The Role of the Military


"In Guatemala the impact of violence far outweighs the rule of law."

 J. Solomon
 The Christian Science Monitor
 20 November 1990


1.0. General

According to the London-based human rights organization Article 19, Guatemala is a country where "violence itself has become a principle method of political expression" (Latin America Regional Report 6 Dec. 1990, 4). The violence is such that some observers compare its magnitude to the levels of violence that can be associated with war (Central America Report 29 June 1990, 190). Indiscriminate violence and human rights abuses against those who oppose, or are suspected of opposing the regime, are viewed as responsible for the omnipresent terror in Guatemala.

The election of a civilian government in 1986, created expectations of renewed hope in Guatemala. However, the expectations quickly became illusions as the new civilian government showed that it lacked the power (and many observers claim the willpower) to curb the human rights abuses and violence, much of which is allegedly perpetrated by the Armed Forces. A newly-elected government is scheduled to assume power on 14 January 1991. It is expected that this government will seek domestic peace by demonstrating that it can control the military. However, observers remain sceptical and believe that the present military-civilian monologue must first and foremost be replaced by a continuing dialogue.

1.1. The Relationship Between the Government and the Armed Forces

The Constitution of Guatemala clearly states that the President of the Republic is also Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces (Blaustein and Flanz 1986, 72). In practice, however, the Armed Forces retain much of the power they had before allowing the return to civilian rule in January 1986. According to one observer, Guatemala's present Constitution, decreed in May 1985, as well as the three previous Constitutions, were allegedly written in such a manner as to stay within the parameters of what the writers believed would be tolerated by the military (Aguilera 1989, 168). Evidence tends to confirm the Armed Forces as the principal power in Guatemala. Before allowing civilian rule to resume under President-elect Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo, the Armed Forces decreed an amnesty barring "any prosecution of military personnel for human rights abuses and political crimes committed between March 1982 and January 1986" (Delury 1983, 432). Under President Cerezo, two similar amnesty laws were promulgated in October 1987 and June 1988. Consequently, according to Amnesty International, these amnesties "created a climate conducive to further violations" since they virtually justified past abuses (Amnesty International 1990, 104; Latin America Regional Report 6 Dec. 1990, 4).

Politicians and government authorities rarely contradict or confront the military apparatus on any issue and prefer to limit their actions to what they believe will be tolerated by the military (Aguilera 1989, 168; The Christian Science Monitor 11 Dec. 1990, 8). According to the New York-based monitor Americas Watch, President Cerezo's administration "has consistently tolerated and worse still, apologized for unspeakable abuses committed by the men the President supposedly commands" (Central America NewsPak 18 June-1 July 1990, 3A). Furthermore, Western diplomats believe that two right-wing coup attempts in May 1988 and May 1989 forced President Cerezo to cede most of his power to the Armed Forces, making the Presidency a "facade for continued military rule" as well as leaving "less and less space for legitimate political dissent" (Ibid.; Inter-Church Committee Jan. 1990, 8).


No one outside the Armed Forces is totally immune from human rights abuses, both physical and psychological. Children, journalists, refugees, displaced people, students, academics, Indian peasants and members of peasant organizations, trade unionists, clergy and church workers, witnesses to crimes, leaders of human rights organizations and suspected government opponents are viewed by reputable monitors as in a vulnerable population. In the last 30 years, government security forces were allegedly responsible for 100,000 deaths and 40,000 disappearances (Central America NewsPak 27 Aug.- 9 Sept. 1990, 7). In 1989, the Centre for Human Rights Research, Study and Promotion of Human Rights (CIEPRODH) documented 1,035 assassinations, 226 kidnappings and 151 disappearances (Inter-Church Committee Jan. 1990, 17). In the first six months of 1990, at least 566 "extra-judicial deaths" had been recorded (Central America NewsPak 16-29 July 1990, 6).

2.1. The Armed Forces

Guatemala's 43,000 strong Armed Forces, made up of the Army, the Air Force and the Navy, are well known for their unity, combat spirit and high combat readiness (Aguilera 1989, 165). The Army and the Air Force are the more important and the better-equipped of the three branches; the Navy consists mainly of coastguard units.

In principle, Guatemala has a universal conscription law (Aguilera 1989, 165). In practice, however, citizens of Guatemala City and those who can bribe their way out of service are not drafted; Indian peasants between 16 and 25 years of age are the preferred recruits (Simon 1987, 45). Under legally-established recruitment procedures, the conscripts must first be notified and then they must report for duty (Central America Report 11 May 1990, 135). In reality, forced recruitment seems to be the method most commonly used. Allegedly, forced round-ups have occurred after church services, at construction sites, at local markets, at local dances and at soccer matches (Simon 1987, 45). An Army spokesman defended the recruitment procedure by claiming that "it favoured poor young men by giving them a salary, food and other benefits" and that recruitment only affected the "economically disadvantaged" (Central America Report 11 May 1990, 135).

Since the early 1960s, the Armed Forces have been fighting a protracted internal war using modern counter-insurgency tactics and systematic state terror against various left-wing armed people's movements. In 1982, these movements established a "unified military command" called the Guatemalan Revolutionary Unity (URNG) (Aguilera 1989, 164; Degenhardt 1988, 138).

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, in order to "remove the water [supportive population] from the fish [armed insurgency]" the Army launched a "scorched-earth" campaign where, according to the Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America, close to 440 villages were destroyed, 75,000 people were killed, one million people internally displaced and more than 200,000 forced to seek refugee status abroad (Inter-Church Committee Jan. 1990, 18). Entire regions were left solely in the hands of the military by the government (Central America NewsPak 16-29 July 1990, 5).

Those most severely affected by this policy were mostly Guatemala's indigenous people, who account for more than 60 percent of the total population and whom some observers see as perhaps the "most segregated and oppressed native majority in the Western Hemisphere" (Inter-Church Committee Jan. 1990, 18; Central America NewsPak 24 Sept. - 7 Oct. 1990, 7). The repression continued into the late 1980s as the Army admitted to bombing populated villages in the province of El Quiche (Central America Report 16 Feb. 1990, 45). Although there has been a resurgence in URNG activities since 1989, the Guatemalan military claims that the insurgents are a spent force (Inter-Church Committee Jan. 1990, 5).

In order to keep the indigenous population under control, the army set up regimented "model villages" where all peasants pass through a three-stage "reorientation" process: interrogation, re-education and relocation (Central America NewsPak 27 Aug. - 9 Sept. 1990, 7). The model villages are populated by forcibly relocated people who had fled the "scorched-earth" campaign to find refuge in the mountains of northern Guatemala and by refugees who have voluntarily repatriated (Inter-Church Committee Jan. 1990, 19).

Once "reoriented", villagers are often forced to participate in military incursions and all men between 16 and 60 years of age are compelled to join the Civil Defence (Inter-Church Committee Jan. 1990, 19). Those who returned to be relocated in the model villages returned to the same violence they had sought to avoid by fleeing. This has convinced many repatriated refugees to return to the refugee camps administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Mexico where an estimated 35,000 Guatemalans live (Ibid.; Nations Unies E/CN.4/1990/45, 12 Dec. 1989).

One of the most repressive institutions of the Army is its intelligence arm known as G-2. With its estimated staff of 2,000, G-2 is notorious in Guatemala for "intimidating, abducting and murdering leftist guerrillas, their supporters and others who annoy the army" (The Washington Post 23 Nov. 1990, A19). At the weekly meetings of the Chiefs of the General Staff, G-2 officials reportedly present an analysis and an appreciation of the current political situation and then make their own recommendations (The New Republic 30 June 1986, 13). G-2 allegedly operated, from the early 1980s to the mid-1980s, a network of clandestine holding centres and used them as secret prisons and interrogation centres (Ibid.). Authorities deny the existence of such prisons although an American nun claims to have been abducted and tortured in 1989 in one of the centres (Inter-Church Committee Jan. 1990, 24). General Benedicto Lucas García, a former Army Chief of Staff and brother of an ex-president, once explained that "if the G-2 wants to kill you they will kill you" (The New Republic 30 June 1986, 13).

2.2. The National Police

The 9,500 strong, military-style National Police force is the only government branch capable of conducting effective criminal investigations (Bonsignore 1990, 54; WOLA 1989, 23). However, according to the Washington-based International Human Rights Law Group, the National Police, which reports to the Minister of the Interior, "remains a mere appendage of Guatemalan Army Intelligence, with institutional links permeating the police from top to bottom, officially and unofficially" (Anderson 1989, iv). The collusion between the two forces is such that while the investigative unit of the National Police has never "developed evidence against a member of the armed forces implicated in violent abuse," it is nevertheless reportedly notorious for "targeting and executing political opponents" (WOLA 1989, 24, 35). The National Police are mainly deployed in Guatemala City but smaller detachments are found in major cities and towns (Anderson 1989, 12). In addition to the National Police, there are the Treasury Police and the Municipal Police, both of which, according to human rights observers, have for decades formed unofficial right-wing death squads (Newsday 7 Oct. 1990, 4).

Street children are reportedly another targeted group of the Guatemalan police forces. Some officers refer to the killings of street children as "social purification" (Newsday 7 Oct. 1990, 4). According to the government's own numbers, close to 225 killings of children occurred between January and July 1990, although the deaths were not attributed to any particular groups (Ibid.). Amnesty International reports that children suffer sexual abuses and repeated beatings and that some are tortured and forced to inhale cement, while many are murdered (Central America NewsPak 5-18 Nov. 1990, 5). Amnesty International also claims that those responsible are members of the police forces, and private security guards who are issued their working permits by the Ministry of the Interior or by the National Police (Ibid.).

2.3. The Civil Defence

Before the return to civilian rule, the Civil Self-Defence Patrols were officially renamed "Voluntary Self-Defence Committees" by the military (Central America Report 18 May 1990b, 5). These patrols, which were initially set up by the Army in the early 1980s to assist its counter-insurgency efforts, are viewed by observers as the Army's "link and control" over virtually every hamlet in the Guatemalan mountains (Anderson 1989, 57). They serve as the eyes and ears of the Army, thus enabling it to consolidate its power and institutionalize the militarization of the countryside (Anderson 1989, 42).

It is estimated that the Civil Defence has close to 700,000 men within its ranks although only 10,000 are armed (Bonsignore 1990, 54). The decree creating the patrols is recognized as being constitutional but the recruitment procedures are clearly in violation of Article 34 of the Constitution of Guatemala, which guarantees that "no one is mandated to become associated or to become a member of self-defence of similar groups or associations" (Blaustein and Flanz 1986, 33). In reality, all men between the ages of 12 or 15 to 60 years of age are required to serve in a patrol unit and, depending on the number of men in his village, each is on duty as often as once every three days for 24 hours (Central America Report 18 May 1990b, 143). The labour is unpaid and according to a Guatemalan congressman, to refuse to serve means "to court death as a `subversive'" (Anderson 1989, 42).

The patrols' code of conduct, "supporting the Guatemalan army in all of its actions," is clearly indicative of the hold the army has on them (Central America Report 18 May 1990b, 145). The patrols report to the Army for all of their operations and often accompany or replace them in military sweeps (Anderson 1989, 43; Central America Report 18 May 1990b, 143). They are also sometimes forced to engage in combat on the front lines (Central America Report 18 May 1990b, 143). Casualties occur regularly and often repatriates are wounded or killed either by the guerrillas or, on some occasions, by the Army who mistakes them for guerrillas (Ibid.). President Cerezo has never acted on his promise to hold popular consultations to determine the fate of the patrols, preferring instead to retain the military's confidence by making little effort to restrain it (Ibid.).

2.4. The Judicial System

One of the reasons the Armed Forces' power remains unchallenged is the impunity rendered them by the lack of an independent judiciary. In theory, Guatemala's constitution provides for many of the same human rights guarantees found in the constitutions of most democracies (Anderson 1989, 9). In practice, however, the judicial system is such that after 100,000 political killings in 30 years, not one member of Guatemala's security forces has been jailed and after five years in office, President Cerezo is stepping down with only one case of extra-judicial violence brought to trial out of three thousand registered cases (Central America NewsPak 10-23 Sept. 1990, 5; Central America Report 30 Nov. 1990, 361).

The Constitution of Guatemala also provides for habeas corpus which in practice functions only in cases of legal detention. The judicial system has no means of discovering the fate of an individual if the military or police forces do not admit to having detained the individual or if the individual is held in a secret jail (WOLA Dec. 1989, 16).

The impunity of the military is nurtured by many factors; the fact that the National Police is the principal investigation body is only one reason. According to judges in Guatemala, witnesses to abuses and crimes are reluctant to come forward, fearing severe and life-threatening reprisals either from the military and/or the guerrillas (WOLA 1989, 12). Superior officers commonly protect their soldiers by either hiding certain facts or by simply remaining silent (Ibid.).

In theory, all military personnel and civilian deputies of the Army must be judged in military courts if the offenders were on duty at the time of the offence and in civilian courts if they were not (WOLA 1989, 14). However, the President of the Supreme Court has stated that all military personnel should be tried in military courts regardless of their duty status and according to another judge, civilian deputies of the Army are by coincidence "always on duty when they commit a crime" (Ibid., 14, 74). Members of the Civil Defence are tried by civilian courts but they benefit from "extraordinary military protection" when their crimes are not disguised to avoid trial (Ibid., 14).

3.                CURRENT SITUATION

The Guatemalan Armed Forces apparently remain the principal power holders in the wake of Guatemala's return to a fragile democracy. In spite of international condemnation, the military has done little to improve its human rights record. On 2 December 1990, military sentries opened fire on a crowd which was protesting the attempted kidnapping by the military of a fellow townsman, leaving an estimated 15 protesters dead and 20 wounded. The Presidency later announced that an investigation would be conducted but did not mention the Army's role in the massacre (Central America Report 7 Dec. 1990, 1).

In Guatemala, terror and violence remain an everyday reality. A UN Human Rights Commission delegation stated that "general violence and human rights violations are uncontrollable in Guatemala" (Latinamerica Press 29 Mar. 1990, 7). The violence perpetrated by the military and security forces has attained a "sufficient level to ensure self-censorship, particularly relating to military abuses" (Latin America Regional Report 6 Dec. 1990, 4). The Armed Forces' self-assured repressive nature can be characterized by the views of one colonel: "Do you think we've left behind any evidence? In Argentina there are witnesses, there are books, there are films, there is proof. Here in Guatemala there is none of that. Here there are no survivors" (The New Republic 30 June 1986, 13). Although his statement is a slight exaggeration, it does illustrate the military's strong belief in its impunity.

The omnipresent terror in Guatemala has taken its toll on the population which now seems "willing to trade away freedom for security" (Central America NewsPak 2-15 July 1990, 5). According to a poll taken in May 1990, 37 percent of the population favoured a return to military rule and 36 percent preferred a civilian government (Ibid.).

In his 1989 report to the United Nations Commission for Human Rights, human rights expert Héctor Gros Espiell indicated that he believed that the government was not directly associated with any human rights violations but he criticized its lack of action to curb the ongoing violence and accused it of not exercising all of its constitutional powers to guarantee and enforce human rights (Nations Unies E/CN.4/1990/45, 12 Dec. 1989).

Reality may not be as simple or achievable. Should the civilian authorities decide to examine the possibility of reforming the Armed Forces and curb its abuses, they would have to consider the warning issued by General Oscar Humberto Mejía Victores, head of Government at the time of transition. General Mejía's terms were clear: "it would be a mistake to move against the army... the army would not accept it" (WOLA Dec. 1989, 2).

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