Guatemala's Fictional Democracy.

By Francisco Goldman

In a list of phenomena meant to illustrate how Latin American reality is more fantastic than anything found in fiction, Gabriel García Márquez included in his acceptance speech for the 1982 Nobel Prize a reference to a dictator committing genocide in the name of God. He was speaking of Guatemala's ruler, a vociferous Protestant fundamentalist, Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, who that year had taken power in a military coup. During the reign of "Brother Efraín," which lasted less than two years, the Guatemalan Army waged a scorched-earth campaign, ostensibly directed against leftist guerrillas, and engaged in hundreds of massacres of rural Mayan Indians.

Twenty years later the general is back. Although the Guatemalan Constitution forbids anyone who has participated in a coup from running for president, General Ríos Montt is a candidate in Sunday's election.

Since his candidacy was announced last summer, the country has devolved into near anarchy. After a court ruling upholding the constitutional ban, mobs directed by supporters of the general's Guatemalan Republican Front party rampaged through the streets of Guatemala City, attacking journalists and judges who opposed General Ríos Montt's candidacy. A few days later, the country's highest court, farcically packed with supporters of General Ríos Montt, lifted the ban.

At last count, two dozen candidates and party activists, mostly belonging to the opposition, have been assassinated. Simultaneously, though probably not coincidentally, the country has witnessed a slew of spectacular gang-style slayings, tied to the narcotics trade. Fears abound that the general and his allies are preparing an electoral fraud, through widespread vote-buying or other schemes. If the campaign seems more like a mafia war, that's because, in a sense, it is.

General Ríos Montt is running third in voter surveys behind the other two presidential candidates, Oscar Berger and Álvaro Colom. But it would be a mistake for the rest of the world to assume that should the general lose, Guatemalan democracy has been saved. The democratic civil reforms mandated by the 1996 peace accords, which put an official end to the country's 36-year-old civil war, are now threatened with complete irrelevance.

The sad truth is that the general's resurgence is a blatant symbol of what "democracy" has sometimes wrought in Latin America. General Ríos Montt is often described as being like a character ? ludicrous and lethal ? from one of Latin America's classic dictator novels. But his candidacy more resembles that of a character found in a newer dictator novel, Mario Vargas Llosa's "Feast of the Goat" ? the man who succeeds the strongman, the man for whom the new game of democracy is the means to an end nearly as corrupt and antidemocratic as what came before.

In Guatemala, as elsewhere in Latin America, criminals and mafiosos have found in "democracy" the perfect Trojan Horse for attaining and preserving real power inside essentially hijacked states. In Guatemala, these "parallel powers" ? unofficial, immune from prosecution and scrutiny ? have created a spectacular architecture in which General Ríos Montt is not the only power behind the throne; indeed, there are a series of thrones, with figures ever more sinister behind each one, and their collective hold on power has become only stronger since the 1996 peace accords.

José Rubén Zamora, the founder and editor of elPeriódico, is a journalist of extraordinary courage and seemingly divine luck ? he has survived several assassination attempts. Last year el Periódico published an article about the Guatemalan government that began with the straight forwardness of a dark fairy tale: "At the end of the 1970's, the army established a new organization to detect the importation of weapons and ammunition destined for the Guatemalan guerrillas. With the passing of time this organization spread its tentacles and penetrated other key institutions of the state, which served as the platform for the successful launching of operations of contraband, the stealing of coffee shipments, narcotics trafficking, trafficking in immigrants, auto theft, kidnappings and bank robberies."

If, by 1982, the guerrillas had essentially been defeated militarily, the ensuing years until the peace accords "served as the smoke screen with which this organization converted the Guatemalan state into the criminal state which, with complete impunity, dedicated itself to assaulting Guatemalans." Never before had the development and structure of those organizations and their penetration of every level of Guatemalan military and civil society been so precisely described, its participants identified by name.

Last summer, armed thugs broke into Mr. Zamora's home, and in front of his wife and children, terrorized him at gunpoint. Not coincidentally, el Periódico had just published a particularly harsh editorial, signed by Mr. Zamora, against General Ríos Montt.

Many of the gangsters, military and civilian, identified by Mr. Zamora, have held posts in the government of President Alfonso Portillo, who has widely been perceived as General Ríos Montt's puppet. According to Mr. Zamora and others, the Guatemalan Army has been purged of officers who are not involved in, or indebted to, this criminal organization. No civilian president has been able to challenge the power of the army seriously.

So maybe it doesn't matter who is finally elected president. Helen Mack, a prominent human rights advocate whose sister was killed 13 years ago by a military death squad, has said she does not expect the election to change anything in Guatemala. Ever since the peace accords and the 1998 United Nations-sponsored Truth Commission, whose conclusions have jeopardized the army's impunity for its crimes, the goal of the brotherhood of past and current military officers has been to regain control of the country, including its major political parties. The army's power is based on organized crime, from which has arisen a new social class of complicit officers and corrupt officials, protected by a narrative of lies: a relentless campaign of misinformation to erase from public memory the army's crimes, and denial of all the country's problems.

Since the signing of the accords, the United Nations peace-monitoring mission has played a critical role in Guatemala. The mission's often intrusive presence has provided the only reliable protection and support the country's independent journalists and jurists and human rights organizations have known. The mission's charter was to end in January, when it would have had to leave the country, but its presence is so obviously needed that this fall its mandate was extended for another year. Meanwhile the United Nations, in conjunction with the United States, human rights groups and others, has been discussing an initiative to form another international commission to investigate wrongdoing in Guatemala. The commission, which would be under United Nations-sponsorship, is the country's last best hope. But obstacles remain, including ratification by the Guatemalan Congress, which is currently led by General Ríos Montt.

What chance, then, can "democracy" really have in Guatemala, a remote, rainy, mountainous and captive country whose current political circumstances resemble a terrifying story by Lovecraft or Stoker? Guatemala isn't the only place in the world where law, language and life are treated with contempt. But if the international community cannot free this small country's democracy from usurpation by a criminal army-mafia, how can it succeed elsewhere?

[Source: By Francisco Goldman, New York Times, NY, 03Nov03. Francisco Goldman is author of the forthcoming novel, "The Divine Husband."]

DDHH en Guatemala

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This document has been published on 03Nov03 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights, in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.