Guatemala: More of the Shameful Same?

  • Guatemala faces meltdown as ex-paramilitaries threaten to seize the Constitutional Court building and block transportation routes throughout the country, beginning today (June 28).
  • The group Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil (PAC) demands payment for their brutal services on behalf of the government during the era of civic strife which ripped the country apart.
  • The Constitutional Court has declared former President Alfonso Portillo’s promise to pay $650 to each member of the ex-PAC unconstitutional, thus setting the stage for the conflict.
  • The government must now face the consequences of the problem it created when it militarized Guatemalan society – particularly the Mayans of the Altiplano – during the nation’s decade long murderous reign by the military and its allies.

Mario López Tahuite, spokesman for the ex-paramilitary group Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil (PAC), issued a statement on Wednesday, June 23, demanding that the group be paid the promised compensation for the brutal murders that they committed on behalf of the Guatemalan military during the nation’s 36-year-civil war. The ex-paramilitaries threatened to seize control of the Constitutional Court building and disrupt transportation routes across the country if their demands are not met by June 28, saying, “we are waiting for the government to announce the payment: if it does not, we will take action.” The group has already shown on a number of occasions its ability to severely disrupt Guatemalan society and if they follow through with their threats, they will most likely be ready to once again strike a vicious blow against civic order.

Constitutional Court Declares Payment Unconstitutional
The ultimatum comes in response to a June 21 ruling by the Guatemalan Constitutional Court, which stated that the promise of financial aid offered by former President Alfonso Portillo to the ex-paramilitary group was unconstitutional. The Court argued that only the legislature, not the president, has the authority to approve this kind of settlement. The ruling was a courageous act of defiance on the part of the Constitutional Court, declaring to the world that paramilitaries are no longer above the law in Guatemala. The Court’s groundbreaking action could become the first step in a new direction for a country that traditionally has been consumed by violence and where the justice system has been the target of scathing international criticism.

Negotiation through Violence
The threats issued by the ex-paramilitaries are merely the latest installment in a long-running saga of violent exchanges with the pariah group. On October 26, 2003, armed ex-paramilitary fighters seized four journalists and threatened to burn them alive. Fredy Lopez and Alberto Ramierez, reporters from the Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre, photographers Emerson Diaz and Mario Linares and three other people were held as a bargaining tool by 500 angry ex-paramilitary members. The paras proceeded to seize control of a small Guatemalan town, blocking the highway and holding off police and army troops.

On October 27, then-Vice President Francisco Reyes issued a televised statement declaring that the government was “not in a position to negotiate… this kind of pressure tactic is not the way to resolve these problems.” Reyes asked Guatemalans to pray for the hostages’ release. However, the government was not able to maintain its defiant stance for long and eventually submitted to the demands of the ex-paramilitaries. The hostages were released when the government agreed to release the $650 bonus promised to each man who had served in the PAC.

A History of Brutality
The Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil were formed in late 1981, during arguably the bloodiest period of an extremely bloody civil war, in which 200,000 people tragically lost their lives. When the Guatemalan government began to fear that the civilian population would provide a fertile recruiting ground for the insurgency, it organized a system of civil patrols, which became an integral part of the government’s counter-insurgency strategy. This strategy militarized the poor, mostly indigenous population, mainly in the highlands and other agricultural regions, and provided the government with an auxiliary force for the army and a death squad to use against its civil opposition. Although the paramilitary groups were initially formed in 1981 under General Romeo Lucas Garcia, it was not until April 1, 1982 that they were legally established by former U.S. confidante and brutal dictator General Rios Montt. This militarization of the core fabric of society, and the heinous atrocities they routinely committed, has left a highly disturbed group of marginalized ex-fighters who have been accused of committing numerous brutal acts of violence, both in the course of the civil war and since its end. A UN investigation conducted after the signing of the peace accords concluded that the army and its proxies carried out 93 per cent of the atrocities committed during the civil war.

Futile Search for a Solution
In order to effect a long-term solution to the problem, the Guatemalan government must attempt to rehabilitate these troubled and often abused men, not just pay them off. In most instances, they did not freely volunteer to join the force, but were cajoled into signing up with the PAC or face dire consequences. However, none of Guatemala’s recent governments have shared this point of view throughout the long-running battle over compensation. The authorities’ handling of the claim has been at best irresponsible and at worst highly provocative. Every time they yielded to the ex-paramilitaries’ demands, the government not only reinforced the belief that disruptive and violent actions were acceptable tools in the negotiation process, but also that these men who had committed the most despicable acts of violence should be compensated for them. Frank La Rue, the recently appointed head of the presidential office, has joined with a number of human rights organizations in arguing that the ex-paramilitaries should not receive any money due to the horrendous human rights violations attributed to them during the conflict.

An attempt to resolve the controversy in July 2002 produced a compensation package in which the government would pay each of the 520,000 members of the former paramilitary group $650 in three installments. By agreeing to the scheme, former President Portillo committed his country to paying over 300 million dollars in claims; meanwhile, the former president himself has decamped to Mexico amid allegations of financial irregularities and a Panamanian bank account.

Portillo’s plan encountered fierce criticism from opponents who claimed that the government was simply rewarding criminals, rather than attempting to bring them to justice. Further criticism arose when the initial payments were made; a number of former paramilitaries claimed that they had been left off of the list of those eligible to receive the payments.

President Berger: Economics before morals?
During his 2003 election campaign, President Óscar Berger promised to fulfill his predecessor’s pledge and complete the payments. Issuing a statement on June 23, he said ‘it is an obligation of the state and we should honor it in some way.’ Berger, the conservative former Mayor of Guatemala City, has publicly expressed his personal preference for providing agricultural assistance to the ex-PAC rather than financial compensation. Since coming to office, he has put a great deal of energy into coping with the country’s current fiscal deficit of $875 million, which he perceives as unsustainable. Despite a public outcry, he has even courted Rios Montt and his Guatemalan Republican Front party, a man and a party he denounced during the 2004 election as corrupt an authoritarian.

Berger’s handling of this situation has focused more on solving the country’s financial problems then on healing the wounds inflicted during Guatemala’s brutal civil war. If the legislature does not authorize payment of the compensation, the ex-paramilitaries will essentially hold the country to ransom. Yet acceding to these demands will not address the underlying problem of a deeply stained society whose social fabric is in desperate need of repair.