Guatemala is approaching six months of Otto Pérez Molina’s Patriot Party government, and while it is too early–and Guatemalan politics too volatile–to definitively signal the administration’s long-term impacts on issues related to security and justice, a review of this eventful week suggests some disturbing trends.
Ambivalent tendencies in citizen security
The Interior Ministry closed last week on a tentatively triumphant note, with Minister Mauricio López Bonilla announcing a reduction of homicides in the first months of 2012, falling from a rate of 16 violent deaths per day to 13. The Ministry highlighted recent cases of the dismantling of criminal groups including car thieves and a ring of police and state attorneys involved in the trafficking of drug lab chemicals. However, news reports revealed an alarming increase in disappearances, with La Hora citing a figure of 811 cases more than last year. “In some occasions people reported as disappeared may have returned, or may have travelled to the U.S. without the security forces having been notified in order for statistics to be updated,” explains La Hora. Without access to more detailed data on these cases, it is impossible to speculate whether these disappearances are related to migration, human trafficking, drug violence, “social cleansing” killings, or other causes. In any case, the claim that the disappeared may simply have travelled to the North is a chilling repetition of the government’s past justification of forced disappearances. When mothers of the disappeared in México are shouting the slogans that echoed in the streets of Guatemala during the 1980s– “They were taken alive, we want them back alive” –it is hard to argue that the abuses of the past are not being repeated, even if the actors and dynamics have mutated.
The news was also pointedly ambivalent regarding the safety of transportation in Guatemala City, with La Hora releasing a long report documenting the evolution of violent extorsions from targetting bus drivers to taxis, while on the same day also reporting that robberies of buses have increased. The report on bus extorsions illuminates the apparently politically-motivated rise of attacks on buses during the 2007 electoral campaign and the first months of President Álvaro Colom’s administration: “[President Colom] assumed office on January 14, 2008, and as if it were war without quarter, an unstoppable wave of violence was unleashed on the public transportation system, reaching record levels.” Since 2007, at least 1188 drivers, fare-takers, and commuters have been killed in incidents including grenade attacks and a firebombing in January 2011 which killed 9 people. Rumors of political coordination of the violence abounded, but have never been proven. A jailed former military officer was implicated in the 2011 firebombing. Now the Urban and Suburban Transport Users’ Association and the Mutual Support Group (GAM), an influential human rights organization, report that at least 15 taxi drivers have been killed this year in apparent extorsions.
Epic fail: #ElGobiernoRecomienda
Shortly after the Interior Ministry’s optimistic progress report, the Ministry was embroiled in a rather epic fail. In response to an apparent pattern of organized carjackings and sexual assaults on one of Guate City’s main highways, the Ministry released a patronizing set of “self-protection” guidelines for women, advising that women not drive or leave home alone after 8pm, not use cash machines or gas stations, and not post personal information on social networks. The Twitter-enabled proles lashed back with the sarcastic hashtag #ElGobiernoRecomienda, producing some stinging examples of Chapín black humor, as well as earnest commentary urging anti-sexist approaches to public safety:
Vice-president Roxanna Baldetti herself got into the fray, announcing her disagreement with the Ministry’s pronouncement and agreeing to a social network user’s proposal that she accompany her, without police escort, on her evening commute. The Interior Ministry quickly rolled back and deleted the “self-protection” guidelines from its webpage. Baldetti likely won some points with the public and maybe even against Maurico López Bonilla as one of Pérez Molina’s closest advisors, though the country’s largest newspaper, Prensa Libre, pushed back against Baldetti in an editorial, basically accusing her of being uppity and divisive for her statements. It will be revealing to see if this kind of sexist discourse continues as Baldetti’s power increases, since such patriarchal attitudes were seen as playing a large part in the venomous treatment of her spiritual successor, former First Lady Sandra Torres.
Captain Byron Lima: “Model prisoner”?
La Hora also ran a long interview with Prison System director Luis González, which was by turns evasive (González recognizes “a certain degree of corruption” in the prisons) and bizarrely revealing, naming Captain Byron Lima as a example of “positive leadership” and “rehabilitation” within the prisons. Byron Lima, a military intelligence official, was convicted to 20 years in prison in 2001 for his role in the 1998 assassination of Bishop Juan Gerardi, and has since apparently assumed control over day to day activities at the “Pavoncito” prison. González describes a picture of self-policing inmates dedicated to sports and award-winning handicraft production: “You tell me if [the inmates] need to carry out extorsions” under such rosy conditions, he asks. Byron Lima, like other prison capos, has been denounced repeatedly for connections to organized crime; in addition, his network of supporters outside of prison certainly includes military intelligence comrades, who have continuously campaigned for his innocence and freedom. Rumors of his imminent release on good behavior circulate from time to time. One can’t help recalling Francisco Goldman’s publication, in The Art of Political Murder, of a witness account linking former military intelligence director Pérez Molina to the plot against Gerardi. Pérez Molina was counted among the enemies of Lima’s father, the notorious Colonel Byron Disrael Lima Estrada, also convicted for Gerardi’s murder, but perhaps these statements indicate an attempt to shore up alliances between the current administration and Lima’s supporters.
Institutional assault on historical memory and human rights
The news which caused the greatest concern amongst the national and international human rights community was the announcement of the dismantling of the Peace Archives, an investigative and publishing unit within the Secretariat for Peace (Sepaz), founded during the Colom administration, which analyzed millions of government documents dating to the internal armed conflict and released important reports confirming the authenticity of the “Military Diary” and detailing topics such as child trafficking by the military. Its pending work included the further investigation of the Presidential General Staff (Estado Mayor Presidencial, EMP), the militarized intelligence apparatus which operated death squads and served as a “parallel government” within the Executive branch, and in which Pérez Molina served during 1987 and 1989, and which he directed from 1993 through 1995.
The National Security Archive’s Unredacted blog offers a full summary in English of the controversy so far, characterizing it as “a blow against ongoing efforts in the country to recover historical memory and support judicial proceedings against human rights violators.” CPR Urbana quotes anonymous Archive employees concerned that the Sepaz under director Antonio Arenales Forno, a former congressman with Efraín Ríos Montt’s ultra-rightwing FRG party, is responding to high-level directives from Pérez Molina’s government, with the objective of “making Guatemala’s recent history invisible, using conceptual euphemisms such as ‘armed confrontation’ instead of ‘internal armed conflict’; ‘burial sites’ instead of ‘clandestine cemeteries’; as well as the negation of the genocide experienced by the Guatemalan people; basing itself on forgetting and impunity, instead of the search for truth and justice, which is the only force which will heal the wounds in Guatemalan society.”
In this context, yesterday’s election of a new Human Rights Ombudsman, Jorge de León Duque, is more worrying than promising. It is positive that former Ombudsman Sergio Morales, whose 10 year period at the head of the Ombudsman’s office was heavily criticised for having converted the insititution into a personal fiefdom that did little to effectively support human rights, was not re-elected. However, the process of the election of Jorge de León Duque was strongly criticized by Guatemalan human rights groups. De León Duque is a congressman with the rightwing CREO party, and son of former Human Rights Ombudsman and ex-President Ramiro de León Carpio, under whom Otto Pérez Molina served as head of the EMP. Pérez Molina openly named de León Duque as his preferred candidate, and the Patriot Party signalled early on its intention to vote unanimously in his favor. These factors mean that de León Duque will begin his five-year term as Ombudsman with little confidence in his role as an independent human rights watchdog.