The Shadow of War

December 11, 2007

The Shadow of War

Winter 2007

The Shadow of War

By Monica Campbell

mass grave, Chimaltenago
A forensic anthropologist removes the bones of people killed and buried in mass graves in Comalapa, Chimaltenago. Maya communites were brutalized during the war.
© Sandra Sebastian

It was a remarkable find. In July 2005, responding to concerns about the storage of explosives at Guatemala City’s national civil police compound, a team of human rights officials entered a crumbling warehouse on the site. Inside, floor-to-ceiling piles of yellowed documents, many in decaying bundles, filled windowless concrete rooms infested by bats and cockroaches. The vast cache comprised the once-secret archive of the now disbanded National Police, a force often linked to murders, “disappearances” and other crimes during Guatemala’s 1960–1996 civil war—a conflict that claimed an estimated 200,000 lives and led to widespread “disappearances” of academics, activists and student leaders.

For years, human rights activists thought such official records had been destroyed. But the discovery of the police archives—and its estimated 80 million documents dating back to the 19th century—raised hopes of finding the proof needed to build strong cases against some military and police officials for their role in the murders and “disappearances.” For more than a year, about 200 archivists have scanned everything from personnel records and driver’s license applications to information on arrests and interrogations. Documents are digitized and stored on secure servers overseas in coordination with Benetech, a nonprofit group in Palo Alto, Calif., that has worked on similar human rights projects in Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Sierra Leone. All the while, motion-sensitive cameras and 24-hour guards monitor the scene, a precaution instituted amid a spate of death threats—including gunshots— directed at the archive project director, Gustavo Meoño, and others.

So unfolds one of the latest developments in Guatemala’s long struggle against entrenched impunity and corruption, endemic problems that imperil the country’s fragile post-war state. It has been a rough decade since the 1996 peace accords, one in which a treacherous tension has developed between opposing forces. On the one hand, the country’s transition to democracy has proceeded, if by fits and starts: civilian power replaced military rule, the government gave reparations to some victims of military-led massacres and the media gained independence. Yet a weak judicial system, conservative politics and a living legacy of wartime violence have stymied efforts to punish those responsible for orchestrating mass murders during the war. Indeed, the former president, General José Efraín Ríos Montt, who led the government during the most violent years, and Pedro García Arredondo, onetime head of the National Police, remain free and politically active.

Yet Meoño and his colleagues are determined to tip the balance in favor of a stronger democracy. Human rights advocates like Meoño have shed their dissident status to lead high-profile documentary projects, such as the analysis of the police archives, which may provide critical evidence for moving criminal proceedings forward. They work despite threats against their lives, official corruption and still-powerful military figures who want nothing more than for them to disappear.

“I’ve sworn that this is what I want to do with my life, this is how I will contribute,” says Meoño. A sympathizer of Guatemala’s revolutionary movement since he was a teen, Meoño, now 58, survived a gunshot to his left jaw and shoulder while driving through Guatemala City in February 1982. The assassination attempt, carried out by hit men he says worked for the government, targeted both Meoño and his passenger, Gustavo Porras, a former guerrilla leader who would later help lead the peace negotiations.

“Our work will shed light on government cover-ups and, above all, strengthen efforts to bring those responsible for past crimes to justice,” says Meoño. At the end of this year, the archive team’s first public report will be released. It will reflect the study of more than 4 million documents—a small percentage of the overall archive— from the years 1975–1985, the period when the majority of wartime assassinations occurred.

“We are filling the holes from our past,” says Meoño. In a parallel effort, scientists at Guatemala’s Forensic Anthropology Foundation have been analyzing thousands of bones from exhumed mass graves, many dating back to the early 1980s and found in remote Maya villages. Working from a converted diplomat’s house in a residential neighborhood in Guatemala City, teams of scientists examine clothing, tattered after years in a grave, for murder clues such as shrapnel. “Our job is to try and answer questions about the fate of people who died during the war and help victims’ families close this chap-.

Guatemala City commemoration
Indigenious women cry for their missing relatives during a Guatemala City commemoration to remember the people who were killed or "disappeared" during the civil war.
© Sandra Sebastian

ter of their lives,” said José Samuel Suasnavar, assistant director of the forensic team. “Even if what we find does not lead to prosecutions, we at least show that institutions are working to clear up what happened in the past.”

While Guatemala struggles to overcome its wartime past, its future is vulnerable to violent groups that, in some ways, are an outgrowth of the war and a still fragile justice system. Former military men, many with criminal pasts, continue to operate freely within police and other government institutions. They are also active in powerful clandestine groups that depend on crooked politicians and engage in international drug trafficking (often colluding with Colombian cartels). Indeed, much of the violence that raised political murders to historic levels during the September elections is blamed on attempts by underground criminal groups attempting to influence politics. Nearly 50 activists and candidates were murdered during the election season, and the violence spared few political parties. In early September, Wenceslao Ayapán and Esmeralda Uyán, municipal council candidates with Rigoberta Menchú’s Encounter for Guatemala party, were gunned down with automatic weapons in San Raymundo, about 20 miles north of Guatemala City. In August, gunmen killed José Emanuel Méndez Dardón, the son of high-profile human rights advocate, Amilcar Méndez, in Guatemala City. Like most murders in Guatemala, the killings remain unsolved. But several of the deaths are apparently linked to bribes that politicians refused to accept or, in the case of activists, public criticism of criminal groups.

Former soldiers are also suspected of involvement with armed rogue groups that collude with Guatemalan law enforcement to wipe out youth gangs. Their main targets: the notorious Mara Salvatrucha and MS-18 gangs, which originated in Los Angeles and then arrived in Guatemala as gang members were deported from the United States. No doubt, the youth gangs are responsible for much of the street violence—drive-by shootings, kidnappings, violence against women and muggings—that has ordinary citizens living in fear. In 2006, homicides nearly topped 6,000, the highest rate in Central America. But human rights groups say the creation of shadowy armed squads and the execution and torture of gang members in the name of “social cleansing” smacks of the desperate measures used by Guatemala’s past military regimes to tackle crime.

Both of Guatemala’s presidential front-runners, who, at press time were gearing up to compete in a November run-off election, have vowed to tackle crime on all fronts. But while Álvaro Colom, of the center-left National Unity of Hope Party, stresses the need to clean up the police force and strengthen the judicial system, his opponent takes a mano dura (firm hand) approach. Otto Pérez Molina, a former army general of the conservative Patriotic Party, espouses a zero-tolerance approach toward crime and pledges to beef up the police force. Pérez Molina, who directed military intelligence during the war, also promises to resume capital punishment, which is rarely applied in Guatemala. The hardliner stance has won him much support. Former President Ríos Montt himself won a seat in Congress on a law-andorder platform.

“People want to know whether they will be safe hopping on a bus or walking down a street,” says Helen Mack, one of Guatemala’s most recognized human rights activists. “Crime, or the threat of it, is a day-to-day worry.” As a result, says Mack, “Guatemala is leaning toward conservative options.”

Supporters of Pérez Molina include ordinary Guatemalans like Marta Julia Paredes. Every day, the 33-year-old is relieved when her husband, a bus driver in Guatemala City, returns home from work alive. His route takes him through some of the capital’s most dangerous neighborhoods, where gangs routinely extort money from bus drivers who pass through their designated turf. More than 60 bus drivers were killed on the job during the first half of 2007, with most of the deaths occurring during hold-ups by gang members. There was a time, says Paredes, when she didn’t worry about her husband’s safety and valued his steady job. “Now, I worry that he will be a gang target,” she says. “We need a government that will do whatever it takes to stop the criminals.”

These developments frustrate Frank LaRue, head of the Guatemalan Presidential Commission on Human Rights. “It’s a kind of Stockholm syndrome,” he says, referring to hostages’ tendency to defend or show signs of loyalty to their captors.

The shadow cast by Guatemala’s war has at times hobbled the progress of justice. The push-pull of opposing forces complicated the recent passage of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), an independent, United Nations-backed group tasked to investigate the clandestine organizations linked to much of the current violence—political and otherwise. The illegal armed groups, which include former members of government-backed security forces, infiltrate government institutions and police forces, threaten judges, and terrorize anybody else who stands in the way of their illegal businesses, including drug trafficking. They feed on corruption and depend on a weak judicial system and only grow more powerful as Guatemala becomes an increasingly important transfer point for narcotics moving through South America and Mexico en route to the United States.

On Aug. 1, the congress approved a measure allowing CICIG to work with government prosecutors to investigate members of criminal groups and their collusion with police and crooked financial networks. Leading the entity will be Carlos Castresana, a Spanish criminal prosecutor and judge appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Castresana is a longtime combatant of corruption, drug trafficking and money laundering, who previously worked for the Mexico and Central America regional bureau of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, where he helped lead anti-crime projects in the drug-plagued Mexican state of Nuevo León.

But scrutiny of the inner workings of political power is unwelcome in many quarters, and CICIG met with powerful resistance from its inception. One of CICIG’s most vocal foes is Zury Ríos Sosa, a member of a powerful political party, Republican Front of Guatemala (FRG), and the daughter of Ríos Montt, who helped establish the party in the 1980s. She struck a populist tone, claiming that foreign investigators would violate Guatemala’s sovereignty. In the end, Guatemala’s congress agreed only to a version of CICIG that critics say has no teeth. Instead of having direct prosecutorial powers, CICIG is now limited to assisting government investigations and helping to determine how illegal groups work. The body’s limited role is particularly problematic because it is politicians, particularly those in border areas with Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador, who are regularly accused of cutting deals with drug traffickers in return for easing U.S.-bound shipments. Still, during an election year marked by public outrage over violence, the CICIG kept alive the debate over the need for a better judicial system and police oversight. The February assassination in Guatemala of three Salvadoran Central American Parliament deputies and their driver, and the aftermath that followed the crime, confirmed the extent to which violent lawlessness still operates in Guatemala’s civil structure. Four police officials, including the head of the Guatemalan National Police’s organized crime unit, were jailed for the crime. Then the officers themselves were killed when gunmen stormed the prison.

“With the Salvadoran case, we saw police officers killed while they were supposedly held behind four locked doors in a maximum-security prison,” says LaRue. “Those executions could only have been done in cooperation with prison personnel. Now, who can trust investigations into these cases if the police themselves are clearly infiltrated and being funded by clandestine groups?”

Largely out of political necessity, both Colom and Pérez Molina publicly endorsed the CICIG initiative. So did their respective political parties and Guatemala’s constitutional court. Ten years ago, the congress almost certainly would have rejected the CICIG, say analysts. The sustained efforts of LaRue, who spearheaded the initiative and persisted despite death threats, helped usher what may once have been a farfetched idea into reality. “The idea of investigating illegal armed groups, particularly those with ties to individuals who were active in the military regimes, would have been too fresh,” says Pedro Trujillo, director of the Institute of Political Studies and International Relations at Francisco Marroquín University in Guatemala City.

In the end, the efficacy of the U.N.- led body will depend on the commitment of Guatemala’s criminal prosecutors and judges to carry through the commission’s investigations and recommendations. That will not be easy. Judges themselves face threats and intimidation when aggressively pursuing organized crime.

“Right now, we have no idea what will become of this commission,” says Renata Rendon, advocacy director for the Americas at Amnesty International USA. She considers the CICIG a positive step but stresses that its ultimate impact will be determined by political will. “It needs the Guatemalan government’s support, and it needs resources and manpower to work.” A clearer picture may emerge once the next Guatemalan administration takes hold.

LaRue agrees that the CICIG is “no magic wand.” But he also believes the initiative—and the political support that it eventually gained—are positive steps toward fighting the freedom that criminals enjoy in Guatemala. “It is important to recognize progress whenever we see it,” says LaRue. “Victories here are rare.”ai

Monica Campbell is a freelance journalist based in Mexico City. She contributes regularly to Newsweek and the San Francisco Chronicle.

AI's Long Term Work in Guatemala

Guatemala's 2007 election season, the most violent in this country's trouble history, is just one legacy of the judicial impunity that has reigned here for decades. Amnesty International has issued several urgent actions to protect human rights defenders, published a groundbreaking report on violent crime against Guatemalan women, and condemned the violence. AI continues to monitor the situation, and it has called on candidates to ensure increased protection for human rights defenders and strong support for the CICIG.

AIUSA is working to ensure that General Jose Efrain Rios Montt and other former high-ranking Guatemalan officials wanted in Spain on charges of genocide, terrorism, torture and illegal detention all either face trial in Guatemala or are extradited to Spain without delay. In AIUSA's 2007 National Day of Action, activists raised the profile of the Rios Montt case, targeting Guatemalan consulates across the country with meetings, write-ins, demonstrations and armfuls of red paper carnations--the latter a symbol representing the thousands of people killed during Rios Montt's military rule. AIUSA's new film Justice Without Borders highlights stories of the current quest for justice by survivors in Guatemala, as well as Peru, Chile, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Take action to bring Rios Montt to justice and order Justice Without Borders at:

To read AI's open letter to candidates and learn about other current action opportunities for Guatemala, please click here.