The Harvard Human Rights Journal’s second interview is with Milburn Line, executive director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of San Diego. Director Line has more than 15 years of experience working with communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Guatemala, Colombia, and other nations.
HHRJ spoke with Line about peace and justice concerns in Guatemala: the current health of Guatemala’s justice system, historical legacies of conflict, and the incorporation of Mayan justice practices. Our editors have divided this interview into three parts, to be run at regular intervals. In this first section, Line discusses how the historical legacies of conflict have affected Guatemala’s development in the realms of peace and justice.
Interviewer: James Tager, J.D. ‘13
In your work, you consistently argue that many of Guatemala’s current social and judicial problems can be at least partially understood as legacies of Guatemala’s civil war. Can you tell us about that?
Fifteen years after the peace accords, you might think that the historical legacies have faded, but I think it’s still very important. Guatemala just elected a new president, a former general who during the Civil War led Guatemala’s shock troops – the kaibiles – in areas on northern Quiché where the UN later found genocide to have taken place. As President, he has recently announced he will deploy the kaibiles to combat drug trafficking. So the legacies of the conflict are very much present in Guatemala right now.
Beyond the elections, many of the current social and judicial challenges, especially in Guatemala but all the way down the isthmus, are also the legacy of historical inadequacies in the justice systems, along with the social polarization and exclusion that has manifested itself in a lot of different ways. In Guatemala the 36-year civil war, which occurred between 1960 and 1996, is kind of the ‘elephant in the room’ which shapes a lot of the injustice and human rights violations up to the present.
An illustration of this can be found in the Institute’s recent work in Quiché. Looking back in history, the Spanish administrators thought of the K’iche and Ixil indigenous peoples in Quiché as being an especially difficult-to-manage population, and they created this stereotype which perpetuated itself throughout the years and was replicated by the Guatemalan army. Within the 646 villages that were identified as razed villages during the Civil War by the country’s Truth Commission, approximately half of them were in Quiché, and the largest concentration was in the various smaller municipalities of the Ixil area around Nebaj .
This legacy, that the Ixiles are difficult to manage, plays into the historical racist attitude of Guatemalan mestizos, Ladinos who fear that someday the Indigenous are going to take over (somewhat like the fears of white supremacists in South Africa several decades ago). That is a deep-seeded fear, and it is a fear that is played on politically to maintain the government’s own power base. So that fear was exacerbated and was used as a justification for violence inflicted on these little towns during the civil war – even though the Guatemalan Army knew the insurgency was not really a strategic threat – and has evolved into public insecurity issues today.
You mentioned other legacies of the conflict. Can you elaborate?
Currently, there’s a large and multi-layered drug scenario in Guatemala. Part of this is the conflict legacy, and part of it is the ongoing drug situation in Mexico. The legacy aspect of it began when President Carter cut off assistance to the Guatemalan military because of their human rights violations. When the Guatemalan army was cut off from US funding, which had been for them a significant and historical base of support, the army went into business for itself. When I got to Guatemala in the early ‘90s, the Guatemalan army was an entrepreneurial investor that had major holdings across Guatemala, including a television company and the national telephone company. Incidentally, it was actually quite useful for the army to own the telephone company for the purpose of spying on people internally. They could simply listen in on the phone lines that they owned. Because elements of the Guatemalan army had become quite business-like in their ventures, they quickly caught on to a much more lucrative model: drug trafficking. They began by using their military logistics capacity for moving drugs coming up from Colombia. Then they realized that it is much more lucrative to become a competitive part of the cartel system. The director of a leading newspaper in Guatemala, Jose Ruben Zamora of El Periódico, who has been recognized by the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Press Institute, did much of the investigative work on how this developed over a period of decades.
Carter cut off assistance to the Guatemalan military on human rights grounds, and yet this decision seems to have triggered the Guatemalan military’s involvement in the drug trade. What’s the take-away from that?
I think that part of the problem with the Carter policy was that it was short-lived. Reagan subverted it immediately upon election to office. In 1982, despite U.S. State Department and CIA cables recognizing that Guatemalan security forces were not distinguishing between the insurgents and civilian populations, President Reagan told the press that military dictator Rios Montt was “totally dedicated to democracy” and that his de facto government had been “getting a bum rap.” This type of Cold War support for de facto governments enriched their uniformed members and did nothing to build capable governments and societies. It has produced a Guatemala where violence prevails, 98% of murder cases go unsolved, and education, health and nutrition standards are more comparable to African countries than the rest of the region.
As for the consequences of Carter’s policy, the Guatemalan military might have been less entrepreneurial if it weren’t for Carter’s decision, but they were already involved in large-scale thievery at that point, including seizures of Indigenous land for personal use – some of which was returned after the war. So the Guatemalan military probably would have eventually realized the lucrative model of drug trafficking anyway, as have other military personnel across the region.
So this, for you, is not necessarily a cautionary tale of value-based diplomacy.
I am a big advocate of the idea that the U.S. historic development of a human rights-oriented Constitution, and even our struggle to fulfill standards of equality as seen in the Civil Rights and women’s rights movements, resonates with the people of other countries. So we should have a strong human rights policy line because it reflects who we are. There may be some unintended negative consequences, such as when the bad buys go into business for themselves because they can no longer rely on your support. But we do have to be true to our values. And recent research—see The Justice Cascade by Kathryn Sikkink—indicates that international prosecutions of officials for human rights violations are changing their behavior and making them less likely to commit human rights violations.
I think that we’ve made huge foreign policy mistakes, largely around human rights issues, because instead of being a forceful advocate for human rights and for our constitutional values in other countries, we have let political expediency dilute these values overseas. In Latin America, U.S. policy has been driven by anti-communism and free trade – not respect for human rights. And I think the world perceives us as such. Certainly Hugo Chavez and Castro and others in Latin America have latched on to this line of the U.S. as an imperialist hegemon, and it encounters a receptive audience because of some of these mistakes.
I’m referring to historical mistakes like the coup in Guatemala in 1954. This was a CIA-led coup that toppled a democratically elected government which was not a Communist but rather a socially progressive government that attempted to reform land tenancy. This coup led to 32 years of de facto military governments which were gross human rights violators and which were generally—with the exception of Carter—very closely aligned with the United States.
I remember how, when I got to Guatemala in 1994 with the first human rights observer mission, we heard the story of Diana Ortiz, a nun who was an American citizen. Ortiz was tortured, and testified to hearing an American voice, speaking English with a distinctly American accent, in the room with her. [Former New Jersey Senator Robert] Toricelli, who at that point was a representative, started an investigation in Congress which uncovered that the CIA was still involved in covert activities in Guatemala as late as in 1989. Torture was, and continues to be inimical to U.S. values and counter-productive to any sensible foreign policy objectives.
Line’s interview will continue with a discussion of American and international policy in Latin America, and its effects on the ground, in Part II available HERE. The complete interview series is available HERE.