Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 163 | Febrero 1995



The Peace Process is Dead! Long live the Electoral Process!

The peace process between the guerrilla and the government has already passed to the back burner. The question of the year is not when the peace accord will be signed, but who will be the candidates in the next elections.

Trish O' Kane

Guatemala rang in the new year with the inauguration of retired general Efraín Ríos Montt, infamous for his genocidal policies while head of state in the early 1980s, as president of Congress. Some analysts minimize the significance of his quick climb back up the political ladder; they are betting that, once back in the public eye, his corruption will trip him up as it has so many of his predecessors. Ríos Montt's coterie of advisers and relatives, however, clearly intend to use his new post as a springboard for his presidential candidacy at the end of 1995.

Why Ally with the General?

"People have questioned whether the General can be President of the Republic. But he is already president of one of the three branches of the state, and probably the one with more hierarchy than the President of the Republic, because Congress controls the national budget and supervises the executive," argues Ríos Montt's son in law Juan Fernando García Bravatti, one of his most important advisers. "At this moment," he adds emphatically, "the General is the only one of the three heads of state Congress, the Supreme Court and the Presidency who was directly elected by the population. And, in this election, he was the representative who got the most votes. In reality, the General is already directing the nation's destiny."
Ríos Montt's congressional victory was the fruit of a political alliance with the Christian Democrats (DC). A centrist party that once enjoyed strong support throughout the country, the DC was notably weakened in the late 1980s by the corrupt presidency of Christian Democrat Vinicio Cerezo. In August 1994, the party fared badly in the legislative elections. Winning far fewer seats than the rightwing parties Ríos Montt's Guatemala Republican Front (FRG) and the National Advancement Party (PAN) the DC had to make a tactical alliance with some other party to remain relevant. It bet on the General, and was rewarded with considerably more power on the congressional board than its handful of representatives merits.

This sparked divisions in the DC and speculations about the scope of the DC FRG alliance. DC leader Alfonso Cabrera admitted that the alliance could go beyond Congress and that the party is considering supporting Ríos Montt's presidential candidacy. His declarations provoked comment all over the country.

Divide the Right?

Two theories are offered to explain this unusual romance. Some write it off as "dirty politics," cynically assuming the DC will support the candidate most likely to win, genocide or no. Others, who do not deny the dirtiness of Guatemalan politics, are of the opinion that such future support for Ríos Montt's candidacy grow out of a DC strategy to divide the right.

According to the current Constitution, Ríos Montt cannot run for President because he gained power through a coup in 1982. If he does not participate, the PAN would have no competition on the right, and a strong PAN candidate would have a good chance of winning. But if the DC helps the General change the Constitution, rightwing votes would be divided, opening the race to a "surprise" candidate of a center left alliance.

It is still too early to predict how this pre electoral drama will unfold. The elections are not until the end of 1995 and there are still no official candidates. All there are now are events that support the theory that the DC is taking a gamble with its alliances.
In December, Bishop Rodolfo Quezada Toruño, former mediator between the URNG and the government in the peace process, publicly declared that the DC had approached him about being a presidential candidate. Quezada, who also played an important role recently as president of the Civil Society Assembly, would be an ideal symbol of reconciliation and passage into a post war stage, but he naturally rejected the offer because of his ecclesiastical commitments.

May the Peace Process Rest in Peace

"As the electoral process heats up," wrote analyst Danilo Rodríguez in the newspaper Siglo Veintiuno, "the elections will become more relevant in the political sphere and the peace process will become secondary. Will both sides want to culminate the process in such conditions of subordination?" This subordination is already a fact, to all intents and purposes. The question of the new year is no longer when a peace accord will be signed but who the presidential candidates will be.

"If the Ríos Montt candidacy is a real possibility, this will frustrate the peace process," comments activist and analyst Helen Mack. "Will the URNG want to sign an accord with Ríos Montt as President architect of the scorched earth policy, creator of the civil patrols and one of the specialists in killing so many people? I don't think so."
With or without an electoral campaign, the talks have been bogged down since October on the point of indigenous people's identity and rights. Both sides have tried to "dance" with the UN, each with its own style and rhythm, but without any concrete advances.

"The international community is becoming disillusioned by the lack of results and the diplomatic corps is tired," comments a European diplomat. "The army only changes its facade. Jorge Carpio was killed a year and a half ago and nothing happens. The president of the Constitutional Court is killed and still nothing. It is evident that they are not sincerely committed to change. And this country cannot be changed from outside. If peace comes, it will be imposed by the international community, but the agreements won't be fulfilled."
The situation is particularly frustrating for the UN, which has set up a verification commission, MINUGUA, in Guatemala. But today, judging by declarations of high UN officials, they appear to be more interested in political success than in real and long term changes in a country as complicated and troublesome as Guatemala. Despite all this, UN Secretary Boutros Ghali stated in January that "UN peace efforts have been successful in other Central American countries and there is no reason they cannot also be successful in Guatemala."

The Deaths Continue

Some people thought that MINUGUA's presence would mean at least a drop in the number of shot and tortured bodies that daily fill the capital's morgues. But this has not been the case. The year began with the assassination at gunpoint of a Public Ministry official (the ministry is under siege because it is investigating the Carpio case, among others) and the shooting of another University of San Carlos professor. History professor Abner Esaú Avendaño had received death threats in 1992 because of his research on the 1960s' student movement. Avendaño chose to remain in the country and gradually the threats stopped. Now he is one more name on the list of those assassinated.

In January there was also an epidemic of kidnappings, according to government security officials. Many of the victims' families, from both the business and political elite and neighborhood and grassroots activists, have chosen to keep silent, with the hope of being able to negotiate with the kidnappers.

A source experienced in security attributed the kidnappings to the start of the electoral campaign, pointing out that "it is traditional" for violence to increase in these periods. According to the same source, more than one political party has financed its campaigns with kidnappings in the past.

Archbishop Próspero Penados confirmed this hypothesis when he declared to the local press that "the recent violence is to be condemned for the pain it causes, although there is always violence as elections approach, particularly this one. There are efforts to tip the balance in favor of a presidential pre candidate." The archbishop did not want to specify which "pre candidate" could benefit from this violence.


President Ramiro de León Carpio began the year with two notable changes in his security Cabinet. He replaced both the controversial civilian Minister of Government, Danilo Parrinello, and his feared Vice Minister, Colonel Mario Mérida, an expert in military intelligence, with two civilians. Although these changes could be a hopeful sign of a gradual demilitarization process, human rights experts say that Parrinello and Mérida left behind a structure that will not be easy to dismantle.

Parrinello was substituted by Carlos Reynoso Gil, a prestigious, moderate lawyer. The justification for the change, which came after that of Mérida, was a corruption scandal that exploded at the end of 1994 due to the purchase of 255 Lada radio patrol cars. Members of the public workers' union accused the Minister of having overvalued the vehicles. The union member who made the accusation public began to receive death threats immediately, and had to go to human rights organizations to protect his life.

According to analysts, "Ladagate" was just the pretext the President needed to get rid of Parrinello. The minister's days were already numbered because of the numerous human rights violations attributed to the security forces under his command. A reliable source says that Parrinello's first big mistake was to lie to the President in August about the Finca Exacta case, where anti riot forces savagely beat agricultural workers, killing two and injuring eleven. Parrinello justified that action by arguing that the workers were armed and various policemen were injured and hospitalized. But attempts to verify these assertions discovered that Parrinello had pressured several doctors to lie about the police injuries. The last straw was the televised image of police shooting at university students in November and brutally kicking one who later died.

Although the two changes in the Government ministry are positive, the most interesting aspect is the different way each was treated. Colonel Mérida went on to occupy an important post in the army, and, though it was an open secret that he really ran the Ministry, no one has questioned his involvement in the Ladagate incident that led Parrinello to disgrace.

"Parrinello is a poor devil," explained one analyst. "The President pulled Mérida out before the scandal to save face for the army. Mérida had to be protected and a civilian sacrificed because Mérida is very important within the armed institution."
There have also been changes in other branches of the state, but only superficial ones. Helen Mack, who has fought to clean up and improve the judicial system, is very pessimistic about the new Supreme Court members. According to Mack, some are linked to the army, with no interest in human rights.

"The new Supreme Court wants to build its reputation based on cases of corruption of previous judges, but there are no concrete advances and judges whose findings favored human rights were transferred to the interior. It was all legal new contracts, transfers but carried a clear message; 'Look, this far and no more!'" According to Mack, almost 60 judges were transferred and 10 were fired. Several of them had been receiving death threats in 1994.

Hit Gangs

On December 19, Alfonso Stessel, a priest of Belgian origin, was killed by members of a gang from a marginal neighborhood of the capital, where he had worked as priest for years. Stessel, 65, was returning from a Christmas celebration with his parishioners. Some of those who witnessed the crime dismissed any robbery motive because, though Stessel was carrying money, it was not stolen.

Government spokespeople called it a "common crime," but the Church does not share this view. "We fear that this is a political assassination that could bring other consequences," said Próspero Penados, noting that Stessel defended the poor. "This is an underhanded and planned persecution of the Catholic Church and an attempt to shut down its voice," he declared.

Various analysts believe that the use of gangs to hide political crimes is now common practice and that Stessel's assassination was one of them. "The army used the civil patrols to kill Jorge Carpio. In the case of the Belgian priest, it appears that the security forces hired a gang. In Myrna Mack's case, they used Noel de Jesús Beteta, a former gang member and army sergeant," charges Myrna's sister Helen. "These and other cases clearly illustrate how different paramilitary groups are used. In my sister's case the state apparatus was used to kill directly, while in Carpio's case it was civilians organized by the army and, in the priest's case, civilians organized in gangs."

To Produce More Poor

Shortly after Stessel was killed, another priest denounced that he was receiving death threats. Father Julián Bernardo Castro works in a farming zone where he has denounced the inhuman exploitation of the farmworkers and defended their labor rights. Bernardo declared to the local press that hired killers had been contracted to eliminate him and protect capital interests in the area. Human Rights Prosecutor Jorge García Laguardia asked the government to protect the priest, reminding them that he had been a witness to the events on the La Exacta farm in August.

Throughout 1994, at least 14 priests were the target of threats or were accused in the press of promoting farm invasions. The majority of the cases had to do with land conflicts and it is believed that the intimidations come from the landowners.

In addition to these attacks, Archbishop Penados stated that he fears new religious confrontations between Catholics and Protestant sects with Ríos Montt as president of Congress. "It is very dangerous when a religious fanatic assumes a position of power, because perspective is lost," said Penados, comparing Ríos with Islamic leader Khomeini. "I hope the Church does not once again suffer insults from General Ríos Montt, as it did in 1982."
On December 22, Guatemala's Bishops Conference spoke of "another" violence, publicly warning of the danger of a social explosion in 1995 due to growing poverty. Jorge Mario Avila, president of the Bishops Conference, criticized the ostentatious wealth of a small sector of Guatemalans while more than 80% of the country lives in poverty. "This is the bitter fruit of the economic model that truly seems to organized to produce more poor people," said Avila.

One of Lime and One of Sand

At the end of 1994 another chapter opened in the most famous trial in Guatemala's history. On December 20, the Constitutional Court decided to leave open the Myrna Mack case, allowing the intellectual authors of the crime the military superiors of assassin Noel de Jesús Beteta to be tried.
In 1993, Beteta was sentenced to 30 years for the fatal stabbing of anthropologist Mack in 1990. Thirteen different judges, six exiled witnesses and one dead investigator was the price society paid so that a sergeant in the army could be sentenced in an unprecedented trial.

"Beteta was only the grease in the wheels. Military rules are very clear and immediate superiors are responsible for their subordinates. He could not have killed my sister without having received an order," declared Helen Mack at that time.

The most recent Court decision was a victory for Mack, who since the sentencing in 1993 has fought tirelessly to have the intellectual authors tried. But it is only a partial victory. For two years she has also insisted that the Court order the government and army to turn over documents and archives referring to the case. In December the judge turned down this request.

"One of lime and another of sand," says Helen Mack now. "They say yes to a trial and no to the possibility of getting vital evidence. This decision seriously weakens the possibility of building a solid case. How can I present a convincing case if I don't have access to official documents?"
International legal experts agree. To be able to prove that Beteta received an order and that military intelligence had special interest in Myrna and her anthropological work, it is indispensable to have access to the files.

Military "Merits"

Three days after the Court decision on the files, the army promoted one of Beteta's superiors, Juan Valencia Osorio, to colonel on his "merits." He had been called to declare three times during the trial, but never went. He was not only involved in the Mack case, but was accused of having operated a spy office based in the post office, which for years opened all correspondence of politicians, activists and journalists. The post office union discovered the office in 1993 and it was forced to close by then Human Rights Prosecutor Ramiro de León Carpio.

"The Defense Minister claims that Valencia was promoted on merit," commented one analyst. "What kind of merit? The army is rewarding officers who participated in the dirty war. This promotion is a sign of the army's support of Valencia and a message that the army is not prepared for democracy."
The practice of promoting officers involved in crimes is nothing new in the Guatemalan army. The day Valencia was promoted, Luis Felipe Miranda was also rewarded, passing from colonel to general. Miranda is accused of complicity in the escape of a prisoner, Captain Hugo Contreras, convicted in May 1993 of having killed US citizen Michael Devine. That sentence was also historic; after Beteta's conviction in February 1993, it was the second time a military officer was judged guilty of a military assassination. But just hours after the judge's decision, Contreras escaped from the military jail run by Miranda, and he has not yet been found.

Erasing History?

Helen Mack has more reasons to be pessimistic about the new trial. She thinks that the army strategy is to prolong the legal process, waiting for a political amnesty for war crimes as part of the negotiations between the URNG and the government. According to the new Penal Code introduced in July 1994, trials of political crimes are suspended under an amnesty. Throughout 1994, the government tried to propose this type of amnesty three times. Mack says the Guatemalan military wants to copy the strategy of its Salvadoran colleagues, benefited by an amnesty that meant they did not have to pay for atrocities committed during the war.

"If there is an amnesty under the banner of reconciliation and peace, it will try to erase our history," says Mack. She thinks that once an amnesty of this type is declared in Guatemala, Beteta will confess the crime before a judge. Beteta, the country's most famous prisoner, has tried to escape and "commit suicide" more than once, and has confessed his crime outside of Court. In April and May 1994, in a clandestine video made by an ex prisoner, Beteta admitted having stabbed Mack. "I am the material author of Myrna Mack's murder," he said. "It was a political crime; she was intellectually part of the guerrillas and I was a soldier fulfilling my duty."
Beteta later denied what he had confessed in the video and told journalists that some day they would understand what happened. This confession and other declarations, believes Helen Mack, are part of a game to take advantage of a future amnesty and, in the meantime, get the army out of problems before Beteta names the colonel or general who gave the order to kill Myrna.

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