Human Rights in Guatemala And the `Rule of Law'

The government's unwillingness to protect human rights puts democracy on precarious footing

UNTIL the last week in May the world had once again forgotten Guatemala, precisely as its military rulers wished.

During the 1980s, when El Salvador's brutal civil war and United States relations with Nicaragua's Sandinista government seemed to dominate hemispheric relations, Guatemala's army quietly massacred tens of thousands of civilians whose loyalties to an oppressive status quo were suspect.

Yet, when former President Jorge Serrano Elias failed in his "self coup" attempt and the Guatemalan Congress named former human rights prosecutor Ramiro de Leon Carpio as president last month, Guatemala and its fragile transition to democracy were once again in the international spotlight.

President de Leon, a man with a brave record on human rights, has pledged to strengthen the rule of law and safeguard human rights in Guatemala. While we laud his pledge, we urge that he be judged by his performance with respect to three critical cases that have made a mockery out of Guatemala's supposed transition to civilian rule.

The first case, the murder of Myrna Mack Chang, a prominent Guatemalan anthropologist who was stabbed 27 times in front of her downtown office in September 1990, is the best known proof that high-ranking military officers routinely get away with murder in Guatemala.

Although an enlisted man has been convicted of her murder, he did not plan the crime. He took orders from senior officers.

De Leon must reopen the investigation into the men most likely behind the crimes - high-ranking officers in the elite presidential guard - something that the Serrano government cravenly refused to do.

The second case, concerning Judge Roberto Lemus Garza, a Guatemalan judge who was forced to flee to the US because of his efforts to investigate human rights abuses (using techniques learned in a US-sponsored judicial training program), illustrates that no amount of training and foreign aid will allow Guatemala to achieve democracy until its rulers summon the political will to protect those who seek to enforce the rule of law.

Mr. Lemus, a distinguished human rights scholar, continued to be the target of public attacks by the former minister of defense - the same man who backed the Serrano coup attempt - even while in exile.

De Leon should publicly apologize to Lemus for his ordeal and seek to provide him with guarantees of safety so that it would be safe for him to return to his position as a judge in Guatemala.

De Leon must send a message that judges like Lemus are exactly the type of judges that will be supported in Guatemala.

The third case, involving the recent prosecution of Amilcar Mendez, Guatemala's most prominent human rights spokesman, reveals that the justice system is subject to manipulation by the security forces to abuse human rights instead of protecting them.

Mr. Mendez, the leader of the human rights group, Consejo de Communidades Etnicas Runujel Junam (CERJ), was arrested on a series of trumped-up charges and was only released after being accompanied to court by representatives of five international human rights organizations, a bar association, two congressional representatives and a ranking foreign diplomat. Moreover, members of CERJ have continued to be the targets of paramilitary violence.

De Leon should welcome Mendez back to Guatamala and guarantee that he and the members of his organization are protected from spurious legal attacks as well as more direct forms of violence.

When he was Guatemala's chief human rights prosecutor, De Leon frequently spoke out on behalf of CERJ and its courageous activities. As president, he should do no less.

Democracy is on precarious footing in Guatemala. One of the central reasons for this instability has been the unwillingness of the Guatemalan government to protect those involved in the administration of justice and the protection of human rights.

Until now, those who have supported the rule of law in Guatemala have been hunted down and killed or forced to flee the country only steps ahead of their pursuers.

De Leon must break this vicious cycle. These three cases provide him with a clear blueprint for immediate action that would send a strong message to those who abuse human rights in Guatemala.

De Leon must establish a true rule of law for all Guatemalan citizens and place special emphasis on protecting those fighting for the rule of law and human rights.

Without the establishment of the rule of law, there is no hope that any president - no matter how well intentioned - will be able to make democracy succeed in Guatemala.

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