Guatemala Pierces Army's Shield

Long tradition of immunity on human rights abuses is broken by court's landmark sentence. RIGHTS ABUSES

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A ROADBLOCK has emerged on the only rocky road leading into the highland village of Santiago Atitlan, one manned not by soldiers with automatic weapons, but by local Indian men wearing embroidered knickers and straw hats.Each night around 11 p.m., a makeshift barrier seals off the 20,000 or so residents, mostly fiercely independent Tzutuhil natives. Men armed only with sticks and the ability to summon mobs of people with the blow of a whistle prevent Army patrols and jeep-loads of national police from passing through their town. This village, about 50 miles west of Guatemala City, took justice into its own hands last Dec. 2, after soldiers at the town's military post opened fire on thousands of residents who were protesting the attempted kidnapping of a local merchant by the Army. That barrage left 13 Indians dead, including a 10-year-old boy, and at least 20 wounded. Following an unprecedented wave of criticism the government ordered military and police forces removed from the town at the residents' request. Now, nearly a year after the high-profile massacre, the hamlet has become a symbol not only of grass-roots justice, but of the first crack in the wall of impunity that has protected killers within the Army and police for decades. In a landmark move, a military court last week sentenced two military men to prison for the Atitlan murders; Sgt. Maj. Efrain Garcia Gonzalez will serve 16 years in prison and Lt. Jose Antonio Ortiz will serve four years. "This sentencing begins a process of ending impunity in Guatemala and is in line with President Jorge Serrano [Elias]'s pledge to establish law and uphold the human rights of all citizens," says Attorney General Acisclo Valladares. "In fact, the president has instructed me to seek the maximum sentences of 30 years," in a court appeal.

Other cases idle But despite the hoopla surrounding the monumental sentencing of these two military men, other, more senior military officials have walked away from prosecution in recent weeks. Anibal Ruben Giron, commander of the Pacific Naval Base, was released less than two weeks after his arrest for the Aug. 9 massacre of 11 customs agents and truck drivers, despite a first-ever communique issued by the Army charging members of the military in the crime. Six servicemen remain in prison for the murders. Following the June 1990 murder of American ranch owner Michael DeVine, the high-profile case that led to last December's cutoff of United States military aid to Guatemala, three military men implicated in the killing - Col. Guillermo Portillo Gomez, Sgt. Fabian Armando de la Cruz, and Capt. Hugo Contreras - were released last month for lack of evidence. Five soldiers and one civilian remain under arrest in the incident. Colonel Portillo's release came just two weeks after a civilian court ruled that there was enough evidence to remove his military immunity and that he should be tried in a military court. Progress has been slight in other cases as well, such as the assassination in September 1990 of Guatemalan anthropologist Myrna Mack, as well as the kidnapping and sexual assault in November 1989 of American nun Diana Ortiz. The Santiago Atitlan massacre, as well as the Mack, DeVine, and Ortiz cases, were four of six human rights incidents cited by the US Congress in July when drafting a bill that would maintain the suspension of military aid and link future economic aid to progress on human rights. Congress is expected to vote this month on that bill, a touchy subject among Guatemalan politicians. "The US uses its aid as a carrot in front of a horse, and I feel there is something morally not right about this," says longtime Congressman Jorge Skinner Klee. "The Americans have always been known here as the immortals.... You can't kill them, they just go on and on and on," he says, referring to continuing US concern over murders of US citizens like DeVine. "The cases that are important to the US are not necessarily the cases most important to Guatemala," he says. "And these human rights incidents didn't even happen while Serrano was president, but before, so don't condemn him on the past." Some observers say that, while Serrano may have good intentions, he will never fully rein in the military. "The Giron case was really something because that was the first time the military has ever even taken responsibility for a crime, and at the urging of a civilian president," a European diplomat says. "But overall, they may get a sergeant, but they are never going to get the colonels and the higher-ups," he says. "The military's influence is just too entrenched." Besides the difficulties the 10-month-old Serrano administration has faced in trying to end military impunity, other moves toward protecting human rights also have stalled. Last week, while Major Garcia and Lieutenant Ortiz were being convicted and sentenced, a fifth round of peace talks designed to end Central America's oldest civil war broke down when rebel and government leaders failed to reach an agreement on respecting human rights. A government promise to allow Indian representation at the talks was never implemented. Serrano says he will suspend talks until the rebels become more flexible. Guerrilla leaders have refused to budge on a list of 11 demands that include a request for indemnification for victims of human rights violations. Serrano's supporters counter that at least both sides have started talking. They say the president has made progress on human rights, pointing to his appointment of businessman Bernardo Neumann as head of the first presidential commission on human rights and a new, tougher penal code to be considered by the Guatemalan legislature next month.

Presidential commitment "The government's dedication to getting these cases [like DeVine's] solved is absolute," Mr. Neumann says. "Whether we get aid or not, we work on principle." "The president wants these cases to move fast," he says, snapping his fingers. "In the United States, a lawsuit can take years as well." Finally, while Serrano may have experienced some setbacks, he could be the first president who has not denied the country's poor human rights record. "We are not fighting just against the structures, but we are also fighting against a culture of death and violations that have been the history of the country for, I can say, everybody in the society," Serrano says in an interview with US reporters. "So it is not just a struggle between civilians and the military, it is a problem of the insurgency and it is a problem of impunity in general that everybody believes they can act outside the law. "What has been my work," he says, "is to put everybody in the law, inside the law."

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