Guatemala Far from out of the Woods: Sentencing of an Ex-Paramilitary Officer a Transformative Step for the Country?

On August 31, 2009, a Guatemalan court in the mountain town of Chimaltenango convicted Felipe Cusanero, a former paramilitary officer in the country’s 36-year-long civil war. His crime was the forced disappearance of six indigenous villagers between 1982 and 1984. In many regards, the conviction could mark a turning point in the fight against governmental impunity and is a major step towards reconciliation in the violence torn nation. However, such optimism may be out of order because this is the first disappearance case ever to be brought before a Guatemalan Court. It cannot be ignored that former government officials responsible for the deaths and disappearances of thousands during decades of bloody civil war are still being held unaccountable while claiming amnesty and thereby avoiding the coils of justice.

Cusanero was a local farmer from the village of Choatalum who worked for the Guatemalan military as a civilian paramilitary officer. He was seeking out suspected “leftist insurgents,” who purportedly were members of the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG). The Guatemalan court that found him guilty sentenced him to 150 years in prison—25 years per person who had disappeared through his actions. Human rights organizations and activists have praised the verdict and the sentencing that was handed down, claiming that it could set a precedent for the sentencing of those guilty for the more than 40,000 disappearances and total of 200,000 other violent deaths, 90% of which occurred at the hands of military and paramilitary personnel during the course of the civil war. While the conviction unquestionably is a huge leap forward for justice in Guatemala, it is necessary to ask why higher-ranking military as well as political officials have so predictably escaped from justice up until now. The Latin News recently cited the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights which reported that 30 warrants have been issued against individuals involved in serious crimes during the civil war, yet none of the warrants have been carried out. The government’s failure to take such an elementary step towards justice and reconciliation can be primarily attributed to Guatemala’s legacy of governmental corruption, impunity for public figures, weak rule of law, and infiltration of organized crime into the country’s judicial system.

Civil War

In 1954, the US government and CIA orchestrated a coup against democratically elected leftist president, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, giving rise to a series of unstable, repressive and corrupt juntas. The country soon lapsed into the hemisphere’s longest civil war involving the Guatemalan government and the URNG guerrillas. The leftist insurgency lasted from 1960 to 1996. To eliminate all of those suspected of affiliation with the leftist guerrilla group, the military utilized scorched-earth warfare techniques in the fight against the UNRG, targeting its largely indigenous Mayan and campesino members. Human rights organizations have long since classified the military’s acts against civilians as a full-blown genocide against Guatemala’s indigenous peoples. The Guatemalan armed forces have shown no remorse for having burned entire villages, slaughtering men, raping women, and kidnapping children.

Recently released classified documents show that at all times, U.S. officials were fully aware of the crimes the Guatemalan authorities and military were committing, and, in fact, supported these efforts to combat the rebels as part of the Cold War strategy being applied in Latin America. Declassified documents released on March 17, 2009 revealed Washington’s complete knowledge of the disappearances and assassinations conducted by the Guatemalan government, exemplified by the disappearance of a civilian, Edgar Fernando García. The National Security Archive website explicitly states: “Declassified U.S. records obtained by the National Security Archive under the Freedom of Information Act indicate that the United States was well-aware of the government campaign to kidnap, torture and kill Guatemalan labor leaders at the time of García’s abduction.” Despite possessing detailed information about human rights abuses on behalf of the Guatemalan government, the US chose to support a series of military dictatorships in its perceived efforts to thwart the spread of communism and Soviet influence in Central America.

On December 30, 1996, both the Guatemalan military government and the revolutionaries signed a series of Peace Accords overseen by the UN, which where supposed to mark the termination of a conflict-ridden era. The Peace Accords included one affecting human rights practices such as the criminalization of the systematic use of torture and terror. The process also mandated a thorough demilitarization of the government, requiring the elimination of paramilitary forces. In addition, the accords provided for the strengthening of a democratic society and the implementation of civilian rule through constitutional reforms. The accords state: “The constitutional reforms…provide the fundamental substantive basis for the reconciliation of Guatemalan society within the framework of the rule of law, democratic coexistence and the full observance of and strict respect for human rights” (emphasis added). The constitutional reforms also focused on equalizing the racial gap among Guatemalan citizens, which today remains as wide as ever. Unfortunately, the major constitutional reforms agreed upon in these accords have yet to be accomplished, as the terms of reconciliation are far from being implemented.

A Bleak History of Impunity

Guatemala is notorious for its legacy of impunity. Throughout the entire internal conflict, high-ranking military and government officials routinely evaded prosecution and continue to do so to this day. A Human Rights activist group called H.I.J.O.S. (Hijos por la Identidad y la Justicia contra el Olvido y Silencio—Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice against Forgetting and Silence) repeatedly has condemned the inaction of the government in the prosecution of said officials. H.I.J.O.S. not only has lodged accusations against its own government, but holds the U.S. equally responsible for the failure to achieve reconciliation and justice. They state; “the judiciary processes which we have witnessed have granted complete freedom to assassins by means of immunity and impunity. The civilian governments which one day claimed to stop the cycle of military coups, ended up protecting those who would oppress at their orders and…open up to the global market and apply their neoliberal plans.” This statement is a clear stab at the US as well as other countries and institutions that speak about reconciliation but continue to fail to take any action against immunity and impunity granted to officers responsible for such crimes.

Impunity in Guatemala is intrinsically connected to other chronic problems within the government and judicial system. An investigation conducted by the conservative Freedom House in 2006 underscores the corruption, lack of accountability and weakness of the rule of law in the Central American country. On a scale from 0-7, with 0 being the weakest and 7 being the strongest, anticorruption and transparency scored a 3.10; the rule of law scored a 3.16, and civil liberties totaled 3.42. These figures hint at the magnitude of corruption within the Guatemalan legal system as well as the government’s extreme inefficiency. For instance, human rights defenders, judges, and lawyers who are dedicated to the prosecution of individuals with links to narcotrafficking and organized crime habitually receive numerous threats; some are even murdered. In 2005, a total of 38 potential victims including prosecutors, judges, magistrates, and lawyers were threatened, while three lawyers and two judges were murdered.

More recently, on September 7, 2009, criminal gangs attempted to kill the government’s chief prosecutor against organized crime, Rony López. The attempt proved unsuccessful, but one of his bodyguards was killed in the attack. As a result of these continuous dangerous conditions existing in the country, many highly qualified and well-motivated lawyers and judges choose to avoid potential lawsuits involving corruption, organized crime, and defending human rights activists. Therefore, marginalized individuals living in poverty can expect to receive inferior quality legal representation. Conversely, those who can afford higher quality defense lawyers, namely the country’s economic elite, can expect to receive better qualified representation, and therefore tend to walk away from lawsuits contented to know that in the end, they will win. Freedom House states that “convictions of the politically and economically powerful for crimes committed against indigenous and poor remain the exception rather than the rule.” In line with the ongoing trend in Latin America, those with wealth maintain and even perpetuate control even if they have committed the most grave of crimes.

International Human Rights Lawsuit Still Unresolved

One of the most explicit examples of the Guatemalan government’s inability to bring assassins to justice is the international human rights case against former military chiefs of state, senior military officers, as well as ranking police officials. As a result of the government’s failure to take any action against former military dictators and other high-ranking officials, the case in question was brought before the International Human Rights Court in Madrid, Spain. Procedures began in 1999 against former heads of state Efraín Ríos Montt, Fernando Romeo Lucas García and strongman Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores when Rigoberta Menchú Tum, internationally-acclaimed Nobel Laureate and a Mayan indigenous woman, filed a lawsuit accusing these officials of committing genocide. Others who were also prosecuted include ex-Minister of Defense Ángel Anial Guevara Rodríguez, former Minister of the Interior Donaldo Álvarez Ruiz, former Chief of the Armed forces Manuel Bendicto Lucas García, former Director of National Police Germán Chupina Barahona, and former head of police unit Comando Seis, Pedro García Arredondo.

The lawsuit was dragged out until 2005 when Spain announced a groundbreaking change in the practice of international law: the Spanish International Court would have authority over all particularly heinous human rights abuses, violations, genocide, and crimes against humanity, under what is termed “universal jurisdiction.” In 2006, a Spanish Judge, Santiago Pedraz issued arrest warrants for all eight officials, which the Guatemalan Courts initially accepted. However, they soon revocated this decision when they determined that the Spanish Courts did not have the right to prosecute two of the officials—Ángel Aníbal Guevara Rodríguez and Pedro García Arredondo. Nonetheless, the Spanish court continued with the proceedings, but it has yet to come to a resolution.

The Implementation of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG)

Due to Guatemala’s penchant for immunity and widespread corruption at high places, the UN sponsored the establishment of the Guatemalan International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG) to take on some of the prosecutorial responsibility in the country. The primary purpose of the CICIG is to “support, strengthen and assist institutions of the State of Guatemala responsible for investigating and prosecuting crimes allegedly committed in connection with the activities of illegal security forces and clandestine security organizations.” This institutional arm to the government conducts investigations into the existence of illegal security forces, as well as their connections to the government and other high-powered institutions. Essentially, the CICIG is an independent organization that oversees and supports the operation of the country’s otherwise dysfunctional legal system, including the Public Prosecutors Office, the National Civilian Police, and other state institutions.

From its inception, CICIG has worked diligently to restore trust in government institutions including the criminal justice and police systems, with the aim of purging them of corruption. Further emphasis is placed on eliminating clandestine armed security groups which are known to be tied to state officials and organized crime. Many of these clandestine groups were composed of officials who were involved in similar corrupt practices as well as duplicity, conspiracy, and repeated human rights violations during the war that was being fought prior to the Peace Accords. They are believed to have issued threats and ordered the murders of a number of human rights defenders, prosecutors, journalists, activists, and other members of society. The head of CICIG, Carlos Castresana, a Spanish Judge appointed to the position by the UN, stated that “Guatemala’s institutions must be purged from the inside; they need an exorcism. We have come here to help, to extend a hand to Guatemala in fighting this grave problem, for which representatives of this country have asked for assistance from the international community.” Like many countries before it, Guatemala is in dire need of outside assistance in its transition to democratic rule, and more importantly, to its utilization and institutionalization of democratic procedures within the government.

Small Advances, but Many More Needed

The establishment of the CICIG as well as the Cusanero conviction should be looked upon as small steps towards ending the unchallenged impunity while beginning to bring justice to those who deserve it in Guatemala. However, much remains to be done. Today, Guatemala has one of the highest homicide rates in Latin America, if not the world–16 murders a day in a country of 13 million people. Thousands of cases still go unsolved. In 2008, 6,292 homicides were reported, of which only 2 percent made it to trial and only 146 were solved. Moreover, according to the IPS News, no one is punished in 98 percent of crimes committed. To further emphasize the steadily increasing crime rate and lack of prosecution, the PDH (la Procuraduría de los Derechos Humanos) recently reported that between January 1 and August 15, 2009, there had been an increase in torture cases, particularly against women, from the previous year; there already had been 106 women’s cadavers found with signs of torture compared to 115 in all of 2007.

Criminal activity, the lack of rule of law and common justice, as well as the perpetual presence of impunity are all interconnected. Strong democratic institutions are necessary in order for reconciliation and justice to be achieved. Before this happens, however, Guatemala must combat the formidable obstacles standing directly in its path. For instance, poverty, gangs, and narcotrafficking all contribute to a perpetuation of criminal behavior. These societal factors, along with a high level of poverty (nearly 80% of the population lives on less than $2 a day) must be solved if impunity is to be affected. Nonetheless, such battles are imperative for the reconciliation of the nation as a whole, as well as for the evolution of the country’s national collective identity as a precondition to the creation of a good society. At the very least, Guatemalan Judicial authorities must recognize and act against the atrocities committed during the civil war and bring to justice those responsible for such grisly crimes.