Last December a schoolteacher who was to leave for asylum in Canada the next day was found by a roadside south of Guatemala City, with both her hands cut off and a sign on her chest bearing the inscription, “more to follow.” What distinguished the murder of Beatriz Barrios Marroquín from countless other atrocities against Guatemalan civilians was its timing. She was killed three days after Marco Vinicio Cerezo was elected President: the paramilitary death squadron believed responsible for the crime was sending a message to the new civilian government.
In the Guatemalan highlands, death squadrons work closely with the counter-insurgency army units, or kaibiles, which are accountable for most of the mass killings of Indians in “areas of conflict” that have been infiltrated by guerrillas. One of the chief questions facing Cerezo after he was elected was whether he would be able to bring the kaibiles under a unified command and curb their assaults on Indian communities. So far he has not done so. The kaibiles‘ rank are largely composed of Indian conscripts whose ties with their communities have been systematically broken down by harsh training and indoctrination in army camps. They are then equipped with Galil automatic rifles and sent back to the countryside to prey on their former neighbors.
A typical kaibil operation was the July 1982 massacre at the estate and hamlet of San Francisco, in a remote highland district close to the Mexican border. Three hundred and fifty residents—men, women, and children—were slaughtered by Indian soldiers. The survivors said that the soldiers laughed at the sounds the older men made as their throats were cut with rusty machetes. The army’s justification for the killings was a local commander’s report that the settlement gave supplies to the Guerrilla Army of the Poor, which was active in the vicinity. But the killings also served the larger purpose of depopulating the countryside so that it could be brought under stricter military control. At least nine thousand residents fled their homes from nearby villages and towns and crossed into Mexico, adding to the tens of thousands of Guatemalans crowded into refugee camps along the border. (About half of them were later relocated inside Mexico.) The few campesinos who eventually made their way to the United States were denied asylum by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which claimed they were economic rather than political refugees. (Less than 2 percent of Guatemalan and Salvadoran applicants are granted asylum in the United States.)
The San Francisco massacre was not an isolated event, despite the high number of victims. Other mass murders include the army’s shooting of more than one hundred unarmed Kekchí Indians in the plaza of Panzós in 1978 after local farmers protested the seizure of their communal lands. In January 1980, five peasant leaders from Quiché and twenty-two supporters were burned alive during a peaceful demonstration inside the Spanish embassy. Shock troops of the National Police, under direct orders from President Romeo Lucas García, stormed the building in disregard of the Spanish ambassador’s energetic protests.
The Guatemalan government’s record of human rights violations is the worst in the Western hemisphere since Baby Doc Duvalier was ousted from Haiti. A 1984 census found that 120,000 orphans had been created by counterinsurgency operations throughout the country. Altogether, more than 100,000 Guatemalans are estimated by various sources to have been killed since 1954, and 38,000 more have disappeared. (According to Americas Watch, this represents 42 percent of the desaparecidos in all of Latin America.) During the past eight years, since the army launched a scorched-earth campaign in the highlands, close to one million campesinos have been displaced from their homes.
Most of these victims have been Indians, who make up some four million of the population of 8.2 million and who have always resented domination by Europeans and by their mixed-breed descendants, called ladinos. Historians have long argued that the standards of brutality against Guatemala’s Indians were set 450 years ago by Hernán Cortés’s fair-haired captain, Pedro de Alvarado, who plundered and slaughtered hundreds of Indian communities during the early years of the conquest.^1 Cortés himself denounced Alvarado as “a madman” after he hanged the chiefs of the Indian communities that had been his allies in the conquest. (A second cycle began in the late nineteenth century, when Guatemala’s well-to-do politicians of the Liberal party abolished communal land holdings and passed peonage laws to create a seasonal work force of penniless Indians for the newly emerging coffee plantations.) Guatemala’s military leaders have proven to be worthy successors to Alvarado.
Guatemala’s internal wars are largely responsible for the country’s economic collapse, marked by unprecedented budget deficits, close to 50 percent unemployment and “underemployment,” 38 percent inflation, and a currency, the quetzal, whose exchange value with the dollar has declined 300 percent in three years. In the first quarter of 1986, the cost of living index rose 37 percent, which creates severe hardships for all Guatemalans below the upper middle class. The economic decline looks most dramatic when compared with the country’s situation in 1979, when Guatemala seemed likely to become the principal force within a Central American Common Market. That year its gross national product grew by 5 percent, and it received roughly twice as many investment dollars as all the other Central American republics combined. One billion dollars of that foreign and domestic capital has since fled the country. “Central America’s Venezuela,” as an entrepreneur called Guatemala in 1978, when vast oil reserves were thought to be awaiting exploitation in its northern reaches,2 is instead close to becoming Central America’s Bolivia.
The Christian Democrat leader Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo, who is forty-three, became president of Guatemala on December 8, when he won nearly 70 percent of the votes cast in a runoff election against the center-right candidate of the Union of the National Center. A prolabor lawyer and civil rights advocate, Cerezo was only the third civilian to take office since the socialist general Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán was overthrown in 1954. Cerezo was twelve years old when the CIA organized the invasion from Honduras that replaced Arbenz with the first of nine progressively more brutal military regimes. “I was leaning against a tree watching and crying as the planes circled over the capital,” he told an interviewer prior to the election. “I did not have a clear idea of what was happening, but felt we were losing our sense of freedom and human rights, and I decided then that we would have to struggle in order to get them back.”
Cerezo’s inauguration speech last January 14 was high-minded and eloquent. He talked of the deep-seated corruption and the violence that afflicts the country’s four million Indians. He also complained of having inherited an empty treasury. Without spelling out specific reforms, he pleaded for time and understanding to help him reestablish civilian authority after thirty years of calamitous military rule.
Cerezo’s first six months in office have underscored the limits that have been imposed on his presidency by his predecessor, General Oscar Humberto Mejía Víctores, who nevertheless prides himself on having been responsible for an orderly transition to civilian rule. The precedents for the survival of civilian government are not encouraging. The last civilian head of state was Julio César Méndez Montenegro, a moderate leftist and the current ambassador to Mexico. In 1966 he was allowed to assume the office he had won at the polls only after he signed an agreement with the military, which was heavily armed and trained by the US. The eight-point contract he accepted gave the army authority to appoint its own minister of defense and chief of staff, and to carry on the war against the leftist guerrillas in any way it chose. Before his election, Cerezo promised he would never submit to such humiliation, that he would rather resign and provoke a coup to show up the army’s hollow pledges—and cause a popular uprising—than stay in office as the military’s stooge.
Nevertheless, he has allowed to stand a number of decrees passed by Mejía Víctores during his last days in office. They provide for the continuation of the so-called civil defense patrols to assure military control in the countryside, and amnesty from prosecution for all crimes committed by officials during the last two military governments. Thus far, neither Cerezo nor the Congress, in which Christian Democrats have a majority, have shown any determination to defy the military by abrogating these decrees—although Cerezo has repeatedly stated his intention to turn the civil defense patrols into voluntary “defense committees.”
Cerezo has gained respect by surviving three attempts that have been made on his life since 1980. “A democrat does not have the right to be naive,” he told Harry Reasoner on 60 Minutes, to explain why he travels with a small arsenal of weapons. He also subscribes to Soldier of Fortune magazine, and practices martial arts, such as karate. In fact he now gets on well with many military people and has cultivated close relations with younger, middle-echelon army officers. Yet he could not forestall the appointment of a henchman of Mejía Víctores to the Ministry of Defense.
The new minister, Jaime Hernández Mendez, is a former head of the elite Honor Guard, who had been in charge of counterinsurgency in northern Quiché and in El Petén. But Hernández is supposed to retire during the coming months, and if he does so Cerezo will be able to appoint his own defense minister. Cerezo may have blocked the appointment to the Ministry of Defense of General Rodolfo Lobos Zamora, the former army Chief of Staff who is accused by human rights groups of being among the “intellectual authors” of the military’s program of political killings and abductions during recent years. Instead, Cerezo named Lobos Zamora ambassador to Panama, a controversial appointment which grants him diplomatic immunity from prosecution.
Cerezo’s boldest decision so far has been to purge and reorganize the security forces, which are responsible for a high proportion of civilian murders and disappearances. In late January he fired the six hundred members of the Department of Special Investigations (DIT), formerly the Judicial Police. But no charges have been lodged against any of them because of the amnesty decrees, and more than half are being “retrained” before they are absorbed into the National Police. It is unlikely that Cerezo will take any significant action soon against the military’s own intelligence services, the dreaded G-2, which are responsible for wide-spread assassinations of political and trade union leaders, university professors and students, journalists, and priests. The G-2’s activities are directed by the highest levels of the military from its headquarters in the fourth floor of the National Palace. It has amassed extensive files of “subversives” with the help of Tadiran computers supplied by Israel, and presumably the appearance of Cerezo’s own name in these files, with a list of his activities as a university student and civil rights advocate, helps to explain the three attempts on his life.
Recent exploration projects Guatemala's recoverable oil reserves at no more than sixteen million barrels.↩
Recent exploration projects Guatemala's recoverable oil reserves at no more than sixteen million barrels.↩