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Guatemalan Violence and Ríos Montt's Resurgence

Guatemalan Violence and Ríos Montt's Political Resurgence

For Immediate Release

Saturday, 07/27/02


Ríos Montt's Political Resurgence in Guatemala Not Surprisingly Coincides with Increase in Violence with Impunity

* Pope should take advantage of approaching trip to Guatemala to seriously lecture ex-dictator Efraín Ríos Montt and demand the facts behind Bishop Gerardi's murder

* Although it is doubtful that it has caught Otto Reich's eye, the time has come for the State Department and the visiting Pope to sound the alarm over Guatemala's catastrophic slide into its old habits

* COHA director authors letter to the State Department calling for a U.S. travel advisory to be issued on Guatemala because of death squad activities

* A travel advisory should be issued to the Pope as well; Guatemala ranked a close second behind El Salvador in priest killings during the Cold War, with its death squads now launching a new campaign against the nation's clergy and human rights functionaries

* Under the leadership of Ríos Montt, security forces have reverted to the violent paramilitary oppression of the 1980s

In a letter sent today to Secretary of State Colin Powell, Larry Birns, the director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, suggested that a travel advisory be put into effect for U.S. citizens intending to visit Guatemala, and that perhaps he should alert the Pope, scheduled to arrive in Guatemala Monday, to take special care over his personal security, given that nation's reputation as a killing field for Catholic prelates. The letter cites the increasing violence against human rights activists and dissidents, as well as the methods being used by the government to cover up the names of past perpetrators of genocide, have created an alarmingly dangerous environment devoid of proper accountability on the part of the country's security forces and its ranking political personalities.

Guatemala's Atmosphere of Intimidation

Although in June the Financial Times starkly proclaimed, "The death squads are back," Guatemalans have never been strangers to government-sponsored violence. Their 36-year civil war pitted CIA-funded rightwing dictators against indigenous rebels seeking basic reforms, which resulted in an estimated 200,000 civilians deaths. The Historical Clarification Commission, one of the few realized components of the 1996 Peace Accords, has established the State's responsibility for 93 percent of the human rights violations committed during the war, including 626 massacres, and the systematic genocide against the Maya indigenous population.

Now, the political renaissance of former ruler General Efraín Ríos Montt, whose brutal, if short, dictatorship lasted from 1982-83, has been accomplished in a climate of intimidation and remilitarization, profoundly threatening Guatemala's fledgling democracy. The Peace Accords' proviso that an accurate assessment of the nation's sanguinary past be made has led to a new cycle of military intimidation and violence against those carrying out the investigations. For the most part, the army is entirely unregenerate for its murderous history.

The Second Generation of Death Squads

On April 26, 1998, two days after Bishop Juan Gerardi delivered his report itemizing the army's responsibility for scores of massacres during the war, he was bludgeoned to death in his garage, marking the unmistakable return of Guatemala's notorious death squads to the nation's political scene. Under intense international scrutiny, four men were convicted for their involvement in an army assassination plot against Gerardi, two of whom belonged to the Presidential Security Guard, Guatemala's brutal vigilante organization, which theoretically was dismantled two years earlier by the Peace Accords. But the issue of who ordered his execution has never been resolved.

The historic verdict that appeared to redress past government impunity unfortunately has been followed by a period of renewed corruption and violence, as Guatemala slides back to its bad old ways of the 1980s. The convictions in the Bishop Gerardi murder case are pending an appeal, which even church lawyers predict will succeed, given the total domination that the armed forces exercise over civilian institutions and the plenary power retained by Ríos Montt. Instances of military intimidation have increased during the past year. On April 29, 2002, one day before a hearing regarding an army massacre of 11 peasants, human rights activist Guillermo Ovalle de León was shot at least 25 times while eating lunch at a restaurant in Guatemala City. That same day, a recording of Chopin's Funeral March was played in anonymous phone calls to his organization, Fundación Rigoberta Menchú Tum, which provided legal counsel to survivors of that massacre.

What Awaits the Pope in Guatemala

In a most recent development, a June 7 fax signed by Los Guatemaltecos de Verdad labeled 11 prominent Guatemalan human rights activists as doomed enemies of the state because of their cooperation with UN Special Representative Hina Jilani during her May visit to the country. In a June 12 memorandum, Jilani expressed outrage at the outstanding death threats against rights activists and described specific aspects of the nation's current human rights crisis, citing Guatemala's "climate of fear" and the "lack of a proper implementation of the Peace Accords due to the persistence of impunity and an increased militarization."

In March, the range of intimidations against government critics expanded when U.S. citizen and international rights activist Barbara Bocek, while traveling in her home state of Washington, was driven off the road, bound and gagged and warned in Spanish to cancel her intended trip to Guatemala.

The aforementioned effrontery-terrorism in the U.S. by suspected Guatemalan government agents-is only one of the latest and highest profile cases in a growing number of abductions, beatings, tortures and disappearances signaling the resurrection of a sordid tradition that broadened during the Ríos Montt dictatorship. The Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), the ruling political party that Ríos Montt founded and still controls, uses the threat of violence to prevent some of the more embarrassing revelations of its murderous past. In the first half of 2002, the U.N. Mission to Guatemala (MINUGUA) has reported approximately 125 cases of human rights violations against activists. MINUGUA also recorded a total of 347 lynchings between 1996 and 2001, only three percent of which resulted in criminal convictions. Other crimes are simply ignored by the ultra-conservative regime, such as the routine assassinations of rural workers and land reform leaders.

General Ríos Montt: Guatemala's Next President?

Two decades after engineering the height of his nation's paramilitary butchery-a period lasting from 1982 until Ríos Montt's ousting by General Mejía Victores in August 1983-the ex-dictator again is facing charges of genocide, just as he prepares for a possible return to the executive office. On June 15, the FRG reelected Ríos Montt to his third term as party leader. President Alfonso Portillo, also a party member, is held in much lower esteem in the FRG, with Ríos Montt and his strategically placed family members and military colleagues dictating party policy. Guatemala's Prensa Libre reported on June 21 that, pending questions regarding legality, Ríos Montt, already 75, will be the FRG candidate for the 2003 presidential elections. In 1990 and 1995, constitutional courts disqualified his bid for the presidency due to his 1982 coup. Despite such obstacles as Portillo's plummeting approval rating, anticipated strong-arm tactics may promote Ríos Montt's victory in 2003.

Meanwhile, Mayan plaintiffs are courageously suing Ríos Montt for his connection to 1,887 deaths in massacres staged in 22 different indigenous villages in 1982 during his infamous "Scorched Earth" genocide campaign. In connection to this case assaults and witness abductions have reportedly increased throughout the year. A February 21 death threat against forensic scientists digging in the country demanded that no more evidence be brought forth that could lead to the prosecution of former military officials. The investigators already had uncovered victims of rape, torture and mass executions, including chilling indications of children being grasped by their ankles and beaten against trees until their skulls were crushed.

U.S. Policy in Guatemala: Then and Now

On January 7, 1983, President Reagan-prompted by a State Department white paper blaming Guatemala's violence on Cuban-backed leftist "extremist groups"-lifted a ban on military aid and authorized the sale of $6 million in arms to Guatemala. Despite their rhetoric, U.S. officials were aware of the military's endemic human rights violations. A February 1982 CIA report detailed the reckless actions of the Guatemalan military in the El Quiche province and a "secret" 1986 State Department document noted, "Kidnappings of rural social workers, medical personnel and campesinos became common between 1979-83. Often innocent victims were accused of being insurgents by military commissioners." Not until 1999 did the U.S. apologize for its actions, when President Clinton admitted, "Washington was wrong to have supported Guatemalan Security Forces in a brutal counter-insurgency campaign that slaughtered thousands of civilians"-adding, "The United States must not repeat that mistake." This is precisely what Otto Reich, the State Department's current chief Latin American policymaker is now prepared to do by continuing to give aid and comfort to the current regime.

In a post-September 11 political atmosphere that tends to prioritize immigration and drug-trafficking concerns over human rights, the U.S. may indeed repeat past errors by allowing remilitarization in Guatemala, albeit on a smaller scale. In 2001, the U.S. sponsored two "Light Infantry" training courses for Guatemalan soldiers, which activist groups condemn as a violation of the spirit of the 12-year U.S. ban on International Military Education and Training (IMET). Despite clear evidence that the Guatemalan government has failed to implement required military reforms under the Peace Accords, there is speculation that Congress might consider lifting Guatemala's IMET ban, in favor of hemispheric security, before its August recess.

USAID, which coordinates U.S. funds for an estimated 6.4 million Guatemalans living in poverty, has observed, "National elections in 2003 make the coming year critical, given Guatemala's need to democratically elect a new president who will address key national issues." Without international awareness, Ríos Montt may become Guatemala's next president and revamp his 20-year-old legacy of violence with impunity.

- This analysis was prepared by Andrew Blandford of the COHA research group. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being "one of the nation's most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers." For more information, please see our web page at; or contact our Washington offices by phone (202) 216-9261, fax (202) 216-9193, or email Would you prefer to receive COHA press releases by email? If so, write an email to titled "COHA PR" and include your name, organization and email address.

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