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Guatemala's Election, Saturday, and the Ending of Latin America's Worst Murder Story



November 3. 1999

LONDON- On Saturday, Guatemala will hold its first general election since the signing of the peace agreement in December 1996 which ended a 36 year long civil war that claimed the lives of some 200,000 people, many of them victims of army death squads.

For most of the indigenous Indian population, who have been at the brunt end of the violence, it will seem like a non-event. They have a choice between two parties of the right. One is close to business; the other to the army. Turnout is likely to be low.

Yet the election is significant. It takes this mercurial country - the one that its Nobel laureate for literature, Miguel Angel Asturias, described in 1920 as "steeped in violence"- one more step away from its terrible past.

Of course, so many countries in Latin America have been consumed by violent uprisings and savage army repression over the last few decades that it seems perhaps difficult to single out hell's kitchen. But, undoubtedly, Guatemala is it. The violence there never reached the crescendo it did in the cities of El Salvador. Nor did as many intellectuals "disappear" as in Chile and Argentina. Nor has civil war gone on for as long as in Colombia. Nor has there been the single-minded control from one man as in Cuba. But no other country can match it for the long term, systematic assassinations and torture practised by its armed forces, practised as a form of ethnic intimidation of the Mayans.

I made my first visit to Guatemala in 1981, inspired, if that is the word, by a conversation I had recently had with Thomas Hammarberg, the then Secretary General of Amnesty International. I'd asked him which was the worst country on his books. Without missing a beat he replied,"Guatemala". "How many political prisoners do you have listed?", I asked. "We have none", he replied quietly, " in Guatemala there are only political killings".

On that trip, with the aid of Amnesty International, I traced the source of the political killings to an annex of the presidential palace and compiled a great deal of evidence that the then president, General Garcia Lucas, directed the whole repressive apparatus personally. Most of these murders were most definitely not the result of free lance death squads, as the propaganda of the government - and of a concurring American embassy - suggested.

My findings appeared prominently on the editorial pages of the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. I might as well have published them in my old school magazine. This was the first year in office of President Ronald Reagan and no one, neither in Congress nor in the rest of the media, was much interested. The violence continued to climb.

What I did not know so clearly then was that the U.S. in its own way was as much a part of this awful violence as the Guatemalan leadership itself. The Reagan Administration not only gave the Guatemalan government active moral support, as has become clear from de-classified cables, but once it persuaded Congress in 1985 to lift its long-standing ban on military support imposed in 1977 arms and training flowed to the local military. Congress re-imposed its ban in 1990, but clandestine aid continued under presidents Bush and Clinton until 1995. In March this year we finally got the confirmation of happenings that a few of us belatedly had begun to suspect. President Bill Clinton on his visit to Guatemala City made this apology: "For the U.S. it is important I state clearly that support for military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong."

Clinton, in fact, was formally putting America's imprimatur on the then just released report of the UN-appointed Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification. (With generous funding from the U.S. government.) The report, besides fingering both the overt and the clandestine U.S. involvement, also confirmed everything I'd learnt 18 years earlier. "The majority of human rights violations occurred with the knowledge and by order of the highest authority in the state" and "the vast majority of the victims of the acts committed by the state were not combatants but civilians". 4% of the acts of violence it attributed to the guerrillas, 93% to the state.

The report also fingered Cuba- but not Moscow - for aiding the insurgency. Yet it concluded that at "no time did the guerrilla groups have the military potential to pose an imminent threat to the state."

No doubt, given the single mindedness of the Guatemalan establishment at the time, the repression would have continued, even without Washington's approval (as it had during the Carter presidency). But the acquiescence of the Reagan Administration gave the Guatemalan military more rope. The Reagan White House saw the Guatemalan government as one of the few reliable friends it had in Central America in the struggle against "communist influence". The very fact that the U.S. government ignored what Amnesty International said or brushed aside the handful of critical articles that appeared was all the Guatemalan government needed to know to conclude it had a carte blanche. Indeed, the peace process, albeit very slowly at first, only gathered speed once the Reagan Administration was out of power. To set Guatemala on a more normal course is this election's challenge. Peace IS coming to Guatemala, but dreadfully slowly. The army's sinister presidential security division remains undismantled. A declining, badly run, economy, despite $1 billion provided by foreign donors in an attempt to breathe more life into the peace agreement, does not provide the best atmosphere either for further compromises or future reform.

Even with the drumbeat of violence diminished, Guatemala's indigenous people, two third's of its population, remain among the most downtrodden of today's Third World. Even with this election active citizenship is a right exercised only by a minority. The new political and army office-holders are going to need regular reminders that they are being watched and much is expected of them. It is not just another tragic banana backwater to be forgotten.


Copyright © 1999 By JONATHAN POWER


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