Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-GUATEMALA: The Best-Kept Secrets – the Military’s

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Feb 2 2010 (IPS) - Human rights groups are worried that the declassification of military archives dating from Guatemala’s 1960-1996 civil war, which left more than 200,000 victims, by a special commission will not go far enough in terms of clarifying the atrocities.

In March 2009, centre-left President Álvaro Colom established the Military Archive Declassification Commission, made up of three representatives of the Defence Ministry, one delegate from the Presidential Human Rights Commission, and three representatives of presidential secretariats.

According to the agreement that gave rise to the commission, its mandate is to sort out and file military documents on national security affairs involving the 1954 to 1996 period. (In 1954, a coup d’etat organised by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) overthrew democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz, ushering in decades of military dictatorship.)

The agreement also gave Colom the authority to decide not to declassify documents “that qualify as pertaining to national security in the president’s judgment.”

Other countries in Latin America have also begun to take steps to declassify military records to shed light on human rights abuses committed during periods of dictatorship.

In early January, Argentine President Cristina Fernández ordered the military to declassify all documents related to that country’s 1976-1983 dictatorship, stating in a decree that “such information cannot continue to be kept inaccessible under the argument that it would threaten national security.”

Guatemala’s Military Archive Declassification Commission had a Jan. 12 deadline for completing its work, but Colom extended it until June 2010.

In the meantime, human rights groups’ doubts and scepticism with regard to the possibility of real progress are growing, because virtually nothing has come out about the Commission’s work.

They also point to precedents indicating that the archives could be manipulated in order to hinder the investigation of massacres and other human rights abuses committed in the decades in question, and thus stand in the way of eventual reparations for survivors and victims’ families and the possibility of bringing the perpetrators to justice.

A National Reparations Programme was created in 2003 to compensate survivors and the families of victims.

“My biggest concern is that the Commission won’t receive many records, or only some that are of little value in clarifying the enormous atrocities committed,” said Andrew Hudson, manager of the Human Rights Defenders Programme of Human Rights First, which is based in New York and Washington.

“Although the Commission’s work is confidential, as legally established, the public has the right to know what it has been up to. It should publish a brief report on its activities,” the activist told IPS.

In a letter addressed to President Colom, representatives of Human Rights First, the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA), the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA (GHRC), the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), and the National Security Archive (NSA) urged him to declassify the military archives presented to him by the Commission.

“The release of the military archives would be a historic act of respect for human rights in Guatemala,” the Dec. 21, 2009 letter says. “National security would be strengthened by reaffirming a state of law and bringing to justice those responsible for massive human rights violations.”

According to the 1999 report by the United Nations-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission (CEH), the 36-year civil war between government forces and leftwing guerrillas claimed around 200,000 lives, mainly rural indigenous villagers killed or forcibly abducted by the state security forces and the local civilian self-defence patrols (known as PACs) set up by the army.

The report blames 93 percent of the atrocities on government forces and allied paramilitary death squads.

“The importance of the declassification of military records lies in the fact that they contain information on abuses committed by high-level military commanders during the internal conflict and could be used as evidence in trials of those responsible, to break with the culture of impunity,” said Hudson.

Another aspect that has given rise to concern among civil society organisations is the role that the armed forces are playing in the Military Archive Declassification Commission. Not only do they have three representatives on the Commission, but they coordinate it themselves.

“It’s like setting the fox to guard the hen house,” said Iduvina Hernández, head of the Association for the Study and Promotion of Security in a Democracy (SEDEM).

The army should not decide which information to hand over, but should limit its role to arranging the transfer of the military documents, she told IPS, adding that “until the army is completely overhauled, it will continue protecting its performance during the conflict.”

Human rights groups asked the Commission to provide them with a status report on its work, but the request was turned down, said Hernández.

Legal rulings

So far, the army has only handed over a limited number of documents, and only after it was forced to do so by a court order.

In January 2007, an appeals court ruled that documents were to be delivered to the Organismo Judicial (attached to the Supreme Court) as evidence in several trials involving massacres committed during the civil war.

In response to the order, in March 2009 the Defence Ministry handed the courts the counterinsurgency plans known as Victoria 82 and Firmeza 83, although the legal ruling also required the armed forces to provide records on two other counterinsurgency strategies: Operation Ixil and Operation Sofía 82.

The National Security Archive’s Guatemala Project obtained the Operation Sofía 82 documents and presented them to the Audiencia Nacional, Spain’s highest criminal court – which is trying a case brought by survivors and victims’ relatives – in early December 2009.

The declassified army records provide detailed orders given by military and civilian authorities as part of an army strategy carried out in the northwestern province of Quiché to eliminate indigenous people – men, women and children – seen as allies of the leftwing guerrillas, as well as their housing, crops and livestock, in the fight against “communism.” The documents include the names of commanders, operational plans, directives, maps, telegrams and hand-written patrol reports.

Former de facto president Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-1983) and seven other top military and civilian officials are facing genocide charges in the case, originally filed in Spain in 1999 by Guatemalan Nobel Peace Prize-winner Rigoberta Menchú and other survivors of the atrocities committed during the armed conflict.

Ríos Montt’s year and a half in power was the bloodiest period of the civil war. Under his “scorched earth” campaign, hundreds of indigenous villages were completely wiped out and their residents massacred, according to the Historical Clarification Commission.

Francisco Soto, a lawyer with the Centre for Legal Action on Human Rights (CALDH), told IPS that the Commission should comply with Colom’s order to declassify the military archives, and with the 2007 court ruling that stated that the documents did not affect national security.

Soto lamented that “no visible progress” has been made so far by the Commission. “We hoped for greater political will with respect to opening up the archives and contributing to the clarification of what happened in Guatemala.”

Although he said the handing over of some military records as a result of the court order was an achievement, the lawyer stressed that the work of the Commission is “essential” because some counterinsurgency plans have been mentioned, “but we don’t know if the government also had other ones.”

Soto said that in order to clarify the crimes committed during the war, it was also of vital importance to declassify the National Police archives, which also contain millions of documents.

Mario Polanco, the head of the Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo (Mutual Support Group), a local human rights organisation, told IPS that not only is there no information on what the Commission is doing, but there is also no indication of how its budget of 200,000 dollars is being used.

“The concern is that too much money is being earmarked for a Commission that has provided no results and that depends on the army’s willingness to share information,” he complained.

In his view, it will be legal rulings and pressure from human rights groups that will bring about the release of the rest of the army’s counterinsurgency plans.

But if the Commission fulfills its role, its work could play a crucial role in revealing the best-kept secrets: the military’s.

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