COMMUNITIES OF PEOPLES IN RESISTANCE
The massive military repression unleashed in the 1981-82 period led to widespread population resettlement throughout Guatemala. More than 400 rural towns and villages were destroyed as the Army launched artillery and air attacks against civilian communities, most of which were located in the departments in the Altiplano (El Quiché, Huehuetenango, Alta Verapaz and Baja Verapaz). The attacking forces did not discriminate between civilians and insurgents, adults and children, men and women. This was all fully documented by the IACHR in its second special report in 1983 titled "The situation of human rights in Guatemala."
Guatemala is still reeling from the consequences of these offensives. A government report from September 1992 stated that the violence had left 40,000 widows and 150,000 orphans. In a third Report on the situation of Human Rights in Guatemala published in 1985, after another on-site visit, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights carefully examined the strategy adopted by the then military government of Guatemala to establish model villages called "poles of development", and the creation of the civilian patrols to provide a preventive warning system against guerrilla activity.
When the Army conducted its massive offensive against the peasantry, most of whom were Guatemalan Mayas, the widespread reaction was to flee. Hundreds of thousands of peasants fled to all corners of Guatemala and to the neighboring countries. A relatively small percentage of totally dispossessed people escaped into the Guatemalan jungle. One area, known as Ixcán, is located in a vast, virtually unpopulated tropical region known as El Petén; the other is located in the Altiplano of the Department of El Quiché and is known as "La Sierra".
It was in these two inhospitable areas that 23,000 people went into hiding and endured a decade of hardship to survive. Gradually, despite their cultural and linguistic differences, they organized themselves into groups of communities, calling themselves "communities of peoples in resistance" (CPR).
It was only in the last few years that the CPR received any public attention. On the one hand, the Army and some politicians insist that the CPR are an active source of support for the guerrilla movement's steering group, known as the UNRG. Critics of the CPR claim that the people of these communities supply the insurgents with food and other provisions and, even more importantly, provide the rebels with camouflage.
On the other hand, the residents of the CPR insist that they are civilian peasants, that they are unwilling and unwitting victims of an ongoing civil war. Spokesmen for the CPR claim that they are unjustly punished, simply for selling the fruits of their harvest and animals to local people, including members of the Army.
In 1992, many national and international observers visited the CPR, both in La Sierra and in Ixcán. All have come away saying that the people in the CPR are unarmed civilians who live in great poverty and eke out a meager living by planting corn, beans and raising farm animals like chickens and pigs. After his visits, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Guatemala, Christian Tomuschat, said that he had not seen any evidence of weapons or hostile activity on the part of the people who lived in the CPR. The Deputy Attorney General for Human Rights reached the same conclusion. Local and foreign church authorities who have visited the CPR also report that they have not seen any evidence that the CPR are involved in military or paramilitary activities.
A demographic profile of the CPR is as follows: around 17,000 people live in La Sierra and 6,000 in Ixcán. These figures are accepted by the communities and by the Government. Of those 23,000 people, a large percentage are minors, many of whom were born after the massive exodus of the early 1980s or were small children when their parents fled to the interior of the country. In the last ten years, many displaced persons within Guatemala have returned to their traditional land; many of them have remained abroad, though some have started to return. Other Guatemalans remain in the major urban centers, where most are either unemployed or underemployed.
For their part, the residents of that frail network of rural colonies known as the CPR, have continued to live in their remote adopted territories, fearful of returning to their traditional land as they still feel threatened by the same army that threw them off their farms more than ten years ago.
The communities have been the target of many armed attacks by the Guatemalan Army and Air Force. The latter routinely use helicopters to bomb the ranches of the Maya peasant farmers in these communities. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has received numerous complaints of the death and destruction that these attacks have caused. During its visit to Guatemala in November 1992, the Commission listened to testimony from numerous witnesses to and victims of air and land attacks against the CPR.
The violence used against the residents of the CPR takes other forms as well. According to statements made to the Commission, many people have been the victims of enforced disappearance or arbitrarily arrested (and sometimes released) as they were on their way from the CPRs to neighboring cities to sell their agricultural commodities and to purchase manufactures for their communities.
Recently, in November and December of 1992, mountain villages like Cuarto Pueblo and Los Angeles were attacked by several hundred soldiers. When they found that the inhabitants, some 600 in all, had fled in the face of the advancing military, the soldiers burned the villagers' houses, killed their farm animals and took away the personal effects that the residents had been forced to abandon as the army approached. The inhabitants of these small villages reported the loss of large amounts of rice, corn, beans, fava beans, coffee, eggs, salt, lemons, wood, hens, ducks, cooking utensils, farm tools, clothing, school books. In one sector of Cuarto Pueblo, the people reported that 38 buildings were leveled, among them a clinic, a school, a day-care center, a warehouse, the chapel, and some plastic roofing. In another sector of Cuarto Pueblo, 40 homes were burned by the Army, including another small church. The same thing happened in Los Angeles, where 18 homes were destroyed as well as a number of sewing machines, a typewriter, and a number of bibles.
In 1992, the issue of the CPR in Guatemala was front-page news almost every day. The level of physical violence is reflected in the stridency of the incessant complaints and replies for and against the inhabitants of the CPR.
The Commission in its comments on their matters is confining itself to the human rights recognized in the American Convention on Human Rights, of which Guatemala is a party. In the case of the CPR, the Commission is primarily concerned with the rights to life (Article 4), to humane treatment (Article 5), to a fair trial (Article 8), to freedom of association (Article 16), the right of property (Article 21), freedom of movement (Article 22) and judicial protection (Article 25).
From the standpoint of international law, Guatemala ratified the American Convention of its own free will and thereby agreed to respect each and every one of those rights for everyone within Guatemalan jurisdiction.
Moreover, Guatemala has ratified the Geneva Convention and thus agreed to respect the rules of war and civil conflict. This branch of law, known as "international humanitarian law," provides, inter alia, for the protection of noncombatant civilians in internal conflicts of the type that have occurred in Guatemala in the last 30 years.
The Commission is in no way countenancing the activities or objectives of irregular armed groups such as those that make up the URNG. No clandestine organization has the right to attempt to overthrow, by force, a democratic government elected in accordance with the Constitution.
At the same time, a democratic government elected in accordance with the Constitution cannot use any means to conquer an insurgency movement. The human rights of all persons must be respected. The Government's obligation under international law, particularly with regard to noncombatant civilians, is clear. The Government must respect the human rights of such persons and, under international humanitarian law, must refrain from indiscriminate attacks upon civilian population centers, even when that Government is convinced that there may be insurgents or criminals there.
By meeting these minimum requirements, the rules of international law are being observed. This is the only means to ensure the legitimacy of a government in the eyes of the affected citizenry. In other words, violations of the human rights of noncombatant civilians in the midst of civil disputes is a violation of international law and erodes the legitimacy and authority of the government that seeks to restore peace and its own constitutional authority. Such violations can in no way be justified by invoking military necessities and simply serve to ensure the continuation of a vicious circle of terrorism and repression.