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GUATEMALA: TERROR AND JUSTICE May 15, 2013

Posted by wmmbb in Human Rights.
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The news cycle moves quickly. Often the reports available are comprehensive, often leaving unanswered questions. Such was the case just two or three days ago when their reports of the conviction of a former dictator of Guatemala, Jose Efrain Rios Montt, for genocide and crimes against humanity.

The reports said this was a first time that a national leader had been convicted for such crimes by a national court. I knew nothing about Guatemala, so I needed some background, something which news journalists do not cater for, which is not to fault them. It is a long and detailed history, in which foreign involvement, particularly of the United States, plays a determining role doing nothing to product democracy.

A short, and therefore deficient summary, of the history goes along these lines:

Central America was conquered by the Spanish in remarkably short time after Columbus, from a euro-centric view, discovered the Americas. This was made possible advantage of firearms and some co-opting of indigenous groups, which allowed small groups to control wide areas. Prior to European conquest Guatemala had been part of the  Mayan Civilization, with a continuous history exceeding a thousand years. The period of Spanish colonization lasted 300 years leaving three major legacies: control of the most productive land by an oligarchy of mixed Spanish and indigenous decent, Spanish as the dominant language and the Roman Catholic Church. The geography favoured Guatemalan independence from Mexico that was effected in 1836, although independence is dated from 15 September 1821. As in other Spanish colonies, the social structure did not favour liberal democracy, and therefore land reform, as happened, for instance, in the Philippines.

For much of its history, Guatemala has been ruled by a succession of  military-backed dictators. There were some exceptions but almost inevitably they were followed by often cruel repression. A crucial development occurred in 1901 – the United Fruit Company. Guatemala was only a part of the company’s operation:

In 1901, the government of Guatemala hired the United Fruit Company to manage the country’s postal service and in 1913 the United Fruit Company created the Tropical Radio and Telegraph Company. By 1930 it had absorbed more than 20 rival firms, acquiring a capital of US$215,000,000 and becoming the largest employer in Central America.

In 1936, the then dictator of Guatemala, General Jorge Ubico gave the United Fruit Company a 99 year lease to run banana plantations. In 1945, for the first time in a hundred years, a democratically-elected president was installed in office. There was conflict over land. The indigenous people organized and trade unions were established.

In 1950, Jacobo Arbenz was elected promising land reform/ redistribution targeting UFC, who left 85% of land idle. The company demanded $16m in compensation and the State Department accused Guatemala of being “in the grip a Russian-controlled dictatorship.”

This lead to the CIA organized and financed coup of 1954, in which government was returned to the Oligarchs and the military. Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas had training at Fort Leavenworth. Arms were flown in from Florida and the insurgents trained on United Fruit’s plantations in Honduras. Part of the justification was apparently the CIA’s fear of ” a Soviet beachhead in Guatemala”.

After the coup, 900 people were arrested and tortured and 1.5 m acres of land was returned to large landowners, including the United Fruit Company. Trade Unions and peasant organizations were destroyed. World Bank loans were made conditional to work undertaken by US companies. Successive and more repressive military regimes ruled the country.”

From 1960 to 1999 there was a brutal civil war in Guatemala. It is quite astonishing that the indigenous population were able to sustain resistance for that period. For much of the time there were three main guerrilla groups, including the Labor Party of Guatemala. Israel has an involvement supplying arms, offering advice to the military and providing training, apparently since 1974. The long running and brutal civil war came to an end  in 1996 with the Historical Consequences Commission(a truth and reconciliation commission along the lines of South Africa supervised by the UN).

This roughly takes us up to period from March 1982 to August 1983, when the existing dictatorship had already being prosecuting a war against the Ixil Mayans. This was during the Reagan Administration and Oliver North’s role in circumventing Congress by supplying arms to Central America and Afghanistan, which goes to explain the involvement of Israel. The Reagan Administration was generous in supplying helicopters, tanks and other munitions to the Guatemalan Army.

There is something to be said about commonality of mind and expression. Rios Montt conducted a beans and guns campaign (alliterative in Spanish)accusing indigenous people of protecting Marxist revolutionaries. “If you are with us, we’ll feed you, if you are against us, we will kill you.”

Guatemala is that country bounded by the Caribbean and Pacific with Mexico to the north, and Berlitz to the north-east, which they have ceasing claiming, and El Salvator and Honduras to the south. The population is approximately 14 million, with over 5 million living in  the capital,  La Nueva Guatemala de la Asunción, which translates as the new Guatemala (land of many trees) of the assumption, a reference to the ascent of the Virgin Mary to heaven. Indigenous religious practices remain, and the Catholic Church, whose adherents represent 60%  of the population, practice enculturation. The remainder of the population, or so it said, practice fundamentalist Christianity  and Rios Montt was a preacher in the Church of the World before he assumed the title of President.

The significance that an Argentinian Pope might have  in this development has not been commented upon, although there is a link between death squads in Argentina and Guatemala. The long running civil war created cross border refugees, and the greatest number, almost 1.5 million found refuge in the United States.

“Injustice anywhere, is a threat to justice everywhere”,said Martin Luther King. Amnesty International is one of the international legal groups on the case. This video provides some of the immediate background, showing the determination that lead to Rios Montt’s conviction.

Romina Ruiz-Goeriena reported on lat Friday’s, May 10, 2013, happening in court for Al Jazeera:

Guatemala City, Guatemala – For the first time in history, a former head of state has been found guilty of genocide for crimes committed in the country itself, marking the biggest successful prosecution in Latin America.

When Efrain Rios Montt seized control of the country in a March 1982 coup, it gave way to the bloodiest period of Guatemala’s 36-year-civil war.

The violence left 200,000 people dead and more than 45,000 disappeared, mostly people of the indigenous Ixil Maya ethnic group, according to the UN.

On Friday, a three-judge panel convicted the former military leader of genocide and crimes against humanity, sentencing him to a total of 80 years in prison.

“Genocide not only happened to the Ixil people. It happened to all of Guatemala because it ruined the country’s social fabric,” Judge Yasmin Barrios said during her ruling.

“This is why this sentence proclaims that such crimes can never happen again.”

The courtroom erupted into cheers, tears and song as the sentence was read for more than two hours.

Many held hands while others pressed their hands onto their headsets to listen in to simultaneous translation in the Ixil language.

Presiding Judge Barrios sentenced the retired general to 50 years for genocide and an additional 30 years for crimes against humanity.

It is the first time the state has acknowledged genocide occurred during the country’s brutal 1960-1996 civil war.

Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, a former intelligence chief under Rios Montt, was acquitted of all charges.

The current, elected President of Guatemala, Otto Perez Molinas, was a field commander in the North West Highlands during the period of the worst massacres under the regime of Rios Montt. He then was known as Major Tito.

Democracy Now has several interviews Allan Nairn, a journalist who was on the scene and saw events first hand.

I see a continuity from the tactics employed in Vietnam (The Phoenix Program), death squads, moving then to Guatemala and then to Iraq. There is an important connection with Israel to the subject population of Gaza. We do not normally think of the Cold War, and its competitive strategic imperatives as part of a reign of terror, but perhaps we are blinded by circumstances, preoccupations and effective propaganda. It is a constant theme of history, that tribal people have sought refugee in the remote places, whether the deserts of Arabia or the hills of Scotland or for that matter Guatemala. Equally imperialists and lowlanders have sought by brutal means, typically land clearing to subject the insurgent or raiding populations. Now with drone missile attacks things are more efficient, less discriminate and morally diminished. Hence the international significance of this trial as a victory,if partial, albeit extraordinary, for the rule of law and human decency for all people everywhere.

Now it is interesting to reflect on a comment from a rich businessman in The Los Angeles Times, but at least I can now see where he is coming from. “Conservatives” consider Montt a bulwark against communism.

Ricardo Mendez Ruiz, a Guatemalan businessman, is among those who have accused Guatemala’s top prosecutor, Claudia Paz y Paz, of harboring sympathy for the guerrillas. In an interview Friday, Mendez portrayed the entire case as an act of left-wing vengeance.

“The communists tried to take executive power by violence and they failed,” said Mendez, whose father served as interior minister under Rios Montt. “They tried to take legislative power by the ballot box and they failed. But they did take judicial power.”

Democracy Now reported that Rios Montt suffered from a fainting in his cell and was moved to a prison hospital. For a person who is now almost 87 years old, it is sad that he is incarcerated, but then we might remember his many victims and the horrible deaths to which many of them were subject.

(This has turned out to be a rather long project. I hope it might be useful for you as it is for me. I don’t expect that any reader will uncritically accept my opinions. I need to check some details and provide more links.)
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