Guatemala: Background


A History Written by Military
Despite having signed the 1996 Peace Accords to end 36 years of internal conflict, violence and flagrant abuse of human rights still reign in Guatemala. According to Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo (GAM, or Group of Mutual Support)- a Guatemalan civil society organization which tracks acts of violence against human rights- in 2003 alone there were 2654 violations of the officially recognized human rights of Integrity, Security, and Freedom; of these, 1375 are considered violent deaths.
These numbers reflect the continued attacks upon women, journalists, and human rights actors that have proliferated since the period of conflict, which was marked by the outright genocide of some 200,000 Mayan Indians by the Guatemalan government. While the genocide has been recognized as historical fact since the United Nations' Truth Commission report of 1999, the pain from human rights abuses upon those who have resisted government policies has been slow to heal. The brutal murder of anthropologist Myrna Mack in 1990 led to the conviction of former Sargent Noel de Jesús Beteta to 20 years of prison, yet his military superiors fled the country. Meanwhile, the trial for the assassination of Monseñor Juan Gerardi in 1998 has been mired in an appeals process, six years after the fact. Monseñor Gerardi was murdered two days after the release of "Guatemala, Never Again," a report from REHMI (the Project for Recuperation of Historical Memory) which revealed that the Guatemalan army was responsible for the majority of murders during the conflict.
While impunity remains for these and other murders, civil society is screaming out for the indictment of former President and General Efraín Rios Montt for his participation in the genocide. The author of 15,000 deaths and disappearances over a 15-month period between 1982-1983, the dictator dared to run a platform for the 2003 presidential elections, threatening violence if not granted candidacy. Rios Montt was successful in achieving candidacy but did not win the election, and as of April 2004 he had been put under house arrest awaiting a trial for the crimes he committed against humanity during the conflict, brought about by surviving community members and Centro Para La Acción Legal en Derechos Humanos (CALDH, or Center for Legal Action in Human Rights).
A Dreaded Future
Just as alarming, some have speculated the return of the paramilitary Civil Autodefense Patrols (Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil, PAC), previously recruited by Rios Montt and the government during the genocide. In 2002, members of the paramilitary group sought backpay for their participation in the mass killings. The high level of impunity that these members still enjoy is in direct violation of the 1996 Peace Accords, which demanded the immediate disintegration of the group.
As a backdrop to the continuing violations of human rights in Guatemala and impunity for those who commit them, Plan Puebla-Panamá (PPP) has been resuscitated by President Vicente Fox of México. Introduced in 2002 by the Mexican government, PPP would create corridors of infrastructure- principally roads and electricity- which would give transnational corporations access to the resources of biologically rich areas from southern México to Panamá. New center-right Guatemalan president Oscar Berger favors both PPP and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), knowing that thousands of indigenous communities and small farmers would be forced to migrate or enter into cheap labor, and suffer as a result.
In resistance to genocidal policies, neoliberal free trade agreements, and the impunity of the perpetrators of some of the worst violations of human rights in Latin America, the indigenous communities, women, labor activists, human rights activists, students, and academics in Guatemala will undoubtedly continue to be targets for violence in the coming years.