Dark Cloud Hangs Over Guatemalans


Despite last week's conviction of three soldiers for the murder of a Roman Catholic bishop, Guatemala is facing its most serious political and social crisis since the country's long and bloody civil war ended five years ago, according to a growing number of political leaders, judicial officials and human rights groups.

The country's top politicians are enmeshed in scandal, its justice system is under violent attack, and its people are showing increasing signs of frustration with the failure of peace accords to deliver promised reform.

The situation is so bad that thousands of Guatemalans have begun wearing black on Fridays as a protest against government corruption and higher taxes.

"This country is about to fall apart," said Frank La Rue, head of one of the nation's most prominent civil rights groups, the Center for Human Rights Legal Action. "There's a total lack of authority."

On the political front, coup rumors circulate monthly. Congressional leaders are struggling to find a constitutional way to replace the president. Business leaders are threatening a general strike in the face of a proposed new series of taxes.

On the judicial front, crime is soaring; judges, lawyers and politicians have been lynched, bombed and shot in recent months; and the government has ordered the army into the streets to supplement the police force.

The economic news is equally grim. Several banks are on the verge of collapse. A recent International Monetary Fund report showed that despite tough fiscal reform, more than 60% of the population lives below the poverty line. Nearly two-thirds of the country's land remains in the hands of 2.5% of its population. The country's GDP growth has slowed several years in a row.

"The situation here is like tinder," said retired Gen. Otto Perez Molina, a popular politician whose son, daughter and wife have all survived machine-gun attacks in recent months. "All that's needed is a match."

One possible source of combustion relates to the case of Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi, who was bludgeoned to death April 26, 1998, just two days after releasing a human rights report that blamed the military for the vast majority of deaths in the country's 35-year civil war.

On Friday, a sergeant and two top-ranking officers, including a former head of military intelligence, were found guilty of Gerardi's murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison without parole. A priest was convicted of covering up the crime.

The results are sure to reignite a long-simmering feud between the military, which has seen its power slip since the peace accords, and left-leaning social reformers, some of them former guerrillas.

"It's a judicial trial that has political implications," said former Defense Minister Juan de Dios Estrada, who has worked to bring the sides together since the peace accords.

Church officials, for instance, successfully petitioned the judges deciding the case to continue the investigation to determine the involvement of other high-ranking political or military figures. Among those the church is seeking to pursue is former President Alvaro Arzu.

Bishop Mario Rios Montt, who replaced Gerardi as head of the church's human rights office, is certain that those who ordered the killing have yet to come to justice.

"We have the ones who committed the crime," he said. "But in the chain of command, we don't have the ones who gave the order."

Equally vehement though less public proclamations fill the million-dollar homes and exclusive restaurants tucked in the hills overlooking downtown Guatemala City.

There, the former military leaders and politicians who ran the country during the civil war believe that the Gerardi trial was a sham, conducted by resurgent leftists seeking revenge.

"Why would the military kill the bishop?" said one general, dining on duck in a raspberry wine sauce in a restaurant overlooking the lights of the capital. "It's too obvious."

In an interview with a local newspaper published last month, Retired Col. Disrael Lima Estrada, the former military intelligence chief convicted Friday, proclaimed his innocence, alleging persecution by Communist sympathizers and asserting, "The war continues."

Faith in Justice System Shaken by Scandals

One reason for the focus on the Gerardi trial is that people's faith in the justice system has already been shaken by political scandals that have eluded a judicial resolution.

For instance, the president of Congress, Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, a former dictator, managed only a few weeks ago to escape prosecution for his role in a scandal involving alcohol taxes.

Rios Montt, the bishop's brother, allegedly engineered a change in the tax after its approval by Congress, cutting the rate in half. Although the country's Constitutional Court found enough evidence to move ahead with the case, a local prosecutor refused, saying there was insufficient proof.

Last week, more than 300 members of Guatemala's Maya population filed a suit charging Rios Montt with genocide in connection with a series of massacres that took place under his rule in the early 1980s. But the tax case's abrupt end left many Guatemalans wondering how a panel of justices could examine evidence and reach one result while a prosecutor could decide the opposite.

Still another blow to people's faith in the justice system came in the case of Gen. Perez, a charismatic politician who played a leading role in the country's peace talks.

Rather than investigating the attacks on his family members as attempted political assassinations, one top official described the crimes as "car robberies." Others have speculated that the attacks were related to Perez's role in the arrest of a top Mexican drug dealer.

'We Don't Deserve a Government Like This'

But Perez thinks the crimes were political. Only days before his daughter and wife were attacked, he had begun to send out invitations announcing the formation of his new political party, the first step toward a run for the presidency.

"The government must win the confidence of its own people. So far, this has not been the case," Perez said. "We don't deserve a government like this."

Growing crime is one of Guatemala's most pressing problems. From 1999 to 2000, the number of muggings more than doubled. Killings have gone from seven a day in 1999 to 11 a day this year.

One of the most remarkable features of Guatemalans' response to the crime surge is the near-universal belief that a massive front of organized crime has developed in the country with the help of ex-military leaders.

Pressed for examples, however, few can name a mob boss. And there are only scattered examples of ties between the military and organized crime.

While U.S. officials place part of the responsibility for the crime increase on turnover problems in the country's police, including five different national police chiefs in 14 months, Guatemalans blame dark forces now in control of the country.

"There are 300 tons of cocaine a year moving through this country," said one analyst, referring to recent U.S. State Department estimates that show drug traffic soaring over the past few years. "Who do you think is controlling all that?"

Partly, the government's inability to tackle the country's problems stems from deepening internal political divisions.

President Alfonso Portillo won election in 1999 with strong backing from Rios Montt, the former dictator. Since then, however, the two men have had trouble agreeing on anything.

Economic reforms that were supposed to improve the tax system--perhaps the single most pressing issue for Portillo--have failed to pass after more than a year of debate, although Rios Montt controls Congress and Portillo the presidency.

"Everyone is tired of this government," said Helen Mack, a human rights activist. "There's a war going on between the legislature and the executive."

Then there is the issue of the peace accords themselves.

Five years after they were signed, only a few of the accords have been realized, such as a reduction in the size of the armed forces. Other, more sweeping reforms have been put on hold for several years.

In response, some indigenous groups in nine different rural areas have seized land they believe was promised them as part of the reforms. And in San Marcos province, a band of armed men has identified itself as a new leftist guerrilla group.

Even top government officials acknowledge that more must be done to achieve the accords--or more trouble awaits Guatemala.

"It's not a problem of political will, it's a problem of resources," said Edgar Gutierrez, a top advisor to Portillo. "Guatemala is a state without many resources, technical know-how or strong institutions.

"These are all elements of a Molotov cocktail."

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