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September-October 2011

Vol. 35, No. 5

Guatemala: Step backward for human rights?

Update: Washington Post, September 13: "Retired army general Otto Perez, a former chief of military intelligence, led Guatemala’s presidential field in Sunday’s election but could not garner the 50 percent of the vote needed to avoid a November runoff.

"With 98 percent of the paper ballots counted by Monday, Perez took 36 percent of the vote, less than the most recent polls had predicted. He will probably face Manuel Baldizon, a well-to-do businessman who campaigned under a populist banner promising more help for the poor. Baldizon had 23 percent of the vote. ..."

As the Guatemalan judicial system attempts to push through high-profile Guatemalans vote Sept 2011 human rights cases for the first time since the country's civil war, thousands of Guatemalans take to the polls on September 11 to vote for a presidential candidate implicated in the abuses of the country's past. Leading the polls throughout the campaign, Gen. Otto Perez Molina has claimed his stake in politics after a career as a high-ranking military commander during the violent regime of Rios Montt. The following article was written by Sarah Brady, an intern with the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns.

Recent polling shows Perez Molina from the Partido Patriota (Patriot Party) with 53 percent of the potential vote, a figure that would allow him to win the elections in the firstround where a candidate must receive more than 50 percent of the vote to win.

Perez Molina is known to have been in a command position in the Ixil triangle in 1982 during the village-by-village massacre campaign, and also served as the head of the D-2 military intelligence division that carried out disappearances and extrajudicial executions. During his tenure, it is likely that Perez Molina gave the orders to disappear and torture Mayan activist Efrain Bamaca Velazquez. Investigations by the UN-sponsored Truth Commission have unearthed declassified U.S. documents confirming the torture of Bamaca during Perez Molina's leadership of D-2. Efforts to prosecute those responsible for Bamaca's torture and death have proceeded through several international courts and are awaiting trial in Guatemala. Since the end of the civil war, Perez Molina has escaped judgment through the use of false names, intimidation and the destruction of records. Given the efforts of Perez Molina and others of the military elite to obstruct justice, his possible election will likely be a step backwards for the war crime trials going forth at this time.

In 2009 a special program for the prosecution of key war crimes cases was created, under which several cases have begun to take shape. Currently the most high-profile case will be that of recently-arrested Gen. Hector Lopez Fuentes, whose trial is scheduled to begin on September 21. His was the first arrest of an intellectual author of the genocide during the civil war, and it will be important to raise media awareness and support for this trial. Other cases underway include the trial in a Spanish court against former dictator Rios Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity, the Bamaca case (a trial that has been stalled in Guatemalan courts), as well as a case involving the disappearance of labor activist Fernando Garcia during the civil war.

These trials have been progressing under the guidance of recently appointed District Attorney Claudia Paz y Paz. Unfortunately, the possible election of Perez Molina will pressure the judicial system to place the human rights abuse cases back on the shelf in order to protect the impunity enjoyed by the country's elite. In addition, the lack of U.S. reaction to human rights abuses in Honduras following the 2009 coup might allow Perez Molina to believe he can get away with obstructing this important peace process. So far no efforts have been successful in bringing charges against Perez Molina himself, and those pushing for the cases to go through are avoiding the association of the trials with any part of the electoral process.

Perez Molina has gained political support by promoting a policy of mano dura (iron fist). As a country witnessing heightened violence and the ever-greater presence of drug traffickers, there is an appeal to the old guard military politics, which calls for a response to violence with oppression. This political perspective pushes electoral attention away from the hard realities of unemployment, corruption and poverty. The irony is that Guatemala's dominant organized criminal group, the CIACS, is made up of former military intelligence and death squad officers. As Mexican organized crime pushes its influence further south, Guatemala's criminal groups have found a greater motivation to secure their territory through political corruption, financially backing politicians willing to turn a blind eye. More and more politicians have become indebted to narcotraffickers in order to fund the excessively expensive campaigns.

The Peace Accords of 1996 ended the armed conflict but did not bring peace to Guatemala. Given that the unpunished perpetrators of these abuses make up the current political and economic elite, the growing structures of crime and violence that have begun to infiltrate the political sphere will continue to threaten the future of Guatemala. The possible election of Perez Molina is emblematic of this cycle of impunity and violence.

Photo of Guatemalans waiting to vote on September 11 posted on

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