Update on SALT Human Rights Delegation to Guatemala

Written by SALT Human Rights Delegation

Market in Chichicastenango--courtesy of Wiki Commons

We recently returned from the SALT Human Rights Delegation to Guatemala.  The trip was a profoundly haunting and disturbing experience.  Jennifer Harbury requested the delegation at a critical time for human rights accountability in Guatemala and for those brave enough to pursue it.  The civil war in Guatemala, which lasted from 1960 until 1996, left a river of blood, with 200,000 dead, the vast majority Mayan Indians, but also many labor, church, civic, and student leaders, as well as their families.  Despite clear evidence that the military planned and executed the atrocities, including rape, torture, extrajudicial assassination, the massacre of innocent civilians, and a scorched earth policy of genocide, the subsequent efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice have faced a circuitous and uphill battle.  Declassified CIA documents prove that the US has bloody hands in this conflict as well.  It has taken since the mid-1990s for Jennifer’s case against the military for the torture and extrajudicial execution of her husband, Efraín Bámaca Velásquez, and for other wartime cases, to wind their way through an incredibly dysfunctional, corrupt, poorly resourced, and significantly pressured judicial system, itself often under threat to deny justice.

On the trip, the delegation met with non-governmental organizations, survivors of the genocide, and human rights lawyers.  All confirmed that the risk to human rights defenders is grave.  Our first stop was FAMDEGUA (Families of the Disappeared in Guatemala). The group’s leader, Aura Elena, whose brother was disappeared during the war, has been beaten, kidnapped at gunpoint, and was the victim of a suspicious car accident in the highlands.  Every wall of the FAMDEGUA office is lined with photos of the disappeared.  One crushing display contrasts a photo of all the children of the village of Dos Erres celebrating Independence Day in the schoolyard, a short time before 250 villagers, including the children, were massacred, alongside pictures of the exhumed graves in which their colorful Mayan clothing belies the tragedy of the carnage underneath.  We had lunch with Edgar Pérez, a lawyer handling 18 of the massacre cases, his wife, and three young children.  We also met with CALDH, (the Center for Legal Action on Human Rights); ADIVIMA (The Center for the Integral Development of the Victims of the Violence in Verapaces, Maya Achi); Maria Dolores, a lawyer working on reparations in the highlands; and the Rigoberta Munchú Foundation, started by the eponymous Nobel Laureate, where we heard of their efforts to bring to justice the perpetrators of the massacre of 31 people in the Spanish Embassy.  All of the organizations have had their offices vandalized, files stolen, and the workers still endure constant threats and intimidation.  Our most devastating meeting was with Jesús Tecú Osario, one of the few survivors of the massacre of 170 women and children in Río Negro in 1982, who is a crucial witness in the human rights prosecution of that massacre, a role which imperils his life.  We will spare you the details of the unspeakable horror he witnessed.  Sr. Tecú has won multiple human rights awards, but as attention to the atrocities in Guatemala fades, he and his family are increasingly at risk.

On our last day, we met with the prosecutors in charge of the human rights litigation, who work in deplorable conditions – much needed security consists of a broken metal detector and one distracted guard.  The prior week, a bullet was shot through a window of the first floor of the public ministry where they work.  The prosecutors have been sent unmistakable warnings – cars with darkened windows lurk on their street, and neighbors have been interrogated by men asking when prosecutors and their spouses usually return home.  One of these prosecutors has a one month old baby, which serves as a poignant reminder that the children of human rights activists are often targeted and attacked.  We also met with a Justice of the Guatemala Supreme Court, who has been steadfast in his support of the end of impunity in Guatemala, at considerable risk to himself.

Jennifer, her lawyer Edgar Pérez, Sr. Tecú, and other human rights defenders are risking their lives to demand justice and accountability for the Mayan genocide that decimated over 600 villages, killing men, women, children and animals, and destroying cultural artifacts and sacred sites.  Sr. Pérez fears for the safety of his family, but feels he cannot let the crimes against humanity go unpunished.  The risk is very real and very immediate.  Although the war is over, the conditions remain dire, and attacks continue.
The past is directly connected to the present:  there is femicide occurring in Guatemala at three to four times the rate of Ciudad Juárez.  Some of the murders display the hallmarks of torture used by the military against civilians and the insurgents during the civil war.  The poverty in Guatemala is unbearable, yet US and other corporations exploit the land and continue to amass their wealth from the resources of that beautiful country.  History repeats itself.  The people we spoke with all believe that Guatemala is at a crossroads – the next year will tell whether Guatemala can deepen the roots of civil society or revert to a repressive regime.  The current front runner for the 2011 presidential election, Otto Pérez Molina, is a former military leader who is accused of being an architect of much of the indescribable brutality, and is a defendant in many of the human rights cases.

If you are interested in helping, there are three concrete and meaningful ways you can get involved.

First, donations are welcome – they can help enhance the safety of human rights defenders by providing reinforced office doors and security cameras, fund modest hotel rooms for witnesses and lawyers traveling on the long and perilous journey from the highlands, assist advocates with private transportation so they can avoid the public bus system (in which 450 bus drivers have been killed in the last year or so), provide laptops, and other important support.  One option is to give cash directly to Jennifer Harbury to distribute. This avoids any bureaucratic delay, and allows Jennifer more flexibility to deploy the donations in response to rapidly changing conditions.  She will make wise decisions.  You can send money to Jennifer Harbury, c/o Susan Law, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, 300 S. Texas Blvd, Weslaco, TX  78598.  Alternatively, you can donate to the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, a US 501(C)(3).  Please specify that your donation is for the War Crimes cases.

Second, phone calls and letters to officials in Guatemala and the US, both now and when these cases go to trial, serve to direct international attention to Guatemala, and provide protection for the human rights defenders.  This tactic has made a measurable difference in the past, and it is critically important now to let Guatemala know that the world is watching as they confront the unimaginable horror of their history.  If you are interested in joining a phone tree or letter writing campaign that will be activated when circumstances warrant increased attention, please contact Lauren Carasik at lcarasik@gmail.com.

Finally, all the organizations, lawyers and witnesses agreed on one thing:  international observers coming before and during the trials shines the world’s spotlight on these proceedings, and those involved are less susceptible to extrajudicial assassination when protected by an international presence. This is critical, since at least 115 human rights defenders have been killed since 2000, including two of the prosecutors in Jennifer’s case.  Law professors and lawyers are considered high status observers, and therefore are particularly important. If you are willing to be a front row observer in any of the upcoming trials, please contact Lauren Carasik at lcarasik@gmail.com.  What we will need from you is a firm commitment and some flexibility on your travel plans as dates can change with little notice. Currently, the first trial is scheduled for around mid-February. If you cannot attend, please consider donating money or transferable frequent flyer miles to allow others to go in your place.

Lauren Carasik, Western New England College of Law

Erin Corcoran, University of New Hampshire School of Law

Tom Egan, labor attorney, member of the National Lawyers Guild

Luis Mogollón, a consultant with the Pacific McGeorge Guatemala program

Catherine Grosso, Michigan State University College of Law

Michelle McKinley, University of Oregon School of Law