War Study Censures Military in Guatemala
By Douglas Farah
An independent commission formed to investigate widespread human rights abuses during Guatemala's 34-year civil war accused the U.S.-backed military yesterday of responsibility for the vast majority of the crimes, including murder, torture, rape, destruction of Indian villages and widespread state terrorism.
The final report of the Historical Clarification Commission, which grew out of the U.N.-sponsored peace process that brought an end to the war in 1996, also accused Marxist-led guerrilla forces of carrying out summary executions and kidnappings.
"The main purpose of the report is to place on record Guatemala's recent bloody past," said the report, authored by German jurist Christian Tomuschat and Guatemalans Edgar Balsells and Otilia Lux Coti. "Although many are aware that Guatemala's armed confrontation caused death and destruction, the gravity of the abuses suffered repeatedly by its people has yet to become part of the institutional consciousness. . . . The massacres that eliminated entire Mayan villages . . . are neither perfidious allegations nor figments of the imagination, but an authentic chapter in Guatemala's history."
In contrast to the Cold War-era Marxist insurgencies in neighboring El Salvador and Nicaragua, the Guatemalan guerrillas never threatened to overthrow the government, although the war there went on longer and claimed more lives than the other two. Like the Truth Commission report in El Salvador, the report did not name individuals responsible for the atrocities.
At the request of the commission, the Clinton administration declassified and released about 1,000 sensitive documents to help the commission in its investigations. Unlike the government of El Salvador (and the contra rebels in Nicaragua), the Guatemalan army did not receive large-scale aid from Washington; still, the commission found that the "government of the United States, through various agencies including the CIA, provided direct and indirect support for some state operations."
The report, titled "Guatemala, Memory of Silence," found that about 200,000 people – the overwhelming majority of them civilians – were killed or "disappeared" during the war, a far higher number than a previous estimate of 150,000. Of the 42,000 civilian killings investigated by the panel, it found the army responsible for 93 percent, while 3 percent were blamed on the rebels and 4 percent were unsolved.
"When we as commissioners formed this commission, each of us knew generally what had occurred in Guatemala during the armed confrontation," Tomuschat said in Guatemala City, according to news agency reports. "But none of us could have imagined the dimensions of the tragedy."
The report documented 626 massacres committed by the army in the 1980s, during the height of its scorched-earth policy against Indian peasant communities believed to be sympathetic to the rebels. Documenting the atrocities, the report found the army "completely exterminated Mayan communities, destroyed their dwellings, livestock and crops" and said that in the northern part of the country, where the Mayan population is largest, the army carried out a systematic campaign of "genocide."
The report also criticized the judicial system for allowing the crimes to go unpunished, saying that by tolerating such behavior "the judiciary became functionally inoperative . . . and lost all credibility as guarantor of an effective legal system."
The report placed special emphasis on its findings that not only were Mayan communities targeted by the army and its paramilitary allies, but that "the rape of women, during torture or before being murdered, was a common practice."
"The majority of human rights violations occurred with the knowledge or by order of the highest authorities of the state," the report concluded. "The responsibility for a large part of these violations, with respect to the chain of military command as well as the political and administrative responsibility, reaches the highest levels of the army and successive governments."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company