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Resource Information Center: Guatemala

Response to Information Request Number:GTM99002.RIC
Date:22 June 1999
Subject:Guatemala: Status of the Demobilization of Security Forces and Guerrillas Called for by the Peace Accords
From:INS Resource Information Center
Keywords:Guatemala, Police, Intelligence services, Torture, Extrajudicial executions, Disappearances, Arbitrary arrests


What is the status of the demobilization of the security forces and the guerrillas in Guatemala as called for by the 1996 peace accords?


As might be expected in a country where the army long held unchallenged power, implementation of elements of the peace accords that deal with internal security has been uneven. Congress has yet to pass a promised constitutional amendment limiting the military to external defense. Meanwhile, the government has been using high crime rates as a justification to partially reinsert the army into domestic police affairs. In 1997, President Arzú announced the reopening of interior military outposts that had been closed with the cessation of hostilities. Soldiers with assault weapons have been patrolling in large groups in Guatemala City and in rural areas, typically accompanied by a single policeman to provide a cover of legitimacy. MINUGUA reports that there is no indication that such patrols have reduced crime, and that on the contrary they have themselves engaged in human rights violations. (MINUGUA, 15 June 1998) One of the combined patrols apparently shot to death 17-year-old José Ramiro Vásquez Benítez in the hamlet of El Astillero, Santa Rosa, on October 31, 1997, wounded Ramiro Antonio Alinán (16), and severely beat Felipe Nery Alinan Galindo (16). (MINUGUA. Suplemento al octavo informe, ¶ 14-15, [1998]). The principal coalition of indigenous groups¿Coordinating Group of Organizations of the Mayan People of Guatemala (Coordinadora de Organizaciones del Pueblo Maya de Guatemala, COPMAGUA)¿has objected to the reintroduction of the military in domestic affairs, pointing to its bloody history of dealing with indigenous communities. (Garst, 1997; Byrne, 1997)

* This response was prepared by Andrew Reding, Expert Consultant, INS Resource Information Center.

Under the accords, all "clandestine security machinery" is to be disbanded. The covert branch of the Presidential General Staff (Estado Mayor Presidencial, EMP)¿formerly known as Archivos¿was formally dissolved by President Ramiro de León Carpio in 1993. A year later, however, then-EMP head General Otto Pérez Molina told Human Rights Watch that only the operational arm had been closed down, and that the intelligence arm continued to function. The EMP¿s secret Anti-Kidnapping Commando Group (Comando Anti-Secuestros) is widely believed to be the reincarnation of the operational arm. The Anti-Kidnapping Commando Group¿s forced disappearance of Juan José Cabrera, alias "Mincho," following the guerrillas¿ abduction of an elderly wealthy woman in 1996, signaled a persistence of old patterns. Mincho was apparently murdered while captive. Both the government and the guerrillas withheld information on the Mincho case from the public, until MINUGUA issued a statement confirming it on May 20, 1997.

On September 11, 1997, fifteen heavily armed men carrying communications gear and wearing ski masks broke into the home of Ricardo Figueroa Delgado, a suspect in the kidnapping of a Danish businessman, then carried him away in a vehicle without license plates. The army then prohibited MINUGUA from inspecting one of its installations, in brazen violation of the agreement with the United Nations. Shortly thereafter, a similar team made another raid, leading to the release of the businessman. Almost a year later, Figueroa remains missing. (MINUGUA, 1998) This and several cases of torture of prisoners by the Anti-Kidnapping Commando Group in 1997 led MINUGUA to criticize the EMP for "broadly exceeding its duties and following procedures contrary to the law and the rule of law, to the detriment of an effective policy of citizen security." (HRW, 1997) Rather than discipline the EMP for violations of law and the peace accords, President Arzú promoted EMP director Gen. Marco Tulio Espinoza to Chief of Staff, the second highest position in the armed forces. (Byrne, 1997)

Congress dismantled the network of military commissioners on November 22, 1995. A year later, on November 28, 1996, it repealed the decree creating the civil patrols (Voluntary Civil Defense Committees, CVDCs), and the patrols were formally demobilized upon signing of the peace accord the following month. (UN, 1997, ¶ 47) In June 1997 MINUGUA reported that

There have been isolated cases where former CVDC members, claiming to be protected by their relationship with members of the armed forces, have continued to put undue pressure on civilian authorities or on the population. (UN, 1997, ¶ 48)

More recently, in its July 1998 report, MINUGUA noted the role of former civil patrollers in the growing number of lynchings taking place in rural areas. In its examination of 120 lynchings that resulted in 100 murders over a two-year period, the mission found that two-thirds were over alleged crimes against property, in which the value of the property was in most cases negligible. It noted that most lynchings occur in communities where the civil patrols had been prominent and powerful, and that in some cases former patrollers have been directly implicated. It also observed that the lynchings have been falsely described as conforming to traditional Mayan forms of justice, a characterization vigorously denied by indigenous organizations. (MINUGUA, 1998, ¶ 22-24)

MINUGUA reports the reappearance of death squads in the Petén. In the first quarter of 1998, three groups of eight well-trained, heavily armed men wearing dark clothes and ski masks, savagely murdered ten inhabitants of La Libertad. The executions began after the group circulated a list of alleged delinquents who were "condemned to death." Those named who did not flee were systematically tortured and killed, and their mutilated cadavers dumped in front of the homes of other persons on the list. In one case, the murderers left behind a note that read "We¿re sorry, but we have to do this because it¿s our job to clean communities." Among the members of this self-described "social cleansing" group are former military commissioners and former civil patrol leaders. The bodies of this group¿s victims¿which it describes as thieves and marijuana smokers¿have appeared primarily in areas where the army has intensified patrols. (MINUGUA, 1998, ¶ 84-87)

Such incidents caused Amnesty International to conclude:

The government maintained that both institutions [civil patrols and military commissioners] had been disbanded, but former agents of both organizations continued to be named as perpetrators of ongoing abuses. (AI, 1998)

Despite lingering abuses by former military commissioners and civil patrollers, courts have begun to convict members of both groups for the murder of civilians:

  1. In November 1997, a court sentenced former civil patrol member Juan Acabal Patzán to 30 years for six murders, including the July 3, 1993 killing of editor and former presidential candidate Jorge Carpio Nicolle. Karen Fisher, representing the Alliance Against Impunity and the Carpio family, protested that the sentencing of one man was not enough. Twenty-five others accused of involvement in the killing, including the mastermind, and six other civil patrol members who have yet to be tried, remain at large. (DOS, 1998, p. 529; GHRC/USA, 1997, No. 22)
  2. In early February 1998, the Sacatepéquez Court of Appeals extended the sentence of former military commissioner Armando Tucubal Morales to 30 years for the 1994 slaying of evangelical pastor and human rights activist Pascual Serech. He had previously been sentenced in September 1997 to 20 years by the Chimaltenango Sentencing Court. (DOS, 1998, p. 529; GHRC/USA, 1998, No. 3)
  3. Later that month, the Sentencing Court of Huehuetenango sentenced former civil patrollers José, Alfonso, Santiago and Pascual López; Augusto Sánchez, Luis Velásquez, Marino Pérez, Pascual Gómez, Luis Díaz and Juan Díaz García, to ten years apiece for the 1993 murder of Juan Chanay Pablo, a member of the Campesino Unity Committee (CUC) killed while taking part in a demonstration demanding dissolution of the civil patrols. (GHRC/USA, 1998, No. 4)
  4. In June 1998, the Court of El Quiché sentenced former civil patrollers Rubén Cruz López and Baltazar Raymundo Santiago to thirty years in prison for the 1990 abduction and murder of Nicolás Pacheco León, Miguel Cruz Velasco, and Gaspar Santiago in Chajul, El Quiché. (GHRC/USA, 1998, No. 12-13)

Yet, as suggested by the slim progress to date in the Carpio case, impunity continues to be a problem. To date, the few convictions still have not touched those in authority who gave the orders. In its July 1998 report, MINUGUA stated that "the army maintained a generally uncooperative attitude in clarifying the responsibilities of higher-ranking officers in actions that violate human rights." That has meant that "official investigations are limited to the responsibility of those who carried out the actions, often of lower rank, which is why there are no verdicts effectively holding responsible those who may have planned the actions." (MINUGUA, 1998, ¶ 63) In many cases, even low-ranking but egregious human rights violators are being acquitted as witnesses, prosecutors, and judges are intimidated.

  1. On May 19, 1997, a court acquitted former military commissioner Cándido Noriega Estrada of 35 murder charges and 8 rape charges stemming from three occasions in 1982 when he led soldiers through the indigenous community of Toluché, Quiché, fingering supposed guerrilla sympathizers. During the trial, the mostly indigenous prosecution witnesses were subjected to threats and intimidation. They were also unable to communicate effectively, because they did not speak Spanish, and the translation into Spanish was flawed. (HRW, 1998, p. 117-118) There nonetheless remains some hope for justice, since the public outcry following the acquittal led to suspension of the presiding judge, and to a successful motion for a new trial. (DOS, 1998, p. 528)
  2. On July 31, 1997, a judge sentenced Carlos Venancio Escobar Fernández, formerly deputy director of the National Police 5th precinct in Guatemala City, to 30 years for the November 1994 police murder of university student Mario Alioto López Sánchez. Then-Interior Minister Danilo Parinello Blanco, Vice Minister Mario Mérida González, and National Police Director Salvador Figueroa each received ten years. But the judgments in their cases were overturned on appeal, and they were released in October over protests from the Archdiocesan Office on Human Rights (ODHA) and the Public Ministery (MP). (HRW, 1997, p. 117; GHRC/USA, 1997, No. 20) The appeals court also reduced charges against Escobar from first degree murder to unintentional homicide, and reduced his sentence to 10 years. A second policeman previously sentenced to 10 years was absolved. (DOS, 1998, p. 528) Underscoring the pressures faced by the judges, two of the judges who originally found the high-ranking officials guilty reported that they had subsequently received death threats. (AI, 1998)

With such limited consequences for homicidal behavior, and with military officers virtually untouchable, the patterns of abuse persist. On March 18, 1997, Oscar Mejía Sánchez, an army captain, put a gun to the heads of Guillermo Tzum Zapeta, 14, and Ferenk Urizar Méndez, 19, in Santa Cruz del Quiché. Tzum Zapeta¿s mother called the National Police, which sent six agents who declined to detain the officer. That same day Urizar Méndez was found dead, shot in the head. The officer was then detained and charged, but merely placed under house arrest, and allowed to remain on active duty. Captain Mejía Sánchez, it turned out, was with the S-2 branch of the elite kaibil special forces, working for G-2 (military intelligence). The kaibiles had been responsible for massacres of entire villages during the war, and G-2 had been in charge of identifying persons to be killed as alleged "subversives." Presumably because of these associations, the victim¿s mother decided not to press charges, and the case was dropped. (MINUGUA, 1997)

In some other respects, there has been progress. All 2,959 former URNG guerrillas have been demobilized and resettled. (Byrne, 1997; GHRC/USA, 1998, No. 8) Human rights groups had feared that the Law of National Reconciliation passed in December 1996 would be used to grant amnesty to members of the security forces and the guerrillas that had engaged in gross violations of human rights. As pointed out in the Andrew Reding paper, Democracy and Human Rights in Guatemala (Reding, 1997), the law did not provide amnesty for crimes that violated international human rights treaties, such as the American Convention on Human Rights, ratified by Guatemala. To date, judges have held firm to the letter of the law, denying every request for amnesty made by defendants in human rights cases. No member of the military has been granted amnesty, and though guerrillas have been excused from charges of subversion, they have not been excused for human rights violations such as the murder of civilians. (HRW, 1997)

Nevertheless, in the continuing climate of impunity, Freedom House cautions that the security forces are the primary violators of human rights:

The principal human rights offenders are the military, especially its intelligence unit; the police, until 1997 under military authority; a network of killers-for-hire linked to the armed forces, right-wing political groups and vigilante "social cleansing" groups. (Freedom House, 1998)

Underscoring the continuing dangers is the case of Edgar Estuardo Motta González. Motta had previously been the victim of a police assault in February 1995. His testimony that three members of the National Police (PN) had kidnapped and shot him and a friend, and left them to die (the friend died), resulted in death penalties for the officers in question. Following the conviction, however, unknown assailants presumably associated with the police shot and killed him in front of his home on October 8, 1997. (DOS, 1998, p. 528)


Amnesty International. "Guatemala," Amnesty International Annual Report 1998 (London: AI, 1998), from

Byrne, Hugh. The First Nine Months of the Guatemalan Peace Process: High Expectations and Daunting Challenges (Washington, DC: Washington Office on Latin America, September 1997), p. 8.

Freedom House. Freedom in the World¿1997-1998 (New York: 1998), p. 262.

Garst, Rachel. The New Guatemalan National Civilian Police: A Problematic Beginning (Washington, DC: Washington Office on Latin America, November 1997), p. 10.

Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA. "Ex-PAC officers sentenced for assassination," Guatemala Human Rights Update (Washington, DC: No. 12-13, 26 June 1998).

Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA. "Last former URNG combatants settled," Guatemala Human Rights Update (Washington, DC: No. 8, 17 April 1998).

Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA. "Former PAC members sentenced for death of CUC demonstrator," Guatemala Human Rights Update (Washington, DC: No. 4, 20 February 1998).

Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA. "Former Patrol officer sentenced in Serech case," Guatemala Human Rights Update (Washington, DC: No. 3, 6 February 1998).

Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA. "Former patrol officer sentenced in Carpio case," Guatemala Human Rights Update (Washington, DC: No. 22, 5 December 1997).

Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA "Officials sentenced in Alioto López Sánchez case are released," Guatemala Human Rights Update (Washington, DC: No. 20, 7 November 1997).

Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch World Report 1998 (New York: 1997), p. 116-117.

MINUGUA. Octavo informe sobre derechos humanos de la Misión de verificación de las Naciones Unidas en Guatemala. 15 June 1998, ¶ 8.

MINUGUA. Suplemento al séptimo informe sobre derechos humanos de la Misión de verificación de las Naciones Unidas en Guatemala, September 1997, ¶ 11-12.

Reding, Andrew. Democracy and Human Rights in Guatemala, World Policy Papers Series (New York: World Policy Institute, April 1997), p. 1-2.

UN General Assembly. Report of the Secretary-General, United Nations Verification Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA), 30 June 1997.

U.S. Department of State. "Guatemala," Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1997 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, March 1998).

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