Landmark Developments in Guatemalan Human Rights

Human rights activist in Guatemala continually come up against the country's stubborn structures of impunity, but recent events have renewed their hopes that the tide is finally beginning to turn toward truth and justice. And behind them is a mounting body of newly released documentary evidence. These emerging victories, however, continue to come at a price: Brutal reprisals and violence against human rights activists in Guatemala are still rampant.

May 14, 2009

The recent arrest of two police officers in Guatemala marks an emotional milestone for human rights advocates in the country. Authorities detained the officers in March for their involvement in the 1984 forced disappearance of student and labor activist Edgar Fernando García.

The police records filled dozens of rooms of an active police compound in downtown Guatemala City. (Photo © Daniel Hernández-Salazar)

In the weeks following the arrests, the Guatemalan government made public millions of documents from a police archive haphazardly discovered in 2005 by human rights officials at police compound. The archive’s documents shed light on years of violent repression, abductions, assassinations, and torture by Guatemala’s state security forces during the country’s internal armed conflict.

Despite fear of a violent backlash against these efforts to bring war criminals to justice, the families of victims and human rights activists are hopeful that these moves will begin untangling the web of impunity that continues to hinder Guatemala’s fragile democracy.

Authorities arrested Héctor Roderico Ramírez Ríos, who was serving as the chief of the National Civil Police (PNC) for Quetzaltenango, on March 5. The next day, the government also detained retired officer Abraham Lancerio Gómez. Both men were members of the National Police at the time of Edgar Fernando García’s disappearance – two other policemen remain at large. The government disbanded the National Police – replacing it with the PNC – as part of the 1996 peace accords that ended Guatemala’s 36-year internal armed conflict because of its vast involvement in human rights abuses during the war.

For Nineth Montenegro, García's widow and a current member of congress, the arrests came as a personal victory. Montenegro has worked to uncover the whereabouts of her husband for decades, becoming an outspoken human rights advocate in the process. She founded the Mutual Support Group (GAM) with other families of the disappeared. Although nearly 90 of its members have been killed or disappeared in the 24 years since its creation, the GAM has continued to demand information and justice for victims and their families.

Nineth de García, daughter Alejandra and husband Fernando before his abduction on February 18, 1984. (Courtesy of Jean-Marie Simon)

At the time of his disappearance, 26-year-old García was a student at the school of engineering at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City. He also worked as an administrator for the national glass company Centroamerica de Vidrios and was an official for the union representing the company's workforce.

Human Rights Prosecutor Sergio Morales used eyewitness accounts collected by the GAM and documents uncovered at the police archives to file the charges against the two men. Police officials had long denied the existence of any such archives throughout the peace process. In 2005, a judge issued an order permitting the Ombudsman and staff to inspect the records. The entire police archives project has hung on that slender thread ever since.

The arrests of the police officers involved in García's disappearance marks an emotional high-point for Montenegro and other human rights activists, but the victory was somewhat bitter-sweet. Brutal violence against human rights activists in Guatemala is still rampant and 98 percent of these crimes go unpunished.

Lancerio Gómez taken in to custody for charges of illegal detention and forced disappearance. (Courtesy of Prensa Libre)

In September 2007, the Guatemalan government and the UN established the independent Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). The Commission's mandate includes investigating clandestine armed groups with ties to state security forces that are suspected of being responsible for ongoing attacks against human rights activists.

Chaos broke out in Guatemala City on March 24 as the government and UN were negotiating the final details of a two-year extension for the CICIG. That same day, Sergio Morales released his first report on the contents of the uncovered archive documents. In what was an apparent attempt to destabilize the negotiations and protest the release of incriminating information, gunmen launched deadly and apparently coordinated attacks on several buses in Guatemala City.

The capital was paralyzed. Former general Otto Pérez Molina, an opposition leader, and other public figures that openly sympathize with the military demanded that the government declare a state of emergency, which suspends constitutional civil liberties.

The next day, March 25, Morales’ wife was kidnapped and tortured by gunmen suspected of being part of these clandestine groups. Several other people involved in the case have also been beaten and threatened.

Part of the problem lies in that many of Guatemala's civil war-era human rights abusers still hold positions of power in the police force, the military, and in politics. The task of bringing these criminals to justice is staggering: The findings of Guatemala's UN-backed Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) noted that state security forces and allied paramilitary groups were responsible for 93 percent of the 200,000 killed, including an estimated 40,000 disappeared.

U.S.-based advocacy groups highlight Washington's complicity in these crimes by lending legitimacy to the Guatemalan government's violent abuses. The National Security Archive, a non-governmental research institute, recently published declassified documents showing the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala was plainly aware of the government's criminal counter-insurgency tactics.

The declassified documents show that in addition to knowledge of specific disappearances, including García's, Embassy officials were also aware that these abuses were part of an ongoing, systematic government effort to attack labor leaders – and other peaceful activists deemed subversive.

Óscar Humberto Mejía Víctores, Head of State at the time of Fernando García’s abduction. (Courtesy of Prensa Libre)

Five days after García was abducted an Embassy cable flatly noted that 28 labor leaders were “disappeared in 1980 in one fell swoop. It is believed that GOG [government of Guatemala] security forces murdered all of them.”

Human rights advocates in Guatemala and beyond are hopeful that the arrests and the mounting documentary evidence will lead to further progress on human rights cases. Among several high-profile legal targets is former general Óscar Humberto Mejía Víctores, who became president of Guatemala from 1983 to 1986 through a coup. His rule was a period of intense violence and disappearances of individuals like García. Mejía Víctores is currently charged with genocide in an international criminal case being investigated in Spain.

Lisa Skeen is a NACLA Research Associate.

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