Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 24, 2000
Guatemalans still looking for justice
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Three years after a peace accord was signed, the rule of law and justice for the perpetrators of human rights violations is still sorely lacking in Guatemala.
Few, if any, have been brought to justice and the killing of Auxiliary Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera remains unsolved.
Meanwhile, the remains of thousands of victims of the war continue to be exhumed by Church workers as the Church pushes ahead with its plan for uncovering the truth.
Claudia Agreda, director of the Archbishop's Human Rights Office in Guatemala City and a close associate of Gerardi, who was assassinated two years ago, gave a horrendous account of the 36 years of armed conflict at an April 17 public meeting.
More than 200,000 people were killed or disappeared during the war from 1960 to 1996. And there are 200,000 widows as a result of the conflict.
"In Guatemala we don't have political prisoners because they were all killed," Agreda said. About 60 people attended her presentation at the University of Alberta's International Centre.
Agreda's visit, part of a Canada-wide tour, was sponsored by several local organizations, including the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace.
Two Edmontonians will be part of a Canadian delegation to Guatemala for the second anniversary of Gerardi's assassination April 26.
The Guatemalan Church has taken it upon itself to uncover the truth, expose the crimes and lead the march towards reconciliation. But it has paid a heavy price for its involvement.
"They killed thousands of Church people because we believe in the theology of liberation and they killed our boss (Gerardi)," Agreda said.
The Church has to go it alone because the new president, Alfonso Portillo, has done little to address the country's critical human rights issues despite his electoral promise to "get to the bottom of it."
Complicating things even more is the fact that General Efrain Rios Montt, who conducted the scorched earth campaign in the 1980s that left hundreds of villages destroyed and thousands of people dead, is today president of the Guatemalan Congress, noted Agreda.
Gerardi, a veteran human rights activist who led an extensive investigation on abuses during the civil war, was bludgeoned to death April 26, 1997, two days after issuing a damning report on the atrocities. The report attributed the majority of the atrocities to the Guatemalan military.
"The truth in our country has been twisted and silenced," Gerardi said before he died. "We wanted to show the human drama and to share with others the sorrow and the anguish of the thousands of dead, disappeared and tortured."
The Guatemalan Church believes those responsible for atrocities must be punished for reconciliation to take place.
The bishop's death continues to be controversial as attempts to find his killers have failed amid accusations of military involvement in the murder and as various judicial officials and witnesses have fled the country. In January three military officers were arrested and a Catholic priest was arrested for the second time and charged with complicity in the murder.
Meanwhile, the search for truth continues despite threats and intimidation. Since the early 1990s Church workers have been exhuming the tortured bodies of thousands of victims killed by the military and then buried in clandestine graves across the country.
Agreda showed slides of bodies with their hands tied behind their backs with wire, showing clear signs of torture. Some still had their crucifixes hanging from their bony necks.
Almost 5,000 clandestine cemeteries have been found across the country, some located on the farms of wealthy landowners. She showed a slide of a mass graveyard with the bodies of almost 100 women and children.
"If this shocks you, imagine how it shocks the relatives of the dead," Agreda told her audience.
The exhumations are part of the Church strategy for collective recovery, Agreda said. Painful as it is, the families need to see the bodies of their loved ones. "Exhumations are important because they bring dignity to the dead and closure to the family," she said. "It's a painful process but it's necessary because it will bring healing to society."
Agreda said Guatemala has a culture of violence that the Church is trying to change. " We are searching for truth and justice. We are very poor in material things but not in hope."
Agreda urged Canadian supporters to write to Portillo urging him to bring to justice all those responsible for Gerardi's assassination and to implement the recommendations on truth and justice in Gerardi's report.