The Persistence of Terror
by Rolando Alecio and Ruth Taylor
from the Report on Guatemala, Fall 1998
This article is based on the article "La Privatizacion
del Terror" written by Rolando Alecio for the Guatemalan
news magazine Noticias de Guatemala. This version of the article
was translated, edited and expanded on by Ruth Taylor, who works
with the Guatemalan news agency CERIGUA.
"It becomes necessary to record, in quantity and quality,
the magnitude of the harm produced by the counterinsurgency campaigns
and by state repression, in order to understand the deception
of wanting to erase this history and start afresh. The past that
we so joyfully wish to seal up is not only alive in individuals
and groups- victims and victimizers-but continues to operate in
the very social structures." (Ignacio Martin-Baro)
The Proliferation of Crime
One of the thorniest problems Guatemala faces today in its
attempt to build a true democracy is the damage caused by the
political repression of the past. The scars of the brutal counterinsurgency
campaigns of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s are worn not only by the
victims, their families and friends but by the society as a whole,
affecting both attitudes and behavior, as well as the country's
social fabric and imagination.
The terror inflicted on the population during the civil war
has metamorphosed in post-war society, but it has not disappeared.
It remains intact in the operations of dozens of crime rings-sophisticated
mafia-like networks-as well as urban youth gangs and rural bandits.
Today, more than a year and a half since peace was signed,
public insecurity in the face of crime and violence remains one
of the most deeply felt concerns of the Guatemalan population.
For the first year following the Peace Accords, police registered
more than 2,500 deaths by firearms and other weapons - about 7
a day. Although police claim that they are chipping away at the
problem, only 278 persons were arrested for homicide in that period.
Recently Guatemala was listed as having one of the highest
rates of kidnapping in the world: according to the British consulting
group Control Risks, the country ranks fourth worldwide, in absolute
terms. The Mutual Support Group for Relatives of the Disappeared
(GAM), documented 200 kidnappings for 1997.
Although rampant crime is the subject of daily public scrutiny
and discussion, official explanations, public opinion and the
media tend to reduce the problem to a simple lack of punitive
actions against offenders. Reference is rarely made to this situation
being a consequence of terror.
The Deep Roots of Terror
Beginning in the mid-1970s, in response to rising pressure
from below for radical change, Guatemala's rulers built a state
anchored in illegality and impunity, and armored it with one of
the most efficient and feared machines of terror in the history
of Latin America. Terror is government by intimidation, coercion
and fear. It is implemented when the state, or those who hold
power, feel threatened; to conserve their privileges-the status
quo-they resort to systematic violence and the planned violation
of human rights. In such a scenario, suffering regulates political
conduct. To carry out this strategy in Guatemala, tens of thousands
of members of the security forces- civilian, military and paramilitary-
were trained at home and in specialized schools abroad in the
methods and techniques of applying terror through surveillance,
kidnapping, torture and murder.
In general terms, the effects of terror on individuals, social
groups, and society as a whole can be observed immediately and
in the long run. In Guatemala, the most evident immediate effects
were displacement, disappearance and the destruction of tens of
thousands of lives and hundreds of communities. The long run effects,
while less visible, are no less dramatic.
One outcome of the end of the counterinsurgency war has been
the shift from state-sponsored to privately financed terror. As
Edgar Gutierrez of the Catholic Church's Recuperation of Historic
Memory (REMHI) project has noted, Guatemala's repressive structures
were "displaced, not dismantled." Although President
Alvaro Arzu won praise early in his term for purging a number
of corrupt personnel from the security forces, these individuals
were never brought to trial for their alleged offenses, leaving
them free to continue their criminal activities in civilian life,
and to use their connections with still-active security force
members and state officials to further their criminal ends. Similarly,
when the army disbanded the Civil Defense Patrols (PACs) there
was no supervision or follow-up by civilian authorities to ensure
that these paramilitary groups did not retain their role as local
strongmen under another name.
Common crime and other more serious offenses (such as rape,
kidnapping, torture and murder) are still being committed by many
of these counterinsurgency "experts." Every day, reports
in the media testify to the pivotal role of both retired and active
security force personnel who were trained in criminal means and
are now prepared for criminal ends. In one high-profile case,
the 1996 kidnapping and murder of teenager Beverly Sandoval, 18
of the 21 suspects rounded up were ax-members of military or paramilitary
forces. Two former army officers were also among the suspects
arrested for assaulting and raping a group of U.S. college students
Students demonstrating outside Supreme Court, demanding justice
in Mario Alioto murder case. Banner refers to numerous unprosecuted
murders and massacres; Nov. 1997. [Christina Albo]
"It's the ideal combination for the underworld,"
observed an editorial in the daily Prensa Libre. "Retired
(army personnel) operate under the protection of those who hold
public posts, which hinders to a great degree the investigations."
The state "has been an official school from which its institutions
have not been able to free themselves," it concluded.
Impunity Holds the Trump Card
One essential factor in preserving and amplifying the effects
of terror on a society is impunity. This phenomenon, which is
founded on the absence of truth and justice, always appears intrinsically
linked to the practice of terror. According to Guatemalan author
Mario Rene Matute, in using repression as a means of government,
the state has to offer "those who plan and those who execute
the full guarantee that their actions will take place in a climate
of absolute impunity... since punishment cannot be offered as
Impunity, then, instituted for the purpose of conducting a
"dirty" war against the Guatemalan population, extended
its roots into all the state's structures by legalizing the illegitimate,
the arbitrary, and the corrupt. It is a weed that is difficult
to extirpate, and is one of the reasons why the state has not
moved effectively to bring criminal groups under control. But
impunity is not the only cause. Although the U.N. Verification
Mission (MINUGUA) has repeatedly absolved the state of sponsoring
a policy of human rights violations, its most recent report, released
in June 1998, accused the government of "tolerance and acquiescence"
towards organized crime.
Resignation by state authorities in the face of crime can
be traced in part to the ruling class' historic relationship to
the army and to the counterinsurgency war itself. The governing
Party of National Advancement (PAN) represents the same oligarchy
that financed the war and turned the country over to the military
so it would "protect" their interests. But to date,
only the army has had to answer-although only at the level of
moral sanctions and a reduction in its scope of operations-for
the crimes committed during the terror. Members of the army who
lost their jobs because of the armistice, as well as those who
remain within the institution, know the "truth" about
the oligarchy's role in the war, and may be using it as their
trump card to ensure that they retain a degree of power, or at
least a free hand in carrying on their illicit trades.
Kidnappings have proven to be a handy tool for keeping the
elite in their place, not to mention a lucrative business. It
is perhaps ironic that Guatemala's oligarchy, who in the past
politically and materially supported state terror, are now often
the target of this transformed and privatized terror.
Furthermore, former military officers, well-equipped with
terror skills, are also in good position to destabilize the government
should the authorities try to put the squeeze on their operations.
Terror's Impact on the Social Fabric
In addition to a thriving criminal empire, the legacy of state
terror has other manifestations in society, many of them touched
on in a recent study by a team of Argentine psychologists who
examined their own country's experiences with terror. Although
differences exist between the processes of repression and impunity
in Argentina and Guatemala, a number of the team's conclusions
fit Guatemalan society today very well.
1. The continuing existence of fear, insecurity, and vulnerability.
Broad sectors of society display these feelings as a result
of their experience of living with terror. At sundown, whether
in the countryside or in the city, people hurry home to the relative
safety of closed doors. Among the war's victims, these feelings
can be much more acute. A survey by the National Widows Coalition
(CONAVIGUA) on wartime abuses found that the vast majority of
women and men interviewed reported crying fits, listlessness,
insomnia, tremors, difficulty thinking, fear, headaches, and feeling
of persecution. A smaller number referred to hallucinations, alcoholism,
fits of anger, jealousy, and mistrust as products of the war.
Such fears are reinforced by the prevailing climate of insecurity
2. Impunity becomes a social model.
The model of impunity is a model of omnipotence; it teaches
that you can get away with anything, that consequences are nonexistent.
Under the current government, although a number of human rights
cases have gone to trial, few have resulted in convictions. And
so far the masterminds, or intellectual authors, of these crimes
remain untouched. On several occasions, lower court convictions
have been successfully appealed and overturned. To date, no military
officer over the rank of sergeant has served time for a human
rights violation, and no one at all has answered for the 45,000
Guatemalans disappeared during the civil war, or for a single
massacre, despite a wealth of physical evidence gathered from
dozens of mass graves and extensive eyewitness testimonies.
This is especially dangerous for the young, who are at a stage
of their development where they are becoming part
of the social fabric of the country and are incorporating
values and norms of what is and what is not possible, what is
permitted and what is prohibited for coexistence and mutual respect.
In this atmosphere "maras"-youth gangs-have proliferated.
While many crimes committed by these gangs have material ends,
they are often accompanied by acts of violence that have no apparent
objective other than to terrorize the victims, causing serious
injuries or death in the act of stealing a purse, a watch, sunglasses.
Carlos Aldana, who oversees a crisis center for the Catholic
Church's Pastoral Social Ministry reports that violence among
children is increasingly common. In a recent column in Prensa
Libre he described several cases he has worked on, including a
brutal attack by a group of seven-year-olds on a younger girl
which left the victim blind.
3. The proliferation of vigilante "justice."
Lack of confidence in the ability of the state to sanction
criminal activity results in the appearance of "avenging"
individuals, groups or mobs, who seek to take justice into their
own hands by punishing suspected criminals. The most serious manifestation
of this phenomenon is the recourse to lynchings.
MINUGUA reports that in the last two years, angry crowds have
captured at least 100 suspected criminals and executed them on
the spot. The vast majority of these lynchings took place in the
countryside in response to petty theft; only 12 percent were responses
to crimes such as assault, rape or murder. MINUGUA also found
that many of the towns and villages where lynchings have occurred
are ones where paramilitary groups such as PACs or military commissioners
have been influential; on several occasions former members of
these organizations were identified as instigators of the mob
action. To date, in only two cases have those responsible been
The U.N. mission also confirmed the existence of armed groups
who carry out "social cleansing" campaigns against suspected
criminals and social outcasts (such as transvestites, prostitutes
and drug addicts). It reports that this year in La Libertad, Peten
province, a vigilante squad has already executed ten people, including
one child, torturing and mutilating its victims to provide horrific
warnings to other "wayward" citizens. Notes of explanation
were pinned to the corpses: "We're very sorry but we have
to clean up this village and there are still a lot more people
to go." Of course, such vigilante violence does not bring
security or justice, but rather generates more fear, prolongs
the cycle of violence, and contributes to general disrespect for
the rule of law.
5. Exaltation of "iron fist" policies and past oppressors.
The breakdown of the criminal justice system also prompts
calls by a frustrated populace for iron fist measures to combat
crime. When the state does not fulfill its function as social
guarantor, the promotion of a recognized repressor-a "father"
figure, arbitrary and all embracing, who ostensibly protects the
citizenry and promotes the "common welfare" and "justice"-
becomes possible. In Guatemala, this figure is embodied by former
dictator General Efrain Rios Montt, whose Republican Front (FRO)
nearly won the presidency in the last elections and still constitutes
the second strongest political force in the country. Despite heading
a regime in 1982-83 that was responsible for the most wartime
atrocities, many Guatemalans recall his rule as a time when criminals
got what they deserved.
Some observers contend that Rios Montt and his party may even
be using their links to the repressive structures of the past
to foment the current crime wave, destabilizing their political
rivals in the Arzu government and furthering their own chances
at the polls.
6. Support for the death penalty.
Feelings of personal insecurity, vulnerability and defenselessness
are used- by certain Former Civil Patrol members on trial for
a deadly 1993 attack on peaceful demonstrators, groups and by
the state itself to demand and Colotenango, Huehuetenango; July
1995. (They have since been acquitted.) justify the application
of the death penalty. In this case the population looks to the
law instead of a figurehead like Rios Montt to impose exemplary
punishments. Since peace was signed, three convicted murderers
have been sentenced to death and executed, the first executions
since civilian rule was restored in 1986. And now many Guatemalans
want the penalty applied to kidnappers too. In 1995 Congress instituted
the death penalty for kidnapping, but the measure contravenes
the InterAmerican Human Rights Convention, to which Guatemala
is a signatory, and has therefore never been applied. To resolve
this contradiction, several groups are currently lobbying the
state to renounce the convention.
What Does the Future Hold?
The negotiators of the Peace Accords worked to address the
issue of military control over internal security through several
measures placing it more squarely under civilian institutions.
Although the army has complied with some of these provisions,
it has yet to relinquish control of key areas of its former operations.
One such area is the military's exclusive hold on intelligence.
Neither the army nor the government has taken steps to establish
the civilian intelligence branch called for in the Peace Accords.
As long as the army controls intelligence, the civilian government
will be forced to rely on it for combating crime, as it does currently
in the case of kidnappings. Many analysts suspect that army intelligence
is well aware of who is behind organized crime in the country,
whether they are private citizens or hold posts within the state,
just as it knows who ordered the massacres of the past, and whose
interests were served by the counterinsurgency war. Wresting control
of intelligence from military hands is thus fundamental to bringing
the whole security apparatus under civilian management, as well
as to taking on organized crime.
In addition to addressing the role of the army in postwar
Guatemala, the Peace Accords seek to mend the many deficiencies
of the justice system and grant it more independence from the
executive branch. The Commission to Strengthen Justice, established
by the Peace Accords, has delivered its recommendations to the
government, but these have yet to be turned into policy or legislation.
Perhaps one of the Commission's most important conclusions is
the need to understand the administration of justice as much more
than the imposition of punitive measures. Reconciliation, one
of the underlying aims of the peace process, should also be a
central objective of the justice system. The current clamor for
the death penalty and other repressive responses to crime may
be reduced over time if reforms are successful in producing a
more effective justice system based on a different conception
Clearly, the country will not be able to overcome the experience
of terror and heal if its ailments are not thoroughly examined.
This means, among other things, facing the past, and taking steps
to understand and overcome its legacy. The eagerness of some sectors,
including the government, to put the past behind them and turn
their eyes only toward the future, is symptomatic of a superficial
approach to the peace process as a whole. Those points in the
Peace Accords which call for examining the past, compensating
the war's victims and encouraging reconciliation should not be
skipped over. If the legacy of terror left by the war is not addressed,
the construction of a true democracy may never get beyond the
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