This is a murder story. P.D. James once commented that the satisfaction of murder stories comes not only from the intellectual exercise but from the value given to individual human life, even after death: the dead person matters, justice is seen to be done. My story is set in Guatemala however. There is no mystery, no satisfying resolution, and what it demonstrates is just how cheaply life is valued in this particular civilian democracy.footnote

Mrs Maria Mejia was a 47-year-old Maya woman who lived in the village of Parraxtut, in the Quiche province in the western highlands of Guatemala. It is a region of breathtaking beauty, where fantastic cloud formations compete for attention with the ridged and folded, pine-clad landscape. The small whitewashed adobe houses surrounded by blossoming fruit trees, cornfields and grazing sheep have a romantic air that belies the violence and exploitation this population has suffered. In the nineteenth century around 2.5 million acres was seized for coffee, sugar and cotton plantation development, serviced by a system of migrant labour whereby the highland Maya must spend months working for below-subsistence wages on the coastal plantations. It was this region that suffered most heavily in the early 1980s, when, under the guise of countering Marxist-Leninist subversion, whole communities were massacred and villages destroyed. Mrs Mejia’s first husband was just one of the estimated 100,000 killed and 35,000 who ‘disappeared’ in this period.

Mrs Mejia was murdered at 7.30 pm on Saturday, 17 March 1990 when two armed men burst into her house and shot her and her second husband. He survived to identify the killers as two military commissioners from his village, Juan de Leon and Domingo Castro. (Military Commissioners are former soldiers who continue to be paid and armed by the army to act as their representatives in the community.) Her death was reported on the Tuesday as one of twenty-five that had occurred in the previous 24 hours—a statistic that bears witness to the complete failure of Vinicio Cerezo’s Christian Democrat government to provide the people with any real security. At his inauguration in 1986, there were hopes that the first civilian government for twenty years might do something to ameliorate Guatemala’s desperate human rights situation. When I interviewed Cerezo at that time, he emphasized his determination to ‘establish a state of law regarding human rights. . .We are not going to have a sham democracy in this country. If I stay in power it is because I am making decisions. If not, we will be having this discussion in Miami.’ Dr Francisco Villagran Kramer, himself a former vice president, who fled the country in 1978 and returned in 1986, pointed out ‘the fantastic leverage’ that Cerezo had: namely, ‘the support of other governments who would have refused to recognize the army if it kicked him out. He didn’t use it. Power is very tempting and his objective became finishing the term of office.’

The ability of the military to dictate terms was demonstrated at the outset by Cerezo agreeing to an amnesty for all past abuses. However, there was a limited opening for popular organizations; a number of prominent exiles returned from abroad; and an attempt was made to create an independent national police force. The coup attempt of May 1988 marked a turning point. Although it failed, Cerezo appears to have had to make a number of concessions to stay in office, including limiting the growth of human-rights groups, cancelling the dialogue with the guerrillas, and ending all efforts to create the independent police force. Subsequently, human-rights abuses have steadily increased. Political leaders, labour organizers, teachers, human-rights monitors, students, church figures and peasants have all been targeted. At times the violence has been focused on one particular group—as in the autumn of 1989 when eight university students were killed and seven disappeared, thereby hitting at the student organizations. More recently, there have been greater problems in rural areas. Accurate figures are hard to establish. Rodolpho Roblez, director of the Guatemala section of the International Union of Food and Allied Workers, points out, ‘many political killings are disguised as common crime.’ He estimated, for example, that in the preceding week (the third week of April) 180 people had been killed for political reasons. The external Commission for Human Rights in Guatemala has recorded 55 extrajudicial killings and 14 disappearances between January and March. While Ramiro De Leon Carpio, human-rights ombudsman in Guatemala, has recorded 63 killings and 76 disappearances for the same period.

The gravity of the situation is best indicated by the unprecedented severity of the us State Department’s chapter on Guatemala in its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1989, in which it cited two thousand assassinations in that year, including ‘some by death squads and ultra-Right groups’. It went on to acknowledge the involvement of military personnel in some areas, the ‘poor human-rights record and high level of corruption’ of the national and treasury police. The us ambassador to Guatemala, Thomas Stroock, also condemned the continuing violations, saying publicly that the us Government found it very strange that none of the kidnappings and assassinations of students and political and union leaders had been solved. (This new-found us righteousness may reflect suspicion of the Guatemalan regime’s role in the drug traffic, and its declining value as a bastion against Sandinismo.) When Cerezo condemned the ambassador’s ‘meddling’, the us response was that to avoid comment would be to make it a silent accomplice. Meanwhile the un Human Rights Commission in Geneva agreed that the situation required increased monitoring—although it has not been placed in the ‘worst offender’ category.

The best that Americas Watch (a us human-rights organization) can say about Cerezo is that he is probably not actively involved in the repression. However, he has done nothing to prevent it or to bring the perpetrators to justice. Cerezo claims that members of the Far Right, backed by foreign terrorists, are responsible. The Minister of Defence, General Gramajo, told me that there might be some unsupervised police deep in the countryside, but on the whole blamed the terror on the ‘dirty work of personal bodyguards belonging to high ranking officials’. This, he said, was not ‘a matter for shame’, as Guatemala was moving forward slowly: ‘Sometimes I like to compare Guatemala to Georgia in the thirties: how were the owners of farms against the Blacks? All these things have to happen, it is a normal revolution of society.’ Guatemala was, after all, better than Kampuchea. ‘The armed forces are professionals. We have the power not to use power, in order to leave room for people to participate.’ However, in his report to Congress, human-rights ombudsman De Leon Carpio stated that between 1 January and 20 March he had received 16 denunciations of human-rights abuses against the army, 16 against the police and 7 against the army-sponsored civil patrols. In Americas Watch, scrupulous reports, as well as eyewitness and circumstantial evidence, implicate the security forces on numerous occasions; while the us Country Reports also recognize that ‘military personnel are mentioned in extrajudicial killings in rural areas.’

Whatever the role of the army in specific cases, there is no doubt that the militarization of the countryside in itself constitutes an enormous abuse of freedom. Prior to 1980, there were six military regions; there are now twenty-three. The base outside Solola has a turret shaped like a military boot—a clear signal to a largely illiterate rural population. A sign on the wall of the base outside the predominantly Indian town of Santa Cruz del Quiche reminds the population that ‘Here we are all Guatemala; it is your duty and ours to know, love and defend her.’ For some 900,000 peasants, this duty requires forced service in the civil patrols. These were set up in 1982 by Rios Montt as part of the army’s counterinsurgency strategy. From the government’s point of view the recruitment of adult males into an unpaid, local, self-defence unit was a brilliant way of providing low-cost security and controlling the rural population. From the villagers’ point of view, it was onerous, unpaid and often dangerous work that took time from their own fields that they could ill afford. Patrol duty usually consists of 24 hours patrolling every week. Those on patrol are expected to report any subversive activity. They may have to do manual labour for the army, and on occasion, poorly armed with machetes and elderly rifles, have been pushed into frontline confrontations with guerrillas. In the past, patrollers have also been forced by the army to commit atrocities; and as recently as 1989 have been the victims of atrocities themselves. On 17 August, army soldiers from a base near Coban shot and killed nine patrollers and wounded three. The army admitted responsibility for the ‘tragedy’, but so far no one has been arrested for the crime.