New Hope for Old Cases in Guatemala?

Justice appears to be on the march in Guatemala, at least with respect to alleged high-level corruption. Citizens who took to the streets demanding accountability can scarcely believe that President Otto Perez Molina, still in power just two weeks ago, has resigned and now sits in jail, awaiting trial.

Yet many crimes linked to Guatemala’s contested past remain unresolved.  With the 25th anniversary of her murder taking place last week, the case of Myrna Mack illustrates some of the challenges that lie ahead if there is to be more comprehensive accountability in Guatemala.

Myrna Mack was a Guatemalan anthropologist who studied communities that were internally displaced during the country’s 36-year conflict.  Her findings, issued in the midst of the fighting, were critical of the government’s and army’s policies. She revealed the inhumane conditions in which the communities lived and how they were treated as virtual prisoners by the authorities.  In 1990, this was enough to qualify her as a threat to national security and, in accordance with the government’s counterinsurgency policy, an internal enemy.  On September 11 of that year, Myrna Mack was stabbed to death outside her office in Guatemala City.

The Presidential Security Department, also known as the “Archivo,” planned and carried out Mack’s murder as part of the state’s counterinsurgency policy. The “Archivo” was a secret operational and military intelligence unit within the Presidential General Staff that became notorious for enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and torture.

These were the findings of a trial court on February 12, 1993, when it sentenced Sergeant Major Noel Beteta, a specialist working within the Presidential Security Department, to 25 years in prison for his direct role in Mack’s murder.  This represented a breakthrough: the first conviction of any state actor for grave crimes committed during the country’s internal conflict. However, efforts to bring to justice those who planned the killing and orchestrated an attempted cover-up have proved elusive.

Continued efforts to expand the scope of accountability for the crime encountered a series of setbacks and delays.  More than ten years following Mack’s death, on October 3, 2002, a first instance national criminal court acquitted Edgar Godoy and Juan Guillermo Oliva, who had been, respectively, head of the Presidential General Staff and deputy head of the Presidential Security Department of the Presidential General Staff in 1990. In the same decision, the court sentenced the former head of Presidential Security Department, Juan Valencia Osorio, to 30 years’ imprisonment for his role in the crime, but this verdict was overruled on appeal and Valencia Osorio was freed in May 2003. Following a further appeal, the Supreme Court subsequently confirmed the first instance verdict, but Valencia Osorio had since left the country and remains a fugitive.

Although the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in November 2003 that Guatemala must effectively investigate the facts surrounding Myrna Mack’s extrajudicial execution and its cover-up, with the aim of identifying, trying and punishing all responsible perpetrators, little has been done since. To date, only direct perpetrator Beteta, convicted in 1993, has been sentenced in relation with the killing, although a complex structure was behind it.

Furthermore, it took until last year for anyone to be linked to the killings, torture, and disappearances that followed Mack’s assassination, and which were part of a cover-up of state involvement in the initial crime.  José Miguel Mérida, the police investigator charged with investigating Mack’s death, was shot to death on August 5, 1991, less than five weeks after he testified before a judge that the state was responsible for the murder. Following his death, authorities arrested two men: Alfredo Guerra Galindo and Gonzalo Cifuentes. Both were allegedly tortured until they falsely confessed to the murder, and were eventually acquitted at trial. Soon after being freed, Cifuentes was killed and Guerra Galindo disappeared.

Finally, on June 10, 2014, three former members of the now-defunct National Police―José Gonzalez Grijalva, Julio Lopez Aguilar, and Alberto Barrios Rabanales―were arrested in connection with the murder of police investigator Mérida and the torture of the two uninvolved individuals.  On June 16, 2015, Martin Alejandro Garcia, former head of the criminal investigation department of the national police, was also detained in relation with those crimes. The trial against the four men is scheduled to start in January 2017.

According to Helen Mack, Myrna Mack’s sister and president of the Myrna Mack Foundation, “the impunity for crimes from the past explains the current high level of impunity for today’s crimes.”  Mack, who has continuously fought for justice for her sister’s murder, sees parallels in the structures behind her sister’s killing and those involved in recent corruption crimes jointly investigated by the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and the Attorney General’s Office. In Mack’s opinion, most of the judicial shortcomings that she encountered in the pursuit of justice for her sister are still in place 25 years later.  These include a lack of judicial independence and an abusive use of frivolous legal motions to delay proceedings.  However, Mack is hopeful that the recent awakening of Guatemala’s citizens to demand accountability will finally result in extensive judicial reform.  If that happens, there will be no shortage of old cases in need of new scrutiny.