Human Rights in Guatemala and the `Rule of Law' the Government's Unwillingness to Protect Human Rights Puts Democracy on Precarious Footing

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UNTIL the last week in May the world had once again forgotten Guatemala, precisely as its military rulers wished.

During the 1980s, when El Salvador's brutal civil war and United States relations with Nicaragua's Sandinista government seemed to dominate hemispheric relations, Guatemala's army quietly massacred tens of thousands of civilians whose loyalties to an oppressive status quo were suspect.

Yet, when former President Jorge Serrano Elias failed in his "self coup" attempt and the Guatemalan Congress named former human rights prosecutor Ramiro de Leon Carpio as president last month, Guatemala and its fragile transition to democracy were once again in the international spotlight.

President de Leon, a man with a brave record on human rights, has pledged to strengthen the rule of law and safeguard human rights in Guatemala. While we laud his pledge, we urge that he be judged by his performance with respect to three critical cases that have made a mockery out of Guatemala's supposed transition to civilian rule.

The first case, the murder of Myrna Mack Chang, a prominent Guatemalan anthropologist who was stabbed 27 times in front of her downtown office in September 1990, is the best known proof that high-ranking military officers routinely get away with murder in Guatemala.

Although an enlisted man has been convicted of her murder, he did not plan the crime. He took orders from senior officers.

De Leon must reopen the investigation into the men most likely behind the crimes - high-ranking officers in the elite presidential guard - something that the Serrano government cravenly refused to do.

The second case, concerning Judge Roberto Lemus Garza, a Guatemalan judge who was forced to flee to the US because of his efforts to investigate human rights abuses (using techniques learned in a US-sponsored judicial training program), illustrates that no amount of training and foreign aid will allow Guatemala to achieve democracy until its rulers summon the political will to protect those who seek to enforce the rule of law.

Mr. Lemus, a distinguished human rights scholar, continued to be the target of public attacks by the former minister of defense - the same man who backed the Serrano coup attempt - even while in exile.

De Leon should publicly apologize to Lemus for his ordeal and seek to provide him with guarantees of safety so that it would be safe for him to return to his position as a judge in Guatemala. …