Confronting the Question of Justice in Guatemala
McSherry, J. Patrice, Mejia, Raul Molina, Social Justice
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
-- 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.(4 )
Impunity has functioned as a shield to protect the repressive apparatus in Guatemala and to perpetuate the dominant social and political order (installed via the 1954 CIA-sponsored coup). Impunity allows the continuation of a state policy of terror as a political weapon; it serves to protect individual torturers and murderers in the military, who often continue to occupy high-ranking posts in civilian government. We have categorized three dimensions of impunity, to be analyzed in this article. Structural impunity means mechanisms and structures, institutionalized and legalized in the state, that serve to protect those who abuse state power -- a judicial system of military courts, for example. We define strategic impunity as active measures taken by state officials at specific moments, whether laws, decrees, amnesties, or pardons, to derail processes of or demands for truth and justice. Another manifestation of strategic impunity is a form of complicity between the civilian regime and the security forces, where civilian leaders publicly defend repressive measures or military forces that carry them out, repeat and legitimize army disinformation, or attack human-rights advocates or those who demand accountability. Political/psychological impunity is another dimension of impunity resulting from state terror, by which political options in a polity are restricted and controlled through the state's manipulation of fear in the population; citizens' fear of state terror is exploited to maintain the status quo.
Terror as a Political Instrument
E.V. Walter's classic 1969 study on political terror contains helpful insights for understanding the manipulation of fear by state elites as a means of controlling society and maintaining power. Walter shows that terror is used to engineer compliant behavior not only in the victims, but also in a target population, e.g., society in general. He posits that terror is used to enforce social integration and subservience and to eliminate potential power contenders. Walter points out that systematic terror is one way -- the most cruel and inhuman way - humanity has found to escape the eternal problems of unity and division, distribution and justice.
Walter emphasizes that terror by the state has "regular structural features ... [namely] the connection between terror, the possibilities of resistance, and crises of social integration" (p. xii). He thus strikes at the political essence: power relations and the role of terror in the service of power. In a system of terror, the state seeks to involve everyone in society either as victim or perpetrator. This type of system of terror coincides and coacts with systems of authority and is directed by those who already control the ordinary institutions of power. In the Guatemalan case, the military has used such a principle most obviously in its Civil Patrol system, where virtually all men in the countryside (up to one million mostly indigenous males) have been forcibly recruited for unpaid duty for the army. The Civil Patrols ensure the army's control over the population; overall, their purpose is to prevent community support for the insurgent movement and to control the "sea" in which the revolutionary "fish" swim. Members of the Civil Patrols are forced to spy on their own Mayan communities, thus disrupting traditional ties, to act as the front lines against guerrilla attack, to keep "order" through intimidation, and to perform unpaid labor on construction projects and road building to advance military counterinsurgency projects.
Walter shows that the rulers of a system of terror "consciously design a pattern of violence to produce the social behavior they demand" (p. 9). This type of terror involves three actors: a source of violence, a victim, and a target. The last two are not the same. The victim is killed (or tortured, or disappeared), but the target who sees reacts with some form of submission or accommodation. This insight again makes clear the political purpose of the state terror practiced by the national security states of Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s: the goal was to terrorize people into submission, and ultimately, to preserve (or install) a particular political and socioeconomic order. As Walter notes, the process of violence is directed not to destruction: the proximate end is to instill terror and the ultimate end is control (p. 13).
Walter argues that the elimination of an entire class may be attempted in some cases, giving the example of a king attempting to eliminate a rival aristocracy. However, if "the resisters are food producers who cannot be eliminated as a class because they are indispensable ... [violence] is used to keep them in control..." (p. 15). Later, he shows how the system of terror was used in the Zulu kingdom to prevent or destroy "latent drives toward independence on the part of chiefs or wealthy men" (p. 198), thereby forcing social integration and unity while simultaneously taking preventive action against potential rivals. In Guatemala, these points are relevant. Because the economic structure of Guatemala is built upon the superexploitation of the Mayan majority (as it has been since the Spanish conquest), the army (backed by the dominant classes) cannot destroy it completely, although its repression has at times been of genocidal proportions. Rather, the army's pervasive system of terror is aimed to control that population and to preempt a revolutionary resistance that would disrupt the entrenched oligarchic system. Later, we will examine why in Guatemala the army's terror has not succeeded in accomplishing this goal.
Walter points out that power resides not only in the capacity to alter patterns of behavior, but also to prevent them in the first place (p. 37). This is clearly the aim of systematic terror, and corresponds to the dimension of impunity we have called political/psychological. One is reminded of Gramsci's thesis, further developed by Robert Cox (1981), that hegemony, domination by means of the consent or habit of the dominated, is less costly for elites than is domination by coercion. Cox holds that coercion is applied when hegemony fails and a threat arises to a given order with its particular power relations. Hegemony, which is internalized within the dominated, results from ideological control or a sense of hopelessness. In a situation of hegemony, domination appears to be the inevitable order of things; costly methods of coercion become less necessary. Impunity for those who have tormented society serves to perpetuate this form of domination. Those who have been terrorized tend to curtail their hopes and aspirations for significant change when the perpetrators of the violence continue to wield power under civilian regimes.
One of Walter's key theses is that states (kings in his case) use systematic terror to resolve crises of social integration. Violence and apparent irrationality can be organizing principles in the expansion or integration of the state (p. 257). This approach has clear theoretical implications for modem terrorist states. In Guatemala, terror by the state has been a means of forcibly integrating the majority Indian population within a highly unequal and dependent form of capitalist development, where the rights of the majority are violated daily. Repression has been the means of maintaining the power of the small Ladino oligarchy for centuries; in the past 20 years, many former or present high-ranking army officers have themselves become landowners and industrialists, thereby joining this class. In the Southern Cone, terror was used both to eliminate urban guerrilla movements and to forcibly integrate dissenting and rebellious sectors of society, particularly workers and intellectuals, into the army-defined national project. Indeed, the national-security doctrines of Latin American armies emphasize national unity as a key principle, symbolized by the army; the army is the …
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Publication information: Article title: Confronting the Question of Justice in Guatemala. Contributors: McSherry, J. Patrice - Author, Mejia, Raul Molina - Author. Journal title: Social Justice. Volume: 19. Issue: 3 Publication date: Fall 1992. Page number: 1+. © 1998 Crime and Social Justice Associates. COPYRIGHT 1992 Gale Group.
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