Guatemala’s Gross National Products: Cocadollars, Repression, and Disinformation

In the early 1980s, leftist guerrillas in Guatemala blew up bridges, ambushed army convoys, and attacked military outposts. A decade later, the fighting in Guatemala’s civil war is winding down. Combat between the government and the guerrillas now occurs in only a few departments and only a few times each year. But political violence, almost exclusively by the government, continues. Even the U.S. State Department reported in 1991 that the military, civil patrols and the police continued to commit a majority of the major human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture and disappearances.

The Guatemalan counterinsurgency campaign was conceived with the support of U.S. counterinsurgency experts such as Caesar Sereseres and Colonel George Minas. Sereseres has served as both a consultant to the Rand Corporation and a Central America expert in the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning. Today, Guatemalan army officers still describe him as someone who understands our situation. Minas served as a U.S. military attache in Guatemala in the early 1980s. Both encouraged Guatemala’s population control strategy, involving the use of Vietnam-style military-controlled strategic hamlets and civilian defense patrols.

The strategy of control was also characterized by a litany of human rights crimes that stand out not only in the region but in the world. The violence was so severe in the early 1980s in Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchu’s home department of Quich, to cite but one example, that the entire Catholic archdiocese shut down and withdrew, with all its priests, nuns, catechists, and many parishioners. The situation there and in other departments by 1982 led Guatemala’s Conference of Catholic Bishops to conclude: Not even the lives of old people, pregnant women or innocent children were respected. Never in our history has it come to such grave extremes.


Not everyone suffered. Guatemalan army spokesmen openly point out that the carnage has given Guatemala a level of national stability it lacked earlier in the war, and made the country comparatively more stable than El Salvador, Honduras, or even Mexico. With the military firmly in charge, and the civilian government largely irrelevant, foreign investment has climbed. Low wages have attracted Asian firms wanting to set up sweatshops, as well as European and U.S. tourists.

It has also attracted the network of cocaine traffickers based in the Colombian city of Cali. The cartel picked Guatemala because it is near Mexico, which is an obvious entrance point to the U.S., and because the Mexicans have a long established and well organized mafia, said a Latin America drug enforcement expert. It is also a better transit and storage country than El Salvador because it offers more stability and was easier to control.


In the 1980s, Guatemala was an insignificant player in the cocaine trade. Today, however, Guatemala is the largest Central American bodega or warehouse for cocaine transshipments to the U.S., and ranks behind only Mexico and, perhaps, the Bahamas in transshipping cocaine to the U.S. Analysts at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics Matters (INM) now estimate that between 50 and 75 metric tons of cocaine are shipped through Guatemala each year. (In comparison, the same experts estimate that before the present embargo, between 6 and 12 metric tons a year passed through Haiti.) Mexico and Guatemala, which share a common frontier, together move at least two-thirds of the cocaine now reaching the U.S.

Guatemala’s booming cocaine trade now distorts the Guatemalan economy, drawing local businesses into a web of cocadollars and fostering corruption in both business and the military. The Cali cartel and its Guatemalan partners are trafficking cocaine that, at the wholesale price of $15,000 a kilogram, is worth as much as one billion dollars a year or one-tenth of Guatemala’s entire GNP.

Evidence of the cash flow generated by the cocaine trade is abundant: Real estate prices in Guatemala City, by conservative estimates, rose over 350 percent in just three years, while inflation dropped from 60 to 14 percent over the same period. Even more illicit funds appear to be channeled into the construction industry, which has grown steadily at a rate four times faster than the rest of the economy. While other Central American capital cities only seem to deteriorate, Guatemala City’s skyline continues to expand even though the newly constructed buildings still have ample vacant office space.

The situation became so unnerving by November 1992 that a group of local exporters organized an unprecedented conference: how to detect whether their export products are being used to run drugs. They held the conference seven months after 6.7 tons of cocaine enough to supply the total U.S. demand for a week was discovered in cases of frozen broccoli shipped to Miami. Even these business leaders concede that, in a sluggish global economy with many export markets depressed, the profits available from cocaine trafficking can be extremely tempting. Newspaper editors say that the cocaine trade in Guatemala has been able to buy out entire businesses as well as institutions. But although everybody in Guatemala seems to know about it, hardly anybody is willing, publicly, to say even a word.


Off the record, Western diplomats, leading entrepreneurs, church officials and others all charge that senior Guatemalan army officers are deeply involved in the cocaine traffic. Although not even one military official has yet to be prosecuted in either Guatemala or the U.S., 10 military officers and 20 paramilitaries under them have already been indicted or implicated. They include:

1) Ex-Lt. Colonel Carlos Ochoa Ruiz and two army captains, all of whom were caught in a DEA sting back in 1990, smuggling a half metric ton of cocaine, worth $7.5 million wholesale, to Tampa, Florida.
2) A retired Guatemalan Air Force captain who owned a safe house outside Antigua where the DEA found 2.8 metric tons of cocaine.
3) Four army colonels, a major, a captain and 20 army-appointed civilian commissioners in Los Amates in eastern Guatemala, who are accused in legal testimony by survivors of having ordered the separate murders of nine peasants, and the torture and abuse of many more.

The Los Amates survivors charge that the army drove them off their land to build runways to smuggle drugs. One of the military commissioners they name, Arnoldo Vargas Estrada, was later extradited to Brooklyn, New York, where he will be tried for smuggling several tons of cocaine a month by tractor trailers to the U.S.


The Guatemalan army’s office of Information and Dissemination, on the other hand, counters that leftist guerrillas of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) are responsible. Not one guerrilla or political opponent of the Guatemalan government has been either charged or indicted. Yet the Guatemalan army maintains that they should be.

Its Department of Information and Dissemination has a manila envelope, marked with an official stamp SECRETO, which spokesmen are eager to show to journalists upon request. The documents describe an alleged anti-drug operation high up in Guatemala’s northern Peten jungle, where the URNG guerrillas were once strong. According to the documents, in July 1991 a Treasury Police unit engaged in combat with guerrillas discovered a small plane with Colombian registration. Included in the file is a photograph of a white male wearing a baseball cap with the letters, in place of a ball team, DEA. He is standing over the plane’s cargo stacked brown paper-wrapped packages and holding up a flag with the initials FAR the acronym for one of three wings of the URNG.

For reasons still unexplained, the Army waited 16 months until November 1992 to release the secret file, the color Polaroids, and an army-produced video of the alleged raid.

The video begins with members of the Treasury Police running single file up to a line of trees, and firing automatic weapons in sequence at an unseen enemy. Later, these armed soldiers are seen around a small plane and the brown packages. The film then zeros in on the Polaroid of the white male wearing the baseball cap with the letters DEA. When asked whether this man with the DEA baseball cap was a DEA agent, army spokesman Captain Yon Rivera said, Look at it. You can see for yourself. When asked why the DEA hasn’t said anything about the guerrillas running cocaine, spokesman Yon Rivera, commonly identified in local newspapers as The Voice of the Armed Forces said: The DEA has not accused the guerrillas for this. I don’t know why they don’t want to say it.

U.S. Embassy officials in Guatemala City declined comment. When asked about the raid, Joyce McDonald at DEA headquarters in Washington faxed a description of the raid, the video, and the man with the DEA baseball cap to the DEA Field Division in Guatemala City. That office faxed back a brief response: DEA is unfamiliar with the film or scenario described above.

Blaming the guerrillas is not without a certain irony. The same army spokesmen who claim the guerrillas are running tons of cocaine boast in the same breath how the guerrillas are militarily defeated. The army estimates that there are fewer than 500 full-time guerrilla combatants left.Yet, the army fails to explain how a mere 500 stragglers under pressure just to stay alive, let alone fight could be responsible for receiving, storing and transshipping the bulk of Guatemala’s flow of cocaine.


Although the charge that the guerrillas are behind the cocaine traffic is, on the face of it, without basis, it is regularly reported as fact throughout Guatemala. The Guatemalan army’s ability to manipulate the press is yet another violent legacy of its past. After seeing more of their colleagues killed or disappeared than in any other country in Central America (and that is saying a lot), Guatemalan journalists rarely challenge anything the military says. No matter how broad or baseless, the military’s allegations are still regularly reported in Guatemalan daily newspapers, radio, and television reports in most cases, without a word of qualification. And regionally based foreign journalists have simply ignored the military’s accusations, if they’ve bothered to report on Guatemala at all.

As a result, neither Guatemala’s nine million citizens (most of whom, like the peasants in Mexico’s Chiapas, are of Mayan descent), nor North American consumers of news about Guatemala are well served. Guatemalan citizens have been saturated with the view that their tiny country is the victim of a global communist conspiracy that endures despite the end of the Cold War. And countless Guatemalans, especially among the whiter, wealthier members of its population, very much do believe it. This is a war here, said one such businessman, between the country and those who want to destroy it, the guerrillas. Meanwhile, North American readers have been insulated from the most outlandish of Guatemalan officials’ accusations, and their by any post-Cold War standard extreme world view. The failure of the U.S. press to adequately report on Guatemala is one reason why the Clinton administration enjoys warm relations with Guatemala despite its authoritarian past and present.

The Guatemalan army maintains that the URNG guerrillas have compensated for their battlefield losses by shifting their resources to a political warfare campaign. While the guerrillas are poor military commanders, say Guatemalan army representatives, they are brilliant manipulators of world opinion. The army claims that the guerrillas’ propaganda campaign is not only successful but has managed to either manipulate or control individuals, organizations, publications, and even governments.

In August 1992, Newsweek ran a story, “Subtle Clues in Shallow Graves: Uncovering evidence of massacres in Guatemala”. In response, then Guatemalan Minister of Defense Jos Garcia Samayoa threatened to press charges against Newsweek and respected forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow, who conducted the investigation. The General said, “It worries us to see how foreign interference in this case has grown in dimension, injuring…the independence and sovereignty of Guatemalans.”

International authority Clyde Snow, who has examined cadavers in Kurdistan, Chile, Argentina, and most recently Mexico’s Chiapas, has harsh words for the Guatemalan army: The military guys who do this are like serial killers. They got away with it once, so they think they’ll always get away with it. If Jeffrey Dahmer had been in Guatemala, he would be a general by now. Around the same time, indigenous leader Rigoberta Menchu, from Guatemala’s most war-torn department of Quich, was a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. Then army spokesman Yon Rivera was not impressed: The only thing Miss Menchu has done abroad is create a very bad image of our country. After she won the prize, Rivera charged that Guatemala had been the victim of a global political warfare campaign, but he didn’t know whether it was a case of direct infiltration. At the very least, he charged, the Nobel committee itself had been, somehow, unduly influenced by the URNG.30

The Guatemalan army has accused the U.S. of participating in the political warfare as well. By 1991, congressional critics had helped persuade the Bush administration to cut military aid to Guatemala, which it did partly over the murder of an American innkeeper, Michael Devine. That led the Guatemalan army to claim that the U.S. government itself had been unduly influenced by the URNG. According to the army’s Department of Information and Dissemination, members of the U.S. Congress and the State Department have been, respectively, conspirators and dupes. There is a U.S. congressman who has on his staff a member of the URNG, spokesman Rivera said in an interview, although Rivera could remember neither the congressman nor his staff member’s name. But one name he could recall was that of Frank LaRue, whose activities Rivera said proves his point. According to Rivera, LaRue is a lobbyist for the URNG, who enjoys undue influence in the State Department. “He has an open door,” said Rivera, nodding his head. He has the key.

LaRue made the Guatemalan national stage over a decade ago when he defended Coca-Cola workers in a bitter strike in Guatemala City, after which he went into political exile until 1994, when he returned briefly to Guatemala. While in the U.S., LaRue was a well-known activist in the Guatemalan opposition movement, and continued to work on labor and human rights issues in Guatemala through the privately-funded Center for Human Rights Legal Action in Washington, D.C. It was in this capacity that he was invited to the State Department for meetings with Guatemalan army representatives to discuss issues of military justice and human rights.

U.S. journalists who criticize the military are also accused of being part of the conspiracy. After the Washington Post published an article by the author about the Cali cartel and the Guatemalan army on December 26, 1993, the Army’s Department of Information and Dissemination held a press conference the following day to respond: Members of the Department of Information and dissemination of the Guatemalan Army reiterated that `there exists a campaign against the prestige of the government and the armed forces on the part of groups that seek to satisfy their own interests by creating a negative image of the country and the democratic process that we live in.


Indeed, according to the Guatemalan army, this campaign against the prestige of the government and armed forces is one of the broadest in the history of the Cold War, which, it maintains, has yet to end. And, if the Guatemalan military is to be believed, the propaganda campaign has extended its tentacles to some very unlikely places. In January 1993, the army uncovered a conspiracy involving an entertainment establishment, a local television station and U.S. Secret Service agents attached to United Nations dignitaries visiting New York.

Guatemala’s then formal head of state, President Jorge Serrano (who last May failed to survive his own Fujimori-style self-coup), was on an official trip to the United Nations. Although the visit coincided with President Clinton’s inauguration, the Guatemalan leader was not invited. After Serrano spoke to the U.N. General Assembly, blaming Guatemala’s leftist guerrillas for much of his country’s problems, he went for a drink at Stringfellows of NY, Ltd. in the posh Gramercy Park neighborhood of lower Manhattan.

The Guatemalan leader found a table facing a stage with naked, dancing women. A local free-lance cameraman happened to be having a drink and watching the show too.

The next day at 6:00 p.m., WNBC-TV’s News 4 New York aired an exclusive report. It captured the Guatemalan leader trying to hide his face behind a white ski parka and hood, while exiting the club and entering the back seat of his waiting limousine. In addition to close-ups of the President’s face, viewers saw his armed U.S. Secret Service escorts as well as his entire diplomatic motorcade. After running the tape, the news anchor added that President Serrano is an outspoken born-again, evangelical Christian.

News 4 New York aired the report again at 11:00 p.m. But in the later broadcast, the anchor included President Serrano’s official response. He blamed his capture on film at the go go bar on manipulation by Guatemala’s leftist guerrillas.

Spokespersons for News 4 New York, Stringfellows of NY, Ltd., and the Secret Service were all, at first, incredulous and then offended. All deny the charge.

What the Guatemalan army fails to realize is that the more it blames leftist guerrillas for its problems, the more isolated it becomes. During the Cold War, Guatemala was already a pariah regime within the world community. But with changes and reforms now taking place or on the horizon in places as troubled as South Africa, the Middle East, and Northern Ireland, continuing Guatemalan political violence, cocaine trafficking, and military impunity leave that country more alone than ever.

Guatemalan Army Crushes Land Protest

San Jorge la Laguna — Security forces have ignored the exhortations of Roman Catholic Church officials and other mediators in a local land dispute here and violently put down a two-week-old indigenous peasant occupation of disputed land. Mediators were still hoping to find a peaceful resolution when military riot police attacked on Saturday.

Military police moved in at dawn, hurling and swinging truncheons, according to witnesses. The dozens of injured included many women and children. Sixty-seven others, all men, were arrested.

The military’s swift and unexpected response to the peasant occupation has heightened tensions between the government of President Jorge Serrano Elias and Guatemala’s majority indigenous population. Indigenous organizations here have become increasingly active in both land and human rights issues in the past several months.

During the occupation, thousands of indigenous peasants from nearby towns and villages marched to San Jorge in an unusual demonstration of support.

“This is the sentiment and pain of all the people,” said one San Jorge resident.

“The situation in San Jorge is the situation in all of [Guatemala],” says Antonio Argueta, a labor attorney representing the community.

The villagers claim they have a “historic right” to more than 200 acres in a fertile valley on the shores of volcano-ringed Lake Atitlan. But entrepreneurs Luis and Carlos Saravia Camacho, who hold the current legal title to the property, plan to convert the valley into a luxury lakeside resort.

Ramon Varios Chiguil, one of their attorneys, said: “We don’t want a confrontation. But the land is legally ours.”

The conflict illustrates one of Guatemala’s most deeply rooted problems: reconciling the rights of land owners and those of indigenous people of Mayan descent, who make up roughly 60 percent of Guatemala’s population of about nine million.

At issue is whether the indigenous population’s historic claim to land supersedes titles written during the coffee boom of the late 1800s. Against a backdrop of increasing social unrest and two decades of declining living standards in the indigenous community, the government faces a difficult task in solving the dispute.

“We don’t even have a place to build a latrine,” says one of San Jorge’s community leaders. “We are poor. We don’t have enough land to farm.”

The disputed land lies between the village and the shores of Lake Atitlan. Last month, attorneys for the Camacho brothers notified the community that because of an impending investment project they would be denied access to either use or pass through the land. Two weeks later, about 1,000 villagers — more than half of San Jorge’s population — left their homes a half-mile up the mountain to build shacks and occupy the land in question.

On March 31, a smaller contingent of riot police destroyed the squatters’ shacks but did not attempt to remove the population. The Catholic bishop for this region, Monsignor Eduardo Fuentes, along with officials from the quasi-independent government Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, then began to mediate between the two sides. During the talks, the villagers rebuilt their shacks.

The Camacho brothers bought the land from the Fuentes family in 1975. According to still existing documents, Domingo Fuentes inherited the land from his parents in the late 1800s.

Two weeks ago, representatives of the Camacho brothers came to the site to negotiate with the community. They offered to expand a school, improve electrical lines, and install sewers if the villagers agreed to end their occupation of the land, community representatives say.

But the villagers rejected the offer, maintaining that what they want is the land. Community leaders say their claim to the land dates back to the 16th century, and that they can demonstrate that their forefathers, before the arrival of Europeans, were the rightful owners of the land.

“The historical claim and the [current] legal claim are not the same,” Mr. Argueta says. “The legal claim is divorced from [this community’s] history. What we are attempting to do is to convert their historical claim into a real right.”

The community enjoys the support of this region’s elected deputy to Guatemala’s National Congress, Julio David Diaz Chay, who met with villagers on Friday before the military crackdown. He said he would prepare a formal petition to the Serrano administration asking it to hear the villagers’ case.

Mr. Diaz’s constituency is among the poorest of Guatemala, which has one of the largest gaps between rich and poor in Latin America. While 2 percent of Guatemalans own more than 70 per- cent of the nation’s arable land, most Indians are chronically underemployed and landless.

Death of an Anthropologist

An unusual cartoon appeared recently in a Guatemalan newspaper. It showed the small figure of Helen Mack swinging a hammer, chipping away at a towering brick wall that symbolized more than thirty-seven years of military impunity.

Helen Mack is leading her family’s investigation of the September 1990 assassination of her sister, Myrna Elizabeth Mack Chang.

An ethnic Chinese Guatemalan, Myrna Mack was one of Latin America’s most eminent anthropologists. Her work earned the support of the Ford Foundation, Georgetown University, and the University of California at Berkeley, among others.

To continue reading the article, please go to a PDF file of the original here.

Our Guys in Guatemala

The women wore white gúipils embroidered with pastel flowers and a thin brown trim. The men’s pants were of a matching design, cut off below the knee. The people of Santiago de Atitlán –more than 5,000 of them– marched the half mile out of town to the site of the former army garrison. “Here,” said one, “we are planting the peace.”

A year before, on December 2, 1990, Guatemalan soldiers opened fire on an unarmed crowd of about the same size. Thirteen villagers, including two children, eventually died; twenty-three others were wounded. But rather than retreat into fear, more villagers came forward. Within three days, the windows of the town hall were covered with hundreds of photographs, many cheap dime-store portraits, of men and women, young and old.

Please finish reading the article at a PDF file of the original here.

Guatemalan Murder Probe Beset by Irregularities

Guatemala City — Her short stature and soft voice were deceiving. Among Guatemala’s highland Indians, she was a legend. Among her colleagues in North America and Europe, she was a rising academic star.

An ethnic Chinese Guatemalan, Myrna Elizabeth Mack Chang had become one of Latin America’s most eminent anthropologists. Her research focused on Guatemala’s nearly one million indigenous refugees, dislocated by severe military counterinsurgency practices in the early 1980s. Government authorities have been reluctant even to recognize the existence of these refugees; traveling on foot from camp to camp, Ms. Mack was the first to document their numbers and conditions.

But on Sept. 11, 1990, Mack was attacked and killed upon leaving her office here. Her colleagues and relatives believe she was murdered on the orders of Guatemala’s Military Intelligence Division.

One suspect, Noel de Jesus Beteta Alvarez, a former special sergeant major from the Security Section of the Presidential High Command, was charged in December with the crime. Mr. Beteta had been missing for a year before being apprehended in Los Angeles and extradited back to Guatemala.

The Mack murder case has become one of the most important in Guatemala’s history and is widely seen as a case challenging decades of military impunity. Both U.S. Ambassador Thomas Stroock and Guatemalan President Jorge Serrano Elias have pledged support for a full investigation.

But high-ranking civilian and military officials are undermining the investigation, according to independent investigators, human rights monitors, and non-American Western diplomats. The case has been beset by irregularities from day one:

* Key physical evidence was either ignored or discarded by investigating authorities, according to a forensic report commissioned by the New York-based human rights group Americas Watch.

* For nine months, authorities denied charges of military involvement. Only last June, after unprecedented international pressure, did the government announce that the crime was politically motivated.

* In August, the chief investigator on the case was himself gunned down in broad daylight outside his own police headquarters. According to the Roman Catholic archbishop’s office on human rights here, the investigator had evidence linking Mack’s murder to the military high command.

* A key witness he interviewed has since recanted his testimony.

* An military intelligence file — indicating that the military at the very least had an interest in Mack — has not been turned over to court authorities, despite several formal requests, according to the government’s own human rights ombudsman.

* On Dec. 9, the presiding judge removed himself from the case, claiming that Helen Mack, sister of the murdered anthropologist, had challenged his integrity by requesting access to presumably public documents on the suspect.

* On Dec. 10, the Mack family announced that groups of men had conducted surveillance of their home in Guatemala City for several days, in a manner similar to surveillance conducted on Mack prior to her murder.

The Mack family was formally visited by Ambassador Stroock in early December, as well as by ambassadors from Canada and France, in a public demonstration of support. “I hope this case does not remain, like so many other crimes, committed in a cloak of impunity.” Helen Mack told a local newspaper.

The Mack murder is but one of thousands of politically motivated murders in recent years. Since January 1990, extrajudicial murders and disappearances have continued at a rate of two per day, according to the ombudsman’s office.

Human rights monitors and Western officials say military-controlled security forces are the primary killers. The US State Department’s 1990 report on Guatemala reads: “Reliable evidence indicates that the security forces committed, with almost total impunity, a majority of the major human rights abuses.”

Based on previously recorded testimony, independent investigators and sources sympathetic to the Mack family say they believe Beteta was indeed one of Mack’s assailants. But the number of men involved in the murder of Mack and the surveillance that preceded it indicate that he was not acting alone, they say.

Who Killed Guatemala’s Leading Anthropologist?

Original article can be found here.

The Chief Investigator Is Dead, Key Testimony Has Been Recanted, and the Primary Suspect Is Missing, but American and Guatemalan Officials Promise Justice

GUATEMALA CITY — Myrna Elizabeth Mack Chang was Guatemala’s most respected anthropologist. Her work with the country’s indigenous refugees — displaced by the military’s severe counter-insurgency practices — was internationally renowned. But on September 11, 1990, the petite, 40-year-old ethnic Chinese woman was attacked upon leaving her office here. Her assailants had been conspicuously watching her for at least a week. One or her attackers, cleaned his weapon, described in one account as a “Rambo” knife, in her blouse, before leaving her with 27 deep puncture wounds.

The crime’s investigation has become a test case to see whether the rule of law can be applied in Guatemala. Both American and Guatemalan officials recognize that its outcome is likely to determine future foreign aid relations. ‘When President [Jorge] Serrano came to office [in January] he did promise that he would do something, and I think he’s beginning to deliver on the promise, and we are very, very pleased,” U.S. ambassador Thomas Stroock said in taped interview on July 4.

When she was killed, Mack had been collaborating with Georgetown University, the University of California at Berkeley, and the Ford Foundation. The grisly crime produced outrage worldwide. Guatemalan newspapers still regularly receive paid ads from social scientists and human rights organizations in Canada, Europe, and the United States demanding a serious investigation. President Serrano, also on July 4, assured an American congressional delegation about the Mack case, “We are doing things, not just saying things.”

But one month later, on August 5, the chief homicide investigator, Jost Miguel Merida Escobar, himself was gunned down. His own criminal report on the Mack case — obtained by the Voice — he inexplicably never ratified. Witnesses he interviewed have since recanted their testimony. A suspect that he first identified is believed to be dead or out of the country. And an alleged military intelligence file on the murdered anthropologist is being withheld from court authorities.

As a result, non-American Western diplomats and investigators from Guatemala’s semiautonomous Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman say that many obstacles remain to solving the Mack murder. As in the November 1989 Jesuit murder case in neighboring El Salvador, military and other government officials are actively undermining the Mack investigation, they say.

Mack’s colleagues in Guatemala believe she was murdered on the orders of Guatemala’s notorious military intelligence apparatus. “We have no doubt that this was the work of the G-2, the counterintelligence body of the army,” attorney Ronalth Ochaeta, from the Catholic archdiocese’s human rights office, told a visiting congressional delegation shortly after the murder.

Mack’s work was highly controversial in Guatemala. The country’s displaced population was created by the army’s “scorched earth” counterinsurgency campaign, which began in the early 1980s. Tens of thousands of people — mostly Indians of Mayan descent — were killed. Up to one million more, in a country of fewer than 9 million, were uprooted. The government has been reluctant even to recognize the existence of the country’s own displaced population; Mack’s research began to document their numbers and conditions.

Independent investigators recognize that they face an uphill battle: Guatemala holds one of Latin America’s worst records for human rights-related murders. No military officer and only a handful of soldiers have been convicted of human rights violations. Government officials admit that the military enjoys impunity even when compared to El Salvador and other Central American nations. Even cases involving American citizens — the November 1989 abduction of Ursuline sister Diana Ortiz and the June 1990 kidnapping/murder of rancher Michael Devine, for example — remain unsolved.

On August 5, chief investigator Merida was shot to death only 150 yards from his own Police Headquarters in Guatemala City. Merida had already assumed a controversial role in the investigation. In the original criminal report compiled last September, Merida, along with another police detective, implicated undercover military units in the Mack murder. One witness quoted in their original report testified that he recognized one of the assailants as being from an intelligence office attached to the military high command. The witness had worked for 23 years in the state security forces, independent investigators say. But this testimony was omitted from the police report before being sent to the court. The witness has since recanted his own statement — and, before he died, Merida refused to ratify his own report.

At the time, American and Guatemalan officials dismissed these irregularities, arguing that the anthropologist’s murder was most likely a “common crime.” Ambassador Stroock — a political appointee of the Bush administration who was a school chum of the president’s at Yale — wrote personal letters to American academics who had denounced the Mack murder in the Guatemalan press, asserting that the crime was not politically motivated. President Serrano, on March 1, 1991, circulated an official report to members of the European diplomatic corps that suggested that Mack “had done some hard-currency business on the black market and had been the target of persecution by delinquents.”

But few if any diplomats were persuaded. Said one, “The [government’s] whole description of that case was scandalous.”

Three months later, under intense international pressure, the government officially reversed its position, and American officials have since followed suit. On June 17, 1991, Guatemalan attorney general Aciscio Valladares officially acknowledged that the crime had a “political” motive and that it had been “programmed,” or premeditated. The attorney general added, “Within the next few days, the results of the developments in this process will be made public, which will clarify the crime.”

On July 4, the government announced — via a newspaper report — that it was issuing an arrest warrant for a suspect in the case Noel de Jesus Beteta Alvarez, a special sergeant major with the Security Section of the Presidential High Command. Strangely, the basis for the charge was the same police report rejected by its own authors. Although Beteta is not mentioned by name in the original report, the testimony that implicated him was recorded September 17, 1991, just six days after the Mack murder.

So far, the government has not explained why it waited up to nine months before trying to arrest Beteta. In interviews the week before Beteta was publicly named, independent investigators and other sources said his identity was already well known. They believe the government intentionally orchestrated the delay. “The fact of too much publicity has made a witness willingly disappear,” noted an investigator from the ombudsman’s office.

Beteta was relieved of his post with the Presidential High Command less than 12 weeks after the Mack murder, according to military documents filed with the court. The documents state that as of November 30, 1990, Beteta “does not enjoy military privilege.” Within a month after being relieved, Beteta mysteriously disappeared. Family members have said they believe he is dead. Others suspect he has fled. Regardless, it seems unlikely he will be prosecuted.

Rather than lead to Beteta’s apprehension, the issuing of a warrant for his arrest seemed more intended to affect international opinion. The day before the arrest order was announced, 16 U.S. congresswomen called for a full investigation in a paid ad in the Guatemalan press. On the morning the arrest order was issued, a prearranged meeting between President Serrano and U.S. senator James Jeffords (Republican, Vermont) and Representative Jim McDermott (Democrat, Washington), who had traveled to Guatemala specifically to monitor progress on the Mack and other human rights cases, was scheduled.

“To find that the name [of the person] had been announced at least at the execution level was very interesting,” Jeffords said in an interview. “[It] indicated that whoever was putting things together did an excellent job to reach what we thought was a significant break in the Myrna Mack case.”

Witnesses quoted in the murdered investigator’s original report indicate that Beteta may very well have been one of Mack’s assassins. However, it is unlikely that Beteta — even if he could be located and tried — acted alone.

The presence of a personal file on Mack compiled by Guatemalan military intelligence suggests that higher authorities may be involved, according to human rights ombudsman Ramiro de Leon Carpio. Carpio has publicly complained that the government is not committed to defending human rights. In July, his investigators made the existence of the Mack file known to a visiting U.S. congressional delegation.

Court officials have formally requested all information on Mack from the Guatemalan ministry of defense. But no military intelligence file on Mack has been turned over, according to court sources.

Senator Jeffords said he raised the file in the July 4 meeting with President Serrano. “We pointed out to the president that the investigator from [the ombudsman’s office] announced that they had found a detailed file on Myrna Mack in the army. It indicated that obviously [the investigation] should go higher.”

In his official response, Serrano told Jeffords, “if there is anyone involved in the higher-ups, we are going to know it through the process. And if there is one, he is going to be punished.” Serrano, as well as senior presidential aides, made it clear that authorities do not now plan to press the investigation any higher. They also failed to explain how they intend to apprehend Beteta — the only suspect currently charged in the crime.

The failure to achieve justice in such cases “demonstrates a lack of political will or sympathy,” said Ombudsman Carpio. “The reign of impunity goes on.””