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.