Guatemalan Genocide and US Security

On July 7, 2006, Spanish National Court Judge Santiago Pedraz issued an international arrest order for two former Guatemalan military dictators, Efrain Rios Montt and Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores, along with five others accused of genocide and other crimes against humanity during Guatemala’s civil war. His action follows an aborted effort to depose Rios Montt and others in Guatemala the previous week, and signals Spanish intent to proceed with the case filed by Guatemalan Nobel Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú, whose father and 38 other people were killed during a government siege on the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City in 1980. The warrant cites an array of actions and events including the Río Negro massacre, orders a freeze upon the financial assets of the accused, and has been lodged with Interpol and Europol making the warrants and financial freeze of assets effective throughout the world. Amazingly, this news of a renewed effort to prosecute parties responsible for genocide in Guatemala received scant mention in the Washington Post and no mention in the New York Times.

The lack of interest in reporting the news that a Spanish court had issued warrants for the arrest of three former Guatemalan heads of state who are charged with genocide is perhaps explained by the long historical friendship between the accused and the United States, as well as the fact that Guatemala is a very busy place these days. President Berger has passed a decree to implement CAFTA and signaled strong support for Plan Puebla-Panama ­ a massive effort to develop and connect the resources, labor and products of Central America to its’ northern neighbors. Construction has begun on an electrical grid to connect Guatemala to the Mexico and the United States. Expansion in the mining sector suggests the promise of fortunes to be made in Guatemalan gold, nickel, copper, and uranium by Canadian operators and their investors. The World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank and other international financial institutions are underwriting transportation and energy development to move the country and its supply of natural gas, minerals, and other resources further into the global market.

Business is good and Guatemala’s international star appears to be rising. Guatemala has been elected to a seat on the UN’s new Human Rights Commission. The United States is lobbying for Guatemala as candidate for the Latin America seat of the UN Security Council. Mexico’s Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez has announced his support for Guatemala over the other candidate, Venezuela. Yet, while business is good, true, meaningful security remains elusive.

Much of the economic expansion is occurring in the Mayan countryside where villagers struggle to patch together a life after surviving decades of violence and the related loss of land and livelihood. Over a million Guatemalans were displaced during the nation’s internal conflict, and over 200,000 people killed in a campaign of state-sponsored violence against a largely Mayan population. In 1999, the United Nations-sponsored Commission on Historical Clarification (CEH) reported the findings from exhumations, forensic analysis, and witness testimony: some 83% of the 42,275 named victims were Mayan civilians, 93% of the atrocities committed during the conflict had been the work of the armed forces, and, as evidenced by a number of exemplary cases, massacres were the result of a policy of state-sponsored violence on a Mayan civilian population. The Government of Guatemala and its military dictators were responsible for genocide and other crimes against humanity.

One of the Mayan massacres investigated by the CEH is the case of Río Negro, a village that now lies under the reservoir created by the Chixoy Dam. Built in the late 1970s and early 1980s with Inter-American Development Bank and World Bank financing, designs were approved, the project financed, and construction begun in 1975 without notifying the local population. As demonstrated in a 2005 Chixoy Dam Legacy Issues study, construction began without legal acquisition of the land supporting the construction works, the dam, the hydroelectric generation facility, the reservoir, or the farms needed to support resettled communities. Construction proceeded without a comprehensive census of affected peoples or a plan to address compensation, resettlement and alternative livelihoods for some 3,445 mostly Mayan residents displaced by the dam and its reservoir, nor, any effort to assess damages or provide compensatory measures for the 6,000 households in surrounding communities. Civilian protest occurred when negotiations with authorities failed and petitions were submitted to the Guatemalan Government and the Spanish Embassy. These complaints were interpreted by the military Government as evidence of insurgent influence and the Army declared these “resistant communities” subversive. When construction was complete and the reservoir waters rose in January 1983, ten communities in the Chixoy River Basin had been destroyed by massacre. In Río Negro alone, some 444 of the 791 original inhabitants had been killed.

The Chixoy Dam was built at the cost of land, lives, and livelihood in violation of national and international laws. People were forcibly “resettled” at gunpoint and with massacre. International financing allowed a steady flow of funds into the coffers of a military dictatorship, in violation of loan contracts that specifically prohibited the release of funds unless legal title to project areas had been secured. To this day much of the land that supports the dam, hydroelectric generation facility, and the reservoir is titled to private citizens and Mayan communities.

Despite this dismal human rights record, the Chixoy hydroelectric project has also produced considerable profit. The hydroelectric energy generated at the Chixoy Dam has been the primary source of power for Guatemala for two decades. This Cold War project was financed by the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank and others at a time when the United States was keen to support those who fought communism, but unable to provide military aid to Guatemala because of its human rights record. And, when the public-owned electrical utility was privatized, financiers experienced significant profit when their loans were paid in full. Thus, the Inter-American Development Bank enjoyed revalued interest income of more than $139 million from their Chixoy Project investment.

Meanwhile, Rio Negro massacre survivors struggle in the poverty of a “resettlement” village ­ the first of some 24 strategic hamlets built to contain and reeducate the civilian population during the civil war. Communities adjacent to the reservoir, upstream, and downstream from the dam have not received any compensation or remediation for damages resulting from the loss of land and other property, loss of access to lands and markets, or loss of property and life as a result of construction failures and flashfloods resulting from the operation of the floodgates. And, there are no viable rights-protected mechanisms to allow affected people to complain or negotiate assistance.

So, why is this history and the misery of its consequences relevant? While Peace Accords signed in 1996 promised reparations that included investigations and legal actions to insure never again, these promises have yet to be fully realized. No high level military officer has been tried. Reported rates of forced evictions, rape, threats of violence and assassinations, and murders continue to rise. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour concluded in her recent visit to Guatemala that the Peace Accords have failed. The many failures to prosecute perpetrators suggest that violence with impunity is still the order of the land in Guatemala. And, CAFTA, with its’ comprehensive development agenda, will most certainly introduce new tensions into an already ulcerating countryside.

In promoting Guatemala as the reasonable candidate for the UN Security Council seat, the United States is apparently supporting age-old friends for age-old reasons. Will it be business as usual, with dams, roads, mining and other enterprising industry imposed on a resistant civilian population? Will the US profit by banking on violence to “secure” its economic interests and halt the spread of Venezuelan-style liberalism in the region?

Happily, other nations are working to reinvigorate the stalled reparations process in Guatemala. In the months to come prosecutors for the Spanish case will sift through the massive amount of evidence to compile the case of genocide and other crimes against humanity against Ríos Montt, Oscar Humberto Mejía Victores, Ángel Aníbal Guevara Rodriguez, Donaldo Álvarez Ruiz, German Chupina Barahona, Pedro García Arredondo, Benedicto Lucas García, and Romeo Lucas García, the former Guatemalan President who died in May 2006. Evidence includes the forensic data from the exhumation of hundreds of massacre sites, oral testimony from massacre survivors and other eye-witnesses and material participants, declassified documents from the United States Central Intelligence Agency as well as the files and records of the Guatemalan National Police, which contain photographs, assassination orders, and detailed reports on numerous episodes of violence. For the hundreds and thousands of massacre survivors who seek reparations, and for a nation who seeks to regain its dignity and place in the world, the true price of security is an honest reconciliation with the past.

BARBARA ROSE JOHNSTON is an anthropologist and senior research fellow at the Center for Political Ecology. She is the primary author of the Chixoy Dam Legacy Issues Study (2005), a five-volume study that is the product of independent investigation accepted by the Guatemalan Government and distributed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Science and Human Rights Program. Copies of the study are available in Spanish and English at http://www.centerforpoliticalecology.or/chixoy.html
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Barbara Rose Johnston is an environmental anthropologist and Senior Fellow at the Center for Political Ecology, an independent environment, health and human rights research institute based in Santa Cruz, California.