Friday, September 18, 2009

Genocide in Guatemala News, 2001 to 2004 pt1

Reuters 26 Feb 2004
President apologises for wartime deaths February 26 2004 at 06:00AM Guatemala City - Guatemala's new president asked forgiveness on Wednesday for the state's role in the country's long civil war, but stopped short of calling the widespread wartime killings of Mayan Indians genocide. Oscar Berger, who took office last month, said he was asking forgiveness from "every one of the victims' relatives for the suffering that came from that fratricidal conflict." About 200 000 people were killed in Guatemala's 36-year civil war, which pitted Marxist guerrillas against a series of right-wing governments and ended with peace accords in 1996. Most of the victims were Mayan Indian peasants, many killed in massacres during army or paramilitary sweeps through rural areas.Berger, a conservative businessman, pledged $9-million to compensate civilians who lost relatives and property in the conflict. He said the amount was "important but insufficient" and promised more funds when state finances were more stable. Berger made his comments at a ceremony in the national palace on the fifth anniversary of a UN-backed "truth commission" report that concluded the army targeted Maya Indians in "scorched-earth" tactics to isolate rebel groups. Hundreds of civil war survivors demonstrated in the streets outside the palace on Wednesday to demand the government accept the truth commission's conclusion the civilian deaths amounted to genocide. "It is impossible to relaunch the peace agreements without taking into account the truth commission recommendations, including justice for genocide," said Christina Laur, deputy director of the rights group Caldh. The Caldh group is leading efforts to build criminal cases against senior military officers, including former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, for crimes against humanity. The new government's head of security and defence, Otto Perez Molina, himself a retired general, denied genocide had taken place in Guatemala. "There was no genocide because there was no attempt to exterminate a race. This was a battleground for the United States and Russia, and communism against capitalism. We provided the dead and they provided the ideology," he said. []

BBC 9 Jan 2001 Guatemalan defence minister replaced The Guatemalan president, Alfonso Portillo, has dismissed the controversial defence minister, Juan de Dios Estrada, whose appointment led to widespread discontent within the armed forces. The new minister is General Eduardo Arevalo Lacs, who's been linked by human rights groups to a number of massacres during Guatemala's civil war, when he led counter-insurgency operations. General Arevalo will take office on Monday. Correspondents say the appointment is a further signal that Mr Portillo has lost ground to Guatemala's powerful military, a year after taking office with a promise to strengthen civilian control over affairs of state.

BBC 30 Apr 2001, A Guatemalan human rights group says it believes it has found bones belonging to sixty four victims of a massacre dating back to May 1982. The organisation, the Mutual Support Group, said on Sunday that remains had been found in nineteen communal graves near the village of San Antonio Sinache north of the capital, Guatemala City. The group said the victims are believed to have been murdered by the army together with local villagers who had been formed into so-called "civil self-defence patrols". It said that they appeared to have been tortured, attacked with both machetes and gun fire and in some cases raped before being killed and then burnt.

Boston Globe 13 May 2001, By Christine MacDonald, Globe Correspondent, Five years after a peace accord ended more than three decades of civil war, Guatemala is finding it difficult to shed its legacy of violence. In the 17 months since the hard-line Guatemalan Republican Front took power, assassinations, death threats, and attacks have escalated against opposition politicians, indigenous and campesino activists, human rights workers, and members of the country's judiciary, say human rights advocates. Last weekend was particularly violent. Saturday afternoon, an American nun was shot dead as she drove down a street in the capital. One day earlier, two armed men kidnapped a Guatemalan activist and threatened her before dropping her off in outskirts of the city several hours later. Observers say the situation has deteriorated as court cases over the 1998 killing of Roman Catholic Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi and other attacks make their way through the judicial system. The cases have thrown an unwelcome spotlight on a number of former military officers, many of whom continue to wield power in the Central American country. Since last year, a half-dozen attacks have targeted members of the legal team that built a case against three men with military backgrounds and two church workers who were charged in the Catholic prelate's murder. Witnesses and judges have also been attacked, including a judge hearing the Gerardi case. About a week before the trial started in March, her home was damaged by live grenades thrown into her backyard as police officers guarded the front door, according to a report she filed with the Association of Judges and Magistrates. Yolanda Perez Ruiz, the association president, said eight judges have been killed since last fall. ''This is an intolerable attack on the independence of the judiciary,'' Perez said. ''It is a strategy to tie the hands of judges. What worries me the most is that the government hasn't concerned itself to make a clear statement. Not once has it expressed its repudiation of the violence.'' Gerardi presided over a commission investigating massacres of civilians and other war crimes. He was killed in April 1998, three days after releasing a report that blamed the Guatemalan government for 93 percent of the wartime human rights violations. Oscar Chavarria, a lawyer with the Myra Mack Foundation, said his group is seeing ''a reactivation of human rights violations by the state'' since President Alfonso Portillo took power in January 2000. ''We are returning to the past when the heads of state considered us their enemies,'' said Chavarria. The foundation and several groups have published scathing human rights reports in recent months that have attracted the attention of a UN Human Rights ombudsman. He arrived last week for three days of meetings with activists and government officials but has yet to issue recommendations. The government has played down the problem. Ricardo Gatica Trejo, spokesman for Interior Minister Byron Barrientos, a former military intelligence officer, said organized crime is a bigger problem facing law enforcement. ''The violation of human rights in Guatemala is not a serious problem. There are isolated cases carried out by individuals. Nevertheless, the government is making a constant effort to monitor the situation,'' said Gatica. Since the peace accord, the government has downsized the army and made some legal reforms stipulated in the agreement. But it has postponed programs to improve police training and hire more civilian police officers. According to a report released May 3 by the United Nations' Verification Mission, the human rights monitoring body in Guatemala, much remains to be done to reform the national police force. The mission concluded that since the start of 2000, police have become the ''principle responsible parties for the gravest human rights violations.'' Portillo came to power with a mandate to be tough on crime. But less than halfway through a four-year term, he is being widely criticized for being ineffectual in fighting corruption and crime that provide cover for political violence. In Guatemala, as with nearby Nicaragua and El Salvador, the end of civil war has given way to a wave of violent crime by organized bands and street gangs. ''In the war years, one would know where an attack came from. It was either one or the other,'' said Perez, referring to the military and leftist guerrilla forces. ''Today, it is difficult to identify'' attackers. Such is the case of Sister Barbara Ford, a Roman Catholic nun originally from New York who was gunned down May 5 when she left a small town in the Quiche region to buy a water heater. Investigators say it is not clear if she was killed in an attempt to steal her pickup truck, which the killers abandoned two blocks away, or for her work with war victims in a region devastated by the war. Her colleagues say it was a political killing. A memorial service last week in Guatemala City drew hundreds of human rights workers and friends and declarations of outrage from 1992 Nobel Prize recipient Rigoberta Menchu. Exacerbating Portillo's political troubles, observers say, is a power struggle within his Guatemalan Republican Front. Portillo has seen his political stock fall dramatically in opinion polls. A chief rival is retired General Efrain Rios Montt, who ruled the country in the early 1980s during the worst period of arbitrary executions, forced disappearances, and torture, according to the Gerardi report. He is the Front's founder and today serves as president of the country's legislature. ''Nobody knows who has the power,'' said Jorge Lavarreda, an analyst with the National Center for Economic Research, an independent think tank. This story ran on page A19 of the Boston Globe on 5/13/2001.

AP 24 May 2001 By RICARDO MIRANDA, SAN MARTIN JILOTEPEQUE, Guatemala (AP) - Maria Julia Elias quietly stared at the bones and wondered if this was the end of her 19-year search for her husband, who was taken by soldiers during Guatemala's civil war. The 46-year-old Mayan woman watched along with several others Wednesday as anthropologists concluded a two-month excavation of 21 mass graves, where they recovered the remains of 66 bodies. Elias lost hope long ago of finding Salomon Nutzus alive. She hopes that by finding his remains, she can close a painful chapter in her life. ``I just want to give him a Christian burial,'' said Elias, who plans to travel to Guatemala City to help forensic experts identify the remains. Anthropologists said the victims were killed as part of the army's effort to keep rebel forces from invading the country's capital. ``They arrived to our town in the night and took everyone,'' Elias said. ``I escaped with my seven children, but Salomon was captured.'' The United Nations has described Guatemala's 36-year war between leftist guerrillas and hardline state forces as a genocide against the country's Mayan population. An estimated 200,000 people were killed before peace accords were signed in 1996. Soldiers swept through towns, massacring people to curb support of the largely Indian guerrilla fighters, said Fredy Peccerelli, president of the Forensic Anthropologic Foundation of Guatemala. San Martin Jilotepeque, about 50 miles outside Guatemala City, saw heavy combat. ``The army feared the uniting of a weak urban guerrilla force with fighters from the countryside, that is why San Martin Jilotepeque was so important,'' said Peccerelli, whose group co-sponsored the excavation. The Coordination of Widows and Orphans of Guatemala, which also sponsored the excavations, followed tips from family members and poked through dirt to find the graves. The group is preparing a lawsuit against the army and local commanders who ordered the killings. No one has been charged. The forensic foundation has recovered the remains of 238 bodies from six excavations since January. In 1994, foundation scientists uncovered 111 bodies buried after a 1982 massacre in the highlands city of Rabinal, where 172 people were killed. A year later, 85 bodies were uncovered in a mass grave from another 1982 massacre, in northern Baja Verapaz, where 268 people were killed.

Tico Times (Costa Rica) 1 June 2001 Massacred Guatemalan Village Seeks Justice By David Boddiger Special to The Tico Times CUARTO PUEBLO – Mario Cruz, about to be married, stood sweating before 400 people in a tiny church in this community, located in the sweltering jungle 350 kilometers north of Guatemala City. This was no ordinary wedding. Cruz, 26, and his young bride were wed on the 19th anniversary of the largest massacre in Guatemalan history. On March 14, 1982, the army entered Cuarto Pueblo and for four days tortured, raped, shot and burned 362 civilians. The counterinsurgency operation was part of a new "scorched earth" policy to eradicate guerrillas operating in the area by eliminating their support base, mainly civilians. ... Residents are attempting to rebuild the cooperative system established in the 1960s and 1970s by Maryknoll missionaries. The land given Cuarto Pueblo residents, mainly indigenous Mayas, was purchased by Father Guillermo Woods, who was killed along with four other U.S. citizens in a 1976 plane crash. Witnesses say Woods’ small plane was shot down by the army. Although the Peace Accords call for land distribution to peasants, Cruz said the government has shown little interest in implementing them. "The accords have lost momentum," he explained. "In previous years they were the most important national issue – today they have been forgotten and the army is still in our community." Each year more than 400 people make the difficult journey to Cuarto Pueblo from all corners of Guatemala to commemorate the massacre’s anniversary. This year survivors are particularly anxious, as many have already testified in a case being built against the former military high command on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. The case was filed by the Center for Human Rights Legal Action in May 2000, against former military president, Gen. Romeo Lucas García, currently in exile in Venezuela; his brother, former General Chief of Staff Benedicto Lucas García; and former Defense Minster René Mendoza Paloma. The three men are accused of 916 civilian deaths between October 1981 and March 1982, when Lucas García was ousted by a military coup. The center began collecting victims’ testimony four years ago, and its legal advisor to the case, Carlos Loarca, said that although 19 years have passed, many victims are still too scared to talk. "They’re too scared to testify because the counterinsurgency model still exists in their communities. Former members of the Civil Patrol Units (vigilante groups armed by the military) continue to threaten witnesses." If brought to trial, the case will become the first attempt to try former Guatemalan military leaders on charges of genocide in Guatemalan courts. However, according to Loarca, the case is proceeding slowly. "I expect this case to drag out five years," he said. Guatemala’s second genocide case is slated to open next week, when the center files charges against retired general and current Congressional President Efraín Ríos Montt for alleged crimes committed while he was head of a military coup regime from March 1982 to August 1983. In 1999, a similar case was filed in Spain by indigenous leader and Nobel Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú. Last year, Judge Guillermo Ruíz said the case should first be tried in Guatemala. The center’s cases will determine the outcome of the Spanish case. "We are basing our case on the experience of war crimes tribunals in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, as well as trials against former Argentine military leaders, and of course, the Pinochet case in Chile," Loarca said. Meanwhile, in Cuarto Pueblo, painful memories are still fresh and returned refugees like Cruz are finding it hard to adjust. "Life here is harder than it was in Mexico,’’ he said. "But we have to struggle to keep the land that was owned by those who were killed. We have to continue with the case against Lucas García, so the past will not be repeated."

Los Angeles Times 6 June 2001 By T. CHRISTIAN MILLER Eleven communities nearly wiped out two decades ago today will file the first lawsuit in Central America accusing a sitting political figure of genocide. The lawsuit, by ethnic Maya in Guatemala's northern and central mountains, charges that the current head of Congress, Efrain Rios Montt, presided over a brutal policy of racial extermination as the nation's dictator in the early 1980s. The suit is the first step that community members hope will bring justice to those who orchestrated the deaths of more than 200,000 people, most of them Maya, during this country's 36-year civil war. It also marks a historic turning point in the effort to close old wounds in a country struggling to come to terms with a legacy of repression and brutality unmatched in Central America during the 1980s. For the first time, massacre survivors intend to publicly step forward en masse to identify those responsible for the killings. "It is good to know what happened, to clear up the past," said Juan Manuel Jeronimo, 56, who survived a massacre of 267 people in 1982 in this remote hamlet in the Guatemalan highlands. "That is why we lived: to testify and tell the truth." Rios Montt turned down a request for an interview with the Los Angeles Times, and his representatives did not return phone calls Tuesday. But military officials have denied accusations of massacres, frequently insisting that those killed were leftist guerrillas who died in battle. Many in the military discount the charge of genocide by rightly pointing out that the Maya fought both for guerrillas and for the army and paramilitary self-defense groups. The Guatemalan justice system allows civil parties such as the 11 communities to file a suit to force a criminal investigation. They become a party to any eventual prosecution of the accused. If convicted, Rios Montt could face up to 30 years in prison. Few political analysts, however, believe the suit will bring down Rios Montt, who controls not only the Guatemalan Congress but also the political party of current President Alfonso Portilla. The Guatemalan justice system is famously corrupt, often unable to resolve even the simplest crimes.

BBC 8 June 2001 A Guatemalan court has sentenced three army officers and a priest to between 20 and 30 years in prison for the murder of Roman Catholic Bishop Juan Gerardi in 1998. Among those sentenced was a former military intelligence chief, Colonel Disrael Lima Estrada, who prosecutors accused of masterminding the killing. They said Bishop Gerardi, head of the church's human rights office, was bludgeoned to death to keep him from testifying in possible trials over atrocities committed during Guatemala's 36-year civil war. The trial has been seen as a test of Guatemala's justice system by human rights activists, who believe the murder was carried out on the highest orders. Damaging report Catholic church lawyers believe former President Alvaro Arzu was involved in planning the killing, and requested the judges to order an investigation. Gerardi released a damaging report into wartime atrocities Mr Arzu used parliamentary immunity to avoid testifying. Gerardi was killed two days after releasing a report which blamed the military for 95% of the atrocities committed during the civil war which ended in 1996. Some 150,000 people are believed to have been killed in the conflict, and more than 50,000 disappeared, but so far most of the crimes have gone unpunished. Key testimony Colonel Lima was sentenced along with his son, Captain Byron Lima Oliva and Jose Obdulio Villanueva, both members of the presidential guard. All three were sentenced to 30 years in jail. Gerardi's assistant, Reverend Mario Orantes, found guilty of acting as an accomplice, was given a 20-year prison term. The bishop's cook, Margarita Lopez, was found innocent of the same charges. The court said it based its ruling largely on the testimony of the key prosecution witness, Ruben Chanax, a homeless man who claimed he had been hired by the army officers. Mr Chanax said he had been told to spy on Bishop Gerardi, and to alter the scene of the crime before the police arrived. He told the court he had been warned that someone would die. Death threats Human rights groups and church organisations held a vigil outside the court as the verdict was read amid tight security. Two investigating judges, three key witnesses and at least one prosecutor fled Guatemala in fear of their lives. Flor de Maria Garcia, the final investigating magistrate, said she had received death threats at every step of the process. On the eve of the trial, which began in March, a bomb exploded outside the house of one of the three judges hearing the case.

BBC 14 June 2001, Two former presidents of Guatemala are to face investigation on charges of genocide following a landmark judicial ruling. Romeo Lucas Garcia and Efrain Rios Montt - who ruled the country during its bloody 36-year civil war - are accused of ordering massacres of Mayan Indians between 1978 and 1983. Prosecutors will conduct a careful investigation that I will personally oversee Judge Marco Antonio Posada Human rights groups say the decision - the first time a Guatemalan court has agreed to investigate the allegations - reflects a welcome change of attitude among the country's judiciary. Although there is no guarantee either man will be formally charged, campaigners see the move as a major victory in their fight to bring the perpetrators of the killings to justice. Genocide policy The court passed separate rulings on Mr Lucas Garcia, who won a rigged election in 1978, and his successor Mr Rios Montt, who seized power in a coup four years later. Rios Montt: "Nothing to hide" Both men have been accused of conducting a policy of genocide against the Mayans, who were believed to be supporting left-wing rebels. Two years ago, a United Nations truth commission report found that Mr Rios Montt in particular oversaw a scorched earth policy, reducing hundreds of Indian villages to ashes. About 200,000 Guatemalans died in the civil war, in which the left-wing guerrillas fought state forces. Fighting ended following in peace accords in December 1996 'Nothing to hide' Mr Rios Montt is currently serving as the leader of Guatemala's Congress and as such he enjoys immunity from prosecution. A party spokesman said he would not comment on the ruling, but in the past he has insisted that he has nothing to hide. Mr Lucas Garcia, who lives in Venezuela, is reportedly suffering from Alzheimer's disease and has not made any public statement for several years.

Miami Herald 18 July 2001 GUATEMALA CITY -- A mob killed eight people in a remote town in northern Guatemala after accusing the victims of local highway robberies, police said Tuesday. The killings took place Sunday in Secoyala, 250 miles north of the capital, Guatemala City, said police spokesman Faustino Sánchez. Local residents first captured a 17-year-old boy, interrogating him and beating him until he named other suspects. The residents then searched for the others and captured eight people, torturing them and burning them alive, Rivera said. When the police arrived, they discovered the bodies.

Reuters 7 Dec 2001 Guatemala Move Defended By REUTERS GUATEMALA CITY, Dec. 6 (Reuters) — President Alfonso Portillo today defended his decision to put a former general in charge of national security. Rights groups fear the move could lead to greater militarization. Mr. Portillo removed Interior Minister Byron Barrientos last week after he became embroiled in accusations of corruption, replacing him with a former defense minister, Eduardo Arevalo Lacs. Rights groups say naming someone with close ties to the military violates the 1996 accords that ended a 36-year civil war between the government and leftist guerrillas. They also hold Arevalo Lacs partly responsible for the 1982 massacre of as many as 300 Maya Indians, although the allegations have not been proved.

Reuters 11 Dec 2001 Kin get apology, cash after massacre By Greg Brosnan, GUATEMALA CITY - President Alfonso Portillo paid Guatemala's first ever compensation to survivors of an army massacre, publicly apologizing yesterday for ''shameful acts'' committed by security forces in a war against leftist rebels. In a symbolic ceremony, Portillo handed a check for $1.8 million to the families of 226 men, women, and children killed by soldiers and paramilitaries in the village of Las Dos Erres in 1982 at the height of Guatemala's 36-year civil war. The massacre, in which rights groups say more than 300 people were killed, was one of hundreds during the conflict between leftist guerrillas and a string of right-wing governments, which ended with peace talks in 1996. Portillo called the payout ''the beginning of a new step forward for human rights in Guatemala,'' and said it would pave the way for future payments relating to other massacres. ''Today it's down to me to humbly ask all the victims of Las Dos Erres for forgiveness,'' he said in a somber speech. ''I know that life has no price,'' he said. ''But this is a historical message that the state recognizes its responsibility for these acts that so shame us.'' Thelma Aldama, a 36-year-old woman from Las Dos Erres who fled to Guatemala City after her father was killed in the massacre, said that she would use her share of the cash to buy some land, but that no amount of money would make up for her loss. ''The wounds are too deep,'' she said, on the verge of tears. Portillo's close links to former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, who governed the country at the time of the Las Dos Erres massacre and who now presides over Congress, have led critics to question his human rights credentials. But soon after taking power in January 2000, he acknowledged that security forces were to blame for the events of December 1982 in Las Dos Erres, thus becoming the first Guatemalan president to admit the government's responsibility for a massacre. Yesterday's ceremony was marred by rights groups' claims that a former general, recently appointed to the senior Cabinet post of interior minister, may be linked to the 1982 bloodbath. In accusations that have never been proved, critics say former general Eduardo Arevalo Lacs trained soldiers who led the killing. They have asked for his role in the massacre and those of other military men similarly accused to be fully investigated.


Reuters 20 Apr 2002 GUATEMALA Guatemalan human rights worker shot dead REUTERS in Guatemala City Gunmen on Monday shot and killed a member of a Guatemalan human rights organisation founded by Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchu, sparking alarm at a time of mounting death threats against activists in the Central American nation. Witnesses said Guillermo Ovalle, 28, an administrative worker for the Menchu organisation, was shot with an automatic rifle by unidentified gunmen while he was ordering a takeout lunch in a Guatemala City restaurant. At least one bystander was struck by bullets in the attack, witnesses said. Officials with the rights organisation said it was not immediately clear if Ovalle was targeted or if he was killed in a robbery attempt at the restaurant. Police indicated they were treating it as a robbery. ''This looks like a robbery but at the same time we got four calls to the office playing terror music down the phone,'' the group's executive director Eduardo de Leon said. He described the music played over the phone as sounding like a soundtrack from a horror film. The group, founded by 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner and Maya Indian activist Menchu, is campaigning to have former Guatemalan civil-war era dictators tried for genocide. Monday's incident comes as Guatemalan human rights activists investigating abuses during a 1960-96 civil war have said they and their families have been threatened at gunpoint and have received menacing phone calls and letters.

WP 28 Jul 2002 Intimidation in Guatemala Papal Visit Comes as Catholics Raise Fears of New Violence By Kevin Sullivan Washington Post Foreign Service Sunday, July 28, 2002; Page A22 ANTIGUA, Guatemala, July 27 -- Pope John Paul II is scheduled to arrive in Guatemala on Monday as human rights activists, particularly those associated with the Catholic Church, face increasing death threats and other forms of intimidation aimed at preventing exposure of atrocities committed during the country's 36-year civil war. The church here has played a central role in investigating massacres and other crimes committed during the war, which ended with peace accords in 1996. The fighting, the bloodiest of Central America's civil wars in recent decades, resulted in more than 200,000 deaths and disappearances, most at the hands of the military or paramilitary groups working for the government. The war is no longer raging, as it was when the pope first visited in 1983. But the campaign of violence against the church and rights activists has revived fears that the political and military leaders who ordered or committed the wartime violence -- some of whom are still in power -- will drive the country back to levels of brutality not seen in years. In recent weeks a Catholic bishop, at least six priests and officials in the church's human rights office have received death threats. A Catholic church used to store equipment and records for anthropologists exhuming massacre victims was burned to the ground in February. Other church offices have been broken into. Nery Rodenas, executive director of the Archbishop's Human Rights Office, said he and others in his office have received death threats in faxes to their office and telephone calls to their homes. "It's had a very high cost for us," he said. "The pope's visit is important for us because it's an opportunity to show the world what is happening in Guatemala." A leading Catholic bishop, Juan Gerardi Conedera, was bludgeoned to death in 1998, as a report from an investigation he headed was being released. It blamed the Guatemalan military or its paramilitary forces for more than 90 percent of the country's war crimes. Although the government initially insisted that Gerardi's wounds were inflicted by a dog, three military officers were convicted in the case last year and sentenced to 30 years in prison. A priest was sentenced to 20 years as an accessory to the killing. Last week shots were fired at the courthouses where the officers were convicted and where their appeals are being heard. Frank LaRue, of Guatemala's Center for Human Rights Legal Action, said he believes that the shootings were "linked directly to the pope's visit," because in the government's view, "the visit of the pope is a threat." "Bishop Gerardi and the Catholic Church are symbols of the human rights movement here, and the pope has spoken out against poverty and he has challenged the structures of power here," LaRue said. "This is clearly an act of provocation to the Catholic Church." The government dismisses the violence and death threats as the work of common criminals. "Many of these acts are blown out of proportion and are aimed at discrediting the state, especially in light of the pope's visit," said Byron Barrera, spokesman for Guatemala's president, Alfonso Portillo. The 82-year-old pontiff, on his third visit to Guatemala, officially is coming to canonize Guatemala's first saint, Pedro de San Jose Betancourt, a 17th-century Franciscan friar known as the "St. Francis of the Americas" for establishing a hospital and ministering to poor Mayan Indians. In Guatemala City and here in Antigua, a colonial city just west of the capital, posters of "Hermano Pedro," or Brother Pedro, are pasted everywhere and many cars fly small flags bearing his image. As he has in the past, the pope is also expected to call for improved social justice in a country where the majority of wealth is held by a handful of families and business leaders. The U.N. Development Program says at least 83 percent of the country's 11.5 million people live in poverty. The pope's visit is also seen as another attempt to stem the church's losses to the fast-growing ranks of evangelical Protestant groups, which, according to many estimates, now account for 30 to 35 percent of a population that was once nearly exclusively Catholic. But, more than anything, the pope will bring his message of peace to a country with a violent past that seems to be haunting its present. "Guatemala is continuing down the path of lawlessness and terror," Amnesty International said in a recent report. Last Sunday, the offices of a Guatemala City human rights organization that had been investigating the military's involvement in war crimes was ransacked; six computers were stolen, along with files on the military investigation. In April, an accountant working in the organization of Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, who is pursuing genocide cases against former and current national leaders, was shot dead. Shortly before he was killed, his office received four calls in which anonymous callers played taped funeral music. Human rights workers and journalists received faxes last month threatening the lives of 11 human rights activists labeled "enemies of the state." Four forensic anthropologists examining skeletons and other evidence of atrocities were forced to leave the country in May because of death threats to them and their families. Several lawyers and judges have also been killed under suspicious circumstances. In June, members of the Civil Defense Patrols, which worked with the military during the war and are accused of countless crimes, took over much of Peten province, blocking access to the famous Mayan ruins at Tikal and stranding 62 tourists. The paramilitary forces were demanding back pay for their bloody service to the government during the war. Facing threats of further violence, the government has agreed to explore a new tax to pay them. "Genocide will not return, nor torture nor disappearances, but the situation is grave," Menchu said recently. "True peace has become a myth." The Catholic Church has had an uncomfortable relationship with Guatemala's political leaders since civil war broke out in 1960. Catholic bishops and priests were leading voices against the growing abuses of the military junta, and simply being a Catholic was dangerous during the war. At the same time, the evangelical Protestant movement was growing rapidly. It was personified by Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, who seized power in a March 1982 military coup, then ruled with a mixture of bloody ruthlessness and Scripture quotations. Many of the war's most brutal killings took place during his 18-month tenure. At 76, he still serves as president of Congress and leader of Portillo's Guatemalan Republican Front party. Rios Montt was antagonistic to John Paul II on the pope's 1983 visit. Three days before his arrival, Rios Montt ordered the execution of six suspected leftist rebels despite pleas from the Vatican to spare them. The pope said he felt insulted by the executions, which he called a "very grave offense against God." The pope has spoken out repeatedly against the efforts of evangelical Protestants to convert Catholics. Evangelicals in Guatemala responded by scrawling "The Beast" across promotional posters for the pope's 1983 visit. During his second trip, in 1996, Protestant leaders roamed the countryside with bullhorns calling him "the Antichrist." Some evangelical leaders say they welcome the pope's visit. But others grumble that the government should not have spent nearly $1 million in preparations for a visit by the leader of a single religion. Some said the church, and the pope, have brought the recent violence on themselves. "The truth is that the Catholic people are very political, and it is lamentable that in the name of God they use religion to manipulate people," said David Munguia, a leader of the Evangelical Alliance of Guatemala. "The pope isn't necessarily the Antichrist, but the general feeling is that he is a candidate."

AP 9 Sept 2002 Remains of 47 found in Guatemala Sergio de Leon, GUATEMALA CITY - Anthropologists digging under a school in Guatemala's northern highlands have unearthed the remains of 47 people killed during the country's 36-year civil war, local media reported Sunday. Human rights activists came to Rabinal, 120 miles north of Guatemala City, after years of testimony from residents who said the bodies of men, woman and children were secretly buried under schools, government buildings and a soccer stadium. In five days of searching, scientists digging up patios and a playground area around Rabinal's grammar school found 12 cemeteries containing skeletons and bones believed to have belonged to 47 people, Juan Carlos Gatica of the Forensic Anthropologic Foundation of Guatemala told the Prensa Libre newspaper. Gatica, who could not be reached for comment, told the newspaper that forensic scientists plan to continue searching under and around the school and other Rabinal buildings for at least the rest of the month. The United Nations has described Guatemala's 1960-1996 war between leftist guerrillas and hardline state forces as a genocide against the country's Mayan population. An estimated 200,000 people were killed before peace accords finally ended the bloodshed. Human rights groups say Rabinal, and other mostly Kekchie and Quiche Mayan communities in mountainous Baja Verapaz province, were the sites of some of the army's most brutal campaigns. The army has denied charges it carried out massacres in the region. This week's excavation marks the largest unearthing of civil war victims since May, when scientists working in San Martin Jilotepeque found the remains of 66 bodies.

Observer UK 22 Sept 2002 Brave sister scents victory in death plot trial Duncan Campbell Twelve years ago, an internationally known anthropologist who trained in England was stabbed to death in a Guatemala City street. Now three senior members of the military alleged to have ordered her killing are finally on trial in what is being greeted by human rights groups as a major test for the country's justice system. On 11 September 1990 Myrna Mack, who had studied at Manchester and Durham universities, was killed, aged 40, on the pavement outside the offices of the Guatemalan Association for the Advancement of the Social Sciences (Avancso), an organisation she had helped to start. The murder came in the wake of work she had been doing with villagers who had been displaced by the military during the long civil war that claimed 200,000 lives and ended in 1996. As part of her work with Avancso, Mack documented the massacres in the rural areas of the country and shared her research results with church and human rights groups. In early September 1990, a group of some of those displaced villagers published a statement in the Guatemalan media criticising the army. Four days later, Mack was stabbed more than 20 times in the street. Her murder was seen as a warning to civil rights groups and anyone involved with them. The detective initially in charge of the case, José Mérida Escobar, was shot and killed shortly after completing a report which had implicated the military and attempts were made to insinuate that Mack had been the victim of a crime of passion. Academics and human rights groups put pressure on the Guatemalan government and Noel de Beteta Alverez, a sergeant major working for a secret military intelligence unit, was charged, convicted and jailed for 25 years for the murder in 1993. But Mack's relatives and friends have always believed that his orders came from senior figures in the military and continued to press for a full investigation. Many potential witnesses fled the country and a total of 12 different judges had examined the case before the trial finally started last week of retired General Edgar Augusto Godoy Gaitán, Colonel Juan Valencia Osorio and Colonel Juan Guillermo Oliva Carrera. The case has been of such international concern that the Inter-American Human Rights Court in Costa Rica has agreed to hear a case against the Guatemalan government for its failure to ensure justice for the Mack family. That case will open in November. The person most responsible for bringing the case to trial is Mack's sister, Helen, who has become a familiar figure in Guatemala over the past decade. Helen Mack, aged 50, is a business administrator and has employed a Guatemalan law that allows private citizens to prosecute cases. Her efforts, despite death threats, to have the case investigated won her Sweden's Right Livelihood Award, sometimes known as the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize. The award helped her to establish the Myrna Mack Foundation, which campaigns for reform of Guatemala's judicial system. 'I have been waiting for so many years for this,' Helen Mack told The Observer. 'I was very sceptical of the judicial system so it was a surprise that it has happened.' She believes that the trial, in front of a tribunal of three judges, is going well: 'I think every day we have been proving all of the elements.' Those who have pressed for the trial are still the subject of threats. In June, Avancso director Clara Arenas was included on a death threat naming 11 human rights activists and journalists. In the first week of the trial a Guatemalan human rights worker in Quiche was murdered and his tongue and eyes cut out.

BBC 11 Oct 2002 Americas 'failing native peoples' Governments have failed to implement agreements Governments throughout the Americas are failing to fulfil their commitments to the region's indigenous peoples, according to a new report. The human rights group Amnesty International says America's native peoples are still one of the most marginalised and poorest communities in the world, discriminated against and often exposed to grave abuses of their fundamental human rights. Many people are forced to sleep on the streets Amnesty published the report to coincide with Columbus or Native American Day, when several countries celebrate the continent's multicultural heritage and mark the arrival in the Americas of Christopher Columbus in 1492. "Basic rights of indigenous communities, including the right to land and to cultural identity in the use of language, education and the administration of justice are systematically violated," the report says. "Racism and discrimination entrenched in most societies make indigenous people more vulnerable to human rights violations including torture and ill-treatment, 'disappearance' and unlawful killings," Amnesty argues. Countries singled out for criticism include: Canada where the killing in 1995 of an Indian man remains unresolved Mexico which Amnesty accuses of weakening guarantees on indigenous constitutional rights Guatemala where Amnesty says almost nothing has been done for Mayans who suffered during more than 30 years of civil war Brazil where a leader of the Xavante people fled his home after receiving death threats Amnesty says governments often fail to implement agreements reached with indigenous communities, which can lead to further mistrust and resentment. Communities downtrodden "I think Amnesty International reaffirms what many of us have been saying for years," said Rosalina Tuyuc of the National Co-ordination of Guatemalan Widows. "In all of Latin America, and especially in Guatemala, there have been no advances in recognising or respecting Indian communities." The report says that in countries such as Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada and Nicaragua, indigenous people trying to reclaim the lands of their ancestors are facing violent opposition from landowners and companies exploiting natural resources. Brazilians face violent opposition from land owners The study found that in Colombia indigenous people often find themselves trapped in the crossfire between the army and their paramilitary allies and left-wing rebels. In Honduras, several native leaders have been killed and no-one has been held responsible for their deaths. It says that in Saskatoon City in Canada police have been accused of routinely leaving what they consider troublesome members of the indigenous community in isolated areas. And in Argentina, more than 100 policemen raided the Toba community in the north of the country, beating and racially abusing the residents. Amnesty is calling on governments to take immediate and concrete action to turn their rhetoric on multiculturalism and indigenous rights into reality.

AP 13 Oct 2002 Indians protest Columbus holiday By Juan Carlos Llorca, COLOTENANGO, Guatemala -- Thousands of Indians blocked highways across Central America and Mexico on Saturday, protesting Columbus Day and celebrating the region's Indian heritage. Organizers of marches in Guatemala had originally predicted that participants would close Guatemala's borders with Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador, but only a few crossings were blocked. Police and soldiers were sent out across the region to prevent violence, but no major disturbances were reported. In Guatemala, 1,000 protesters blocked a highway near Colotenango, 170 miles northeast of Guatemala City near the border with Mexico. Indian farmers also put up barricades on four other northern highways in the nearby Peten region to protest the construction of a Mexican hydroelectric dam farther up the Usumacinta River. Opponents say it will flood Mayan archaeological sites. Saturday's protests coincided with the anniversary of Christopher Columbus' discovery of America in 1492. Many Indian groups oppose Columbus Day celebrations, arguing that the Europeans' arrival marked the start of the Indians' fight to maintain their traditions and land. Across the border in Mexico, President Vicente Fox praised the Indian marches, saying they were a "recovery of (the Indian groups') dignity, identity, culture, history." In Mexico's southern Chiapas state, supporters of the Zapatista rebels closed off roads to a military base and blocked highways with ropes and dirty shirts. They urged the government to cancel its Plan Puebla-Panama, which calls for greater development in Central America and impoverished southern Mexico. And they called on the Mexican government to comply with the Zapatista rebels' demands, including pulling all troops out of the tense region, freeing Zapatista sympathizers from jail, arresting paramilitary members and canceling plans to create a free-trade region of the Americas. Fox's efforts at reaching a peace agreement with the rebels dissolved in early 2001 when Congress watered down an Indian rights bill and the Zapatistas broke off contact with the government. Thousands also marched through the streets of Mexico City, calling on the government to end widespread discrimination against the country's millions of Indians and provide them with better education, jobs and living standards. In Managua, Nicaragua, Indians protested free-trade agreements and the privatization of government utilities in front of the Inter-American Development Bank's offices.

Amnesty International 4 Oct 2002 Guatemala Myrna Mack Verdict -- A Tribute to Courage and Persistence AI Index: AMR 34/062/2002 Publish date: 4 October 2002 The sentencing of Guatemalan army colonel Juan Valencia Osorio to thirty years in prison for having ordered the 1990 killing of anthropologist Myrna Mack is an overdue but welcome step towards justice, Amnesty International said today. More on this Web site: Guatemala Two other officers, General Edgar Augusto Godoy Gaytán and Colonel Juan Guillermo Oliva Carrera, who had faced the same charges, were acquitted. They were Colonel Valencia's superior officers in the notorious Estado Mayor Presidencial(EMP), Presidential High Command. Amnesty International will study the court's judgement closely to determine whether it finds convincing the court's decision that they were indeed not involved in ordering Ms. Mack's death. "Never before had a high-ranking military official been convicted for a crime committed during Guatemala's 36 year internal conflict, and only once before had other officers been convicted for a political crime," Amnesty International noted. In welcoming the conviction, Amnesty International paid tribute to the victim's sister, Helen Mack, and the Guatemalan human rights community. "It was their courageous determination to see the killers punished and their effectiveness in mobilising international and local support which finally moved the case through the courts," the organization said. However, the organization expressed its dissatisfaction that it had taken 12 years for the case against those who ordered the killing to finally come to court. "The wheels of justice have ground slowly, far too slowly," said Amnesty International. "Twelve years is far too long to wait to see justice -- possibly only partial justice -- done." "Justice should be the rule, not the exception in Guatemala," Amnesty International insisted. "Despite a Constitutional guarantee that it is the duty of the State to guarantee justice to all of its inhabitants, only a handful of high profile cases have seen convictions for conflict-related abuses, while nobody has been held accountable for the killing and 'disappearance' of over 200,000 people, the majority of them indigenous," the organization added. "A genocide -- and that is what the Guatemala's UN-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) determined had occurred -- cannot be swept under the historical carpet. Each and every victim and each and every survivor deserves justice," Amnesty International said. The organization also noted that the three officers were tried in an atmosphere of death threats, intimidation and violence against individuals and organisations associated with the case, including the lawyers for the prosecution. "These attacks against the human rights and legal communities in Guatemala, are symptomatic of an escalating wave of violence against those involved in seeking justice for human rights violations committed both during and following Guatemala's long civil conflict," Amnesty International said. Background Myrna Mack, founder member of the social science research institute, AVANCSO, was brutally stabbed to death in September 1990 as she left the AVANCSO office in Guatemala City. In 1989, she had published a ground-breaking study which concluded that the massive internal displacement of Guatemala's indigenous people, and the suffering it had caused, had been a direct result of the army's counter-insurgency policy. Her findings were published just as peace talks began, and were highly damaging to the government. From the beginning, efforts to convict those who carried out Myrna Mack's brutal murder encountered irregularities, incompetence and every imaginable legal manoeuvre to paralyse the judicial process. Finally, however, in 1993 Sergeant Noel de Jesús Beteta Alvarez, a member of the EMP, was found guilty of the killing and jailed for 25 years. Source: Amnesty International, International Secretariat, 1 Easton Street, WC1X 8DJ, London, United Kingdom Reuters

Reuters 8 Oct 2002 Guatemala Court Annuls Rights Convictions By Greg Brosnan GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - A Guatemalan appeals court on Tuesday annulled the landmark convictions of three military men and a priest in the 1998 murder of prominent bishop and human rights defender Juan Jose Gerardi. Reuters Photo The three-judge panel ordered a retrial and said it annulled the convictions because of irregularities in the testimony of a witness who claimed he saw the accused on the night of the murder. Gerardi was bludgeoned to death in April 1998, two days after publishing a four-volume report blaming Guatemala's military for hundreds of massacres and other abuses during a 1960-1996 civil war, in which some 200,000 people were killed. Retired Col. Byron Lima Estrada, his son Capt. Byron Lima Oliva, and former presidential bodyguard Obdulio Villanueva were sentenced to 30 years each for the murder at a trial in June 2001. Roman Catholic priest Mario Orantes was sentenced to 20 years as an accomplice. The convictions were initially lauded by human rights groups as a landmark victory in a country where the military traditionally enjoyed impunity for rights abuses. ELATION AND DISBELIEF Lima Estrada, Lima Oliva, Villanueva, and their relatives and supporters in the court, including active and retired military men, cheered the decision and hugged each other while rights activists and Gerardi's former colleagues looked at each other in disbelief. "There is justice in Guatemala," Lima Oliva told reporters, standing up and making a military salute upon hearing of the annulment. "We soldiers defended the country." Orantes' lawyers say he suffers from severe migraines. He is interned in a hospital and did not attend the hearing. All four will remain in prison until the retrial. TESTIMONY IN DOUBT One of the main witnesses in the case, an indigent named Ruben Chanax Sontay, told judges in the trial he was hired by Lima Estrada to spy on Gerardi, and that on the night of the crime he helped Lima Oliva and Villanueva move the bishop's corpse. Judges accepted an argument by Villanueva's lawyer that Chanax Sontay had not mentioned those details in earlier statements to investigators. "A GRAVE SETBACK" "The court is convinced that the sentencing court did not weigh up this proof," the court said on Tuesday. "The sentence is annulled. ... We order a new trial." There was no mention of when that new trial, which will be overseen by a new panel of judges, will be held. Nery Rodenas, a lawyer for the Roman Catholic church human rights office Gerardi formerly headed, and who worked alongside prosecutors in the original trial, called the verdict "a grave setback." The sentence came after a court last week sentenced a former colonel to 30 years in prison for ordering the 1990 civil-war era stabbing murder of an anthropologist who had conducted extensive research of the effects of the war on Maya Indian refugees fleeing the conflict. "My feeling is that the military is reacting to all this," said rights activist Frank La Rue. "The judges are under a lot of pressure." Gerardi's cook, Margarita Lopez, who was accused of participating in the crime but freed by judges in the trial, will not have to participate in the retrial.

AP 8 Oct 2002 New Trial in Killing of Guatemala Cleric GUATEMALA CITY, Oct. 8 (AP) — An appeals court granted a new trial today to three military officials and a priest convicted of killing a Roman Catholic bishop, ruling that a witness's testimony was flawed. In June 2001 a three-judge panel convicted retired Col. Byron Lima Estrada; his son, Capt. Byron Lima Oliva; and Sgt. Obdulio Villanueva of killing Bishop Juan Gerardi, who was bludgeoned with a concrete block in his garage in April 1998. The three were sentenced to 30 years in prison each. The Rev. Mario Orantes, Bishop Gerardi's assistant, was sentenced to 20 years as an accomplice in the killing, which occurred days after the prelate had presented a report blaming the military for 80 percent of the deaths during the 36-year civil war that ended in 1996. Today the appeals tribunal said the lower court did not adequately verify the testimony of Ruben Chanax, a homeless man. Activists had considered the convictions a human rights victory for a country plagued by thousands of atrocities. But the defendants appealed last month, claiming that the police never found the person responsible for the killing and accusing the trial judges of basing their ruling on speculation and hearsay. Mr. Chanax, who lived in a park across the street from the seminary where Bishop Gerardi was killed, testified that the Limas and Sergeant Villanueva hired him to spy on the bishop, told him someone would die on the night of the killing and enlisted his help in altering the crime scene before the police could arrive.

UNWire 12 Nov 2002 GUATEMALA: UNDP Supports Plan For Reparations To War Victims - UN Wire's Scott Hartmann traveled to Guatemala last week to observe the U.N. Development Program's post-conflict activities in the country. GUATEMALA CITY -- Exactly one week ago, the high-level multi-institutional body charged with drafting a National Reparations Program to address the needs of hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans affected by the country's 36-year civil war presented their proposal to President Alfonso Portillo in hopes that he will soon push through Congress legislation creating a commission responsible for translating the plan's goals into action. The body, the Instancia Multiinstitucional por la Paz y la Concordia, which is a U.N. Development Program-supported project, was established in 1999 on the recommendation of Guatemala's Commission for Historical Clarification, which called for the country to "urgently" set up a program to provide reparations to the victims of human rights violations and the violence associated with the country's armed conflict and their family members. The proposed $396 million, 11-year program foresees a variety of forms of reparations to the populations most affected by the conflict, including economic compensation, support for the nearly 1 million Guatemalans who were displaced by the conflict and support for efforts to locate and exhume the bodies of those killed in massacres. It also includes support for community development and the establishment of medical and mental health facilities, land restitution and the formalization of land titles, support for efforts to promote tolerance and mutual respect, the creation of an alternative to military service, the dedication of Feb. 25 as a national day to remember the victims of the conflict and other measures to honor and remember the victims. The proposal also suggests the creation of a commission to oversee the reparations program, comprised of representatives of the Congress, the Supreme Court, the Human Rights Ombudsman's office and victims' organizations, as well as representatives of human rights, women's and ethnic Mayan organizations. The Commission for Historical Clarification suggested the program's funds come from reductions in military spending and aid from countries that supported the Guatemalan government economically and militarily during the country's conflict, such as the United States. According to the proposal, those eligible for reparations include those who were affected either "directly or indirectly, individually or collectively, by human rights violations" such as forced disappearance, extrajudicial executions, physical and psychological torture, forced displacement, forced recruitment as a minor, sexual violence, child rights violations and massacres. Human Rights Activists Skeptical Despite the cooperation the current government has been giving to the work of the body responsible for the proposal, some human rights activists UN Wire interviewed expressed skepticism that Portillo's deeply unpopular government will push the plan through Congress, even though the party Portillo represents, the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), dominates the legislative body. Instead, the activists said, the FRG-dominated Congress may respond to pressure from the ex-paramilitary Civil Defense Patrols (PAC) and approve measures to "compensate" the hundreds of thousands of former members of the PAC for their services rendered during the armed conflict. The right-wing FRG is led by populist Efrain Rios Montt, an ex-military leader who is charged by human rights organizations with overseeing the most brutal period in Guatemala's modern history but is revered by a large segment of the country's population. The FRG is reportedly closely linked to the military and ex-PAC members, whom human rights groups have accused of being the perpetrators of the vast majority of human rights violations during the government's conflict with left-wing rebels. Despite the political maneuvering ahead of next year's November presidential and legislative election, Orlando Blanco, the head of the National Coordinator for Human Rights, an umbrella group for Guatemalan human rights organizations, said he hoped that some kind of compromise could be reached. According to Blanco, the definition of "victim" under the plan is broad enough to allow for the inclusion of many of ex-PAC members, whom he said in many cases were victims of the conflict as well. Their inclusion would provide an opportunity to reunite the country and heal the wounds the prolonged conflict left, he said. Many Guatemalans who UN Wire spoke to across the country in areas affected by the conflict, including ex-PAC members and commanders, gave their full backing to a plan that would provide reparations to a wide variety of persons affected by the conflict, including the family members of those killed in massacres, provided that they themselves, as populations heavily affected by the conflict, receive reparations as well. Despite such sentiments, many ex-PAC members refuse to see themselves as "victims" of the conflict, insisting that they provided the state and their communities with a valuable service that helped turn the tide of the conflict in the 1980s in favor of the military. In this light, some human rights activists charge, large groups of ex-PAC members, which were composed of some of the most marginalized segments of Guatemala's population, are being politically manipulated by the FRG to retain its grip on power. "In reality ... two Guatemalas still exist, two [different] visions," said Blanco, noting that the process of reconciliation will be very difficult if the deeply divided country cannot recognize and reconcile with its past. One major obstacle is ignorance, Blanco added. "There are people who have never left their community, they don't know what is beyond the river nearby," he said, which leaves them open to being used politically. During Guatemala's prolonged conflict, one of the longest and most violent in Latin America, nearly 280,000 people died or disappeared. According to the landmark 1998 report by Guatemala's Commission for Historical Clarification, the armed forces and other agents of the state were responsible for 93 percent of such acts of violence and human rights violations, which overwhelmingly targeted the ethnic Mayan community.