely in February. The legislation would extend procedural protections-such as the right to a lawyer-to children accused of crimes, and introduce other changes to bring domestic law into conformity with the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Guatemala ratified in 1990. In September, Guatemala signed a newly-adopted optional protocol to the children's convention prohibiting the involvement of children in armed conflict. In August, the ODHA released a report on the forced "disappearance" of children during the civil war, attributing 92 percent of the eighty-six documented abductions to the military.

In proceedings before the IACHR in March, President Portillo accepted state responsibility for the events leading to the 1995 murder of Marco Quistinay, a thirteen-year-old streetchild whom two officers handed a bag he believed was food, but which contained a grenade that exploded and killed him. In December 1999, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that two police officers were responsible for the 1990 deaths of five street youths and that the Guatemalan government had failed to protect the rights of the victims. The decision called for the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the crime.

Defending Human Rights

In 2000, there was an alarming increase in threats, harassment, and targeted violence against human rights organizations and activists. In the first half of the year, MINUGUA registered fifty-six threats to human rights activists, witnesses and judicial authorities in human rights cases. Rigoberta Menchú and several colleagues at her foundation received death threats.

Organizations and individuals making human rights claims in the courts were particularly targeted. In September, gunmen entered the offices of the Families of the Detained and Disappeared of Guatemala (FAMDEGUA), a group that had initiated proceedings against General Ríos Montt for the Dos Erres massacre, forcing three staff members to the floor at gunpoint. The gunmen repeatedly threatened to kill the three and stole computers, money, and a vehicle. In August, Celso Balan, a representative of the Center for Legal Action in Human Rights (Centro para la acción legal en Derechos Humanos, CALDH) was detained, beaten, and robbed by individuals posing as journalists but thought to have links with active and retired military officers. MINUGUA noted that such threats were not adequately investigated by the authorities.

The Role of the International Community

United Nations

Under the 1996 peace accords, the mandate of MINUGUA was due to expire at year's end. In March, President Portillo asked MINUGUA to extend its stay, but at this writing the U.N. General Assembly had yet to decide on an extension. Significant aspects of the accords have yet to be implemented, so indicating a need for continued international verification.

MINUGUA's reports on aspects of the peace process contained detailed human rights analyses. In September, MINUGUA issued a human rights report for the period October 1999 to June 2000, and at other times it issued communiques on specific human rights abuses.

European Union

The European Parliament passed a resolution in May offering support for Guatemala's prosecution of crimes against humanity, for witness protection and for other protection measures for judges and lawyers. In March, cooperation between the PNC and Spain's Civil Guard (Guardia Civil), who had been providing technical assistance to the Guatemalan police since 1998, was suspended. The European Union was to provide funding to the police in the amount of some 34 million ECUS (approximately U.S. $40 million) between 1998 and 2003.

Organization of American States

The IACHR praised President Portillo's March admission of state responsibility in three pending cases as an "example for the entire Hemisphere." In August, President Portillo followed up on his March statements by agreeing to settle ten additional cases involving two massacres and sixteen executions and "disappearances," a step that obliged his government to provide compensation to the victims or their relatives, and to oversee the investigation and prosecution of each case. At the time of this writing, dozens of Guatemalan cases remained pending before the IACHR.

United States

In March, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) awarded one of its highest honors, the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal, to former official Terry Ward, who was dismissed from the agency in 1995 for failing to report CIA ties to a Guatemalan colonel implicated in the murders of Efraín Bamaca Velásquez and U.S. citizen Michael Devine. After fierce political debate, Guatemala in April approved the deployment of U.S. military forces to the country to combat illicit drug trafficking. In June, the National Security Archive, a Washington, D.C.-based NGO, released a report entitled "The Guatemalan Military: What the U.S. Files Reveal." This named 232 Guatemalan officers and contained information on their activities and command responsibilities, so assisting NGOs and victims in their efforts to identify and bring to justice those responsible for gross abuses during Guatemala's civil war.

This report, Human Rights Watch's eleventh annual review of human rights practices around the globe, covers developments in seventy countries. It is released in advance of Human Rights Day, December 10, 2000, and describes events from November 1999 through October 2000.

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.