Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 148 | Noviembre 1993



Purging the Congress: A Pandora's Box

At the end of September the president was still facing an acute crisis of ungovernability. The purging process that was launched against the endemic corruption in the government has turned into a quicksand. There were rumors that the new president wanted to resign; in July he had already threatened to do so.

Emma G. Martínez

By the end of September, the government of President Ramiro de León Carpio was still facing a crisis of ungovernability. The purging process he had initiated to fight against endemic state corruption had bogged down. The affected judicial and legislative branches declared open war and state bureaucracy came to a standstill. Meanwhile, violence continued its "normal" course, with the almost daily quota of tortured bodies, threats to grassroots leaders and bombs.

Rumors that the new President wanted to resign were rampant. In July, De León had threatened to do so if the pressures from the different sectors continued, though no one listened to him. Only the business sector was alarmed by the possibility of a new resignation, which would have a strong negative impact internationally. Diplomatic sources, meanwhile, insisted that this was just the President's way to pressure different sectors to support his housecleaning.

In Search of Popularity

For those who believed that the former Human Rights Attorney General would, as President, be a knight in shining armor riding a white charger, his attempt to purge the Congress has been a good example of the forces and factors that prevent real changes.

Why did De León decide to tackle the housecleaning chore at this moment? Various analysts think the decision had to do more with the imminent drop in his popularity than any other reason. The change in his role from solicitor who challenges the military to President and Commander in Chief of the army affected his popularity. It began to really drop in August, after De León appeared at a meeting of thousands of members of civil defense patrols in Huehuetenango, and praised them for their fight against the insurgent forces.

At that point some close advisors linked to the private sector and to powerful media like the daily Siglo Veintiuno, recommended that he promote the congressional cleansing. The facts showed that his advisors were right: the President's popularity rose quickly and his proposal was supported by a population sick of corrupt politicians.

But a purge, which appears so simple in theory, does not work when there is massive corruption. The judicial branch, from the Supreme Court on down, is infiltrated by different mafias, and it was these tribunals of dubious honesty that were to hold the trials against the legislators also part of the mafias. Furthermore, De León cannot legally strip the legislators' immunity so they can stand trial, which means that they must voluntarily resign.

His advisors did not take these factors into account, nor did they see that the purge could become an uncontrollable wave that would drag along with it members of the private sector who had blackmailed various congress members. Some of the business people who initially supported the purge only wanted 16 specific Congress members to resign, among them some mafia heads. With that, the Congress would retain those legislators who support privatization of state businesses, an issue of great interest to the business umbrella organization CACIF. Its members put heavy pressure on De León to demand only the resignation of the 16 "purgeable ones."
In August, businessman Pedro Lamort smilingly stated, "We have spoken with the President and believe he will change his mind soon. He will not ask all to resign."

The Narco Power Mafias

But that did not happen. The grassroots movement and the population in general demanded that the entire Congress resign, and De León gave in to that demand. The purge slipped out of the hands of the private sector and even of the President, and led the country into a severe political crisis.

As was to be expected, all 116 Congress members refused to resign as De León demanded in August. In September those from opposing bands fought the grassroots protests behind the scenes at first, then finally refused to attend plenary sessions. Legislative activity came to a complete stop.

Gabriel Aguilera Peralta, a political analyst from FLACSO, comments, "Now Ramiro has the same problem that led Yeltsin to carry out his coup. What can one state branch do to clean the others if the Congress members and magistrates don't want to resign? Some representatives know that they're headed for jail the moment they resign because there are open cases against them. The branches of the state are massively infiltrated by criminal mafias, among them the narco powers. They are the ones preventing the purge. Confronting the narco powers in any country is very difficult and Ramiro has not had the structures to do it. He chose not to make pacts with political parties and does not have organized support. What he has is the ability to talk to the man in the street, but this has its limits. He made the decision to fight the mafias without measuring the balance of forces and he opened a Pandora's box that he can't close."
While the fight was going on in Congress, a series of bombs blew up in commercial centers and one in the office of a group of lawyers who work with the grassroots movement. That began what appears to be a new campaign to destabilize the government, which usually happens when it tries to reopen peace talks with the guerrilla forces.

The Penultimate Card

In the middle of this complex scene, De León appealed to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) on September 27 to call a popular referendum about the resignation of all representatives and Supreme Court judges. De León had waited a month before requesting the referendum, the next to the last card he holds to pressure the representatives to resign.

Although many sectors supported this proposal including the grassroots movement, the Catholic Church and the Minister of Defense they also asked how, when and with what resources the referendum would be carried out. The TSE estimates its cost to be at least $3 million, which the country does not have. The referendum would also not resolve the fundamental problem in the Congress, because even if the current representatives resign, they would be replaced by their alternates, some of whom are involved in the same dirty businesses.

Nery Barrios, from the Multi Sectorial Social Forum (FMS), which represents a broad gamut of organizations in the grassroots movement, commented, "The popular referendum called by the President suffers from the deep weaknesses found in any initiative to clean out, reform and politically restructure the country. Many peasants are not even registered, which takes time to do. The referendum should be done in 23 languages to have the minimum certainty that it reflects popular opinion. The solution is not to simply substitute one face for another. That's only a way to get out of the current institutional crisis."
As an alternative, the FMS proposed a dialogue between the three state branches that are in conflict and members of civil society, to reach a political agreement on transition. According to the FMS, a referendum is necessary, but to ask the people about constitutional reforms and restructuring the three state institutions. It considers the resignation of congress members nonnegotiable.

The Ultimate Card

"Now challenges are coming from all sectors and added to this are the bombs and threats, which no one exactly knows the source of," says Gabriel Aguilera. "There is an anarchic situation in which the Congress isn't functioning, and the Executive is faced off by two other branches. The government is losing its legitimacy, and the peace process is paralyzed. It's the typical mood before a coup d'etat, though that's unlikely due to fear of the international reaction but I don't reject the possibility."
Aguilera suggests another alternative, one that gained support among political sectors at the end of September: the time has come for De León to play his final card resignation. The logic would be that De León would leave the government while still having the population's sympathy and would thus be a strong presidential candidate in 1995 for a five year period.

De León could argue that he does not want to continue "co governing" with the mafias in Congress and the other state branches and wants to return as a popularly elected President, with a new Congress. In this formula, Vice President Arturo Herbruger, who opposes the purge and has the support of the hardest line in the army, would take over the presidency. It would be a temporary solution to the political crisis, although enormously costly to the country's international image.

Confronting such entrenched groups in Guatemala as the narco powers and the mafias in the political parties and in the private sector is a huge task and lies beyond the abilities of any one individual. De León's personality and governing style make the task even more difficult, according to close supporters.

"He is very cautious and thinks things through for too long before making a decision, which makes some people think he is scared or indecisive," explains María Eugenia Morales, childhood friend of De León, who worked with him in the Human Rights Attorney General's office for three years. "He would always bring us all together to ask our opinions before making any important decision. He also has a big heart and it's very hard for him to fire anyone because he imagines how it will affect them economically,"

A Costly Alliance

De León needed a powerful ally to deal with the corrupt political class, and, paradoxically, appears to have found it in the army. The President has made an alliance with the sector of the armed forces that some analysts call "less hard line" or "developmentalist." The army has declared its support for the purge on various occasions and De León has publicly expressed his support of the civil patrols, contradicting his position as Human Rights Attorney General. He has also allowed the peace process to drop to third or fourth place in importance on the national agenda.

"Since he doesn't have an organized base of support, De León can imagine that the army, especially the sector allied with Defense Minister Mario Enríquez, is decidedly supporting him," explains Aguilera. "The military is very satisfied with the direction the new government has taken, especially regarding the peace process. The government recovered legitimacy and won international support while the URNG quickly lost space and outside support." This is also Aguilera's explanation of why the peace process has stagnated for the four months since De León took power. The cost of the alliance with the army has been to leave to one side the burning issue of demilitarization, which so deeply affects the peasant and indigenous population. While political elites in the capital discuss the infinite subtleties of constitutional articles, the civil patrols continue to sow terror in the rural areas. On September 27, two members of the Committee of Campesino Unity (CUC) were murdered in Colotenange, Huehuetenango. In July and August, the patrols had killed four other people from the same region. The four had opposed the existence of the patrols and the CUC members had later accused the patrols, commonly referred to as PACs, of assassinating them.
"In the capital people are worried about the fight between the state branches," complains Rosario Puj, a Quiché and a CUC member. "Popular referendum is a Guatemalan right but, given the complicated crisis we're facing, there are many more immediate problems to resolve in the rural areas for us indigenous. The PACs had been threatened those two compañeros with death since August. The patrols said they were going to kill all those who participated in the demonstration against the patrols, and the local authorities did nothing. The government, the PACs and the army must guarantee life and human rights to the peasants in these zones, before moving on to a popular referendum."

The Escape of Beteta

On September 23, Noel de Jesús Beteta, sentenced to 30 years for the assassination of anthropologist Mirna Mack, escaped from a prison in the capital together with 36 other "highly dangerous" prisoners. The sentencing of Beteta, a former army sergeant and specialist in the Presidential chiefs of staff (EMP), had set an historic precedent. Never before had a member of the armed forces been punished for a political assassination.

Minister of the Interior Arnoldo Ortiz Moscoso declared that the escape was not "fortuitous" and that there was proof that Beteta had been helped from outside. When he escaped, according to Ortiz, he was heavily armed and at least three of those accompanying him carried mini Uzis, not an easy arm to obtain. Ortiz did not reject the possibility that some of Beteta's associates in the EMP could have helped him escape from prison.

"This escape was prepared by sectors that could have been affected if Beteta testified," declared Helen Mack, Mirna's sister, to the Guatemalan press. "He's only a part of the machinery that killed Mirna. The military and paramilitary groups continue acting with impunity in Guatemala."
Helen Mack has headed an unprecedented fight against military impunity and is now trying to bring Beteta's military superiors to trial. The Mack family demanded an investigation into Beteta's escape, which, by coincidence, occurred only one day after the Mirna Mack Foundation was inaugurated in the capital. This foundation proposes to continue the struggle against impunity and in defense of human rights.

Few Guatemalans were surprised when Beteta escaped from a prison system as corrupt as the political one. It was already known that Beteta enjoyed special privileges in the prison, and some media called him "Guatemala's Escobar Gaviria."
The real surprise came hours later on the same day, when Beteta was recaptured by the national police in still unclear circumstances. According to one source, De León "got very upset" when he received news of the escape, and ordered the national police to find him immediately. Ortiz left the capital virtually unpatrolled in order to concentrate all his forces on the search for the prisoner, who was found near the Panamerican highway on his way to El Salvador.

Analysts from the Mirna Mack Foundation say the recapture proves that the national police, previously dominated and infiltrated by the military, is now beginning to respond to civil power. Beteta's recapture is evidence of positive changes in the political morass in which the President is currently entangled.

The escape and rapid recapturing could also be another sign of the divisions in the army, between hard liners who oppose any kind of legal process that punishes a soldier and Defense Minister Enríquez' sector, which wants to polish the institution's badly tarnished image.

Coming into the Light

A flame of hope was lit in Guatemala with the arrival to the capital in mid September of 600 members of the Communities of Population in Resistance (CPRs) from Ixcán. The members of the CPR, who have lived hidden for a decade, spread out along the streets of the capital during a week of protest marches. They publicly demanded that the De León government recognize them as a civilian population and stop the harassment to which the army and the patrols in the Ixcán have constantly subjected them.

Until very recently, the CPRs were a taboo subject in Guatemala. Many think that Mirna Mack was assassinated in 1990 because of the research she was doing on these populations, which the army considers subversive. Within this context, it was a little less than incredible to see the indigenous take over the central plaza for a whole day and set up a public fair among the shoeshiners, fanatical preachers and young lovers who are the normal owners of the place. They spent the day raising their fists and chanting "Resist to live!" and "Murderous Army!," challenging the serious looks of the soldiers who guard the National Palace.

They set up hundreds of wooden crosses around a huge fountain in the plaza, each with the name of a relative murdered by the army during the massacres in the 1980s. Throughout the day Guatemalans filed by, reading the inscriptions made in pencil and even scratched in coal on the crosses: "Juan Pax, 30, burned," "Rufina López, 20, shot..."
Alongside the crosses, a 22 year old youth from the CPR, microphone in hand, told passing Guatemalans how he had survived in the mountains since he was 12. The CPR members had brought proof of the army repression. The youth showed students, housewives and passersby the examples of burned harvests and destroyed tools and the pieces of bombs and mortars shot by the air force.

Despite everything, things are beginning to change in Guatemala...slowly.

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


Street Children--Mortgaging the Future

What Happened in the Economist's Meeting?

Would the IMF Accept a More Productive Adjustment?

Transport Workers V. The Whole Economic Plan

Purging the Congress: A Pandora's Box

El Salvador
A Revealing Health Workers's Trike

Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development