On Thursday, January 14, Jimmy Morales, Guatemala’s new president, will be inaugurated. He owes his election victory to a massive outpouring of popular anger against corruption in the administration of former President Otto Pérez Molina, who was forced to resign under pressure and is now facing prosecution. Morales, a comedian who never held public office before, was elected as the “least worst option” because other major candidates were all implicated in corruption scandals.
But there will be no honeymoon for Morales or for Guatemala.
On December 30, the acting president until the inauguration, former judge Alejandro Maldonado, announced a plan to apply sub-minimum wages to four areas of the country as bait to attract new direct foreign investment by offering even cheaper labor in this already impoverished country.
Then on Wednesday, January 6, Guatemala’s courageous top prosecutor, Thelma Aldana, announced the capture and imminent prosecution of 18 former high-ranking military officers for murder, kidnapping and crimes against humanity which were committed by the U.S.-backed Guatemalan army during the military dictatorship of General Fernando Romeo Lucas García (in power 1978-1982). Similar massacres and crimes against human rights continued under Lucas García’s successors, Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-1983) and Oscar Humberto Mejía Victores (1983-1986). Ms. Aldana’s efforts also were crucial in the fall of President Pérez Molina last year.
Finally, there will be a new trial, starting next week, for Ríos Montt, who overthrew Lucas García and succeeded him as dictator. He had been convicted previously but his conviction was overturned on technical grounds by none other than Alejandro Maldonado, at that time a judge.
The arrested military officers include dictator Lucas García’s brother, Gen. Manuel Benedicto Lucas García, former army chief of staff. Not indicted is former Colonel Edgar Justino Ovalle Maldonado, who has immunity because he is a member of Congress. The prosecution will ask for this immunity to be lifted, but another issue is that Ovalle Maldonado, who is one of the key suspects in multiple massacres in the Ixil Triangle region during Ríos Montt’s regime, is described as the “right hand man” of the new president, Jimmy Morales, who was elected with the organized support of former military officers. Morales appears to be very much a figure of the right, so it is not to be expected that he will, as president, be supportive of the prosecution of these officers.
Atrocities and the U.S. role
The specific atrocities of which the officers are accused took place from 1981 to 1982, in the area of Cobán, the capital of Guatemala’s Alta Verapaz Department (province), where a large proportion of the population belongs to the Q’eqchi branch of the Maya people. The army, many of whose top officers were trained by the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, which coordinated closely with U.S. officials and had the full support of the Reagan administration, had the mission of sweeping through the region to suppress real or imagined popular support for left-wing guerrillas. In the process, entire villages were wiped out and a vast number of people killed by the most sadistic methods imaginable, including crucifixion, often after being tortured and raped.
Key evidence in the trial will be the discovery last year of 558 human skeletons at the military base in Cobán, of which at least 90 belong to children. These people had been captured in the military sweeps and subsequently murdered. A second case involves a single death: that of a 15-year-old boy whose sister, an activist, had been captured by the army but who had escaped after being raped and tortured. The boy was killed in revenge for her escape.
All in all, Guatemala’s civil war cost up to 250,000 lives, the vast majority civilians killed by the military or by right-wing, military-allied death squads. Up to now very few of the direct perpetrators – and none of the U.S. abettors and enablers in the CIA, the School of the Americas, or our national political leadership – have ever been brought to account.
The war between the Guatemalan military and the guerrillas ended, more or less, with a peace agreement in 1996. But Guatemala has remained one of the most violent countries in the world, and the violence has a racist edge directed principally against the indigenous people who form almost half of the population of this country of 16 million. More recently, the Mexican “Zetas” narcotics cartel has been operating in the area, which has upped the violence once again.
The poor in Guatemala have been getting poorer in recent years. In 2014 a coffee blight decimated that key export crop, and now an unusually strong “el Niño” phenomenon has led to a massive drought that has displaced hundreds of thousands of farmers. Recent Guatemalan governments have followed the strategy of trying to keep wages low and the population quiet so as to attract, they say, more direct foreign investment. So when acting president Maldonado announced his sub-minimum wage plan for four areas in the country and was met by protest demonstrations, a lawsuit by rural workers and a temporary court injunction, he exploded in a bizarre tantrum. Shouting and gesticulating, he accused protesters of being “the worst kind of people,””Leninists” and “fascists,” and said that if anyone did not want to work for the sub-minimum wage they didn’t have to because some other person, with a sick mother perhaps, would be glad to take their jobs.
Between the violence and the intractable poverty, many Guatemalans see no other option than to migrate to the United States. This is the source of the Guatemalan part of the “child migrant wave” that has created such hysteria among politicians in our own country.
Photo: Jimmy Morales/AP