Confronting the Question of Justice in Guatemala

Article excerpt

They took me to a house. I was left sitting there for over two hours,

and I could hear people screaming in other rooms. Handcuffed, they

forced me to unless. They tied my feet together and hung me upside

down. Then they hit me with an ax handle while accusing me of belonging

to a revolutionary organization. From the beginning, the torturers

identified themselves as kaibiles [Guatemalan elite troops

trained in counterinsurgency]. They told me that with the treatment I

would tell them everything I knew. They took turns beating me, and

if they were smoking, they would put out their cigarettes on my

body.... [Later] they gave me electric shocks. The violent contractions

of one's body and the way it bangs against the wall are

incredible....

-- Excerpted from testimony of Alvaro Rene Sosa Ramos, Guatemalan trade union leader, abducted in 1984.(1)

THE EXPERIENCE OF ALVARO RENE SOSA RAMOS WAS, AND IS, RARE IN Guatemala, where the overwhelming majority of those who are "disappeared" never reappear alive. His experience is also instructive, for it demonstrates a crucial fact about Guatemala's horrific human rights violations: they are not the work of out-of-control death squads, as is often claimed by the government. Rather, such violations are planned at the highest levels of the military, which directs a massive, well-organized, and clandestine system of repression. This system is preserved via the impunity -- freedom from legal sanction or accountability -- enjoyed by the violators of human rights.

Guatemala is starkly different from other former national security states such as Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, where the transition to civilian rule largely curbed widespread and systematic political repression. In Guatemala, the two successive civilian governments since the transition in 1986 have been unwilling or unable to control the apparatus of state terror or diminish the militarization of state and society. Although the level of human-rights crimes lessened in 1986, the first year of Vinicio Cerezo's administration, by 1987 more and more tortured bodies of campesinos, teachers, unionists, church workers, and others were again appearing in ravines and city streets. Today, under President Jorge Serrano, levels are as high as during the last years of military rule.

Meanwhile, a 1991 UNICEF report notes that nearly half the population of 9.3 million (some 70% of which is Mayan Indian) lacks health services, 32 children die every day from diarrhea and intestinal diseases, 76% of all children under five suffer from malnutrition, and the mortality rate for children under five is "the world's highest." About half of all national income in Guatemala is concentrated in the upper 10% of the population.(2) These social facts graphically illustrate that the political economy imposed by the military and subsequent civilian governments is a failure for most of the population. For this reason, even extreme repression has not managed to quell stubborn resistance, exemplified by Guatemala's burgeoning popular organizations and by its 30-year-old insurgent movement. Guatemala is also unique because of its Mayan majority, which is claiming its cultural rights and demanding equality. The increasingly self-conscious and militant indigenous populations are a driving force within Guatemala's mobilized civil society.

In Guatemala, as in other states where military regimes have used terror as a political instrument of social control, the transition to civilian rule has generated widespread public demands for accountability. Yet of all the former national security states, only in Argentina have there been trials of those who orchestrated and carried out the "dirty war" -- and with his 1989 and 1990 pardons, President Menem reversed the convictions for mass murder and torture that had resulted.(3) In Guatemala, where over 120,000 persons have been murdered and more than 42,000 disappeared (the highest proportions of the population in any Latin American country), in only one recent case have military officers been convicted of human rights crimes. …