October 2011        


Human rights still under threat in Guatemala

It is 1982, and the soldiers stand over four battered corpses. They look slightly confused at the questions from the journalist. “Why did you kill them?” asks the journalist. The young soldier with the gun that is almost the same size as himself replies that they interrogated them nicely, and when they didn’t co-operate they interrogated them not so nicely.
     “But why did you kill them?” comes the question again. “The major told us to do it” is the clear and frightening response.
     The major then comes into view. When he is asked what happened he says that they were rebels involved in training.
     The journalist produces materials that he says show that they were not actually rebels but rather students learning to read and write. The major offers no more responses.
     The major in question was Otto Pérez Molina. He topped the poll in Guatemala’s recent presidential election and is expected to win the run-off in November. He will thus become the first former military officer to become president since the end of the genocide in Guatemala.
     In 1982 Pérez Molina was in command on the ground in the Ixil Triangle when soldiers under his command began a village-by-village massacre campaign, which directly links him to torture, murder, and the disappearance of many people. The UN Truth Commission report Memoria de Silencio in 1999 stated that the army carried out daily acts of torture, genocide and terror in the Ixil region. “The investigation has also proved that the killings, especially those that were indiscriminate massacres, were accompanied by the razing of villages. This was most significant in the Ixil region, where between 70% and 90% of villages were razed.”
     It cannot be stressed enough that Pérez Molina was a commanding officer in that region during those acts of genocide. This links him directly to genocide.
     Many human rights groups have accused Pérez Molina of being directly involved in the systematic use of torture and acts of genocide in Guatemala in the 1980s. He was formerly the head of the military intelligence agency known as D2 or G2; he was also the head of a covert branch of the presidential general staff known as the EMP. Both G2 and the EMP have been directly implicated in some of the worst abuses of human rights during the genocide in Guatemala. G2 had a series of torture centres and body dumps throughout Guatemala. Torture included electric shocks, burning and even chopping off limbs. During the massacres carried out by soldiers under Pérez Molina’s command, horrendous crimes were committed, including the cutting open of pregnant women and the disembowelling of unborn children.
     Pérez Molina was also in command of a detachment in the department of Quiche. In Quiche during the 1980s, the worst years of the conflict, more than three hundred massacres were carried out by the army. The very fact that Pérez Molina was the head of military intelligence in that area clearly shows that he participated in, organised and supported the crimes and acts of genocide that were being carried out.
     On 12 March 1992 a Mayan leader, Efraín Bamaca, was captured and taken to the Santa Ana Berlin military base. The same day a high-level intelligence meeting was held at the same base. A decision was made to put Bamaca on a secret “intelligence programme” specifically for valuable prisoners. The “intelligence programme” consisted of long-term torture in order to break the prisoner psychologically and bring about collaboration. Bamaca was severely and systematically tortured for more than two years. The torture techniques used included being drugged and injected with toxic substances. He has never been seen since. It is believed that he was thrown out of a helicopter and disappeared.
     The national director of military intelligence in March 1992 was no other than Otto Pérez Molina. He was the principal author of this programme; indeed declassified US documents confirm that military intelligence systematically tortured all prisoners, and then either executed them or forced them to collaborate. The people carrying out these actions reported directly to Pérez Molina.
     Pérez Molina has also been implicated in the murder in 1994 of Judge Edgar Ramiro Elías Ogaldez, who had been investigating the murder of two Mayan Presbyterian pastors. Pérez Molina’s involvement in these murders is the belief held by the archbishop’s human rights office in Guatemala. The chief suspects for the murders were a number of military officers. Pérez Molina is also implicated in the murder in 1998 of Bishop Juan José Gerardi, who was bringing attention to the crimes of the military during the previous four decades.
     Pérez Molina is a supporter of big business and of free trade. He is also, not surprisingly, a good friend of the US embassy in Guatemala. When he ran for president in 2007 he was a regular visitor to the embassy and was well known as America’s preferred candidate. He has also been accused of being on the payroll of the CIA.
     His election campaign is based on “mano dura,” the iron fist. A strong hand against crime is what he is speaking about. The irony of this is that Pérez Molina is himself little more that a thug. He is considered by many to be a vicious war criminal, and he is thought to have links with the narco-traffickers and crime networks that he is pledging to take on.
     While supporters of Pérez Molina will say that he is innocent, as he has never been convicted of anything, this simply does not stand up. It should be noted that there have been no convictions for the crimes carried out by the military. A quarter of a million people were killed during the conflict. Of these, according to the UN Truth Commission, at least 96 per cent were murdered by the military. The majority of these were innocent men, women and children who were killed for no other reason than that they were Mayan.
     This thug’s supporters also argue that, if these accusations were true, why is there not widespread reporting of the actions of Pérez Molina. The reasons are simple. Independent journalists are fearful for their and their family’s safety if they were to publicise these crimes. Most of Guatemala’s national news sources are censored. There is also a real fear that former colleagues of Pérez Molina who were also involved in the genocide are now working with narco-traffickers and organised crime networks and are at their formers general’s call to deal with opponents if need be. Indeed many believe he himself may be implicated in crimes that these former colleagues continue to commit as part of the gangs.
     So what is the alternative to Pérez Molina in the November presidential run-off? Manuel Baldizón is the other candidate. He is also believed to be on the payroll of the drug cartels. He has pledged to expand the National Guard; he has also declared that he will increase the use of the death penalty, and will consider pulling out of regional human rights agreements.
     What a great choice for the Guatemalan people in choosing the next president!

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