International human rights groups are hoping that Pope John Paul II, who arrives
in Guatemala Monday, will use the occasion to draw the world's attention to the
resumption of death-squad activity directed against domestic rights groups and
the Roman Catholic Church itself.
Groups monitoring a series of actions against rights workers and religious
figures in the Central American country are lobbying the Pontiff to "sound the
alarm" over a "catastrophic slide" in Guatemala's human rights protections.
"In the first half of 2002 alone, Guatemalan human rights organizations reported
125 cases of threats, attacks and intimidation against those engaged in the defense
of human rights," Amnesty International noted last week. "However, to date, not
one single case of threat or attack on a human rights defender has been resolved."
Last week, the headquarters of the National Coordinating Office for Human
Rights in Guatemala was broken into and its computers and research files stolen.
The burglary followed similar incidents around the country in the past few
months, as well as repeated death threats phoned and faxed to activists, including
a Catholic bishop and at least six priests and other officials in the Church's
main human rights office within the past month.
While the country's 36-year civil war ended with a comprehensive peace accord
in 1996, the human rights situation has deteriorated since 1998, with tensions
rising sharply following efforts by rights groups and the Church to investigate
atrocities committed during the war and in advance of next year's presidential
elections, in which former President Efrain Rios Montt, who ruled the country
at the height of the army's violence against Guatemala's indigenous Mayan communities,
is expected to run.
Rios Montt, a militant evangelical Protestant, has long had a hostile relationship
with the Church, which has played a leading role in the fight for human rights
for several decades. When John Paul II first visited the country in 1983, Rios
Montt ordered the execution of six rebel suspects, an act which the pope denounced
during his visit as a "very grave offense against God."
Most activists date the return of the deathsquads to the brutal 1998 death
of Bishop Juan Gerardi just two days after he delivered the Church's report on
a high-profile truth and reconciliation project. It found that the army and army-backed
Civil Defense Patrols were responsible for more than 80 percent of the killings
which took place during the war.
Four men, including three members of the Presidential Security Guard, an army
group long accused of deathsquad activity that was supposed to have been dismantled
by the peace accords, were convicted of Gerardi's murder.
Last week, according to an account in Sunday's Washington Post, shots
were fired at the courthouse where the officers were convicted and where their
appeals are now being heard. The attack, according to Frank LaRue of Guatemala's
center for Human Rights Legal Action, was "clearly linked to the pope's visit."
Since Gerardi's killing, activists have reported a gradual increase in threats
and intimidation directed against them, but these have increased dramatically
during the past six months.
Among the more serious recent incidents was the burning of the parish house
in Nebaj, Quiche, in February. The office included documents related to Bishop
Gerardi's report and others belonging to a team of forensic anthropologists which
had been carrying out exhumations in the area where a number of mass killings
by the army and its civil defense patrols took place in the 1980s.
One month later, three offices belonging to the San Marcos Diocese were burglarized,
and the local bishop, Alvaro Ramazzini, received a series of death threats.
In late April, Guillermo Ovalle de Leon, an accountant at the Fundacion Rigoberta
Menchu Tum, was shot to death at a Guatemala City restaurant shortly after receiving
a telephoned death threat. The Fundacion, led by Nobel Peace laureate Rigoberta
Menchu, has been pursuing legal cases against top military officers and Rios Montt
In May, four forensic anthropologists were forced to leave the country after
receiving death threats against themselves and their families.
In June, a fax sent to newspapers by a previously unknown group threatened
the lives of 11 rights activists labeled "enemies of the state" due to their cooperation
with the United Nations Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders, Hina
"None of these incidents has been satisfactorily investigated by the Guatemalan
government; nor have those responsible been brought to justice," according to
the Washington Office on Latin America. "Civil society leaders say that these
targeted attacks and the fear that they generate are comparable to the worst period
of violence during the 1980s."
Rights activists and clergy are not the only ones targeted. Last week, three
youths, including two 17-year-old boys, were killed and three others critically
wounded in a drive-by machine-gun shooting while they were sleeping in downtown
Guatemala City, according to Casa Alianza, a youth advocacy group.
The attack took place on the eve of the visit of the Special Rapporteur on
Children at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Susana Villaran de
la Puente, who is investigating the plight of street children in Central America.
Copyright 2002 OneWorld.net