Guatemala: The Human-Rights Hoax

by Adam Jones (1989)

[Published in Latin America Connexions, 4:1 (1989).]

Guatemala Map (.gif, 16k)

An extraordinary - or perhaps all too ordinary - piece of correspondence turned up in the Connexions mailbox a few weeks ago.

It was forwarded to us by a Vancouver reader, Andrew Larcombe. Andrew had written to Minister of External Affairs Joe Clark concerning recent human rights abuses in Guatemala, specifically the death-squad assault on student leaders at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City. Andrew told us he had been interested in finding out if the Canadian government was aware of the situation; he also requested that the Department of External Affairs take appropriate action.

His letter was answered by D.G. (Gordon) Longmuir, Director of the Caribbean and Central America Relations Division of the DEA.

"The government of Canada shares the concern of many Canadians with respect to the human rights situation in Guatemala," Mr. Longmuir wrote, "and has raised this issue on numerous occasions, both bilaterally, and in the appropriate multilateral forums. Canada has consistently pressed the Guatemala Government to investigate human rights abuses, and to bring guilty parties to justice."

So far, so good. But the letter continued as follows (with emphasis added):

The Guatemalan Government does not employ violence as an instrument of policy. However, the civilian authorities clearly do not control those on the right or on the left responsible for political violence. We share your disappointment at the inability of civilian authorities to properly investigate political violence, and bring guilty parties to justice. Nevertheless, it should be noted that, within the political space available to it, which admittedly is narrow, the Government of Guatemala has managed to improve respect for human rights, especially in contrast with the situation at the beginning of the decade.
Given the complexity of the issues involved, and the fact that major human rights violations are carried out by both sides to the conflict, and by individuals or groups outside the Government of Guatemala's control, we continue to believe that a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Guatemala is the only reasonable prospect for a just peace. ... Canada will continue to urge the parties toward mutual accommodation. The support Canada is giving to the peace process in Central America will, we hope, contribute to the objectives sought by all.

In order to place this astounding document in the proper perspective, it's necessary to recap some recent Guatemalan history.

On May 1, 1978, the Peasant Unity Committee (CUC) was formed by highland peasants in response to the increasing scale of evictions and seizure of communal lands in the Guatemalan countryside. That same month, more than a hundred Guatemalan Indians protesting land usurpations were massacred by army forces at the community of Panzós.

A military government was in charge of Guatemala at the time, as it had been for nearly all the quarter-century since the CIA engineered the overthrow of reformist President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. The military's response to peasant organizing was hysterical. The country's elite depended on access to dirt-cheap highlands labour during the harvest season, and over time, the military had penetrated the economy to become the dominant sector of that national elite.

No less threatening to the status quo was the wave of union and student organizing in the cities. And the response of the military and associated security forces was no less savage.

Between 1978 and 1984, Guatemala underwent one of the worst holocausts of the post-World War Two era. In the countryside, the army confronted a variety of new guerrilla groups which had sprung up in response to the systematic slaughter in, and destruction of, highlands communities. Four hundred and forty villages were wiped off the face of the earth in these years. Troops invaded communities and massacred, tortured, and abducted at will. The cities lived under a similar reign of terror.

One hundred thousand Guatemalans are estimated to have died over these seven years, most in a manner whose brutality defies description. Hundreds of thousands more fled to squalid refugee camps inside Mexico, near the border of their homeland, where they were subjected to regular Guatemalan Army incursions.

The terror worked - temporarily, at least. Peasant organizations, labour unions, student groups were shattered. But the violence provoked an inconvenient international outcry.

To recapture a measure of international legitimacy - and the aid that went with it - the Guatemalan military permitted the election and installation of a civilian president. Christian Democrat Vinicio Cerezo was an ideal candidate. He had written a book praising the army as a vital partner in any national development strategy. Cerezo took office, though not true power, in January 1986. The outgoing military, meanwhile, had covered its tracks by passing a blanket amnesty absolving itself of any crimes committed during the holocaust.

Before the elections, Assistant Head of State, General Rodolfo Lobos Zamora, had commented: "To the extent that a civilian government enables us to obtain aid, we are pleased, but that is not to say that the army will disappear." And of course, the army has not disappeared. It still exercises complete control over rural Guatemala, constituting what James Painter has called a "decentralized parallel government." The main mechanisms of its rule are the "development poles" built up since June 1984, wherein the army controls all levels of administration including distribution of foreign aid, and the notorious army-run Civil Defense Patrols that have press-ganged a million Guatemalans (essentially, every adult Indian male in the country). Peasants who refuse to take part in these supposed "self-defense" initiatives are liable to be summarily executed.

For a year or so following Cerezo's inauguration, human rights abuses were naturally fewer in number than during the holocaust years. The pattern here was similar to El Salvador: the army and security forces had run out of victims, the population was utterly traumatized, and so it was a propitious time for "free" elections to introduce a civilian façade.

Now, as popular forces once again gather steam, repression is spiralling. Death squads have reappeared in force - five new ones in recent months - and army abuses are on the rise. Miriam Palacios, a Guatemalan living in exile who is B.C. Coordinator of the Latin America program at OXFAM, told Connexions that "the massacres are continuing, people by the hundreds are being killed. Nothing has changed at all, at all, at all ..."

How does the letter from the Department of External Affairs square with this record?

According to Mr. Longmuir, a certain symmetry can be established between "those on the right or on the left responsible for political violence." "Major human rights violations" are perpetrated by "both sides to the conflict." Meanwhile, the Cerezo government "has managed to improve respect for human rights."

Assuming that "those on the right" comprise the army, security forces, and off-duty death-squads, and "those on the left" are the remaining guerrilla forces (that is, highlands peasants united under the banner of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity, URNG) along with peasant organizations, labour unions and so on, this attempt at symmetry is frankly appalling.

In the course of researching a book-length project on the history of the Guatemalan conflict, I had come across no mention of confirmed large-scale human rights abuses by "the forces of the left." Comparing the behaviour of "the right" and "the left" in Guatemala struck me as akin to comparing Nazi crimes in Occupied France with abuses by the French Resistance - except that the Resistance was responsible for far more serious violations (including massive summary executions in liberated territory) than the Guatemalan left has ever been.

Was I missing something? I telephoned Mr. Longmuir in Ottawa to find out.

Mr. Longmuir said he had not meant to imply by his letter that there was an "exact equivalence" between the actions of the URNG, along with other leftist forces, and those of "the right." Rather, the URNG's abuses were "qualitatively if not quantitatively" similar to those of the army, security forces, and death-squads.

"There is no doubt that factions of the URNG use terror," Mr. Longmuir told Connexions. "The situation is certainly not parallel to El Salvador, where you have a much larger and more powerful guerrilla movement that uses terror on a much greater scale. But what we're doing is reacting against a one-sided interpretation" that lays the blame for all human rights abuses at the door of the Guatemalan right wing, he added.

What were External Affairs' sources for these allegations of "qualitative" symmetry? "We get information from all sides, including information on the behaviour of the URNG," Mr. Longmuir said. He added that the reports of human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Americas Watch, were carefully consulted. In addition, External Affairs received regular reports from Canada's chargé d'affaires in Guatemala, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) based in-country, and Guatemalan human rights groups both official and unofficial. An officer back in Ottawa deals with Guatemala "on a daily basis," Mr. Longmuir said.

How far does information compiled by the most highly-respected of the international human rights organizations, Amnesty International, go toward substantiating Mr. Longmuir's allegations?

Amnesty's most extensive treatment of the Guatemalan human rights situation is Guatemala: The Human Rights Record, published in 1987. In nearly 200 pages of text, the question of guerrilla abuses is mentioned once.

"On a number of occasions Indian villagers did appear at government-organized press conferences or on television to tell of guerrilla responsibility for large-scale killings," Amnesty wrote. "However, in no case known to AI has an Indian peasant who succeeded in reaching comparative safety abroad supported claims that the guerrillas were responsible for massive extrajudicial executions. On the contrary, most declared that the atrocities they had witnessed were the work of the army." (Emphasis added here and for all subsequent quotes.)

Amnesty noted that many reports had been received of army forces committing atrocities while dressed in guerrilla-style garb. "Again and again, testimonies stated that the army could be readily distinguished from the guerrillas, even when in disguise, by the type of equipment and arms they had."

The scope of this major work covers the period from the late-1970s onward in Guatemala. The analysis quoted here exhausts Amnesty's coverage of abuses by "the left". In marked contrast to the massively-documented campaign of slaughter, torture, and "disappearances" by the army and state death squads, "leftist abuses" remain, at best highly circumstantial and ambiguous - if they even exist on a measurable scale.

The Amnesty Report for 1988 devoted three pages to Guatemala. It noted that "suspected critics and opponents of the government continued (in 1987) to be subjected to arbitrary seizure, torture, 'disappearance' and extrajudicial execution. The victims included trade unionists, peasants, students, teachers, and lay church workers. Relatives attempting to discover the fate of their 'disappeared' family members reported threats and harassment. The abuses were reportedly carried out by police and military personnel acting in uniform or, most often, in plain clothes in the guise of 'death squads'." The report made no mention of any abuses by the guerrillas or other "leftist" forces and organizations. (This contrasts with the section in the report on El Salvador, which notes the FMLN rebel practice of laying landmines that have caused civilian casualties. It contrasts, as well, with the section on Nicaragua, where large-scale human rights violations by anti-government rebels are acknowledged.)

In June 1989, Amnesty released Guatemala: Human Rights Violations under the Civilian Government, which outlined the results of a July 1988 mission of inquiry sent to investigate reports of an upsurge in rights abuses. Again, there was a single mention of alleged abuses by "the left." "Opposition forces ... have themselves been accused of killing suspected informers and government agents. The government has also accused opposition forces of killing peasants in the countryside, either in attacks on non-combatant civilians or in crossfire. ... In some cases it has been impossible for AI or others to attribute responsibility for apparently politically-motivated killings. However, study of the available evidence and the pattern of abuses over a period of years has led AI to conclude that the so-called 'death squads' are made up of regular police and military personnel acting out of uniform but under orders [i.e., there are no "leftist" death squads], and that the vast majority of peasants killed in the countryside have been non-combatant civilians extrajudicially executed by the Guatemalan army."

The remainder of this lengthy report is a vivid and sickening compendium of testimony and analysis concerning army and death-squad - that is, "right-wing" - savagery. Note that the source for many (in fact, most) of the allegations of "leftist abuses" - the Guatemalan government - never seems to get around to actually investigating any of the allegations. Equally inexplicably, it remains silent on the subject of atrocities committed by the army and security forces ("the right"), except to pretend that a network of unaffiliated right-wing death squads exists. Amnesty lambastes "the unwillingness or inability of the Guatemalan judiciary, police and official human rights bodies to conduct genuine investigations into human rights violations and bring their perpetrators to justice." This, it says, "calls into question the (Cerezo) government's stated commitment to the rule of law," and bodes ill for a possible "return to the pattern of gross human rights violations which occurred in Guatemala in the past."

Also in June, Amnesty released an update on events in Guatemala since the mission of inquiry completed its work. It made no reference to any confirmed guerrilla abuses, while reciting the usual litany of state-directed murders, torture, and "disappearances." The update did, though, state the following: "A number of cases are ... described where attribution of the abuse in question has been a subject of dispute in Guatemala, but where the government appears to have made no genuine efforts to clarify the facts of the case and bring the perpetrators to justice."

This is apparently a reference to the massacre of 22 peasants at the village of El Aguacate in late November of 1988. In his conversation with Connexions, Mr. Longmuir had cited Aguacate as an "extremely suspicious" incident, and said that "the logic of the actions seems to suggest that ORPA (one of the guerrilla factions)" was behind the massacre. ("Of course," Mr. Longmuir added, "evidence is extremely difficult to obtain on abuses by either side" - which fails to explain how Amnesty International manages to fill regular reports with massively-documented accounts of abuses by "the right.")

The Aguacate incident became a cause célèbre. True to form, the Guatemalan Embassy in Washington arranged a press conference with two alleged eyewitnesses to the attack, who charged the guerrillas with responsibility for the slaughter. The New York Times weighed in with a story entitled, "Guatemala Massacre Laid to Rebels." And President Cerezo stated he was "sure" the guerrillas were responsible.

But an investigative team from CBC's the fifth estate, which visited Guatemala earlier this year, found devastating inconsistencies in the official story. Of the three "eyewitnesses" put forward by the government, one said that "in no way" could he say the perpetrators were guerrillas; in fact, "We've never seen guerrillas here." Another "eyewitness" said he "didn't see" the killers (it also transpired that he was a member of Guatemala's notorious Treasury Police and a longtime army informer). The third "eyewitness" told the CBC that "I can't say if it was a guerrilla or not ... I've never seen one in my life."

the fifth estate discovered that two days before the bodies of the 22 male peasants were found - but shortly after the peasants had disappeared - some of the victims' wives had received calls from a nearby army base, telling them their husbands were alive and in army detention. The CBC journalists also spoke privately with several relatives of the murdered peasants who said they knew of eyewitnesses to the scene who had seen the peasants bound and gagged under army guard shortly before their bodies were found. One relative said: "There are witnesses but they won't speak. Their lives are at stake ... we all know it was the army (that did it)." Indeed, the modus operandi of the killings squares exactly with familiar army practice. The bodies were found trussed up, showing signs of torture, after the men had refused to join the army's local Civil Defense Patrol. The patrol, the villagers said, was unnecessary - because guerrillas had never been seen in the area.

All in all, El Aguacate is certainly an "extremely suspicious" incident, as Mr. Longmuir has it - but not for the reasons he suggests. Again, there is an obvious question to be asked. Why, given that a genuine guerrilla massacre would be an unique publicity coup for the government and armed forces, has no official investigation been launched? Here, too, a familiar modus operandi seems to be visible. The Cerezo government, aware that any serious investigation would turn up signs of army responsibility, backs off, while milking the incident for whatever propaganda value it can (ably assisted in this by The New York Times).

In his letter to Andrew Larcombe, Mr. Longmuir referred to Canada's "disappointment at the inability of civilian authorities to properly investigate political violence, and bring guilty parties to justice." If the abuses are in fact being committed by both sides, this "inability" seems hard to account for. When it comes to looking into the ongoing atrocities committed by the army and death squads, of course, the threat posed to the government by officially-sponsored investigations is crystal-clear. (Every so often an attempted coup, such as that of May 1988, is staged by a faction of the army to remind Cerezo and his administration just who's in charge.) But no such intimidation comes from "the left"; the government could only benefit by investigations that substantiated the allegations of "leftist abuses." The total absence of such investigations seems an eloquent indicator of the absence or near-absence of those abuses. In its way, it is as suggestive as the extremely fleeting and skeptical treatment given the allegations of "leftist abuses" in the Amnesty International literature.

The most recent Amnesty "Urgent Action" on Guatemala (July 1989) includes a succinct section of "background information" on the Guatemalan conflict. True to form, it mentions "threats, harassment, 'disappearances' and extrajudicial executions carried out by official police and military forces, acting both in uniform and in plain clothes in the guise of the so-called 'death squads'." It makes no mention of any abuses by the guerrillas or others on "the left." Amnesty International, it should be stressed, enjoys an unparalleled reputation for scrupulous accuracy and lack of bias in human rights reporting.

So what can we conclude from all this?

If Mr. Longmuir's letter and his subsequent comments are any indication, Canadian policy is operating under a profound - and profoundly offensive - misperception of the situation in Guatemala. Furthermore, given that all of the above evidence is a matter of public record, the misperception would appear to be a wilful one.

The conclusion is hardly surprising, given that Canadian foreign policy is basically a matter of committed fence-sitting - especially when it comes to repressive regimes installed and sustained by the United States.

As far as Guatemala is concerned, president Vinicio Cerezo fulfills an important function by providing a façade for the holders of true state power - the army and security-force apparatus whose despotism is practically unchallenged and effectively undiminished.

This myth benefits the descendants of the military clique originally installed in 1954, by shifting their behaviour to the background. It benefits the United States, whose policy in Central America (crucially assisted by Israel and other allies) has moved smoothly from supporting and overseeing immense slaughter, to supporting the advent of "fledgling democracies" wherever both the status quo and a façade of civilian rule can be maintained.

It benefits fence-sitting governments like Canada's - who can pay homage to surface "progress" as an excuse for essential inaction; who can call for "mutual accommodation" between murderers and their victims as the best road to peace.

It benefits North American citizens, who may be lulled to pleasant sleep by the illusion that a gentle land to our south, after some years of unspeakable nastiness, is back on track under a friendly civilian leadership.

In fact, the only people this myth does not benefit are Guatemalans and other Central Americans, whose deaths and suffering it expedites.

The killings go on. Figures quoted by Amnesty International indicate a minimum of 40 Guatemalans "extrajudicially executed each month because of their political beliefs" (as of Summer 1988). These figures represent "only a proportion" of the total, owing to the difficulty of registering deaths and "disappearances" in outlying areas.

Underneath the statistics are real people. "The fate of many of the (victims)," Amnesty reports, "has been similar to that of a trade unionist kidnapped by heavily armed men in February 1988 and found dead weeks later with the body of a law student - their hands had been cut off. Or a second-year student abducted in broad daylight and found dead two days later on 18 November 1988; he appeared to have been tortured, strangled, and shot - his body bore burn marks and his nose and teeth were smashed. Or a peasant who had been helping to make his neighbours aware of their rights and was shot dead in his home in June 1988."

No doubt, if one looked hard enough, one could find official Canadian protests concerning a few of the specific atrocities. It's difficult to believe that any of the perpetrators slept less easily as a result of these protests - especially when the overall Canadian rhetoric, and actual policy, is so endlessly forgiving.

In November 1987, the Canadian government announced a renewal of bilateral aid to Guatemala (this was around the time the Guatemalan Army was launching its brutal "final offensive" against peasant populations in the highlands, killing many and uprooting thousands.) The Guatemalan government had "managed to improve respect for human rights," in Mr. Longmuir's words, and all was well - or well enough. In April, the Canadian government recommended a further $8.8 million in aid for microrealization projects in the Western Highlands. According to OXFAM's Miriam Palacios, there is "no question" that this aid will have to be funnelled through the military administration in rural Guatemala.

OXFAM, Ms. Palacios said, has given up trying to stop the aid, and is concentrating on ensuring as far as possible that it gets where it is needed. Meanwhile, OXFAM is lobbying the Canadian government to increase aid to Nicaragua, whose regime it considers significantly more deserving.

A restructuring of Canadian aid along the lines suggested by OXFAM would involve a restructuring of our basic foreign policy perceptions and actions. Perhaps that, finally, is the lesson of Mr. Longmuir's letter and the policy it articulates. The Canadian government's perceptions are badly, perhaps wilfully, skewed. These misperceptions contaminate our entire official perspective on, and dealings with, the outside world. And for Guatemalans, the misperceptions and misrepresentations may mean that an end to the shocking violence and social injustice in their land is a little further off.

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Last updated: 10 October 2000.