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Logbook details secret workings of Guatemala military in early ’80s

NCR Staff

For decades, anguished families in Guatemala have devoted countless hours to learning the fate of relatives presumed to be among the more than 200,000 victims of that country’s 36-year civil war: husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, daughters and sons who simply disappeared.

As NCR went to press, release in the United States of a chilling military logbook from the early 1980s was offering some of those families a measure of relief. In a country where secrecy is as much a part of the right-wing military’s campaign as abduction, torture and execution, any news, even bad news, can be better than none.

The 54-page logbook, the only known record of its kind, contains photographs and references to 183 victims, typed in military code. The book puts names and faces to what have so often been merely numbers in the Guatemalan government’s bloody campaign of abduction, torture and execution.

The logbook, covering an 18-month period between August 1983 and March 1985 and detailing the activities of a secret service unit, puts the lie to frequent protestations by government officials to desperate family members that no such records exist.

The 18-month period concluded the third period of the war, the most violent and bloody, which began in 1978 and ended in 1985. During most of the war the United States supported a succession of brutal military dictators, trained officers in the Guatemalan military and used the CIA to stay in close contact with leaders who were carrying out the war against rebel insurgents.

According to Hugh Byrne, senior associate for the Washington Office on Latin America, one of four human rights groups releasing the logbook, the targets of the secret service unit during the 18-month period were people thought to be members or supporters of subversive guerrilla groups.

“It’s a scary document,” he said of the logbook smuggled out of Guatemalan military files. “One of the things that makes you feel certain this is authentic is that it has all of the information about an individual: their date of birth, any pseudonyms they used, their address, what organizations or guerrilla coalitions they belonged to, or purportedly belonged to, then what happened to them.” If the person gave information to captors -- almost surely after being tortured, Byrne said -- that is noted, too.

The number 300 in an entry indicates those who were executed, as does the expression, “He was taken away by Pancho.” Byrne said 300 is sometimes used “almost as a verb,” as in, “an attempt was made to capture him. He ran away, he was shot and 300.” More than 100 of the 183 victims are noted as having been killed.

Many of the photographs are taken from official government identification cards.

At least one person on the list was well-known, Byrne said: the husband of Nines Montenegro, a congresswoman in Guatemala. It was on the basis of her husband’s abduction that she formed a mutual support organization known as GAM for families of the disappeared, he said. The logbook shows that he was killed.

“We can see what was done to almost every one of these individuals,” Byrne said. Torture is presumed where there is a gap between a person’s capture and execution, or where people were returned to their organizations to become informants, he said. Byrne said the word torture is never used.

“There are also references in a couple of cases to an individual who leads to the capture of another individual on the list.

“The only way we can interpret this is that this was one unit, an intelligence unit, that was drawing information and putting it all together, capturing individuals then getting information from them, which leads to further actions being taken to sort of close the book on these people -- to bring them to justice in their terms, in an extrajudicial sort of way.

“There are a number of references where individuals were handed over to another unit or sent to another part of the country to help get information,” he said. “For example, one entry says, ‘He was handed over to the DI’ [the Direccion de Inteligencia], which we believe is the intelligence unit ... of the armed forces. Clearly intelligence was being gathered and acted upon.”

The document is the legacy of “a period after most of the massacres had taken place,” Byrne said. “It seems the government had done what it needed to do in rural areas against the Mayan population and seemed to turn its attention to intellectuals, students and workers -- a wide variety of people from different occupations who they believed were supporters or members of guerrilla organizations operating in the cities.”

Most of the victims in the rural areas between 1978 and 1985 were Mayans. A 3,500-page United Nations truth report released in late February titled “Guatemala: Memory of Silence” said that fully 83 percent of the 42,475 victims of human rights violations and acts of violence were Mayans.

The truth report was mandated by the Guatemalan peace process that culminated in the Accord of Oslo, signed in Norway in June 1994. The report’s conclusions put the blame for decades of torture and systematic elimination of Mayan villages on the government, the military and its agents. (NCR, March 12).

According to The New York Times, Otilia Lux de Coti, leading spokeswoman for Indians in Guatemala, said regarding discovery of the military logbook, “We asked them for reports on specific cases of people who had disappeared or who were killed on the street, and they told us that such documents did not exist. That was always their argument. ... We asked them if they had lists of people who disappeared, and they told us no. This shows that they did not tell us the truth.”

The logbook was released May 20 at a news conference in Washington by four human rights groups: the National Security Archive, the Washington Office on Latin America, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Human Rights Watch.

One of the victims whose fate is known for the first time is Cresencio Gomez Lopez, who went by a pseudonym “Sulivan” and was, according to the entry, “a member of the PFT” (the communist Guatemalan Workers Party) and then the date of his capture: 23-06-84 (June 23, in a style that puts the day of the month first.) Five weeks later, he was killed, noted as 01-08-84 = 300.

The entry indicated that Lopez was captured in the main entrance near the information area of the Roosevelt Hospital. “One assumes from this that he didn’t give information,” Byrne said, although he was held and tortured for five weeks, “because when they do, it’s marked down.”

Byrne said the logbook -- possibly one of many such documents in existence -- has 175 numbered entries, some listing more than one person.

Byrne said the logbook has been in the possession of human rights groups since before the United Nations truth report was made public. Since then, the organizations have been working to verify the logbook’s authenticity and making efforts to contact family members or persons named in the logbook and thought to be still alive.

Some of the persons in the logbook, after being tortured, returned to their organizations but operated as informants for the government, he said.

Among persons the organizations tried to get in touch with, though unsuccessfully, Byrne said, was a man who had testified about his capture after escaping to Canada. The information in the logbook about his capture was corroborated by his testimony, Byrne said.

“A lot of time has been spent verifying whether this is the real thing: cross-checking and cross-referencing against human rights reports to make sure it is what it purports to be,” Byrne said. He said the organizations wanted to handle the information sensitively, hoping to encourage protection of other secret documents. “We’re trying to urge the Guatemalan government to make sure documents of this kind are not destroyed and are made public,” he said.

Byrne said documents of this sort are a lifeline of sorts to the thousands of families whose relatives disappeared over a period of 20 years. “There are people from the 1960s who disappeared, and their families are still wondering about their fate,” he said.

“People can’t bring closure to the reality of the death of a family member if they don’t know their fate, the whereabouts of their bodies, if they don’t have the remains of that person. It’s like a hole in their heart. They can’t find any closure or healing until the truth is told.

“For the majority, finding out the truth is more important than that a killer be prosecuted and brought to justice,” he said. “That’s a later stage, but first they need to know the truth.

“That’s why the report of the truth commission and the report of the Catholic church are so important,” Byrne said, referring to the United Nations truth report and a report released last year by the Project to Recover Historic Memory (also known as the REHMI report) by Guatemala’s Catholic bishops. “It’s almost like those reports are a step toward justice, because they say these are the things that happened.”

Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera, auxiliary bishop of Guatemala, who oversaw that project, was killed April 26, 1998, just two days after release of the report. As is so often the case with murder in Guatemala, the identity of his killer -- and the possible role of the government -- remains a mystery.

Even though a peace process is in place in Guatemala today -- a process that promises major reforms -- a decline in human rights violations has occurred, Byrne said. He considers the logbook to be an important piece of evidence for coming to terms with the past.

“Wherever military or paramilitary groups are involved or suspected of human rights violations, it’s very, very difficult to bring those cases to conclusion,” he said. “[The death of] Bishop Gerardi is a good example.

“There is still impunity in Guatemala. The government has only limited will or ability to push forward major human rights cases and discipline the guilty parties. Without confronting impunity, the changes promised by the peace accords will be very hard to bring to fruition.

“I think this is one step in the process,” he said. “The question is what happens next.”

In a statement delivered by Anne Manuel at the Washington news conference, Human Rights Watch said the logbook confirmed that people who disappeared “were indeed, as human rights groups alleged, secretly abducted by the military.” The statement called for the logbook to be used as a basis for “serious investigation” aimed at prosecuting and punishing persons responsible for the crimes. It also urged “meaningful financial reparations” for families.

The group noted that President Clinton had, in March, “closed a shameful chapter of denial in U.S. policy regarding Guatemala” by acknowledging the complicity of the United States in Guatemala’s repressive military regime.

Further, the statement noted that the Clinton administration had taken the step of declassifying key documents related to human rights violations in Guatemala.

“But the United States owes Guatemala more,” the statement said. “This administration should work with the Congress to thoroughly account for Washington’s role in Guatemala’s decades of terror.”

The organization called for another truth commission to establish “at a minimum” responsibility for the misrepresentations contained in State Department country reports on Guatemala in the 1980s and determine “why these distortions were advanced.”

National Catholic Reporter, May 28, 1999