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GUATEMALA : Political Violence Finds a New Cover

December 17, 1995|Victor Perera | Victor Perera, who teaches at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, is the author of "Unfinished Conquest: The Guatemalan Tragedy (University of California) and "The Cross and the Pear Tree: A Sephardic Journey" (Knopf)

BERKELEY, CALIF. — As Guatemala prepares for a postwar runoff election between two law-and-order presidential candidates bent on leading the country into the next millennium, the death squads carry on business-as-usual, but with a twist: As violence spirals out of control, political and common crime are becoming indistinguishable, allowing the police and military security forces to dispose of their enemies with a cold disregard for the consequences.

Consider the case of Lucina Cardenas. On Nov. 27, the Mexican textile-design consultant was driven off the road and abducted in her own pickup soon after she had entered Guatemala. Her passenger reportedly got away by rolling down a ravine and hiding in the underbrush. He didn't report the abduction until the following day, and only after a colleague of Cardenas insisted that he do so.

Cardenas' body was found Dec. 2, half buried on the side of a road. The police autopsy found three bullet perforations on her back and lungs, evidence of sexual violation and multiple cigarette burns on her legs and arms.

As the story unfolded, Cardenas' colleagues revealed that she and two Guatemalan co-workers had received death threats from a group calling itself the Urban Commando. Cardenas had worked closely with peasant groups in Mexico and Guatemala for more than a quarter century. Temporarily employed by the Dutch government as a consultant in Guatemalan native crafts, Cardenas had planned only a brief stay in Guatemala, where she was to audit the books of Trama, an indigenous weavers' cooperative, after $60,000 of the organization's funds were reported missing.

For all the ghastly familiarity of Cardenas' abduction, torture and execution, her case diverges from previous death-squad killings in some important respects. The fact that the surviving witness was persuaded to report the abduction to the national police is remarkable in itself. Police or army secret-service agents are believed responsible for most death-squad killings.

President Ramiro de Leon Carpio has conceded political motives behind Cardenas' execution and other recent death-squad killings, which qualifies them for investigation by the United Nations' Human Rights Commission. A U.N. "verification mission" was assigned to gather evidence of human rights abuses in Guatemala as a complement to ongoing peace negotiations between government representatives and four guerrilla groups assembled under the rubric Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity.

In the Guatemalan press, two alternative scenarios have dominated the investigation of Cardenas' murder. In one version, she is depicted as the random victim of a ring of car thieves composed of off-duty police officers and army security agents. A second scenario involves a conspiracy between the car thieves and Trama personnel who took part in the embezzlement of the organization's fund. A Guatemalan judge gave credence to the second scenario by detaining Cardenas' passenger, Oto Leonel Hernandez, as a suspect in her murder, after he presented contradictory testimony to the police.

The blurring of the line separating political violence from delinquent crime in Cardenas' murder is compounded by the widespread involvement of plainclothes military and police in criminal profiteering. Army officers below the rank of colonel are notoriously underpaid. A growing number of them are taking out their resentment on innocent civilians. Active and retired sergeants, lieutenants and captains, along with greedy upper-echelon officers, are known to take part in the illicit trafficking of drugs as well as of precious hardwoods and Mayan artifacts, the abduction of children for illegal adoption abroad, homicidal car thievery and lesser delinquencies.

The fissures among lower-ranking officers are reflected in the sharpening divisions within the military high command, whose generals fear losing their privileges if the peace talks succeed. (One of the proposals would halve the 40,000-man army before the year 2000.) The younger officers known as "institutionalists" are more sensitive to the military's reputation as the worst human rights abuser in the Western Hemisphere. They give lip service to complying with the constitution and recognize human rights violations as a major issue--if not in moral terms, certainly as a public-relations problem.

The press has had a field day with the disclosure that the Defense Department has paid half a million dollars to a U.S. public-relations agency, Robert Thompson, to clean up the military's abysmal international image. Newspapers have published scores of ads showing a new, kinder and gentler Guatemalan army concerned with its indigenous citizens' poverty index--the worst in Latin America outside of Haiti--and with preserving the northern rain forests, currently under assault by loggers and contrabandists in league with some military officers.

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