THE VOLUNTARY CIVILIAN SELF-DEFENSE COMMITTEES
1. ORIGINS AND CHARACTERISTICS
The Voluntary Civilian Self-Defense Committees --better known by their previous name, Civilian Self-defense Patrols (PAC)-- were the creation of the de facto military regime headed by General Efrain Rios Montt in late 1981. They were part of his plan to exterminate the guerrilla movement by relocating the indigenous population and wiping out any community or killing any person that his government was suspicious of, using methods that violated human rights.
Initially, the patrols were created in the Department of El Quiché, and in 1982 spread to the departments of Huehuetenango, Sololá, Totonicapan, Chimaltenango, Alta Verapaz, Peten, San Marcos, and Suchitepequez. In 1987, a high-ranking army spokesman explained their purpose as follows:
...(The PAC) are to isolate the insurgency movement and guarantee a military presence in the affected areas, known as conflict areas.
According to army sources, there were times when there were over 800,000 people in these patrols. A source affiliated with the peasant farm labor union describes the patrols' activities as follows:
For nine years the practice has been to escort the Army on its military searches and operations, sometimes as guides, sometimes in the center of a uniformed column of elite troops or troops dressed as peasants. Some PACs have been organized by the military garrisons into what are called "special" patrols, which are pure army. The Army sends them to attack the guerrillas. The PACs patrol the cantons and villages, roads and bridges, and stand guard at army outposts. They carry firewood to the barracks, to the military commissioners. They use them as operatives, to monitor the movements of every leader of the community or grassroots organizations... clergy, displaced persons, teachers. They must work 12- to 24-hour shifts; if they don't work their shift they have to pay the person who replaces them or pay a fine or go to jail, as has happened in many towns.
...There are many human rights violations: massacres of old people, women and children, abductions from the home and off the street, rapes, threats, illegal tax collections and robbery. They have prohibited movement, meetings, organizations, and have prevented people from going to work at the coast. Deputy Prosecutor Alvarez Guadamúz was a victim of their aggression. The PACs have attacked indigenous representatives who have dared to ask that they be disbanded and have reported their activities...
II. CONSEQUENCES OF REJECTING TO PARTICIPATE IN PATROLS. THE CHUNIMÁ CASE
In one case in which the Commission intervened, three residents of Chunimá who refused to participate in the voluntary patrols were murdered on February 27, 1991. Just before their murder they had been threatened by the heads of the Manuel Perebal Ajtzalam III and Manuel León Lares civilian patrols and had reported those threats to the authorities. The patrol leaders are so powerful that an arrest warrant issued against them by a justice of the peace on January 17, 1991, was never carried out. When the arrest warrant was reissued, police tried to arrest the patrol leaders on April 26 and June 13, but were unable because of the resistance put up by the patrols. It was not until recently, July 1991, that the Guatemalan police arrested the patrol leaders, carrying out the precautionary measures ordered by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights at the Commission's request, to protect other threatened residents. But despite the arrest and trial of the leaders, residents of the area continued to report death threats made by members of patrols, including the new patrol leaders.
III. RECENT EVOLUTION. ITS PROGRESSIVE ELIMINATION. RESURGENCE SINCE AUGUST 1992
Adding their voices to those of most grassroots organizations, now congressmen, intergovernmental organizations, the United Nations Rapporteur for Guatemala, the Office of the Attorney-Delegate for Human Rights and the Guatemalan Bishops Conference in its document "Five hundred years spreading the gospel" (August 1992) have criticized this militarization of the country, especially in the rural areas, the enforced recruitment to join the patrols, the patrols' abuses of the population and the fact that the peasants are being taken away from their daily jobs, causing division within indigenous communities.
During the Government of General Mejía Victores, the name of the patrols was changed. In the documents, though not in practice, it was emphasized that the patrols were voluntary in nature. From 1987 to 1990, the patrols gradually started to disappear from many areas, especially those that were no longer embattled areas or areas where irregular armed groups were active.
Since the statement made by the Defense Minister General García Samayoa, on August 11, 1992, to the effect that "civilian self-defense will not be eliminated" and that the CAVC "are a necessity in the rural communities" the trend towards their disappearance has reversed itself and the Army is reactivating the CAVC. Now that the guerrilla presence has been limited, the Army's justification for rearming the patrols is acts of common violence.
In some cases, even where no state of emergency has been declared, the patrols have instituted curfews from 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m., thereby restricting the people's freedom of movement and their right of assembly.
In its observations to the preliminary version of this report, the Government indicates that in many villages the inhabitants decided to form committees and that there does exist a control mechanism to ensure the voluntary nature of the formation of and participation in such Committees. The mechanism also provides for the supervision of the Procurator for Human Rights.
IV. REMILITARIZATION OF THE COUNTRYSIDE. VIOLATIONS BY THE CVACs.
Since August 1992, the Commission has received petitions that describe the various ways rural areas are being remilitarized. From the abundant testimony the Commission has received, a selection has been made and will be quoted here as they reflect the problems in question.
a) Transcript from a statement made before a Justice of the Peace in the city of El Quiché, signed by 20 residents of a canton, and dated October 23, 1992.
We hereby denouce that: On September 1 of this year, Mr. Manuel Equila Suy, a former soldier, made himself leader of the canton's civilian patrol. The community did not choose him for the post; he simply took it. Then he began reorganizing the patrols in our canton. On October 13 this man organized a meeting in our canton to announce that all males ages 15 and over had to serve on the civilian patrol and serve their turns just as the adults. He said that if the 15-year olds did not come of their own free will, they would be forced to by the other members of the patrol; that if they didn't want to serve their turns, they would be thrown into the river that runs near the canton or in some nearby ravine.
From the day he took over as chief of the patrol, there have been many problems in our canton. He wanted to order around the officials and the committees; he told them they had to do whatever he said. One of his orders to the committee members was that they remove the water spout of any member of the canton who was not performing his service in the civilian patrol. The committees did what he said because they were afraid of him. They obeyed his orders and accordingly removed three water spouts. One belonged to someone who was not serving on the civilian patrol, while the other two belonged to individuals who are in arrears on their water supply contributions. The man is selling the drinking water of the individuals whose spouts he expropriated.
This man now has a plan to eliminate anyone who does not serve on the patrol, who does not obey his orders, and anyone in the canton who is involved in human rights. The patrol members themselves who were present at a meeting told us all this.
b) Transcript of a series of complaints received by the Commission on October 30, 1992, during its visit to Guatemala, concerning the reactivation of the PAC since August 1992.
- In the second half of August and the first half of September, the Army stepped up repression through the civilian patrols of various villages and municipalities, specifically Nentón, Jacaltenango, Santa Ana Huista, La Democracia, La Libertad, San Ildelfonso, Ixtahuacán, Colotenango, San Pedro Necta, Santiago Chimaltenango, San Juan Atitlán and San Sebastián Huehuetenango. When they were in the villages, they went on patrol at night to control community leaders like catechists, auxiliary mayors, Protestant ministers, women's groups, etc.
- The military commissioners and commandants of the civilian patrols in the village of Bella Vista in the municipality of Santiago Chimaltenango threatened the residents of that village every day and want to impose the civilian patrols by force. Some months back, the residents themselves had decided not to continue patrolling. These commissioners and commandants threatened the people with fines if they did not serve on the patrols and said that anyone who didn't want to do patrol duty was a guerrilla.
- The commandant of the Colotenango PAC and the commandant of the PAC of the village of Barranca of that same municipality, Juan López Ramírez, have threatened all the villagers of Xemal, Icala, Tixel, Tojlate and Ixconlaj everyday, accusing them of being guerrillas. On Saturdays, they have checkpoints to see what the people are buying at the market; they rob many people of their belongings.
- In the first half of September, the military commissioners and commandants of the PAC of the municipality of San Ildelfonso Ixtahuacan, of the village of San Miguel of the Municipality of San Ildelfonso Ixtahuacán, again forced the people to continue the civilian patrols.
- On August 23, the Army went to the village of Buena Vista in La Democracia to tell the people that everyone must provide military service. At the same time, they ordered that the people continue the civilian patrols. They did this by using threats. So while the people agreed to resume the patrols, they were forced to do so by the Army.
- On August 23, the chief of the military garrison in the village of Valparaíso, La Democracia, went to the Santa Rosa farm to order the people to continue the patrols; he said that if the Attorney-Delegate for Human Rights came there, they didn't have to let him in because he was a guerrilla and a "politiquero". He said they shouldn't pay any attention to anything he said.
- On August 15, the lieutenant at the Valparaíso garrison and the commandants of the civilian patrols of the village of Camojaíto in La Democracia, ordered that the people conduct the civilian patrols around the clock, since at the time they were patrolling at night. That same day, the army placed a blanket in the village of Buena Vista in that same municipality. The blanket bore the initials URNG. Some hours later, someone in the village removed the blanket because he said it was on his land; this man was punished at the military garrison and held there for 24 hours.
- On August 9, the civilian patrollers (group 15) took Mr. Juan Domingo Godinez into custody, accusing him of participating in subversive groups. They attempted to torture him at the civilian patrols' sentry box and asked him who else was engaged in subversive activities. After the questioning, they forced him to sign a document stating that if anything should happen to the patrol members, Mr. Juan Domingo G. is responsible. The document also states that Mr. Juan Domingo G. agrees not to say anything about his abduction.
- At around 1:00 p.m. on August 10, PAC Group No. 17 in Xemal began to create a public disturbance in the village, firing their weapons.
At around noon on August 23, PAC Group No. 2 from Xemal began firing their weapons at a woman for no reason.
On September 3, a group of army police arrived to police the people in the village of Ical, Municipality of Colotenango.
- On September 6, the Xemal patrol members captured Mr. Juan López from the village of Tojlate, who was visiting some relatives in that village. They threatened him with death and accused him of being a guerrilla. Mr. Juan Lopez pleaded for them to release him because what they were saying was totally false. They also told him that they were looking for a Mr. Alfonzo Morales Jiménez and would kill him wherever they found him.
- On September 9, in the village of La Cumbre, municipality of San Ildelfonso, Ixtahuacán, they went to the home of José Velásquez and threatened him with death unless he stopped participating in groups or organizations. They also wanted to know whether he knew any guerrillas in the village. Finally, they threatened to kill him if don José said anything about their having been at his house.
- On September 10, an army patrol arrived in the village of Ical, threatening everyone in the community. They told Mr. Marcos Aguilar that if the civilian patrols were not organized again that they had better seek refuge in Mexican territory or join the guerrillas in the mountains once and for all.
- On September 15, in the village of Xemal, PAC commanders Efraín Domingo Morales and others aimed a firearm at Mr. Alberto Velázquez. They accused him of being a guerrilla. Before they fired, his wife arrived to help him. But the patrol members fired three shots at her. Luckily, they did not hit her, because she defended herself with all her strength and was able to get her husband home.
- On September 16, an army patrol arrived in the village of La Cumbre, in the municipality of Ixtahuacán. There they took over the school and destroyed the children's desks.
- On the morning of October 24, in the municipality of Colotenango, Huehuetenango, patrol members and soldiers in civilian dress grabbed young people by force for military service. Threatening them with firearms, they took them into the parish church. The fathers and mothers went there to demand that the patrol members release their sons. Upon seeing these people, the patrol members fired 40 shots against everyone gathered in the square. (This was at 11:30 a.m.). Nevertheless, the people continued to demand that their sons be released, whereupon the patrol members summoned the soldiers from the Ixtahuacán garrison. Some 70 soldiers arrived at around 1:30 p.m. and they, too, pointed their weapons at everyone present. The lieutenant and soldiers from the military garrison at Ixtahuacán took a teacher and seven other people into custody (for reasons given to them by the patrol members). The teacher and the other seven taken into custody were accused of being members of the guerrilla movement.
c) Transcript of a statement presented to the Commission, signed by over 100 residents of Chupol Canton, the municipality of Chichicastenango in El Quiché.
1. In late September of this year, an anonymous letter arrived at one of the houses in our canton. It contained a list of names and said that the individuals in question were going to be taken within fifteen days.
2. Since October, the army has been telling the former and present patrol chiefs, the former and present military commissioners, the improvement committee and the electric power committee operating in the canton, that they should order the people to resume the patrols; they argued that since 1988, most of us had stopped patrolling and this year there was almost no patrol chief that was still patrolling. The army has also been intimidating us by conducting large troop maneuvers near our homes day and night; the message being conveyed by way of the patrol chiefs and military commissioners -past and present- and the two committees in question is that anyone who does not join the patrol is a subversive.
We would like to state that since we stopped patrolling (1988), things have gotten better in our canton; things have calmed down. All that has been lost now with the appearance of the anonymous letter and the threats ordering us to resume the patrols.
d) Transcript of a public complaint, dated September 2, 1992.
COMPLAINT: On the night of August 26 of this year, in the canton of San Pablo, San Pedro Jocopilas, El Quiché, Mr. Catarino Chanchavac Larios, age 21 and a native of that community, was killed by an unknown assailant.
Mr. Chanchavac Larios had resisted membership in the voluntary civilian self-defense committees. According to friends and family, he had been under surveillance and threatened with death by the chiefs and patrol members of Santabal II and San Pablo canton, of that same municipality. This new act of violence must be added to the other murders that have occurred there under similar circumstances, committed by the same parties reported earlier, who continue to act with impunity.
The Commission believes that the creation of unregimented and undisciplined security forces, without the kind of structure, training and internal and external supervision that all forces of law and order must have, engenders conflict and human rights violations. Firstly, in most cases -especially so in Guatemala, they are neither answerable to nor controlled by the community's democratically elected civilian authorities, which makes them an alternative power that heightens tension and the internal division within a community.
Secondly, when they are beyond the control of the democratic power structure, they become alternative centers of local power and favoritism, engage in unlawful activities and illegally usurp powers for their own personal prestige or advantage, relying heavily on their real or purported connection with army authorities or security forces. Rather than creating a sense of calm, they become a cause for fear and anxiety in the community. In remote areas where armed irregular movements are still active, the civilian reaction against the self-defense patrols reduces the civilian population's support of counter-insurgency operations and traps the people between two opposing sides. The Army interprets the half-hearted support it gets as evidence of collaboration with the guerrillas and punishes the people.
The tragic and ongoing human rights violations that can be traced to the existence and nature of militarized civilian patrols prompts the Commission to recommend to the Guatemalan Government that they immediately be disbanded and that a fully organized and professional police force be created, one answerable to civilian authorities, reasonably well paid, and trained to perform their duty to protect the security and tranquility of the people, with full respect for human rights and Guatemalan law.
Finally, the Commission would like to point to the example of Santiago Atitlán, a city of 38,000 inhabitants. They are experimenting with a very unique security system, since the Government withdrew the military garrison from the area when military forces massacred 13 locals on December 2, 1990. In the period when that military garrison was present, from 1975 to 1990, there were 800 violent deaths or disappearances. Since the removal of the garrison, in a democratic and voluntary self-defense experiment, the people of Santiago Atitlán have set up a security and development committee elected by 78 local groups. It has nine rounds of twelve people, each on shifts, patrolling the cantons to which they are assigned. They have also established a democratic system of supervising their own "police". Every second day of each month, the people meet in front of the Church of Santiago and, after remembering their "13 martyrs", listen to reports from the mayor and chairman of the Security and Development Committee. During those meetings the authorities give an account of their administration. A good percentage of the population of Santiago Atitlán participate and important decisions are taken. Each resident is reminded of his responsibility to defend the community, and answers to the community's problems are sought. In the words of one inhabitant: "Hooded men no longer come in the night, and the kidnappings and killings have stopped."
...30. Moreover, to achieve the Government's purpose of eradicating what it describes as subversion, it has divided the peasant and indigenous population between those it believes could be incorporated into social and military programs of the Government, which it has organized into civilian self-defense patrols and supplied with "rifles and beans," and those peasant and indigenous sectors that it believes have leanings to the guerrilla movement, which it has punished by every means possible to the point that very serious human rights violations have been committed, so extreme that in some cases entire villages have been looted and destroyed and their inhabitants slaughtered.
31. Though it does not doubt that the guerrilla movement has committed serious and reprehensible acts in those embattled areas, the Commission also believes that the Guatemalan Army is directly responsible for violations of the right to life that have occurred in those areas.