The Army Reasserting Its Power to Intimidate

<i> Victor Perera is the author of "Unfinished Conquest: The Guatemalan Tragedy" and "The Cross and the Pear Tree: A Sephardic Journey."</i>

Seven weeks after the murder of Guatemalan Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi, the peace accords signed a year and a half ago by the government and leftist guerrillas hang in the balance. The indigenous and human-rights support groups that helped to end the 36-year civil war have relapsed temporarily into the numbness and paranoia that marked the early 1980s, when 44,000 Guatemalans were tortured and killed or disappeared. Most distressing of all, the killing machine and keeper of the secrets, the Guatemalan army, which has yet to comply with the peace accords by reducing its numbers by one-third, may win back some Washington aid and support cut off by President Jimmy Carter in the late ‘70s.

The bludgeoning of the bishop occurred two days after he presented a report by the human-rights office of the archdiocese of Guatemala City. The report, titled “Never Again in Guatemala,” blamed the military for nearly 80% of the human-rights violations during the civil war and named the officers and army units involved in many of the 442 recorded massacres of civilians. The murder sent a chilling message to the former U.N. special envoy, Christian Tomuschat, who heads the Historical Clarification Commission that is due to publish its findings of human-rights violations later this year.

The brief flurry of international attention that Gerardi’s assassination attracted has been followed by almost total silence, deepening Guatemalans’ cynicism and fortifying the bishop’s enemies. Until last week, the one murder suspect in custody was widely assumed to be incapable of having committed the crime because of a physical deformity in his right arm. As the investigation continues, with the aid of FBI agents, tensions among the military, the government and the Catholic Church are escalating. The Guatemalan press reported a rumor of an army plot to manipulate the suspect’s defense lawyer into suggesting a homosexual link in Gerardi’s murder. High-ranking church prelates retaliated by openly accusing the military of assassinating the bishop. Then, the interior minister presented a second suspect, further clouding the picture.

All this is intensifying the country’s deep-seated revulsion toward the old-guard military officers. In addition, resentment continues to build against the centuries-old impunity that impedes the prosecution, conviction and sentencing of officers who ordered the killings and disappearances of civilians.


Another target of festering resentment is the role of the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1954 overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, who introduced agrarian-reform statutes repugnant to the United Fruit Company and other U.S. interests. Most Guatemalans now share the view of veteran observers that Arbenz’s overthrow, plotted and executed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s government in the name of defeating communism, triggered the leftist insurgencies of the 1960s and the military’s brutal response. The fallout of that war continues to blight Guatemalans’ dwindling hopes for a peaceful transition to a durable democracy.

Gerardi’s murder converged with the introduction in the U.S. Congress, by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif. and Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), of the Human Rights Information Act. The bill would order U.S. foreign policy and intelligence agencies to release within 150 days “all human rights records regarding activities occurring in Guatemala and Honduras after 1944.” It is currently in a House subcommittee, whose members will vote next month whether to send it to the full committee. If the legislation becomes law, it would mandate declassification of thousands of documents outlining the U.S. intelligence services’ role in fomenting Central America’s anticommunist wars.

For more than 40 years, the U.S. government has balked at releasing documents detailing the CIA’s initiative in overthrowing Arbenz and replacing him with a colonel with anticommunist credentials. As Guatemalan generals have pointedly suggested, the documents will reveal the CIA’s role in birthing and funding the proto-fascist Movement of National Liberation, whose “mano blanca” death squads were responsible for the disappearance of thousands of Guatemalans in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Most damagingly, the documents are said to reveal how the CIA, the National Security Council, the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas and other government agencies fueled Guatemala’s war by training and arming the 44,000-strong Guatemalan army, the most deadly apparatus of counterinsurgency in Latin American history.

Even if the Lantos-Dodd bill becomes law, however, the CIA and other government agencies are unlikely to release the most sensitive documents in their files. To do so, they will claim, would endanger the lives of key operatives engaged in post-Arbenz, post-Cold War operations against international drug traffickers.


Yet, until the full story of the CIA’s collusion in Guatemala’s war is disclosed, the country’s old-guard military will continue to hold the U.S. government hostage. How else to explain the Clinton administration’s ill-timed move to normalize relations with Guatemala’s military by petitioning Congress to renew aid and training support. It also may be a litmus test of how much leverage Guatemala’s officers can apply in Washington. But unless the assassination of Gerardi is resolved, the peace process itself will be held hostage, which means the torture, murder and disappearance of 200,000 Guatemalans will remain frozen in memory, demoralizing the opponents of military impunity; forestalling the healing and conciliation of survivors who still hope to bury their loved ones in dignity and forgiveness, and silencing the more progressive officers who have come up in the ranks since the signing of the peace accords and who are intent on cleaning up the military’s international image.

Archbishop Prospero Penados del Barrio, who is receiving death threats since his auxiliary bishop’s murder, observed some years ago that the Berlin Wall may have fallen, but in the minds of Guatemala’s military the Cold War had found a permanent abode. When Gerardi’s head was smashed and his brains were spilled on the floor, both Guatemala’s cold warriors and their North American counterparts had a vested interest in blotting out his memory, and that of millions of other Guatemalans who bore witness to the unholy secret alliance the U.S. government forged with their right-wing military 45 years ago.