(The complete Amnesty International report on Guatemala, a part of which follows, includes case histories and testimony from those involved in detention and torture. It was released on February 18.* )
The human rights issue that dominates all others in the Republic of Guatemala is that people who oppose or are imagined to oppose the government are systematically seized without warrant, tortured, and murdered, and that these tortures and murders are part of a deliberate and long-standing program of the Guatemalan government.
This report contains information, published for the first time, which shows how the selection of targets for detention and murder, and the deployment of official forces for extra-legal operations, can be pinpointed to secret offices in an annex of Guatemala’s National Palace, under the direct control of the president of the republic.
The report also includes transcripts of two unique interviews: the first is with a peasant who, as far as Amnesty International knows, is the sole survivor of political imprisonment in Guatemala in 1980; the second is with a former conscript soldier who served as a member of a plainclothes army unit and who described the abduction of civilians who were later tortured and murdered.
Between January and November in 1980 alone some 3,000 people described by government representatives as “subversives” and “criminals” were either shot on the spot in political assassinations or seized and murdered later; at least 364 others seized in this period have not yet been accounted for.
The government of Guatemala denies having made a single political arrest or holding a single political prisoner since President Romco Lucas García took office in July 1978. All abuses are attributed to “independent” paramilitary groups beyond official control. This report adds to previously available evidence that these actions are carried out by units of the’ regular security services. No convincing evidence has been produced that the groups described by the authorities do in fact exist.
In the final section of the report, Amnesty International reproduces the interviews, transcribed from tape recordings, with two Guatemalans who have had personal experience with the torture and murder of political suspects by the Guatemalan army.
The former prisoner was abducted on February 15, 1980, by a plainclothes army squad in a village in northern Guatemala. He escaped from Huehuetenango army base in western Guatemala after being held for eleven days.
He gives details of his place of detention—in the base slaughterhouse—and of how he was interrogated under torture by Guatemalan army officers.
He describes the execution of three other prisoners in his presence, strangled with a garrote—a technique cited as the cause of death in hundreds of killings in 1980, including those of thirty-seven people found in a mass grave in San Juan Comalapa, near Guatemala City, in March 1980.
The former conscript soldier, of Kekchi Indian origin, gives an account of his second year of military service, when he served as a member of a plainclothes army unit in Guatemala City. He describes the surveillance of civilians…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.
Copyright © 1981 by Amnesty International Publications.