Guatemala's Fictional Democracy

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU)
Date: Mon Nov 03 2003 - 22:42:08 EST


November 3, 2003

Guatemala's Fictional Democracy

n a list of phenomena meant to illustrate how Latin American reality
is more fantastic than anything found in fiction, Gabriel García
Márquez included in his acceptance speech for the 1982 Nobel Prize a
reference to a dictator committing genocide in the name of God. He
was speaking of Guatemala's ruler, a vociferous Protestant
fundamentalist, Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, who that year had taken power
in a military coup. During the reign of "Brother Efraín," which
lasted less than two years, the Guatemalan Army waged a
scorched-earth campaign, ostensibly directed against leftist
guerrillas, and engaged in hundreds of massacres of rural Mayan

Twenty years later the general is back. Although the Guatemalan
Constitution forbids anyone who has participated in a coup from
running for president, General Ríos Montt is a candidate in Sunday's

Since his candidacy was announced last summer, the country has
devolved into near anarchy. After a court ruling upholding the
constitutional ban, mobs directed by supporters of the general's
Guatemalan Republican Front party rampaged through the streets of
Guatemala City, attacking journalists and judges who opposed General
Ríos Montt's candidacy. A few days later, the country's highest
court, farcically packed with supporters of General Ríos Montt,
lifted the ban.

At last count, two dozen candidates and party activists, mostly
belonging to the opposition, have been assassinated. Simultaneously,
though probably not coincidentally, the country has witnessed a slew
of spectacular gang-style slayings, tied to the narcotics trade.
Fears abound that the general and his allies are preparing an
electoral fraud, through widespread vote-buying or other schemes. If
the campaign seems more like a mafia war, that's because, in a sense,
it is.

General Ríos Montt is running third in voter surveys behind the other
two presidential candidates, Oscar Berger and Álvaro Colom. But it
would be a mistake for the rest of the world to assume that should
the general lose, Guatemalan democracy has been saved. The democratic
civil reforms mandated by the 1996 peace accords, which put an
official end to the country's 36-year-old civil war, are now
threatened with complete irrelevance.

The sad truth is that the general's resurgence is a blatant symbol of
what "democracy" has sometimes wrought in Latin America. General Ríos
Montt is often described as being like a character - ludicrous and
lethal - from one of Latin America's classic dictator novels. But his
candidacy more resembles that of a character found in a newer
dictator novel, Mario Vargas Llosa's "Feast of the Goat" - the man
who succeeds the strongman, the man for whom the new game of
democracy is the means to an end nearly as corrupt and antidemocratic
as what came before.

In Guatemala, as elsewhere in Latin America, criminals and mafiosos
have found in "democracy" the perfect Trojan Horse for attaining and
preserving real power inside essentially hijacked states. In
Guatemala, these "parallel powers" - unofficial, immune from
prosecution and scrutiny - have created a spectacular architecture in
which General Ríos Montt is not the only power behind the throne;
indeed, there are a series of thrones, with figures ever more
sinister behind each one, and their collective hold on power has
become only stronger since the 1996 peace accords.

José Rubén Zamora, the founder and editor of elPeriódico, is a
journalist of extraordinary courage and seemingly divine luck - he
has survived several assassination attempts. Last year elPeriódico
published an article about the Guatemalan government that began with
the straightforwardness of a dark fairy tale: "At the end of the
1970's, the army established a new organization to detect the
importation of weapons and ammunition destined for the Guatemalan
guerrillas. With the passing of time this organization spread its
tentacles and penetrated other key institutions of the state, which
served as the platform for the successful launching of operations of
contraband, the stealing of coffee shipments, narcotics trafficking,
trafficking in immigrants, auto theft, kidnappings and bank

If, by 1982, the guerrillas had essentially been defeated militarily,
the ensuing years until the peace accords "served as the smoke screen
with which this organization converted the Guatemalan state into the
criminal state which, with complete impunity, dedicated itself to
assaulting Guatemalans." Never before had the development and
structure of those organizations and their penetration of every level
of Guatemalan military and civil society been so precisely described,
its participants identified by name.

Last summer, armed thugs broke into Mr. Zamora's home, and in front
of his wife and children, terrorized him at gunpoint. Not
coincidentally, elPeriódico had just published a particularly harsh
editorial, signed by Mr. Zamora, against General Ríos Montt.

Many of the gangsters, military and civilian, identified by Mr.
Zamora, have held posts in the government of President Alfonso
Portillo, who has widely been perceived as General Ríos Montt's
puppet. According to Mr. Zamora and others, the Guatemalan Army has
been purged of officers who are not involved in, or indebted to, this
criminal organization. No civilian president has been able to
challenge the power of the army seriously.

So maybe it doesn't matter who is finally elected president. Helen
Mack, a prominent human rights advocate whose sister was killed 13
years ago by a military death squad, has said she does not expect the
election to change anything in Guatemala. Ever since the peace
accords and the 1998 United Nations-sponsored Truth Commission, whose
conclusions have jeopardized the army's impunity for its crimes, the
goal of the brotherhood of past and current military officers has
been to regain control of the country, including its major political
parties. The army's power is based on organized crime, from which has
arisen a new social class of complicit officers and corrupt
officials, protected by a narrative of lies: a relentless campaign of
misinformation to erase from public memory the army's crimes, and
denial of all the country's problems.

Since the signing of the accords, the United Nations peace-monitoring
mission has played a critical role in Guatemala. The mission's often
intrusive presence has provided the only reliable protection and
support the country's independent journalists and jurists and human
rights organizations have known. The mission's charter was to end in
January, when it would have had to leave the country, but its
presence is so obviously needed that this fall its mandate was
extended for another year. Meanwhile the United Nations, in
conjunction with the United States, human rights groups and others,
has been discussing an initiative to form another international
commission to investigate wrongdoing in Guatemala. The commission,
which would be under United Nations-sponsorship, is the country's
last best hope. But obstacles remain, including ratification by the
Guatemalan Congress, which is currently led by General Ríos Montt.

What chance, then, can "democracy" really have in Guatemala, a
remote, rainy, mountainous and captive country whose current
political circumstances resemble a terrifying story by Lovecraft or
Stoker? Guatemala isn't the only place in the world where law,
language and life are treated with contempt. But if the international
community cannot free this small country's democracy from usurpation
by a criminal army-mafia, how can it succeed elsewhere?

Francisco Goldman is author of the forthcoming novel, "The Divine Husband."

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