Power Struggle in Guatemala

The Obama Administration's Destructive Role

Indigenous women celebrate after former Guatemalan dictator Rios Montt was convicted of genocide against the native Ixil people. (Wikimedia)

In late 2011, Guatemala’s powerful attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, brought criminal charges of genocide against the country’s former leader, General Efrain Rios Montt. In May of this year, at the end of a long and highly unusual trial, the 86-year-old Rios Montt—who had helped save Guatemala from a leftist insurgency—was convicted of genocide and sentenced to 80 years in jail. The international Left celebrated the verdict, which promised to give the Left a dramatic increase in power. U.S. media highlighted the verdict but ignored a fact well known to Guatemalans: the U.S. had lobbied for Rios Montt to be convicted.

Shortly after the verdict, Guatemala’s highest judicial authority, its constitutional court, overturned the trial on procedural irregularities, declaring it null and void. In mid-October, however, the same court revived the case by instructing a lower-court judge to determine whether the amnesty granted at the end of Guatemala’s civil conflict should apply to Rios Montt. If amnesty applies, the trial is over. If amnesty does not apply, the trial will proceed.

Most people in Guatemala have been unable to follow the complicated legal battle. But almost everyone here understands that no genocide was committed. Most also know the country is riddled with corruption, and they know of the system’s crushing incompetence. Those who put it all together can see that no decision, even a judicial one, is based in law when powerful interests are at play.

The only law that governs in Guatemala today is one that’s never directly stated and requires an act of will to discover. America’s diplomats have all the information they need to discover it, but they’ve chosen not to. And U.S. media that have sympathized with Guatemala’s leftist insurgents—big guns like The New York Times, CBS and PBS—will shed no light on the matter. But a major conservative medium, The Wall Street Journal, dropped a very broad hint when it began running articles that reflected the views of the former guerrillas.

“Guatemala Opens Inquiry Into Disappearance of Ex-Rebel Fighter” by Nicholas Casey, on November 5, 2011, pointed clearly to the agenda that the ex-guerrilla Left was using to extort favors from the man who was about to win the presidency, retired General Otto Perez. “If you do not give us a share of power in your administration,” leftists could clearly be heard in the article telling Perez, “we are going to make your life miserable with these kinds of investigations.” And The Journal’s story, on its face, was backing the leftist instigators.

The Journal, which pays more attention to Guatemala than do most American media, has steadily taken the side of that country’s oligarchs. So its interest in the fate of a missing guerrilla commander was a matter of some significance. Might it signal a new alignment of political forces?

Indeed it did, and the new alignment is this: power in Guatemala is now being shared by an unlikely coalition of the extreme right and the extreme left. Former guerrillas, practicing Marxists, are in bed with the oligarchs and their political stooges, each party helping the other in countless, invisible ways. The Wall Street Journal won’t directly say it; The New York Times will not even hint at it; and neither will speak for the broad majority of people, from the upper middle classes to the rural peasants, whose interests are being attacked every day by the coalition of extremes.

In this arrangement, the oligarchs have the presidency of Otto Perez and the former guerrillas have the justice ministry of Claudia Paz y Paz. The oligarchs continue to do their moneymaking “business as usual” without interference from the Marxists, who are in charge of law enforcement. This division of power explains the anomaly of a former leader, whose fight against the leftist insurgency had been a boon to the oligarchs, being prosecuted under the rule of an oligarchs’ president.

Attorney General Paz y Paz worked very hard to bring the case against Rios Montt. She is a dogmatic leftist with family ties to former insurgent groups. Her career has been devoted to settling scores with those who prevented a Marxist takeover of her country. She is a doctor of law who operates with a stunning indifference to legal protocol. Her ministry actually promotes illicit land-grabbing operations by armed leftist gangs in Guatemala’s countryside.

If Paz y Paz were submitted to a vote of the people in her own ministry, she would be ousted in a landslide. But beyond Guatemala, in the precincts of international institutions and “progressive” media, it is all smiles for the heroic justicer and woman who is said to defend the interests of the oppressed. And she receives open, enthusiastic backing from the Obama State Department, whose policy is aided by the silence of the press.

Speaking to a Guatemalan columnist, U.S. Ambassador Arnold Chacon said that Paz y Paz is a personal favorite of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s. The ambassador explained that, whenever he visited the State Department during Clinton’s tenure, he was ushered into the Secretary’s office ahead of many others because Clinton wanted first-hand reports of Paz y Paz’s activities. According to other sources, Clinton used her weight with President-elect Perez to keep Paz y Paz in office, as her term had begun under the previous president.

Most egregiously, the U.S. embassy provided explicit support to Paz y Paz and her ministry during Rios Montt’s prosecution. In a highly questionable move, Ambassador Chacon attended a critical session of the trial. The embassy then took the step of issuing a statement that all but called for Rios Montt’s conviction. The statement, in Spanish only and unmentioned by U.S. media, extravagantly lauded the process of justice under Paz y Paz’s ministry. It then said:  “We exhort all Guatemalans to respect the legitimacy and integrity of this process.”

What business does a U.S. embassy have to lecture a foreign populace? Who authorized this foolish proclamation? Do we have an embassy out of control, or a State Department that doesn’t know what it’s about, or both?

The outright support of the U.S. embassy for the prosecution in this case—like the case itself—is incomprehensible from any vantage point besides that of raw politics. After all,  the charge was genocide—not wanton or excessive violence, not the abuse of civilians by armed forces, but “the systematic extermination of an entire people or national group,” to quote the dictionary definition.

Guatemala experienced more than three decades of armed conflict in which each of the contending parties had an armed force. It was not simply a situation—as the Left would have it—in which an oppressive state power imposed its depredations on an innocent, largely indigenous, civilian populace. The Leftists had their guerrillas,  extensively financed from abroad, who committed spectacular violence through kidnapping, murder, and terrorism. The international media and institutions like the UN—to say nothing of Paz y Paz’s ministry—have all but ignored the crimes committed by the guerrillas. Since the truce that halted the armed conflict in 1996 also included a provision of amnesty, that may be seen as appropriate. But the spirit of amnesty is not upheld if it is applied to one side only, and Paz y Paz has been carrying out a legal revanchism in her prosecution of Rios Montt.

When Rios Montt was chief of state, he agreed to have the UN issue a human rights report, which it did from 1983 straight through to 1997; each report covering the previous year, and the last report covering the year in which the peace accords were signed. Not once did the UN ombudsman mention the crime of genocide in these annual reports. The UN had observers in Guatemala for about five years, and neither did they mention genocide. The UN was a party to the peace accords; had genocide occurred, UN officials would have been accomplices to it for not having denounced it.

The defense pointed to those facts and argued that no finding of genocide had ever been made. The court ignored this argument and simply moved to the testimony of witnesses. The prosecution put on about 100 witnesses. They mostly testified to things they had seen—massacres, rapes, mutilations, and more. Some witnesses claimed to have been raped repeatedly at military bases. Victims appeared to have been coached to say ‘yes’ to all questions about having been raped, so they just said they returned to the bases and were raped again. One witness claimed his two-year-old son had been murdered but, considering his age when he testified, the witness would have been nine years old at the time.

The prosecution established that atrocities had occurred, but they did not connect those atrocities to the charge of genocide. They appeared to argue that the crimes were so vile, the charge of genocide should be made to fit. When the defense tried to cross-examine, the court repeatedly interrupted the defense and restricted its questions.

Likewise, the prosecution’s experts were given great latitude to say whatever they wanted. They freely gave their opinions about what had occurred but did not make the case for genocide. When the defense tried to scrutinize those opinions in cross-examination, the court repeatedly overruled it. Effectively, defense lawyers were disallowed from mounting a defense.

After about three weeks of the trial, defense lawyers decided that they were in a farcical proceeding and that their clients would be convicted no matter what. They stated their intention to abandon the court-room, an unprecedented move. The trial judge must not have been paying attention, because when the lawyers walked out the judge was caught by surprise. The walkout brought the trial to a halt, and the judge was caught up in a calamity. In the next session, part of the defense team returned to the court under pressure from family-members of the accused. But the unusual move by defense lawyers had dealt the court a blow. It was the following session of the trial that U.S. Ambassador Chacon attended, giving the clear message that he had come to support the judge and the process. There followed Rios Montt’s conviction and the action of the constitutional court, setting aside the final weeks of the proceedings.

Other circumstances beyond the trial provided a powerful argument against the genocide charge. When Rios Montt, always a popular politician, ran for president in 2003, he lost the campaign but won the preponderant support of the very people, the Ixils, whom he was later accused of annihilating. During the trial, thousands of Ixil people—in the face of deafening silence by international media—protested publicly on behalf of Rios Montt. If the genocide charge had contained any truth at all, those Ixils would have been like Jews demonstrating for Hitler. During the leftist insurgency, many of the Ixil people had actually fought alongside Rios Montt, both in the army and in the anti-guerrilla militias which rural peasants had asked the army to help them organize. The decades of internecine conflict in Guatemala had seen the same fact dramatized again and again: members of the same ethnic groups fighting on different sides of the conflict. And the fact points to a truth which Guatemalans intuitively recognize: genocide is a crime impossible to commit against yourself.

You can, however, take a ride to hell with the U.S. embassy. In a perfect parroting of Leftist verbiage, the embassy statement asserted that measures like the trial were “an important step toward reconciliation.” How would Guatemalans see as reconciliation a faulty verdict imposed by ex-guerrillas with the overt support of the United States? But some people never quit. According to sources, our State Department is already lobbying for Paz y Paz’s reappointment when her present term expires next year.

This article first appeared in the FrontPage Mag.
Steve Hecht contributed to this article.

Armando De La Torre

Contributing Editor Armando De La Torre is dean of the Graduate School of Social Sciences at Francisco Marroquín University in Guatemala City, Guatemala. He is a US citizen of Cuban origin and a former Jesuit priest, and he holds masters degrees in philosophy and theology and a PhD in philosophy from the University of Munich, Germany. He was prefect of studies at the Latin American Seminary in the Vatican, where the vast majority of Latin American bishops study. Invited by universities and other institutions, he has given conferences on a wide range of subjects, especially rule of law and market economics, in Italy, France, Spain, Korea, Germany, and every country in Latin America. He studied journalism and is a published author and columnist.

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