From the pages of Z Magazine


No Justice, But Peace (For Now)

Hard-won political space in Guatemala

By Piet van Lier


Give me a U. Give me an R. Give me an N. Give me a G. What’s it spell? U-R-N-G! I can’t hear you. U-R-N-G! U-R-N-G! U-R-N-G!" It sounded like a high school basketball game, but several hundred representatives of Guatemala’s popular movement were doing something they never had the chance to do before—openly express their sympathy for the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) as they waited for the legal arrival of the four guerrilla comandantes at Guatemala City’s Aurora airport.

In Guatemala, where accusations of being a guerrilla are tantamount to a death threat, the scene was slightly surreal, even though the signing of peace accords between the URNG and the government were scheduled for the next day.

This open support for the URNG is indicative of hard-won political space that continues to open in Guatemala, a country that remains highly militarized. The past few months have seen the assassination of several activists including Mayan leaders, a unionist, and a journalist. As one Guatemalan confided, this kind of openness has gotten people killed in the past, and it’s too early to know whether it is safe.

Five years of negotiations led to the peace signing on December 29, 1996, but even with that long, tortuous process, it was hard to shake the feeling that the final stretch of negotiations were rushed and haphazard.

Negotiations, which had been moving at a snail’s pace, were prioritized by Alvaro Arzu’s nascent administration even before his National Advancement Party (PAN) won the runoff presidential elections and took control of the congress in January 1996. Arzu met with the guerrilla comandantes before taking office, and once in power appointed an ex-guerrilla to his team of negotiators and pledged to have the accords signed before the end of the year.

Among the obstacles to negotiations, a faction of the URNG was implicated in the October kidnapping of a member of one of Guatemala’s wealthiest families. In the wake of the scandal, during which the extreme right called for a halt to negotiations, the leader of the Revolutionary Organization of the People in Arms (ORPA), Rodrigo Asturias, alias Gaspar Ilom, withdrew from the negotiations to get them back on track.

The peace accord presents a challenge for Guatemalans who want to change the way their country is run. At best, they present loose mechanisms for change, democratization, and a leveling of the playing field for the 80 percent of Guatemalans who live below the poverty line. In reality, the vague language of the accords makes for great reading, broad interpretations of what can actually be done, and only long-term hope for change.


An immediate challenge thrown down by the still-powerful army, and presented in a law approved by Congress and signed by President Arzu, has been the issue of amnesty for human rights violations committed by the military and paramilitary organizations who have held sway for so long in Guatemala. In a country with a population of about 10 million, at least 140,000 civilians were killed or "disappeared" and more than 1 million people became internal refugees, while another 200,000 left the country. The army’s counterinsurgency war caused most of the suffering: by its own count, the military’s scorched-earth campaign destroyed 440 villages in the early 1980s.

The army has long been a target for those wanting justice, but now a new procession has begun as accused killers ask for amnesty under the Law of National Reconciliation that went into effect the day before the peace signing ceremony.

Leading the parade on January 6, barely a week after the signing, were the army officers who allegedly gave the orders in the 1990 assassination of Guatemalan anthropologist Myrna Mack Chang. Mack’s assassination has been one of several high profile human rights cases that have slogged through the Guatemalan judicial system and tarnished the image the army has tried to create in recent years. Helen Mack, the victim’s sister, helped found the Myrna Mack Foundation, one of many human rights groups in Guatemala. As of this writing, the accused in five other human rights cases have come forward to request amnesty, including the ex-soldier convicted of stabbing Mack to death, and soldiers involved in the 1995 massacre of 11 returned refugees.

Although the law is laden with ambiguity, a broad range of critics, from the solicitor general and members of congress to human rights leaders and the United Nations, say the general and two colonels implicated in this case cannot receive amnesty because Mack was not directly involved in the armed conflict.

Last year, a coalition of human rights groups formed to advocate a limited amnesty pardoning only political crimes, such as taking up arms against the government. The Alliance Against Impunity is now leading the fight against the National Reconciliation Law and requests for amnesty by the military and paramilitary groups.

Amnesty is discussed in the context of four categories of crimes: political crimes, politically related common crimes, common crimes, and crimes against humanity. There is little argument about political crimes, such as rebellion against the state. This type of amnesty applies to the guerrillas, and is included in the national reconciliation law. Most also seem to agree that politically related common crimes should be included as well, although here interpretations diverge. Some say that the taking of hostages during a political uprising, for example, qualifies as a politically related common crime, while other interpretations are broader. All say common crimes are not included, but here the contest begins: which "common crimes"—extra-judicial executions, killings, abductions.—were part of the armed conflict?

The lawyer representing the officers implicated in the Mack case says the killing was political because Mack, an anthropologist, was carrying out research about internally displaced Guatemalans. The military’s case even cites a 1992 statement by the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office, a government watchdog with no legal powers, saying Mack’s studies "were considered high risk because they concerned policies of the Guatemalan government." The military’s argument is that the political sensitivity of Mack’s work, even though she was a civilian, is enough to qualify the murder as political and pardonable under the law. A February decision did reject amnesty for the officers in the Mack case, a ruling likely to be appealed by the defendants.

Even so, amnesty for many human rights violators may be a done deal. "Politically, I believe that this was the pact through which the army has permitted some changes in its role and powers, in exchange for this amnesty," says Victor Hugo Godoy, of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office.

It stands to reason that the army, which has been responsible for the vast majority of human rights violations, would not sign on to the peace process without guarantees that its wall of impunity, so carefully constructed over the decades, would hold and protect most of its members from crimes committed in the past. Without the support of at least one faction of the army, no peace accords would have been signed.

Godoy points to previous amnesty laws passed in Guatemala, none of which were written in such broad terms. "They realized the gap that existed in previous amnesty laws," he says, and made sure the new law opened up the possibility for the pardon of a wider range of crimes.

"The government threw a hot coal to the judiciary," says political analyst Edgar Gutierrez, affiliated with the Myrna Mack Foundation. "The government knows (the judiciary) is weak. Congress should have opened a true national debate so that the law did not have so much ambiguity, so many gaps and contradictions."

The military may well have home-field advantage in the Guatemalan court system, because the judiciary is known not only for its corruption and vulnerability to intimidation, but for a lack of background in applicable human rights law, say lawyers and activists.

Combined with the court system’s historic corruption, especially in high profile human rights cases, this lack of expertise puts the outcome in doubt. "Against public opinion, even though members of congress and the solicitor general say the law doesn’t apply in this case, even though MINUGUA (the United Nations Mission to Guatemala) says it’s not applicable, everyone says the law does not apply in Myrna’s case...anything could happen. Taking into account the ignorance, and adding bad faith, anything could happen," says Gutierrez.

One of the main goals of MINUGUA, which arrived in Guatemala in 1994, has been to strengthen Guatemalan institutions, such as the judiciary, so they can function more effectively and help support the rule of law in Guatemala. Various countries, including Spain and the United States, have programs, both governmental and non governmental, that work to strengthen the courts and security forces. The recent implementation of oral trials is an example of reform in the court system.

This work to strengthen the judiciary has not been effective, say many Guatemalans. According to Gutierrez, in 1995, the courts suffered a "20-year setback because the appointment of judges was politicized, and the political judges marginalized judges who had been handling human rights cases and handing down positive sentences. And this setback has been notable in spite of the presence of MINUGUA and other institutions."

Cases such as Myrna Mack’s, are, in a sense, just the tip of the iceberg. The issue these cases represent runs deeper, as the name of the Law of National Reconciliation suggests. How, in a militarized, deeply-divided society that has seen terrible violence for decades, do people put the past behind them? It was time for the war to end. And yet the divisions, hatred and fear are so ingrained that reconciliation is still just a word. Reconciliation means the settling of differences, restoring harmony, a coming together of society. In a predominantly agrarian society where two percent of the population still owns 70 percent of the land, true reconciliation seems a distant dream, and not a primary concern of those who hold power nationally and internationally.


The day after the peace signing, Rigoberta Menchu, Mayan activist and 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner, invited journalists and representatives from both sides of the conflict on a trip to the interior. In attendance were the defense minister, members of the government’s negotiating team, leader of the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP) Ricardo Rosales, alias Rolando Moran, and other commanders of URNG units. The soldiers who came, including the Defense Minister, all wore uniforms of the Kaibil, the army’s elite, most bloodthirsty unit. The trip’s purpose was to "promote the peace" in two conflictive rural areas in the Ixcan and the Peten.

Aside from addressing the people who came to listen, talking about what peace meant and how Guatemala was changing, the rebel leaders and soldiers spent a lot of time embracing, talking about battles fought, and visions shared for Guatemala’s future. But it was not all hugs and smiles. At Cantabal, the first stop, a leader of the Ixcan Grande Cooperative accused the army of trying to annihilate the indigenous of the Ixcan region and demanded more governmental attention to the problems facing the area. The audience in Cantabal was divided—just under half, mostly from the Cooperative, supported their representative and shouted enthusiastically on seeing the rebels, while the other half of the crowd politely clapped through it all. The quiet half, according to two different analyses of the event, was either forced to attend by the army or was loyal to the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), former General Rios Montt’s right-wing party. Either analysis paints a picture of a polarized community.

Rigoberta Menchu spoke forcefully in Cantabal. "Reconciliation is not a decree or something we can do in one day," she said. "I tell you I will never accept that the torture of my mother was necessary for the future. I simply will promise myself that this will never happen again."

While soldiers and rebels may now claim friendship, reconciliation certainly will be a long process for much of the civilian population. "Perhaps with the guerrillas and the army, they were in equal situations, two armies with weapons," says Lesbia Tevalan, of the Association of Guatemalan Jurists. "The civil society, we didn’t have weapons. We suffered at the hands of the military, of the state. It’s very difficult."

And it could be worse in the rural areas, says Rosalina Tuyuc, Mayan activist leader of CONAVIGUA (National Coalition of Guatemalan Widows) and one of six members of Congress belonging to the New Guatemala Democratic Front (FDNG). The FDNG grew out of the popular movement and participated for the first time in the 1995 elections. "I believe it’s going to take 5, 10, 15 years" before the wounds start to heal, says Tuyuc. "In my village, popular movement organizations still are not accepted, they still say, ‘well, they’re guerrillas’ even though they aren’t, and it’s going to be worse" when people openly representing the URNG start working in the communities. Among other plans, the former rebels are creating a political party to contest elections in 2000.

The roots of a solution could have been planted in the peace accords, with mechanisms to investigate the massacres and killings of the past, but the accords are especially weak in this area. What began as negotiations for a Truth Commission ended with an accord for the "Historical Clarification of Human Rights Violations," which not only does not provide for the prosecution of suspected criminals, but will not even name names. While this was not a surprising outcome given the balance of power in Guatemala, it could make any efforts at true reconciliation much more difficult. While President Arzu called for pardon and forgiveness in his speech at the peace signing, it will be hard to expect victims to forgive when the truth is not even acknowledged, let alone justice served.                                             

Piet van Lier is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Cleveland, Ohio. He lived and worked in Guatemala as a volunteer for Peace Brigades International in 1994 and 1995, and continues his work there as a journalist.