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Trouble brewing in Guatemala as the world looks the other way

By Shannan Murphy - posted Friday, 24 October 2003

Former dictator Rios Montt's candidacy for Guatemalan President in the up-coming November 9 elections is highlighting the precarious state of peace in the nation.

Guatemala experienced one of the longest civil wars in Latin American history, with several different guerilla groups fighting against the government from the 1950s onwards. It was long and very destructive - over 200 000 people died, more than in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile and Argentina combined. Peace negotiations were begun in 1990 and culminated in the Peace Accords, which came into effect in December 1996. But the peace has always been very fragile, with the massive structural social inequalities never being addressed (Guatemala has the third-largest gap between rich and poor in the world, after Brazil and South Africa) and the same few families continuing to hold all the political and economic power. The most important reforms put on the agenda by the Peace Accords, such as land reform, have never been carried out. Tom Koenigs, head of the United Nations Mission to Guatemala (MINUGUA) recently declared the peace process to be in crisis.

The momentum for positive peace, including democratic change and human rights, has further been stifled by the lack of a just and functioning judicial system. The courts are under-funded, creating huge delays in the processing of cases. And even when cases get heard, there is no guarantee of a fair trial, thus effectively shutting down the legal process for dealing with cases from the civil war. Judge and witness persecution is also a major problem. In February 2002 the most important witness in a government corruption case was shot before he could take the stand. In the same year, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights received reports of more than 100 attacks or acts of intimidation against judges, human rights workers and lawyers who take on human rights cases. Amnesty International likewise lists 103 magistrates and judges who were threatened between January 2002 and February 2003. Then in May this year Colonel Juan Valencia Osorio's conviction for the murder of Myrna Mack was overturned. Mack was an anthropologist working in Guatemala who was killed in 1990; it took her sister 12 years to secure a conviction against the army members responsible for Mack's death, and the judgement was widely seen as a turning-point towards peace and justice. Now Osorio has been freed, in a decision Helen Mack describes as, "political … not judicial".


The security situation in Guatemala is also worsening. The Inter-American Development bank has declared Guatemala one of the five most violent countries in the world, citing the many (often politically motivated) murders, rural lynchings and treatment of Indigenous people by the police. Amnesty International released a re-evaluation in May this year, simply titled "Guatemala: Deep Cause for Concern", which enumerates the deteriorating human rights situation.

Part of the declining security situation is caused by the political actions of ex-Civil Defense Patrol (CDP) members, who have been staging various protests around the country all year. These men were forced to participate in so-called CDPs during the war, and are now demanding payment for the work they were forced to do. It is a politically very sensitive issue, for CDPs have been implicated in many of the massacres that took place during the war, and no payments have been made to victims of human rights abuses. CDP actions have included blockading streets, shutting down the airport and land borders, coordinating mass strikes and rioting. It all culminated on May 6 - while many ex-CDPs rioted in the town of Chicacao, others in nearby San Fransisco Zapotitlan took the provincial governor, Fernando Tercero, hostage. The government has since agreed to pay approximately $650US to 250 000 ex-patrollers, but there are many groups that remain unpaid and volatile.

Montt's candidacy for President has the potential to ignite this tinderbox of issues. He came to power in a coup in 1982 and instigated what became known as the "Scorched Earth Plan", whereby Indigenous villages were razed, many villagers massacred, the survivors forced into "model villages" which were centres for "re-education" and also bases for the CDPs. This was the bloodiest part of the war, and the Commission for Historical Clarification (created by the Peace Accords) found the Scorched Earth Plan to be tantamount to genocide against the Maya peoples. Montt, however, has denied that he did anything wrong and described allegations against him as "lies".

Despite the fact that he already wields incredible power in Guatemala (he is the President of Congress and head of the ruling Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) party; his daughter is the Vice-President of Congress), Montt had to fight to be allowed to contest the election. There is a constitutional ban that forbids ex-dictators and people involved in coups to run for President. Montt took the issue to court, arguing that the ban should not be applied to him retroactively. On July 22 this year the Supreme Court declared his candidacy illegal. Montt responded the next day by making a statement that the problems he was having registering his candidacy might infuriate his supporters. Which it did - on July 24 and 25, there were massive riots in the capital (what has become known as "Black Thursday"), with armed thugs bussed in by FRG to back up Montt's statement. A week later Montt took the question to the Guatemalan Constitutional Court, a body which he concedes includes "some of his friends". His candidacy was declared legal.

The election campaign thus far has been bloody. Thirteen opposition parliamentary candidates have been assaulted and nine killed. The tensions simmering in Guatemala - between the ladinos and the Mayans, between those who support the traditional oligarchic power structure and those who are challenging it, in many ways between those who still have nothing and those that have so much - are being exposed by Montt's candidacy, and the country, with all its compounding problems, stands on edge, waiting for November 9 and what results it will bring.

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About the Author

Shannan Murphy is a post-graduate political science researcher and peace activist who visited Guatemala earlier this year.

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Amnesty International library
Guatemala News Watch
Human Rights Watch
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