Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 169 | Agosto 1995



The Many Wars Of the Centaur

With peace still distant but urgently demanded, the Guatemalan state, that enslaving centaur, undertakes battles on all sides and wages its many and varied wars with a single objective: not to lose its power.

Gonzalo Guerrero

June has been a month of confrontations. The army won an important battle with the Public Ministry and the legal system by opposing the exhumation of guerrilla leader Efraín Bámaca's cadaver, supposedly buried in a clandestine cemetery behind a military base in San Marcos. Meanwhile, in the department of El Quiché, 300 refugees returning from Mexico confronted armed peasants from the area. The battle left several injured. A day later, a civil defense patrol (PAC) took five foreigners hostage to pressure the government to negotiate with it.

Throughout the month, followers of General Efraín Ríos Montt battled with the country's political class, the government, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and the Constitutionality Court, in what appears to be the final chapter in the Guatemalan Republican Front's struggle to make the general President of the Republic.

Guatemalan State: A Two Faced Monster

The thread that unites all these conflicts is what Guatemalan sociologist Carlos Figueroa Ibarra years ago termed the coexistence in the country of "diverse postures opposed to each other even though they share a common goal to politically and militarily defeat the revolutionary movement and thereby strengthen and consolidate the state." The state legitimizes itself with a Public Ministry that investigates the death of a guerrilla at army hands, but the military refuses to accept any meddling in its counterinsurgent activities. Thousands of refugees return, showing that the government seeks "to promote a reconciliation process and build the base for a strong and lasting peace," but the army continues training peasants organized in patrols to attack the returned refugees, considering them disguised guerrillas.

Ríos Montt's conflict with all the institutions results from the differences between two political projects that were both born from the same womb of the state: one, authoritarian and paternalistic, and the other, modernizing and somewhat more tolerant. In Figueroa Ibarra's imagery, they are the contradictory manifestations of the Guatemalan state as "centaur: half beast, half human, a two faced or subjugating monster."

Unknown Skeletons

After receiving information from former Guatemalan army officers, an ex guerrilla and even US government informants, a Public Ministry prosecutor, Julio Arango Escobar, began the search for the remains of Efraín Bámaca around the Las Cabañas military outpost in the La Montañita community, department of San Marcos.

Accompanied by forensic anthropologists, representatives of the United Nations Mission for Guatemala (MINUGUA), Bámaca's widow, Jennifer Harbury, and national and foreign journalists, Arango Escobar went to the outpost on June 13 to start the exhumation.

The outpost commander, Colonel Fernando Sáenz Bran, denied them permission to proceed without a court order, a procedure considered unnecessary under the new penal processing code. To avoid problems, the prosecutor went to get the court order. A new obstacle: in an inexplicable attitude shift, Ramsés Cuestas, the General Prosecutor and head of the Public Ministry, gave only a one day period for the exhumation, which rendered impossible a search that would have covered hundreds of square meters. When the forensics pointed this out, the exhumation was cancelled.

Not everyone felt deceived. According to Vice President Arturo Herbruger, "They were only going to find unknown skeletons." Unwittingly, Herbruger's cynical comment coincided with the testimony of various neighbors of the outpost, who said the army had used those lands to discard the bodies of their victims for many years.

The Bámaca case is an eloquent example of the "two faced" state. Prosecutor Arango has received numerous death threats and, after the failed exhumation, an attempt was actually made on his life when unknown men shot at the windows of his office from a car. The innovation of those opposed to the investigation is to incorporate legal recourses as part of their tactics.

Lawyers for the officers implicated in the Bámaca case have accused Arango of being a guerrilla sympathizer and claim he is predisposed against the military and therefore clearly partial. The lawyers are requesting that he be removed from the case. In a press conference, Ramsés Cuestas insisted that Arango would stay on, but could not explain to journalists why he had made the exhumation impossible by only allowing them 24 hours.

The Long Return

Both government and the Guatemalan refugees in Mexico have termed 1995 the "year of the return." So far this year, 5,376 refugees have come back to the country, after 14 years of living in camps in southern Mexico. Another 6,000 are negotiating their imminent return and 17,000 more are expected back before the end of the year.

Although the rhythm of the return has accelerated in the two years of the De León Carpio government, the decision to come back appears to be independent of the conditions awaiting them in Guatemala. Those who have returned complain of lack of government support, its failure to fulfill commitments made to the refugees' permanent commission, and rejection by landowners and even by some peasants who have occupied their lands.

On June 28, a group of over 300 refugees was violently pushed back by civil defense patrollers when they returned to their old community, San Antonio Tzeja, in the Ixcán municipality of El Quiché.

The incident began on April 18. On that day, 64 families left Mexico to go back to their plots in San Antonio and San Juan Ixcán. Their return was preceded by long negotiations with the Guatemalan government, representatives of the UN High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) and the peasants who had occupied the abandoned plots of land after the exodus to Mexico. These peasants accepted an agreement that the government would give them new land and pay them for improvements they had made. But when the returnees arrived at La Mesilla, at the Mexico Guatemala border, they learned that the head of the San Antonio PAC, Raúl Martínez, had destroyed the houses built for them and was threatening to prevent them from entering, inciting neighbors against them.

To avoid problems, the returnees went to Cantobal, Alta Verapaz, where they stayed in the church waiting to reach an agreement with the patrol members. But, despite both official promises to disarm the San Antonio patrol and an arrest order against Martínez for threatening UNHCR members, two months passed without a definite agreement.

On June 26, after spending 67 days in the Cantobal church, the returnees decided not to wait any longer. Two days later, at the entrance to the town, Raúl Martínez and his patrol members attacked them. Various people suffered machete injuries during the confrontation.

Only Blades

The government sent two police anti riot squads from the capital and five members of international organizations also went to negotiate with the Martínez group. But instead of resolving the conflict, the foreigners were taken hostage by Martínez's patrol, which demanded negotiations with the government. The hostages were freed after 26 hours but, despite both an arrest order against Martínez and the presence of a number of security agents in the zone, he avoided capture.

The following day a meeting was organized between the military base commander, the patrol members, the returnees, the government, MINUGUA and the UNHCR. The patrol members tried to convince everyone that the refugees were guerrillas and claimed the army had ordered them to shoot. When the colonel at the base corrected him, a patrol member clarified, "Yes, it's true; at the base they told us we could only use blade weapons against the refugees." The colonel said nothing as those present sat astonished.

In the months before the conflict, a patrol member from San Antonio Tzeja had summarized the situation in northern Quiché for some journalists as follows: "The last 14 years of war have been a school for us. We're not going to put our guard down." The 64 refugee families remained camped out a half kilometer from their town, waiting for peace to come to San Antonio Tzeja.

Has the Curtain Dropped On the General?

General Efraín Ríos Montt's most recent attempts to register as a Presidential candidate have failed. He has not won support, and the forces opposed to him have consolidated.

In its final strategy, Ríos Montt's Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) has sought to disparage the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) magistrates and push for the election of new ones more tolerant of the general's candidacy. At the same time, the FRG has tried to eliminate its main competition, the National Advancement Party (PAN), by labeling it an "official" party that receives economic support from the government.

These maneuvers have boomeranged. When the party accused the TSE president of nepotism, the media reminded people that Ríos Montt's daughter had worked as secretary for the presidency of the Congress, at her father's side. When FRG representatives presented a cassette with telephone conversations that supposedly linked PAN with the government, it reminded the country that telephone spying is a crime and accented the illegality of the FRG using the tape recording.

All of the FRG's legal and not so legal maneuvers have had similar results. While the doors are closing on Ríos Montt's candidacy, the most recent polls demonstrate that a growing sector of the population is also losing interest in his party.

The clumsiness of Ríos Montt's backers may be part of a carefully prepared strategy, however. With all legal avenues closed, they could be building an image of the general as a political leader persecuted by the system. The possibility cannot be discarded of seeing FRG leaders in the courts or jails, as a way to dramatically color the situation and increase the political impact.

Commissioners: A Vacuum

On June 30, Army Day in Guatemala, President De León Carpio announced the dissolution of the military commissioners. The 15 25,000 commissioners, who for over three decades were "the incarnation of military power in the social microcosm," according to analyst Edgar Gutiérrez, have been "the real power" in rural communities. They have gathered intelligence information for the military, led forced recruitment in communities and represented the army even in the most remote communities. In many cases they have directly led the repression against those communities.

In the most conflictive zones, the military commissioners have been replaced by the commander of the civil defense patrols. The decision the government made a year ago to eliminate forced recruiting also reduced the commissioners' role.

The recent presidential decision is aimed fundamentally at satisfying the international community, which has been insisting for years that both the commissioners and the patrols be eliminated; they consider these armed groups to be human rights violators.

Eliminating the commissioners could create a political vacuum in the communities, says Gutiérrez, "opening the way for local political leaders, mini Ríos Montts; a militarization without arms."
News of the dissolution came two days after the year's military promotions. A harvest of medals bedecked the "modernizing" or "reformist" officers, who already make many of the decisions of the High Command.

The only promotion to general, despite several vacancies, went to Colonel Otto Pérez Molina, chief of the Presidential High Command. No one was promoted to colonel, which confirmed the existence of what is known as a dangerous and exaggerated "paunch" in the officer corps. Several analysts see this as a potential destabilizing factor for the current "institutionalist" project.

Millions for Peace

The peace negotiations did not register notable advances during June, but the international community offered important financial support to the efforts to bring the armed conflict to an end. Nineteen countries and several multilateral agencies pledged $153 million in donations and $400 million in concessionary loans for social and infrastructure investment projects. The amount is equivalent to 40% of Guatemala's 1994 budget.

The aid comes at a particularly delicate time for the peace process. According to sources close to the talks, advances in the issue currently under discussion Socioeconomic Aspects and the Agrarian Situation are being blocked by strong opposition from business sectors. The business representatives are particularly opposed to URNG proposals to create a tax on idle land and to broaden the constitutional concept of property to include its social function.

The secrecy surrounding the negotiations between the guerrillas and the government has increased suspicions and concern among the private sector's most conservative groups. "If these talks lead to a violation of citizens' rights, we'll resort to any recourse necessary to defend Guatemala's future," business leaders from the National Agricultural Coordinating Body (CNA) threatened recently.

Many doubts about the real content of the discussions feed the opposition this agroexport sector has always felt toward the negotiations with the guerrillas. "If the extorsion, destruction and attacks on authority by the subversives continue," clamored the CNA, "the peace talks should be suspended immediately."
Two aspects of international community intervention in the peace process could reduce the private sector's suspicions. Both the government and the URNG are first discussing their proposals with multilateral organization representatives the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Interamerican Development Bank and the UN's Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). The final accords will thus have the support of these powerful institutions.

In addition, the millions in aid from the international community will serve to finance state social spending, without having to resort to more taxes. This could help the government avoid a wearing tax reform battle with the private sector. In March, the private sector successfully contested the new taxes approved at the end of 1994, so Guatemala continues to be the Latin American country in which the rich pay the least taxes.

A New Political Front

The creation of the New Guatemala Democratic Front was formalized on July 1, with the support of numerous grassroots and union leaders and members of progressive parties.

The Front has managed to unite into one political electoral project many of the sectors that have historically rejected elections, considering them a mechanism to legitimize a state that gives no space to alternatives that respond to popular needs.

In the coming weeks the Front will elect its candidates for the November 12 elections. Among those mentioned as presidential choices are Alfonso Bauer Pais, legal adviser for Guatemalan refugees in Mexico and agricultural minister during the Jacobo Arbenz government, and economist Gert Rosental, currently director of ECLAC.

The Front's possibilities for success depend largely on its ability to win over the 80% of Guatemala's 3.5 million registered voters who abstained during the last elections, as well as to sign up a million others who are still not registered.

Several grassroots groups within the Front are already registering voters in conflictive areas. And while the Electoral Registry has only grown 11% at the national level over the last five years, the voters' list has risen 30% in northern Quiché (Ixcán and Chajul) just since the Front arrived.

The URNG's role in the elections is still an enigma. Although the leaders of the new Front do not oppose participation by guerrilla organizations in their project, the fear exists that this could be a pretext to unleash a wave of anti Front repression.

In its inaugural address, the Front criticizes the "current economic model, with roots in the last century, and characterized as exclusive and dependent. It puts ownership of land and capital in the hands of a few who increasingly concentrate wealth and income, while the majority of the population experiences growing impoverishment."
The front proposes "to allow civil society to be a protagonist for the common good, based on respect for the identity and rights of the Mayan, Garífuna, Xinca and ladino people, and on gender equity."

It is not enough to demilitarize the state and society as a whole; it is also necessary to strengthen civil society so it will have the possibility and capacity to occupy the spaces previously held unlawfully by militarization and to assist in satisfying the population's needs.

The balance between the army and the rest of the state institutions has hindered the development of three basic characteristics of any democratic society:
- The existence of a democratic and representative political system.

- The effective existence of a system of administration and justice based on respect for human rights.

- The existence of a security system for citizens based on peaceful coexistence and the wellbeing of the population.

Transition from Today's Army to One in a Democratic Society

Strengthening civil power carries with it the conversion of the army's functions and implies analyzing our national reality. Within a period of no more than two years following the signing of peace:

The army should no longer carry out development activities,
or those in any field other than the defense of national sovereignty.

Transfer all equipment and material currently in the power of the army that is earmarked for social development works (health, education, infrastructure, etc.) to the corresponding ministries and agencies.

The state and civil society should jointly analyze the current functions of the army to adapt them to the national reality:

- Functions relative to National Defense.

- Progressive and functional reduction of the army.

- Review of the curriculum in the military centers aimed at strengthening civic and legal education and respect for human rights, as well as for the specific and cultural rights of all peoples who inhabit Guatemala.

Dismantle the military equipment factory.

Readjust the acquisition policy for military weapons and equipment to the new function of the army.

The demands for real disarmament should be applied to both the army and the other forces (PMA, PAC, EMP and others) and, at the appropriate time, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), through verification mechanisms, must turn in its weapons and munitions, pointing out arms caches or places in which they were kept during the domestic armed confrontation.

* From the consensus proposal presented to the URNG-Government talks by the Assembly of Civil Society (ASC).


Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


A Parade of Images in Paris

New, Wider Households in Women's Hands

Not Yet to the Root of the Crisis

El Salvador
The San Andrés Pact: Authoritarian or Democratizing?

The Honeymoon's Over

The Many Wars Of the Centaur

Costa Rica
Figueres Succumbs to Neoliberal Orthodoxy

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