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Overview

The Myrna Mack case highlights Guatemala's systemic problems of military impunity, fear of retribution, and judicial inefficacy. These problems are not exclusive to Guatemala, although Guatemala's particular experience is grievous. The Mack case became a vehicle for addressing these crucial issues in the early 1990s, and it remains so today. That the trial of those who have been indicted for ordering the murder has not occurred—some seven years after the crime—indicates the continuing weakness of Guatemala's judicial system and the apparent invulnerability of the military establishment.

Progress in the case has been hampered from the outset by fear of punitive repercussions for cooperating in the investigation. For example, José Miguel Mérida Escobar, the chief of the Homicide Division in the Criminal Investigation Department of the National Police, submitted a report on the Mack murder on September 29, 1990, that purportedly provided evidence that the murder was politically motivated. The report implicated military intelligence officers and identified Beteta as a suspect. José Mérida was murdered under mysterious circumstances on August 5, 1991.4 As early as 1992, almost a dozen different judges had played a role in the case, and several used procedural maneuvers to excuse themselves from ruling on the case, presumably out of fear for their personal

4  

José Mérida was shot and killed in the parking lot of the police headquarters in Guatemala City shortly before he was scheduled to give testimony before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States. Members of his family who were with him witnessed the murder. According to human rights sources, José Mérida had expressed fear for his physical safety to them and had requested that they help him and his family to leave Guatemala. Two men were detained in the case and accused of his murder, but a Guatemalan court found the men not guilty because of lack of evidence.



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--> Overview The Myrna Mack case highlights Guatemala's systemic problems of military impunity, fear of retribution, and judicial inefficacy. These problems are not exclusive to Guatemala, although Guatemala's particular experience is grievous. The Mack case became a vehicle for addressing these crucial issues in the early 1990s, and it remains so today. That the trial of those who have been indicted for ordering the murder has not occurred—some seven years after the crime—indicates the continuing weakness of Guatemala's judicial system and the apparent invulnerability of the military establishment. Progress in the case has been hampered from the outset by fear of punitive repercussions for cooperating in the investigation. For example, José Miguel Mérida Escobar, the chief of the Homicide Division in the Criminal Investigation Department of the National Police, submitted a report on the Mack murder on September 29, 1990, that purportedly provided evidence that the murder was politically motivated. The report implicated military intelligence officers and identified Beteta as a suspect. José Mérida was murdered under mysterious circumstances on August 5, 1991.4 As early as 1992, almost a dozen different judges had played a role in the case, and several used procedural maneuvers to excuse themselves from ruling on the case, presumably out of fear for their personal 4   José Mérida was shot and killed in the parking lot of the police headquarters in Guatemala City shortly before he was scheduled to give testimony before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States. Members of his family who were with him witnessed the murder. According to human rights sources, José Mérida had expressed fear for his physical safety to them and had requested that they help him and his family to leave Guatemala. Two men were detained in the case and accused of his murder, but a Guatemalan court found the men not guilty because of lack of evidence.

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--> safety. Some complained of direct harassment, including death threats, from unidentified individuals. Witnesses in the Mack case reported being intimidated physically and verbally and fled Guatemala. Helen Mack believes that three high-ranking military officers—General (retired) Edgar Augusto Godoy Gaitán, Colonel Juan Valencia Osorio, and Lieutenant Colonel Juan Guillermo Oliva Carrera5—and others were responsible for Myrna's death. In the early 1990s she was unable to convince the Guatemalan judiciary to prosecute Beteta's superior officers at the Presidential High Command, but in 1994 the Supreme Court considered an appeal by Helen Mack and agreed that the evidence available indicated that Beteta had likely acted under orders. The court ordered a criminal investigation of the three military officers. However, the state prosecutor, Mynor Alberto Melgar Valenzuela, was not appointed by the Public Ministry until almost one and a half years later. Melgar recently explained that the position was hard to fill because the Mack case is "highly complex" and to be involved in it is "very dangerous in Guatemala."6 Based on evidence that Melgar presented in 1996, a judge indicted the officers on a charge of complicity in Myrna Mack's murder. Then, one and a half months later, another judge ordered the case closed on a technicality. Not until August 1997 did the Constitutional Court overturn the order for closure and allow the criminal investigation of the military officers to proceed. At present, there is no action in the case because the military officers initiated pleas for amnesty under the December 1996 Law of National Reconciliation. The request for amnesty must be entirely resolved before the criminal investigation can resume. Thus far, the Guatemalan courts have found that the military officers do not qualify for amnesty because there is no relationship between the crime committed and the political aims related to the violent internal conflict. Given the long procedural delays and periodic setbacks, Helen Mack does not anticipate that the trial phase of the criminal prosecution will begin until mid- or late 1998. The Committee on Human Rights (CHR) consistently has lent moral support to Helen Mack, who works in the public housing sector and is president of the Myrna Mack Foundation. An earnest and soft-spoken woman, Helen Mack has steadfastly worked to see that those accused of complicity in her sister's murder are brought to a fair and full trial. She has expressed to the CHR her own continuing surprise and gratitude over the number of Guatemalans, personally unknown to her, who approach her on the streets of Guatemala City to quietly voice their support and wishes for success in her search for justice. The CHR also has lent moral support to Clara Arenas and other associates of the Association for the Advancement of the Social Sciences, who have received 5   Godoy Gaitán is also a defendant in a legal suit filed by two private Guatemalan citizens who have charged him and six other military officers with abducting, torturing, and murdering ten University of San Carlos students in 1989. The plaintiffs filed suit in the summer of 1997. 6   Note to CHR from Mynor Melgar, October 24, 1997.

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--> repeated anonymous threats to their personal safety during the 1990s, apparently for collaborating with Helen Mack in formulating the prosecution's case and for continuing some of Myrna Mack's anthropological research. Only since 1995 have Guatemalan social scientists dared to resume the kind of investigative work pursued by Myrna Mack. Scientists should be free to safely conduct research and publish their findings, no matter how challenging their research endeavors and conclusions may be to a government or its policies. But well-founded fears of retribution persist. For example, there are still frequent reports of intimidation of forensic anthropologists in countries like Guatemala, where they are exhuming mass graves.7 Among nonscientists, individuals involved in the prosecution of Myrna Mack's alleged murderers continue to report harassment, including surveillance and telephone threats. While the CHR focuses on the plight of scientists, engineers, and health professionals, their cases form part of a larger picture. Vigilantism is a dire problem in modern Guatemala and is worsening. Every month there are reports of extrajudicial lynchings of alleged criminals. The long tradition of military impunity certainly has contributed to the continuing climate of violence and insecurity in Guatemala and the lack of respect for the rule of law. The U.N. Verification Commission's seventh report (dated September 20, 1997) on the human rights situation in Guatemala cited the government's failure to curtail impunity and concluded that violations of due process comprise more than 40 percent of the cases submitted for verification. The U.S. State Department's Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1996 described a climate of lawlessness. It said that "with judges and other law enforcement officials subject to intimidation, corruption, and inadequate resources, the judicial system was often unable to ensure fair trials," and that "politically motivated killings continued with disturbing frequency." Guatemala's Human Rights Ombudsman recorded 173 cases of possible extrajudicial killings in 1996. Of the nine accords agreed on by the Guatemalan government and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (the former guerrilla group now integrated into the political arena) during the 1990s' peace process, several address the country's fundamental need to improve public safety and to strengthen the rule of law. They affirm the legitimacy of human rights activities, legally establish peace, diminish the military's size and redefine its role vis-à-vis civil society, and mandate the building and training of a new national police force. Yet the disparity between the written accords and daily practice is discouragingly pronounced, even given that lasting social change requires time. Cognizant of the urgent need to bolster the rule of law in Guatemala, the international community, led by the United States and the European Union, has recently committed $130 million 7   The exhumation of mass graves is an important task for completing the Guatemalan peace process since the scientific results help determine what happened to whom and when.

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--> (U.S.) for reform of the judicial system, the national police, and the public prosecutor's office.8 The judicial reform funds currently amount to one-quarter of Guatemala's total economic assistance package. Because of the difficulties in obtaining justice for her sister's case within Guatemala's courts, Helen Mack in February 1991 sought a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States (OAS). The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Helen Mack's behalf. It argued that the Guatemalan state had violated the American Convention on Human Rights: specifically, the rights to life, humane treatment, personal liberty and security, due process, and adequate remedy. As of this writing, the IACHR has not yet heard the case, reportedly in the hope that the Guatemalan judicial system itself will now try the case in a timely manner. A broad spectrum of Guatemalans at home and abroad know of the Mack case, follow its developments, and await a final ruling. The case also has attracted the interest of the United Nations, diverse foreign governments, the international scientific community, human rights organizations, and private individuals worldwide who face similar challenges in establishing and shaping the rule of law in countries beset by internal conflict or impunity of the armed forces. The Mack case has played a significant role in U.S.-Guatemala relations. Partly because of the international publicity surrounding the Mack case and five others (four involving U.S. citizens), the U.S. government in late 1990 suspended all military aid to Guatemala until the country could point to real progress in these cases. The suspension still applies, although U.S. armed forces have resumed limited training of Guatemalan military officers and covert aid to counter narco-trafficking. In 1995 the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, on Helen Mack's behalf, formally sought classified documents relevant to the Mack case from the U.S. government. As a result of interagency cooperation stemming from the Intelligence Oversight Board's 1996 review of U.S. documents on human rights cases in Guatemala, the U.S. government released some significant documents. Several of them appear to contain information regarding persons who might have knowledge of Myrna's murder, but those specific references have been blacked out (redacted). For instance, one citation reads, "[redacted] may have had some involvement in the 1991 [sic] murder of anthropologist Myrna (Mack) Chang."9 Helen Mack seeks the release of these documents in their unredacted form. Moreover, both the Guatemalan government and the Guatemalan Clarification Commission independently have requested the release of unredacted U.S. documents 8   The principal international donors for 1996-1997 are the European Economic Community, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the U.S. Agency for International Development. 9   Excerpted from document Z-144 R67-1, dated February 1995, from a Central Intelligence Agency release.

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--> relevant to the Mack case.10 The documents could provide crucial evidence in both the prosecution of the accused military officers and the commission's efforts to clarify historical events as quickly as possible. Several members of the U.S. Congress, inspired in part by the Mack case, in October 1997 introduced a bill—the proposed "Human Rights Information Act" (S-1220 and HR-2635)—that would require the U.S. government to cooperate with formal requests issued by foreign governments or international bodies like the United Nations for declassifying U.S. archival information relating to egregious human rights cases in Guatemala and Honduras, specifically, and Latin American and Caribbean countries in general. According to Pedro Miguel Lamport Kelsall, Guatemala's ambassador to Washington, there is no comparable initiative in Guatemala's National Congress or any government agency advocating the release of classified documents by Guatemala's Ministry of Defense or the Presidential High Command. The Guatemalan Clarification Commission, as well as Helen Mack and the state prosecutor, have requested access to classified Guatemalan documents that could provide details of crimes committed by the military against civilians. To date, neither the commission nor the prosecution has received relevant documents from the Guatemalan government. Clearly, cooperation in many areas is needed to bring the Mack case to a just conclusion. Both the U.S. and Guatemalan governments should authorize full disclosure of all evidence related to the case. The Guatemalan courts should expeditiously process the case and, by doing so, recognize that they would be strengthening the rule of law and eroding the institutional impunity that has protected the Guatemalan military for so long. The international scientific community and concerned individuals, organizations, and governments around the world continue to follow the Mack case. Its significance as a test case for the legal system in Guatemala and for measuring respect for human rights and, therefore, social change, grows greater every month. 10   The Commission for the Historical Clarification of Human Rights Violations and Acts of Violence which have Caused Suffering to the Guatemalan People is a creation of the peace accords and has a 6-month mandate that began on July 31, 1997, and may be renewed once. Its mission is to reveal what happened to the approximately 200,000 dead and disappeared people who were the predominantly civilian casualties of 36 years of internal violence. The commission has no authority either to name individuals who perpetrated crimes or to call for their punishment.

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