Human Rights in Guatemala: Intelligence Control and Responses to Atrocity

By Adriana Paasche Dakin | 2002-04-01 12:00:00

Guatemalans who promote human rights in their country tread on dangerous ground. Real politics threaten personal attack and a general backlash of violence of the kind the population knows well from 36 years of civil war under a military dictatorship, which aimed an intelligence apparatus against its own citizens. Guatemalans violated the human rights of other Guatemalans, particularly government army forces against indigenous peoples. While the peace accords of 1996 seemed to promise a new beginning, current news suggests that Guatemala is now facing a resurgence of human rights abuses. The post-9/11 security context has become a green light for renewed military strength. As Guatemala threatens to slide back into violence, a revised and sensitive strategic plan is needed. Former perpetrators of violence are still in power or retain connections to government and the military. A sound strategy would build ties between layers of the distinctly stratified society. The instability may not be intractable, and the experiences of South Africa and Northern Ireland show that it is not unique.


In Central America during the Cold War, the United States placed human rights and democracy second to the fight against Soviet and Cuban influence. Soviet and Cuban leftist insurgencies fought American-supported right-wing forces. In one of the first CIA-organized covert actions, Guatemala's democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz was replaced in 1954, possibly because Arbenz's socialist land reforms threatened the interests of the United Fruit Company, which controlled 40 percent of Guatemala's agricultural land. Subsequent US-funded military dictators implemented terror as a method of maintaining power. Ironically similar to the military regimes of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe that the United States opposed, Guatemala's military amassed intelligence power against its own citizens. The United States prevented negotiations of Central American conflicts in the 1980s, supported the worst perpetrators of repression and supported repression in the wars of El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

Guatemala was one of Cold War's hot spots. In proportion to its population, says writer Jonathan Power, "more people were killed and tortured for their beliefs during the 1970s and 1980s in Guatemala than in any other country in the world."1 According to a four-volume 1998 truth commission study sponsored by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese in Guatemala, the military was responsible for 90% of the approximately 200,000 deaths and disappearances, mainly from the civilian population.

President Reagan, on taking office in 1980, was concerned with halting the spread of communism, rather than reining in the violence of the Guatemalan army. When Guatemala's then-new president Rios Montt visited Washington, he was comfortable saying in a public speech, "We have no scorched earth in Guatemala-only scorched communists."2 Amnesty International accused the government of torture and murder. The particular horror perpetrated by the military was news to the international community, which had been deceived that the massacres were the work of independent right-wing death squads.

In the early 1990s, superpower support for Central American factions was withdrawn and the region's civil wars sputtered out. The Central American initiative Esquipulas II began to build democracy in the seven countries. One by one, the war-torn countries laid down weapons. In 1996, the Guatemalan Government and Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity signed a peace accord.

The Guatemalan military, however, did not view the end of the conflict as their loss, but as a defeat of the guerrillas, wondering why they had to negotiate. Guatemala had been the site of one of the three capitals of the Spanish empire in Latin America. The military had a different tradition from other countries, held an entrenched position, and had the infrastructure to control. They had run the office of the presidency through the secret service. Although superpower financial support had largely ceased, the military developed an economic base in oil, which enabled them to avoid having their wings clipped. So why did they have to negotiate?

The peace accords were sponsored by the United Nations and locally designed by a small group of erstwhile combatants turned peacemakers. This group was under pressure to end the conflict, or at least to appear to have done so. They created policies of democratic rule and respect for human rights, policies that divided the military. One objective of the peace accords was transference of intelligence control to civilian hands. An independent police force and intelligence apparatus was supposed to bring rule of law to the country. The military was to focus only on external defence, and weaken its influence inside the country. Better state-financed education was planned for the indigenous population, many of whom had been tortured in the civil war. Greater educational opportunity was meant to reflect Guatemala's new identity-defined in the peace accords as multiethnic, multicultural, and multilingual. But at a referendum, Guatemalans soundly opposed tax increases to fund this change.


A political murder spotlighted the army's difficulty of abdicating intelligence power. In 1998 human rights campaigner Bishop Juan Gerardi, who had led the truth commission that implicated the military for most deaths of the civil war, was battered to death two days after the commission's report was released. During a three-year conviction process, prosecutors, witnesses and a judge fled the country under threat of death. The three ultimately convicted were: a retired army colonel, an army captain, and a former presidential bodyguard. Two of them had belonged to postwar military intelligence. Spending all night in a packed courtroom, human rights activists waited for sentences that were hailed as a landmark for a country unwilling to confront events of the civil war.

Five years after the peace accords that were expected to usher in a new era, journalists have noted few improvements in Guatemala and neighboring countries. Rather than harmony, we see corruption, drug smuggling, gangs, poverty, overpopulation, and international neglect. The power struggle for control of the intelligence threatens to precipitate a slide back to human rights abuses. I will deal next with that danger and Guatemalans' reactions to the new specter of international war crimes courts.


With the peace process, left-wing guerrillas demobilized and entered politics. This inclusion seemed a success to the international community. Forcibly retired colleagues at home, however, resented the engineers of peace-reformist officers. These offended retired military officers formed criminal cartels with lucrative enterprises-such as narco-trafficking and kidnapping-and carried out political violence.

Narco-trafficking changes the opportunities for wealth and power. Counter-intelligence officials, some of the same forces that fought the civil war in Guatemala, are running drug and crime rings. Law enforcement officers believe that even the murder of Bishop Gerardi may be linked to the drug trade, as he may have uncovered links between the military and cocaine trade. The officials have access to information and facilities, such as clandestine airstrips left from the war. The cocaine trade has blurred the line between criminal and political violence. The rings are run by people with military weapons and the skill to use them.

Former and current military officials are still using control of intelligence against civilians, in violation of the peace accords. They seem to employ intimidation including murder of human rights activists and Mayan Indians.

Amnesty International recently expressed concern that the Guatemalan government is encouraging attacks by accusing human rights defenders and other activists of seeking to destabilize the country. Following September 11 the United States urged Guatemala to establish a new anti-terror commission run by military personnel, one of whom has denounced human rights groups.6 In the post-9/11 security context, military amplification may be an excuse to limit public liberties to garner power and wealth.

Guatemala's explosive rise in violence is not yet matched in other countries in the region. Perpetrators of violence have largely been able to ignore the fact that their crimes are regarded under international law as crimes against humanity.


Over the last 50 years, a body of international law has transformed jurisprudence. Writing and ratifying the laws, however, has not deterred large-scale killings, such as atrocities in Kurdistan and Cambodia for which there has been no formal punishment. But a Spanish magistrate's indictment of former Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet must have sent shock waves through the minds of leaders who maintained power through crimes against citizens.

Response to the Pinochet extradition request was startled in Guatemala. The Guatemalan press gave prominent coverage to the event, perceiving its implications for local victims and perpetrators. After the same Spanish magistrate threatened to prosecute a former Salvadoran president for killing six Jesuit priests, three of whom were Spanish citizens, retired officials in nearby Guatemala established a special investigative branch of their own. In reality the office stalled the trial for Bishop Gerardi's murder.

In Guatemala's case, the state's continued strong ties to military power may impede its ability to prosecute. Bishop Gerardi's truth commission and murder trial both took place against powerful odds. Crisis societies have practical considerations.The moral duty to prosecute is not without qualifications, although Guatemala's peace treaty amnesties did exclude immunity for the worst offenses. Military officials therefore have cause to worry about local and international prosecution. Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchu, a Mayan Guatemalan victim of the civil war, has brought suit against perpetrators through the courts of other countries, such as Spain and Belgium. Because of a law adopted in Belgium in 1993 and expanded in 1999, a human rights convention-compliant law allows the local courts to hear cases on past and current atrocities that happened in any country. The national court of Belgium is trying non-nationals.

However, in February 2002 the International Court of Justice at The Hague ruled that foreign ministers, such as the accused Abdulaye Yerodia Ndombasi of the Congo, have immunity from criminal jurisdiction in other countries. Immunity is granted on the basis of international law to protect effective performance in office, even if such officials are suspected of having committed war crimes against humanity. In the latter part of the press release, the judges clearly differentiated between immunity from criminal jurisdiction and individual criminal responsibility. They stated, "While jurisdictional immunity is procedural in nature, criminal responsibility is a question of substantive law. Jurisdictional immunity may well bar prosecution for a certain period or for certain offences; it cannot exonerate the person to whom it applies from all criminal responsibility."3 Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel acknowledges that Belgium must amend certain laws, but maintains, "The basic principles-the punishment of severe breaches of international humanitarian law-remain applicable."4

Targets of lawsuits already in Belgium include Guatemalan senior military officers cited for a range of crimes, including genocide against the Mayans. For the Guatemalans and others, such as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, accused of a 1982 massacre in Palestinian refugee camps, the repercussions of the International Criminal Court ruling remain to be seen.

Closer to the scene of the war, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, an autonomous part of the Organization of American States seated in the capital of Costa Rica, this year for the first time found states, Nicaragua and Guatemala, guilty of crimes against indigenous people and violations against the rights of children, respectively. The government of Guatemala was ordered to pay half a million dollars to the families of five children who were killed by death squads. Between its founding date in 1979 and last June, a total of 83 decisions had been handed down. But this year alone the court delivered 18 rulings due to significant budget expansion and expedition of the litigation process.


My recommendation begins by identifying some of the actors involved with intelligence control and human rights in Guatemala. The current president Alfonso Portillo, a former professor of Marxism who fled Guatemala in the 1970s, heads the official policy community. Statistics show his popularity at a low point, so power struggles may take place before his term is over in 2004. Portillo is the protégé of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, who is now the congressional president. The Guatemalan constitution bars a former dictator from running for president, but Montt is believed to have considerable influence over Portillo. Ironically, Montt's brother, Bishop Mario Rios Montt, succeeded the murdered Bishop Gerardi as head of the Catholic Church's human rights office, and his task is to continue the commission's research into perpetrators of violence against the population. The bishop's brother presided over one of the most gruesome periods of that violence. Other actors include ministers specializing in intelligence and security, and working groups specifically created to redesign intelligence policy.

Independent of government circles, civilian groups, such as the Citizens' Movement for Justice and Democracy, the Center for Human Rights Legal Action, as well as Mayan people, such as Rigoberta Menchu, are publicly working to push for reparations. In addition, international influence has been sought by Guatemalan policy makers. Har-vard's Project on Justice in Times of Transition has acted as a facilitator between embattled Guatemalan civil and military leaders, together with relevant international leaders whose experience in their own countries brought military-civilian transitions. Acting as advocates for the civilian control of intelligence as one stage in democracy building, the international leaders support reforms in other countries. Guatemalans involved in the conferences and round tables noted that even if the proposed reform laws did not pass, the process had been valuable because it created understanding among many Guatemalans. As policy makers learned from international participants, Guatemala's experience is not unique in the world or intractable.

Since the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, Central America has all but disappeared from Washington's agenda. One of the stated goals of the United States is promotion of human rights and democratic institutions, because governments that treat their citizens fairly under rule of law are generally more stable in the long term. Such progress in Central America can be achieved only by strengthening the rule of law and building inter-American institutions.

Indeed, there are good reasons for the United States to be involved in Guatemala, beyond the funding the country receives from the US State Department. Motives for intervention could include interdicting drugs and international crime, prevention of human rights abuses, regional stability in the Americas, and preventing failing states from becoming harbors or bases for terror.

With no policy window opening from the United States, however, and still challenged with the task of bringing military criminals to justice and transferring intelligence to civilian hands, Guatemala's government could profit from its own strategic planning. There is no magic medicine that can be given Guatemala, or Russia, or South Africa. There are, however, feasible strategies that could begin to structure rule of law and build social bonds that were never strong there, even before the civil war. These include such approaches as:

Supporting and expanding reconciliation programs like Guatemala's Center for Strategic Studies on National Stability (Centro ESTNA),

Continuing to retrain military personnel to respect civilian rights and rule of law, and

Partnering between Latin American state governments, NGOs, and citizens to collaborate on shared problems, strengthening relations damaged by US unilateral intervention.

Other policies could be valuable but probably not sustainable. Conducting formal and police-protected truth commissions, as South Africa has done, establishes accountability and serves as public acknowledgment for crimes committed. Truth commissions can help a society move forward beyond, for example, Russians' nostalgia for Stalin's iron rule. Guatemalans, however, have no political will to go through a similar process, and many feel they already have done so through Bishop Gerardi's report and murder trial. The country could also establish schools and sports teams that teach children of Mayan and Spanish descent together in one setting, but these population sectors are geographically and economically separated.


Guatemalan society is organized along vertical lines. Layers of the population do not share common spaces and experiences. As Tim Phillips of Harvard's Project on Justice said, "In Guatemala, if you're in the elite, you're white, of European background, not recently intermarried with the Mayan people. You associate with friends at a country club, go to the same university-there's not much interaction with indigenous people. There aren't institutions in that society bringing together people at an early age. If you end a conflict, you not only want to see people prosecuted, but to build the future so you don't replicate this again."5 Centro ESTNA builds relationship bonds between generations and socio-economic layers by organizing year-long programs that bring together, for example, Mayan people and army colonels. In 1994, graduates of the program helped stop a coup because individuals from these two parts of society could call each other as friends. "The program helps people reinvent themselves," Phillips said, "and is a comprehensive way to promote civil society and social capital."6 The model was adapted for El Salvador and could be used in other regions of conflict and social separation.

Guatemala needs justice experienced incrementally, in a process that weighs forgiveness and vengeance consciously and lawfully, and builds normal relationships between people. Human rights writer Michael Ignatieff believes, "In all these processes, the essential problem is how to balance peace and justice, forgetting and forgiving, healing and punishment, truth and reconciliation."7 For human rights, state crisis and misuse of intelligence are threats to stable and productive relations. Well-conceived strategies, however, could begin to create a political and social climate that would reduce human rights abuses and foster justice.


1 Jonathan Power, "A Blind Eye on Guatemala?" The New York Times (August 20, 2001), OpEd, A11.

2 Ibid.

3 "Arrest Warrant of 11 April 2000 (Democratic Republic of the Congo v. Belgium)," press release by the International Court of Justice, Feb 14, 2002.

4 Douglas Cassell, "World Court and Jurisdiction," Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, February 21, 2002.

5 Tim Phillips, "Transitional Justice," Women Waging Peace, conference session facilitated by Phillips of Harvard's Project on Justice in Times of Transition, Harvard University, November 13, 2001, 2:15 to 4 pm.

6 Phillips, personal interview, February 8, 2002.

7 Michael Ignatieff,Truth and Lies (London: Granta Publications, 2001).

Adriana Paasche Dakin is a graduate student of public policy at Harvard University.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2002

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