Peace accords signed in 1996 ended a 36-year conflict in Guatemala that resulted in more than 200,000 deaths and massive human rights violations, including the genocidal campaign against the nation’s Mayan population and widespread rape, torture and enforced disappearances of the civilian population. But although the war is over, vestiges of military rule remain. A recent massacre of protesters in Guatemala highlights the fragile nature of its transition to democracy.
Earlier this month, the military opened fire on unarmed protesters in Totonicapan, a municipality located in Guatemala’s western highlands, killing six people and wounding more than 30. The demonstrators had blocked a highway to protest against rising electricity prices and inadequate services that in some instances required people to pay for street lighting that does not reach them.
The event sent shock waves through civil society in Guatemala, not only because of the degree of violence, but also because of its target. The indigenous community in Totonicapan is well organised, widely respected, and has historically pursued a strategy of engagement and negotiation with the government to resolve disputes. That the state would respond with violence on such a scale sparked fears about its willingness to brutally suppress protest and flout human rights.
The government’s initial response fuelled these fears. The government first denied the soldiers were armed or had fired on the crowd. Finally, after the prosecutor discovered more than 100 shells at the scene from ammunition used exclusively by the military, it acknowledged the military’s role in the violence.
“The Guatemalan government is legally obligated to inform and consult indigenous and tribal communities before engaging in mining and other extractive activities in affected areas.”
Totonicapan has become a flashpoint in the debate over rising militarisation in Guatemala and the government’s increasing effort to criminalise social protest. As I observed during a recent human rights mission to Guatemala, the events at Totonicapan provide a window into Guatemala’s recent struggle to emerge from decades of military rule.
One of the most controversial issues today concerns the exploitation of natural resources. The Guatemalan government is legally obligated to inform and consult indigenous and tribal communities before engaging in mining and other extractive activities in affected areas. But valuable concessions are awarded in the name of economic development – in many cases to multi-national companies – without meaningful consultation. The community often suffers environmental degradation, such as contamination of its water supply in the case of open-pit mining, while failing to gain any significant benefit.
Increasingly, the government’s response to dissent has been to criminalise it. The government has jailed protesters through the overbroad use of criminal charges such as engaging in “activities against the nation” or “creating fear against national interest”. Human rights advocates have been unlawfully detained and intimidated to prevent them from speaking out.
In May, for example, President Otto Perez Molina dispatched the military and police to the town of Santa Cruz Barillas Huehuetenango when protests, triggered by the murder of a local community leader who opposed a hydro-electric dam, turned violent. Perez Molina declared a state of siege and denounced the protestors as members of a criminal conspiracy.
The criminalisation of protest is eerily reminiscent of the era of military rule that Guatemala had supposedly put behind it. Just as opponents of the state were tarred as “communists” during the 1970s and 80s, they are today labelled “terrorists” to stigmatise them and delegitimise dissent.
Guatemala, to be sure, faces deep systemic problems. It has widespread poverty and vast inequalities of wealth. Corruption is rampant. Guatemala also has one of highest rates of violent crime in world. The armed conflict has, in a sense, been succeeded not so much by peace as by a rising tide of murder, robbery and drug-related violence. Offences, moreover, routinely go unpunished, creating a situation of de facto impunity.
The Guatemalan government has failed to tackle these issues effectively. Its tax rate is the lowest in the Western hemisphere, thus retarding development and preventing a more equitable distribution of wealth. The police force remains weak, leading to the proliferation of private security, whose ranks now outnumber regular law enforcement by six-to-one.
Guatemala mine town sees surge in violence
Human rights violations
The military, moreover, continues to exert a pervasive influence. Former military and intelligence officers who were in power during the height of the counter-insurgency now occupy high-level government posts. Their presence contributes to the mindset of treating complex social and economic, problems through the mano dura (“the iron hand”), triggering the type of violence and repression that occurred at Totonicapan.
Growing militarisation also threatens efforts to address past human rights violations. The most high-profile case in Guatemala today is the genocide prosecution of former president, Efrain Rios Montt, who initiated a scorched earth campaign against the country’s Mayan population that destroyed entire villages and killed thousands, including women and children.
The prosecution of Rios Montt – the first former head of state in Latin America to be charged with genocide – is of both historic and practical importance. It not only holds out the promise of some justice for victims of past atrocities. It also has implications for Guatemala’s ability to construct a modern liberal state and to end a culture of impunity.
But concerns remain about whether the case will be derailed. President Perez Molina, a former general and CIA asset who was deeply involved in the violent counter-insurgency during the armed conflict, denies that genocide occurred. Additionally, there are ongoing efforts to enact an amnesty law that would cover all past human rights violations, including genocide
One bright spot is the resistance to the creep of renewed military rule. Civil society and committed government officials, such as Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, continue to press for accountability. Last week, Guatemala arrested an army colonel and eight soldiers in connection with the Totonicapan massacre, charging them with extrajudicial killing. President Perez Molina, moreover, announced that the army would no longer be deployed at civilian protests.
Important questions remain. Were the colonel and the other soldiers following orders at Totonicapan? If so, who issued those orders, what did they say, and will those who issued them be held accountable? Going forward, will the government cease responding to social protest with violence and criminalisation?
Guatemala is grappling with daunting challenges. But returning to military government and repressing opposition will only further deepen its problems. The slow road of democratic transition requires transforming the modes of governance and adhering to the rule of law, not circumventing it.
Jonathan Hafetz is Associate Professor of Law at Seton Hall University School of Law and the author, most recently, of Habeas Corpus after 9/11: Confronting America’s New Global Detention System.