Real peace is elusive in Guatemala Crisis: Two years after peace accords were signed, forces in Guatemala and Washington act to keep Guatemala's secrets buried.

November 08, 1998|By Rick Rockwell

POLITICAL intrigue, media manipulation, murder and sex sound like the ingredients for a successful film. Instead, they are the legacy of U.S. policy in Guatemala. Obscuring the past has become part of the political culture the United States has helped to create in that Central American nation.

In 1954, the CIA secretly engineered a successful coup that displaced what the Eisenhower administration considered to be a destabilizing left-wing government in Guatemala. The coup also effectively eliminated Guatemala's political moderates, setting the stage for a civil war that lasted 35 years.

Now, less than two years after the peace accords for that war were signed, forces in Guatemala's political establishment, in the country's military and on Capitol Hill are moving to keep some of Guatemala's horrible secrets buried a bit longer.

Meanwhile, Guatemala's first post-war civilian government seems to be watching this spectacle of injustice while knowingly letting power seep back into the hands of those who would use violence instead of enforcing the rule of law. Guatemala's media, a force that stopped a power grab by President Jorge Serrano in 1993 and was a catalyst for peace, is not only acceding its role in this new crisis, it also is being willingly manipulated.

Recently, the U.S. Senate quietly killed the Human Rights Information Act, guaranteeing that the legislation will be shelved until at least next year. This act would open intelligence files on covert operations conducted with the blessing of the U.S. government in Guatemala and other parts of Central America.

The tabling of the act came just before Guatemala opened the book on the latest chapter in a mystery connected to the country's history of human rights abuses. Investigators recently exhumed the body of Bishop Juan Gerardi, looking for clues in his murder. If the Gerardi case were fiction, some might say nothing like this could happen in real life. That deepens the tragedy of what is unfolding.

In April, sponsored by the Catholic Church's office of human rights in Guatemala, Gerardi released a report about atrocities committed during the civil war. The report estimated that at least 200,000 civilians were killed or disappeared during the war. Gerardi's report put most of the blame on Guatemala's military. Two days later, Gerardi was dead. Someone had beaten him to death with a chunk of concrete.

Telling events

At the end of July, telling events unfolded in the case. From the safety of Spain, a spokesman for the church's human rights office in Guatemala issued a statement implicating members of the military in Gerardi's murder.

Through all of this, Guatemala's media followed details in the case, but with surprising lapses. The week the allegations against the military were released, only one newspaper, Prensa Libre, dared to put the story on its front page, and then only for a day. The Guatemalan media's fascination with crime and accident coverage overshadowed the Gerardi story for the rest of that week. Guatemala's biggest international story of the year was downplayed in newspapers and television newscasts, away from casual notice.

But the next week, the story shifted. An elite police team closed a section of downtown Guatemala City to arrest Mario Orantes, the priest who had discovered Gerardi's body. A cadre of police paraded the priest in front of the media's cameras. Sure enough, this bold raid topped every newscast for days, and all but one newspaper ran giant front-page photos of the priest in handcuffs. In a country where only half of the population can read, everyone got the message: Authorities had convicted this priest in the media. So far, Orantes has yet to be formally charged.

What was left out of the sensational barrage of arrest coverage was the fact that investigators had started a whisper campaign against Orantes months before the priest was arrested. Almost a week before Orantes' arrest, Gustavo Berganza, the editor of Siglo Veintiuno, one of Guatemala's largest newspapers, shared information about the rumor. "Of course, we would never publish the suspicions of the police that Gerardi was killed in the midst of a passionate affair," the editor said. But days later, his paper and the rest of Guatemala's media published the salacious details of the investigation, and defended the decision afterward.

Spreading rumors that a victim in a murder case might have been homosexual is commonplace in Latin America, as a way to discredit further serious investigation. In many countries in the region, society does not accept gay lifestyles. Leveling such accusations at high-ranking members of the church takes such tactics to a new level of audacity.

In a bizarre twist, police also took Orantes' dog into custody. The reason they have exhumed Gerardi's body is to see if it bears canine bite marks that they might have missed during the initial investigation.

'A sad joke'

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