Myrna Mack, A Guatemalan Hero

— Cindy Forster

FOR THE FIRST time in the course of Guatemala’s thirty-six-year war, and for the first time in half a century of alternately brazen or veiled military rule, on October 3, 2002 a high-ranking army officer was sentenced to prison for ordering his underlings to plan and carry out the assassination of a civilian. Their target was Myrna Mack Chang, a Guatemalan anthropologist whose work documented the army’s massacres of civilians in the Mayan highlands.

Between 1960 and 1996 some 200,000 civilians were murdered, like Myrna Mack, on orders from the highest echelons of the military. Although the legal victory in the Mack case undermines the impunity that still protects the military from prosecution, it comes twelve years after Mack’s murder and ten years after the sentencing of the sergeant who carried out the order.

“For twelve years I have fought for justice in the name of my sister Myrna, her daughter Lucrecia and my family,” said Myrna’s sister Helen, whose stamina and courage in pursuing this case won her the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize.

In her closing statement to the court Helen said, “I am also speaking in the name of hundreds of thousands of displaced people and refugees and of the many thousands of Guatemalans who, like Myrna, were unjustly hunted, tortured, disappeared and assassinated.”

Myrna’s research and the testimonies she gathered proved the state had developed a scorched earth strategy to achieve the sweeping displacement of Mayan campesinos. After driving people from their homes, the military state bombed or shot survivors from the air, then sent in the infantry as well as elite units to finish them off. People fled to the rugged mountains and jungles of the Ixcan, living on the run for years, and began to organize as Communities of the Population in Resistance (CPRs).

Myrna Mack exposed the ravages of the war in the Ixcan. She identified the state’s policy of extermination – with clear U.S. parentage. To shed light on these war crimes she developed the theoretical category of “internally displaced people” (as distinguished from the hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled to Mexico). And as the government began the transition, in 1985, from a military presidency to pliant civilian rule, she called on the civilian government to protect the internally displaced from the army.

The danger Mack presented for the “democratorship” (in the apt designation coined by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano) was that in describing the experiences of the displaced she was able to provide the basis for a strong cross-class alliance between the Mayan majority and Ladinos or non-Mayans.

The Education of Myrna Mack

Myrna and her five siblings were raised in the small world of provincial elites, in the town of Retalhuleu that lies in the middle of the hot country zone of the south coast plantations. Across the plantation belt, hundreds of thousands of dirt-poor Mayan highlanders descend each year to work the seasonal harvests. Her parents, both ethnic Chinese, owned a store.

In the 1920s, Asian storekeepers suffered racist hatemongering that swept from California through Mexico and south, but in the decades that followed, their prosperity earned the Chinese community entry into the closed circles of the rural bourgeoisie. Ballet lessons, Catholic schooling, and a conservative social ethos marked the boundaries of the Mack family’s upbringing.

While her siblings went in different directions, Myrna chose community – she trained first as a teacher, then as a social worker, then became an anthropologist. Friends remember her constant laughter and fondness for good whiskey. She had gone to study in England in the 1970s when the war erupted in Guatemala.

Father Ricardo Falla, the Jesuit anthropologist (author of Massacres in the Jungle: Ixcan, Guatemala, 1975–1982) who came to international attention when the army discovered he was living in the CPRs, agreed to serve as her thesis advisor and remembers the critical spirit that informed her sense of justice. In a 1982 letter to Falla she worried that the unity of the guerrilla forces was fatally fragile.

Said Falla, “Between her and me there were two distinct perspectives on the process of the war. She was outside the terrain of war, I was inside. She saw things from the view of the displaced and I saw them from the view of the resistance. She saw the revolutionary groups more critically than I.”

With Falla’s help, Mack “went to Nicaragua where she studied the urban organizing of the ‘heroic’ town of Esteli, protagonist of three insurrections.” Mack completed her degree and returned to Guatemala in 1982, at the height of the bloodshed.

At a time when the newspapers had proclaimed themselves self-censored and most honest reporters were dead or in exile, Mack worked as a journalist at the news agency Inforpress. Under its roof she co-founded the research institute AVANCSO with economist Clara Arenas.

Mack’s Research

From its inception, AVANCSO collaborated closely with the international community. “We acted as a sort of shield for her,” said Liz Oglesby, then a U.S. graduate student working as part of her research team. “She resented the double standard that allowed a foreigner to travel to the most distant places with relative security whereas Guatemalan intellectuals ran high risks. Even so she received us with interest and friendship.”

Thousands of people had fled to the wildest reaches of the mountains and jungles. Said a Quiche youth, “It all started when the people had organized on a large scale and in response, the army unleashed massacres.”

One mother of combatants, who lived for seven years in the CPRs with her small children, said:

“The violence was insupportable; they wouldn’t stop fighting. One of my daughters is buried in those mountains because illness struck her down when we lived on the run. It was terrible. But we had to leave Nebaj – the soldiers were coming through the house terrorizing us all the time, looking under the beds for guerrillas. Then one night they dragged Celia’s mother like a dog to the cemetery, where they pulled out her eyes and tongue and cut off her breasts. We had to leave.”

AVANCSO’s Clara Arenas notes that Mack’s decision to study the effects of the violence on civilians took her to “regions that still suffered the battering of the 1987 offensive of the army in the Ixil area.”

Her careful scholarship earned her the respect of the Catholic Church, the only legal institution at the time that dared offer support to the displaced. The Church turned to Mack for advice on how to navigate the perilous journey of the displaced out of clandestinity.

Falla remembers that “she worked very closely with several bishops, on extremely delicate themes, such as the emergence of refugees from the mountains of Alta Verapaz into the light of day in 1988, and support for the process of publishing the first communiqué of the CPRs of the Sierra in 1990.”

The actual authorship of that communiqué was mistakenly attributed to her by the military. One would think that the leadership of the CPRs, emerging into public view at the time, would have been a more likely suspect. Perhaps the decision to murder Mack for authoring the CPR document reflects the elite’s belief that only non-Indians are capable of designing successful organizing strategies.

Her murder would be consistent with the army’s propensity to locate ringleaders of Mayan movements among Ladino nuns, churchmen, guerrillas, or intellectuals. Or perhaps they knew full well the contours of leadership among the CPRs, but wanted to break the back of new alliances within civil society, in which case their targeting was terribly accurate.

“I watched Myrna risk her life,” said Monseñor Julio Cabrera, El Quiche’s Bishop at the time, “to the point her life was ripped out of her.” She was stabbed twenty-seven times by Noel de Jesus Beteta Alvarez, a special agent of the Security Division of the Presidential General Staff, as she left work on September 11, 1990.

Identifying Mack’s Murderers

Sergeant Major Beteta was protected by his superiors first in Guatemala, then underground in the United States. From the first moment, it was the courage of countless Guatemalans that allowed the case to come to trial. Though his mother begged him to remain silent, Carlos Tejeda, a teenager, testified that he saw Beteta stabbing Mack. Virgilio Rodriguez Santana was a newspaper vendor who saw men clearly staking out Myrna Mack’s family. He warned the family, then when she was killed, decided to come forward publicly and was forced into exile in Canada.

Evidence was removed and destroyed in a pattern that continues to the present. In the first months, however, two police investigators, Jose Miguel Merida Escobar and Julio Perez Ixcajop, established the political motive for the killing; for that the first was murdered in July 1991 and the second forced into exile.

The next turn in the case came when Beteta was extradited, then painstakingly tried. He boasted of murdering Mack and dozens of other people to a prison cellmate, who risked his own life by revealing Beteta’s confession. In 1993 Beteta was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison, which he is still serving despite a number of escapes.

However, Helen Mack pressed the case further and hearings for the intellectual authors of the crime finally began in September 2002. The judge’s ruling, after a two-week trial, marks an extraordinary, yet partial, victory. Three officers were tried, but only one convicted:

What Was Learned

In the face of categorical denials by the officers and their lawyers, the trial established that the Presidential General Staff’s Security Division is one of the nation’s most feared intelligence gathering operations, complete with its own death squad personnel and immense powers. It serves as a bridge between the military and political branches, which is to say it exerts military control over the political authorities.

The accused denied doing intelligence work and also denied being under military command, but their arguments were shredded. This unit was singled out in the peace accords as one of the worst practitioners of state terror and slated for extinction, but no administration since 1996 has had the will or the desire to block its ongoing crimes, much less begin to dismantle it.

Another momentous precedent lies in the court’s findings of U.S. complicity and responsibility. One expert witness on military intelligence, Peruvian Colonel Clever Pino Benamu, testified that the army’s belief that Mack was an internal enemy of the state owes its genesis to U.S.-driven policies, codified across Latin America as the notorious National Security Doctrine.

Kate Doyle of the Washington-based National Security Archive, testified about a stream of declassified State Department documents that underscore the kinship between U.S. and Guatemalan strategies to counter what they call subversion.

These U.S. government documents say that the accused agency – the Presidential Security Division – made a practice of “kidnappings, torture, forced disappearances and extra-judicial executions.” U.S. knowledge of such behavior did not lead Washington to disavow support for the generals.

The court’s findings offer new hope on many counts. The trial successfully upheld civilian proceedings and civilian detention despite the officers’ repeated attempts to be tried and held under military jurisdiction. Beyond sentencing an agent of the state for political murder, the conviction establishes the guilt of the military as an institution.

The court accepted proof that the vast complex of the intelligence apparatus was mobilized to assassinate a civilian for the transgression of speaking out against state terror.

Ongoing threats marred the trial. These did not target the Mack family or their lawyer Roberto Romero, but rather, taking a page from the mind-jarring tactics of psychological warfare, the people who work for the Myrna Mack Foundation and the lawyer’s family. AVANCSO suffered a crescendo of intimidation as well.

Relatives of the accused officers also resorted to more direct methods. In the words of Helen Mack, “they tried to provoke us through insults and minor physical aggression, maybe hoping for similar behavior on our part.” Instead, the Foundation has appealed the acquittals of the two officers – both of whom are graduates of the U.S. School of the Americas.

The success of Myrna’s case under her sister’s vigilance is exceptional. Those who planned the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi, a human rights defender, are the only others ever tried and convicted. But that crime was carried out in 1998 (also by the Security Division of the Presidential General Staff) after the signing of the peace accords.

In the Gerardi case, the court recognized the political nature of the murder and classified the crime as an extrajudicial execution. (Last October, however, an appeals court annulled the verdict and ordered a new trial. Lawyers for the Catholic Church presented injunctions against this highly strange use of an appeals court and the Guatemalan Supreme Court ruled in their favor. Now the Chamber of Injunctions will decide whether to uphold the original conviction, clear the defendants or order a retrial.)

Another high-profile case has been completely stalled – despite the assistance of Nobel prize winner Rigoberta Menchu’s foundation. The Xaman massacre case represents refugees who fled the terror but returned to Guatemala before the peace accords were signed. In 1995 the army entered their village and, when asked to leave, opened fire, killing eleven and wounding twenty-seven others.

Four years later the court, in accepting the soldiers’ plea that they had acted in self-defense, granted them lenient sentences that they could pay with a small fine. Perhaps the Mack family’s class ties to the Ladino elite explains the different outcome, since Menchu possesses ample international support and financial resources.

The closeknit community of Chinese ancestry in Guatemala was deeply shaken by Myrna Mack’s assassination in a way it had not been by all the years of violence. That community enjoys close ties with Taiwan, whose military – matched only by the U.S. and Israeli armies – maintains an intimate working relationship with the Guatemalan army.

Consciousness Transformed

Helen Mack has become one of the strongest critics of an economic elite that historically has worked hand in glove with state terror. “I lived in the Guatemala that belonged to the minority,” she said, “but [Myrna] was the one who knew the Guatemala of the great majority. I was all wrapped up in the world of private business.” In fact she belonged to the highly secretive Opus Dei, the right-wing Catholic lay order that operates a powerful shadow empire in business and academia, whose founder, Jose Maria Escriva Balaguer, last year won sainthood despite the charges of his fascist and anti-Semitic militancy.

Helen’s life is its own fascinating testimony. When she threw herself into the investigation, she was shocked “to see how the police, judges and prosecutors didn’t want to work on the case. They treated me as though I was the one responsible or guilty.” Today she speaks truth to the power structures to which she once belonged. And she dares point out the terrorist content of U.S. policy:

“In Guatemala as in all of Latin America, the National Security Doctrine promoted by the United States brought violence, terror and massive human rights violations. As a result of it, armies seized power, intelligence activities increased, and counter-insurgency policies were adopted that defined as an enemy of the state anyone who tried to act freely.”

The Mack family’s victory on behalf of those working to end terror comes at an enormously complicated moment. The right has murdered six campesino activists over a fifteen-month period just in the department or province of Izabal. Last April Guillermo Ovalle of the Rigoberta Menchu Foundation was killed. Since the beginning of the year, two jurists have been killed in a gangland style that is the trademark of what Guatemalans call “the parallel powers.”

Together these acts presage violence that is expected leading up to the November presidential elections. Once again, General Efran Rios Montt, who presided over the massacres of the early 1980s when he came to power through a coup, is determined to run for the presidency. Constitutionally he is barred from the election – but no doubt he has a bag of tricks up his sleeve.

In the three years since Gerardi’s death, 142 clandestine cemeteries with 309 victims had been exhumed just in El Quiche. Almost half were from the Ixil Triangle where Mack worked. Many more graves of those massacred by the army have not been exhumed. In addition, those who lived for years in the CPRs remember where they buried their relatives who died from illness and starvation, but they lack the funds to exhume and rebury them.

From the courtrooms of the capital to the most distant mountains, Myrna Mack’s memory and the memory of thousands more is honored by those who refuse to forget. Myrna cut to the heart of the matter when she wrote in a 1984 letter to Ricardo Falla, “In the midst of so much sorrow, anguish, and anxiety, I still see light and hope, for on every side there are so many seeds.”

ATC 103, March–April 2003