Justice in Guatemala

Sara Berndt

Helen Mack and her lawyer Roberto Romero celebrating victory in Guatemala City.

The historic conviction on October 3 of a former Guatemalan military officer, Col. Juan Valencia, for the 1990 murder of anthropologist Myrna Mack has shocked the Central American country’s judicial system. It is the first time that the mastermind of a political murder has been convicted for crimes committed during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996

If it weren’t for the tireless efforts of Myrna’s sister, Helen Mack, the landmark case would never have been tried. Mack has devoted the past 12 years of her life to pushing the case through Guatemala’s moribund legal system. Thousands of similar cases languish in the courts, lacking a champion with the resources, connections or foolhardiness to overcome the inertia of a weak judicial system. In the case of my sister,” Helen Mack told In These Times, what we called into question was terror as a state policy, and we won.” 

In the 80s, the U.S.-backed Guatemalan army was attacking resistance populations and other rural communities in a scorched-earth” counter-insurgency campaign. During the war, advocates like Myrna, who tried to focus international attention on the military’s abuses, were followed, threatened and killed. The justice system was powerless to prosecute attackers, who were often associated with the Guatemalan Presidential Security Guard (EMP). The EMP, a notoriously secretive and powerful intelligence branch of the military, has been implicated in many of Guatemala’s most notorious human rights abuses. 

Myrna Mack’s work with internal refugees, and specifically her first-hand reports that many communities attacked by the army were noncombatants, was the first hard evidence that the military’s scorched-earth policy was harming innocent civilians. The vast majority of the 200,000 people who were killed or are still missing were members of Guatemala’s largely rural Mayan population. On September 11, 1990, Mack was stabbed 27 times and left to die on the sidewalk in front of her office in Guatemala City. 

In 1993, Helen Mack’s tenacity led to the conviction of Myrna’s murderer, Noél de Jesús Beteta, a lower-level EMP operative who was sentenced to 25 years in prison. But Helen Mack and other human-rights advocates in Guatemala knew the order must have come from higher up. They were determined to push forward in an effort to punish her sister’s true killers — Beteta’s superiors in the EMP, who had planned the crime. 

Valencia, the colonel convicted in October, was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Two other former senior officers, Gen. Augosto Godoy and Col. Juan Guillermo Oliva, were acquitted by the three-judge panel in Guatemala City. At the time of the murder, Godoy was the chief of the EMP. Valencia, as head of security at the EMP, was Beteta’s superior at the time of the murder; Oliva was Valencia’s second-in-command. 

Helen Mack’s struggle to bring the case to court was supported by many ordinary Guatemalans. I believe that Guatemalans saw their stories reflected in my sister’s story,” she says, because my sister was one among the thousands who died. Many Guatemalans did not understand why their relatives were killed. That’s why I dare to say that I was speaking on behalf of all those displaced, of all those extrajudicially executed, of the disappeared and the tortured, who never had the opportunity to discuss precisely what we discussed in the courts.” 

But even this partial victory comes at a high price for those involved. In Guatemala, the military is powerful enough that dozens of witnesses, prosecutors and judges who had contact with the case have been threatened or forced to flee the country. In 1991, the police investigator in charge of the case was killed after turning in a report that included evidence pointing to the military’s involvement in the Mack murder; another investigator is in exile. Before and during the course of the trial, Helen Mack was herself threatened, and in August, shortly before the trial began, one of her attorneys had shots fired at his home. 

It remains to be seen how the conviction will impact the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), Guatemala’s ruling party. The FRG includes Efrain Rios Montt, the military dictator at the height of the dirty war during the early 80s who is now president of the Guatemalan Congress. He has announced a run for president in 2003, but in the meantime faces a court case accusing him of genocide. It is likely the FRG’s flawed implementation of the 1996 peace accords, which required the disbandment of the powerful EMP, will be an important issue with voters during the campaign. 

Helen Mack acknowledges that Guatemala’s peace process will be a long struggle. If we seize the opportunity,” she says, Guatemalans could enter into a reconciliation process. The problem is that the military elites in particular do not want to begin to tackle this issue.” 

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