Guatemala: Truth commission report details years of military abuses
By TOM ROBERTS
A United Nations-sponsored truth report on Guatemalas vicious 36-year civil war calls the governments tactics genocide. The report also holds the United States responsible for supporting brutal military dictators, for using the Central Intelligence Agency to aid the Guatemalan military and for training Guatemalan army officials in counterinsurgency tactics that resulted in widespread torture and death.
The 3,500-page report, published in nine volumes and titled Guatemala: Memory of Silence, was compiled by the Commission for Historical Clarification. The report was mandated by the Guatemalan peace process that culminated in the Accord of Oslo, signed in Norway in June 1994.
A widely dispersed 60-page document containing conclusions and recommendations places the overwhelming blame for decades of torture and particularly the systematic elimination of Mayan villages on the government and the military and its agents.
The report vindicates the religious and human rights groups whose characterizations of the terror and torture were largely dismissed over the years in official U.S. circles.
This is a reflection on the truth that thousands of us have known for over 30 years, said Blaise Bonpane, once a Maryknoll priest who worked in Guatemala and now the director of the Office of the Americas, a nonprofit education group in Los Angeles.
Having been a party to it, having been called subversives and anti-Christs, weve been through this. Finally something surfaces that we had seen long before. Were delighted it has surfaced, because many things havent surfaced, he said.
The murdered bishop
The report is stronger in tone and more condemnatory of powerful interests than many veteran Guatemala watchers expected. It also gives additional weight and credibility to the Project to Recover Historic Memory, begun by Guatemalas Catholic bishops in 1994 and overseen by the late Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera, auxiliary bishop of Guatemala City.
The bishops report, Guatemala: Never Again, (also known as the REHMI report) was the result of three years of investigation and interviews with thousands of witnesses to the attacks against Mayans. It, too, documented gruesome horrors conducted against state enemies, particularly in the heavily Mayan regions, and blamed a majority of the violence on the government and the army.
Gerardi was murdered just two days after releasing the report in what many believe was retribution for conducting the project. Gerardis killing is still under investigation.
The U.N.-sponsored report is even stronger than the Historic Memory project report and attributes even a greater percentage of the violence to the state and the military.
I was surprised that it was such a strong document, said School Sister of Notre Dame Alice Zachmann, director and founder of the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission USA. I thought it was particularly strong because it mentions the military, the percentage of violence attributed to the military and the extent of the U.S. role, she said in a telephone interview Feb. 27 from her Washington-based organization.
Fear of the future
Anna Fuentes, a lay activist connected to the Colegio Monte Maria in Guatemala City, a school for young women founded by Maryknoll Sisters, was present at the National Theater when the most recent report was released.
She was also present when Gerardi released the church-sponsored report.
My feeling then was the same as my feeling at the National Theater yesterday. It scared me, because after REHMI we had something terrible Bishop Gerardi killed. I really hope and pray that nothing will come after this report.
In its grim statistics and grisly descriptions of the savage conduct attributed to military forces, the report captures the hellish atmosphere of fear and dread that characterized some of the more violent periods in Guatemalas recent history.
Of the 42,275 victims of human rights violations and acts of violence including men, women and children documented by the Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH), 23,671 were victims of arbitrary execution, and 6,159 were victims of forced disappearance. Eighty-three percent of fully identified victims were Mayan, and 17 percent were Ladino, the 60-page summary report states.
Combining this data with the results of other studies of political violence in Guatemala, the CEH estimates that the number of persons killed or disappeared as a result of the fratricidal confrontation reached a total of over 200,000.
In comments during a ceremony Feb. 25, Christian Tomuschat, a German professor of law and coordinator of the commission, said the group has been able to establish that state forces and allied paramilitary groups were responsible for 93 percent of the documented violations, that the insurgent forces were responsible for 3 percent and that the remaining 4 percent of the cases include other authors.
Tomuschat also accused the CIA of directly and indirectly conducting illegal state operations during the period of conflict. Until the mid-1980s, the United States government and U.S. private companies exercised pressure to maintain the countrys archaic and unjust socioeconomic structure, he said.
Other members of the commission were Guatemalans Edgar Balsells, a lawyer, and Otilia Lux Coti, a Myan educator.
An internal conflict
According to news reports, Donald J. Planty, U.S. ambassador to Guatemala, criticized the commission for implicating the United States in the violence. This was an internal conflict, Planty said. He added that the United States gave $1.5 million to help the commission conduct the investigation. The United States also aided the commission by opening some previously classified documents dealing with the period.
Elliott Abrams, who served both the Reagan and Bush administrations during the bloodiest period of Guatemalas civil war as assistant secretary for human rights and humanitarian affairs from 1981-85 and assistant secretary for InterAmerican affairs from 1985-1989 also expressed surprise at the reports implication of the the United States.
He said that the press and human rights groups were playing a very odd melody by arguing that what happened in Guatemala was the fault of the United States and by highlighting the very slim portions of the report that make references to the U.S. he told NCR in a telephone interview March 1.
My understanding is that it is a report about what Guatemalans did to each other.
Elliott, now president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative Washington think-tank, compared the situation in Guatemala to that of El Salvador during the same period in the 1980s and said that greater involvement by the United States in Guatemala would have meant less violence.
In the course of the 1980s, it was possible for the United States to bring down the level of human rights abuses in El Salvador, because we had a lot of clout in El Salvador. It was not possible for us to do that in Guatemala, because we didnt have a lot of clout. We were not giving them anywhere near as much aid, and the Guatemala military was not dependent on us the way the Salvadorans were.
To me, the lesson of this report was that without the restraining hand of the United States, the situation was worse in Guatemala.
The report mentions the support Cuba provided to the insurgency and its support of armed struggle as a contributing factor to the violence. The insurgency, however, developed as a response ... to the countrys diverse structural problems. Faced with injustice, exclusion, poverty and discrimination, it proclaimed the need to take power by force in order to build a new social, political and economic order, the summary states.
As the Guatemalan government became increasingly repressive, sectors of the left, specifically those of Marxist ideology, adopted the Cuban perspective of armed struggle as the only way to ensure the rights of the people and to take power.
On the other hand, according to the report, the states response was totally disproportionate to the military force of the insurgency and can only be understood within the framework of the countrys profound social, economic and cultural conflicts.
Outside events, not only national history, contributed to the atmosphere of division and conflict. One of the major factors was the Cold War and the anti-communist fervor that began in Guatemala during the 1930s, according to the report. That fervor merged with the defense of religion, tradition and conservative values, all of which were allegedly threatened by the worldwide expansion of atheistic communism. Those views were shared by the Catholic church in Guatemala until the 1950s, the report says, when church thinking underwent a profound shift in alliance, from the powerful to the poor and marginalized.
U.S. plays a role
The Cold War also served as an entry point for the United States, which promoted anti-communism and received firm support from right-wing political parties and from various other actors in Guatemala, the summary states.
The United States demonstrated that it was willing to provide support for strong military regimes in its strategic backyard. In the case of Guatemala, military assistance was directed toward reinforcing the national intelligence apparatus and for training the officer corps in counterinsurgency techniques, key factors that had significant bearing on human rights violations during the armed confrontation.
While the commission does not diminish the responsibility of the insurgents for inflicting violence on the population, it also concludes that the government deliberately magnified the military threat of the insurgency to justify a concept of the internal enemy, a notion that allowed the state and its military to include anyone within the citizenry as a state enemy.
The combination of anti-communism and the internal enemy doctrine was a volatile mix that led to extreme cruelty and years of atrocities that the Commission for Historical Clarification said was organized and sanctioned by the highest levels of the government and military.
The tactics used included clandestine prisons and torture centers and the use of death squads that operated with the knowledge and protection of the military. The clandestine units used execution, kidnapping, psychological warfare, propaganda and intimidation. Creating and sustaining terror throughout the country was a staple of government strategy. Community and religious leaders involved in education or organizing were systematically disappeared.
In its most violent manifestations, government policies led to a scorched earth annihilation of indigenous villages that disrupted the rhythm and way of life that had existed for centuries.
The wisdom of elders disappeared when those community leaders were killed. The oral tradition of indigenous communities was disrupted, and the assault on Mayan culture created a mini-nation of internal refugees, as well as those who escaped to other countries, estimated at between 500,000 to 1.5 million.
The fate of those who did not escape could be unimaginable horror. According to the Commission for Historical Clarification, members of the army became particularly vicious when moving against the Mayans.
The counterinsurgency strategy not only led to violations of basic human rights but also to the fact that these crimes were committed with particular cruelty, with massacres representing their archetypal form. In the majority of massacres there is evidence of multiple acts of savagery, which preceded, accompanied or occurred after the deaths of the victims. Acts such as the killing of defenseless children, often by beating them against walls or throwing them alive into pits where the corpses of adults were later thrown; the amputation of limbs; the impaling of victims; the killing of persons by covering them in petrol and burning them alive; the extraction, in the presence of others, of the viscera of victims who were still alive; the confinement of people who had been mortally tortured, in agony, for days; the opening of the wombs of pregnant women and other similarly atrocious acts, were not only actions of extreme cruelty against the victims but also morally degraded the perpetrators and those who inspired, ordered or tolerated these actions.
In his remarks, Tamuschat said that the commission concludes that the reasons for the Guatemalan armed confrontation cannot be reduced to the simplistic logic of two armed factions.
Its origins can be traced to social divisions caused by entrenched racism that severely marginalized the countrys substantial Mayan population; the refusal by the state to promote any substantive reform and the participation by powerful economic and political groups interested in maintaining the status quo.
In explaining the historical roots of the conflict, the report notes that an 1821 proclamation of independence, an event prompted by the countrys elite, created an authoritarian state that was racist from the outset, excluding the majority Mayan population from meaningful participation in the life of the government and society at large.
In its analysis of the conflict, the commission outlines four major periods:
Using criteria outlined in the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the commission concludes that agents of the State of Guatemala, within the framework of counterinsurgency operations carried out between 1981 and 1983, committed acts of genocide against groups of Mayan people.
Suggestions for the future
The conclusion is based, in part, on the evidence that all these acts were committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, groups identified by their common ethnicity, states the summary, making reference to the language of the U.N. document.
In the summary document, the commission outlines measures calling for dep reforms of the militarty sructure and changes in training. The recommendations also call for significant reform of the judicial system. The recommendations also outline plans for preserving the memory of the victims, compensate victims, foster a culture of mutual respect and observance of human rights, and strengthen the democratic process.
Preserving the memory of victims would involve national observances; construction of monuments and public parks; assigning names of victims to education centers and other public buildings; and reclamation of Mayan sites violated or destroyed during the conflict.
The commission also outlines specific recommendations for the formation of boards to oversee a national reparation process that would include exhumation of the remains of victims from clandestine and hidden cemeteries that have yet to be located.
Arthur Jones in Washington contributed to this report. The summary and conclusions of Guatemala: Memory of Silence can be found on the Web at http://hrdata.aaas.org/ceh/
Hugh Byrne of the Washington Office on Latin America said the Spanish and English versions of the full report will be on the site in the near future.
National Catholic Reporter, March 12, 1999