From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Wheels of Justice Turn Slowly for Those

Date 04 May 1996 19:53:47


95413        Wheels of Justice Turn Slowly for Those 
              Threatened by Guatemalan Death Squads 
                          by Alexa Smith 
LOUISVILLE, Ky.--Even if a fugitive accused of torturing and killing a 
Guatemalan Presbyterian minister is jailed for trial there, U.S. experts on 
Guatemala's judicial system say, his capture only trades in one set of 
problems for another. 
     Despite attempts at judicial reform -- beginning with Guatemala's 
penal code -- the largest problem is wrenching justice out of a system that 
routinely squelches it with fear and continues to call human rights workers 
     In the words of Susan Soux of the United Nations Mission to Guatemala 
(MINUGUA): "Fear is a big, big problem in this country." 
     And there are plenty of documented reasons why. 
     The latest report from the United Nations Mission to Guatemala 
(MINUGUA) details a long list of failures, accusing the State of "shirking 
its responsibility" to prevent, investigate, prosecute and punish crimes 
and describing the public prosecutor's office  as "strikingly incapable of 
initiating criminal proceedings," especially when accused criminals have 
some tie to the army. 
     It was Guatemala's public prosecutor who assured U.S. and Guatemalan 
Presbyterian church leaders in mid-October that a former military 
commissioner, Victor Roman, who disappeared after a warrant was issued for 
his arrest for allegedly killing the Rev. Manuel Saquic, is expected to be 
apprehended in a short time. 
     The MINUGUA report says judicial officials and staff of the public 
prosecutor's office "have reported they have been watched by and received 
threats from the accused [Roman] and his two sons, who belong to the army." 
It also documents threats against Saquic's relatives and colleagues. 
MINUGUA concludes that "persons working to promote and safeguard human 
rights continue to be abused and intimidated, and that the assassination of 
pastor Manuel Saquic and the subsequent threats have made it much harder 
for human rights activists and organizations to do their work. 
     "This unfortunate development is an example of the pernicious impact 
of the kind of discourse that equates human rights activism with 
     "There is no evidence the situation has changed in Guatemala," says 
attorney Diego Rodriguez, legal officer for Latin America within the 
International Human Rights Law Group in Washington, D.C., citing a system 
of intimidation and harrassment that scares some judges and corrupts 
     The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) agrees that harassment 
and corruption hamper police investigations in Guatemala.  "There are 
thousands of outstanding arrest warrants in the country," said Rachel 
Garst, WOLA associate for Guatemala.  "It's a common problem. ... 
     "Police are scared of the patrollers [civil patrols established by the 
military in the 1980s to monitor local communities], scared of the army. 
 ... There are a whole lot of obstacles for any case to make it successfully 
through," Garst said, adding that, since the public ministry is weak, few 
cases move forward. 
     After 20 years of living in Guatemala City, PC(USA) mission worker 
Dennis Smith is somewhat skeptical of Guatemala's judicial process:  "It's 
premature to say Roman will be arrested and convicted." He added that 
PC(USA) moderator Marj Carpenter's recent visit stressed  to the military 
that the international community is watching the Roman case and the army's 
"reputation is at stake." 
     PC(USA) Central America coordinator Julia Ann Moffett's worst fear is 
that capturing and jailing Roman may be the easiest way for Guatemalan 
authorities to placate the church.  The more important task here, if Roman 
is apprehended, is getting a conviction, she said. 
     The Guatemalan military has a long history of "covering up with 
impunity their own actions," Rodriguez told the Presbyterian News Service. 
He said the military,  with the complicity of certain civilian economic 
interests,  perpetrates the great majority of violence in Guatemala and 
deters human rights investigations and prosecution.  Rodriguez said the 
civil judicial system generally is either "unwilling or unable" to convict 
military officers. 
     That is not news to church groups working for human rights in 
     "We knew when we started working in this area the risk of our leaders 
increases," said one such worker, adding that no direct threats came from 
the military until this year, when they emerged both on the south coast and 
in Chimaltenango.  "The case of Manuel is most dramatic because he 
confronted the military," he said, adding that Saquic provided the local 
community legal information when Roman was accused of killing another 
Presbyterian human rights worker, Pascual Serech. 
     One high-ranking Guatemalan official confirmed for a PC(USA) 
delegation that witness protection is another problem for the judicial 
system.  For instance, the prime witness to the murder of Serech was killed 
in August, according to MINUGUA. 
     Rodriguez maintains that, though it is difficult to prove, there are 
cases where evidence suggests violence is condoned at the highest military 
levels.  In other cases, he says, it is just clear the hierarchy does not 
practice a policy of investigating abuses within its own system. 
     One Guatemala watcher insists that while the army insists on its own 
unity, it is, in reality, troubled by internal factions who are divided at 
the level of ideology -- of counterinsurgency strategy -- and at the level 
of local and regional concerns. 
     Despite the seeming futility of working for justice in such a skewed 
system,  PC(USA) delegation member the Rev. Eugene March of Louisville 
Presbyterian Theological Seminary said the biblical mandate is 
"inescapable. ... 
     "The prophets could never settle for less than justice," said March, 
who teaches Old Testament, adding that slight changes and minor adjustments 
were unacceptable.  "They were finally for the transformation of society 
and nothing less ... in the likeness of divine rule. 
     "God," he said, "isn't gonna quit till it's accomplished." 
     Moffett said one reason  the National Evangelical Presbyterian Church 
of Guatemala (NEPCG) has chosen to speak up now is because it kept silent 
in the 1970s and '80s and it now understands that silence has brought about 
no change. 
     "The Reformed tradition does not ignore pain on earth," said Moffett. 
"If authorities do not follow the legal system, people have to speak out." 
     With 20 years' perspective on Guatemalan life, Smith vehemently agrees 
that the church's choice to speak out is an imperative.  "If you don't ... 
there never will be justice."  

For more information contact Presbyterian News Service
  Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Louisville, KY 40202
  phone 502-569-5504            fax 502-569-8073  
  E-mail   Web page: 


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