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Genocide-Linked General Otto Pérez Molina Poised to Become Guatemala's Next President

StorySeptember 15, 2011
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Jennifer Harbury

human rights attorney and author of the book Searching for Everardo: A Story of Love, War, and the CIA in Guatemala.

A retired military general has won the first round in Guatemala’s presidential election, leading to a runoff election in November. If elected, General Otto Pérez Molina would become the first former military official to win the presidency since the end of the military dictatorships in 1986. Human rights groups have accused Pérez of being directly involved in the systematic use of torture and acts of genocide in Guatemala in the 1980s. Pérez has run largely on a platform of using "an iron fist" to crack down on drug cartels. Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Mayan activist, Rigoberta Menchú, is one of nine other candidates challenging Pérez. Democracy Now! discusses the election and its implications with human rights attorney Jennifer Harbury. Her husband, Efraín Bámaca Velásquez, a guerrilla leader, was tortured and killed in 1982 by members of the Guatemalan army. She is the author of a book documenting her quest to undercover what happened to him, called "Searching for Everardo: A Story of Love, War, and the CIA in Guatemala." She has new evidence linking General Otto Pérez Molina to her husband’s death. [includes rush transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to Guatemala, where a retired military general has won the first round in the country’s presidential election. He faces a runoff election in November. If elected, General Otto Pérez Molina would become the first former military official to win the presidency since the end of the military dictatorships in 1986. Human rights groups have accused Pérez of being directly involved in the systematic use of torture and acts of genocide in Guatemala in the 1980s. Pérez has run largely on a platform of using an iron fist to crack down on drug cartels.

GEN. OTTO PÉREZ MOLINA: [translated] This is a rite that I accept, that I am going to fight with character and with a firm hand in front of the institutions to bring peace and security and defend the lives of all Guatemalans so we can live with security as we deserve.

AMY GOODMAN: Some news accounts have cited voters who say they support Molina in the hopes that he’ll help restore law order to the country, which has been ravaged by violence. Nearly 6,000 people were killed last year in Guatemala, a nation slightly smaller than Tennessee in size, with a population of about 14 million.

Well, to discuss the elections and their implications, we’re joined by human rights attorney Jennifer Harbury. Her husband, Efraín Bámaca Velásquez, a guerrilla commander, a Mayan commandante and guerrilla, was disappeared—in Guatemala, was disappeared after he was captured by the Guatemalan army in the 1980s. She’s the author of Searching for Everardo: A Story of Love, War, and the CIA in Guatemala, has spent decades pressing for classified information on her husband’s case. She has new evidence linking General Otto Pérez Molina, the leading presidential candidate, with her husband’s death.

Talk about the significance of his win in the first round of the elections, Jennifer.

JENNIFER HARBURY: Well, we’re all extremely concerned, given his background in human rights violations in Guatemala. He’s always declared that he was not involved in the genocidal campaign of 1982 in the Quiché Highlands, but in fact a video showing Allan Nairn interviewing him, precisely as he stands over several battered corpses, has been making the rounds in Guatemala. He was a major at the time. And this, of course, was the year when 70 to 90 percent of the villages in the Ixil Triangle were razed. He also appears or is named in a WikiLeaked cable by Ambassador McFarland, in which he admits that he was up there and in a command position, even though he was using the name of Tito Arias.

In my husband’s case, of course, if we take all of the documents together, including some telegrams that I recently received from the Guatemalan military, it shows that Everardo, my husband, was helicoptered, directly after his capture, directly into a huge meeting of high-level intelligence and other military officers, between 50 and 80, according to different documents, at the Santa Ana Berlin base, which was the central headquarters for the military operations at the time. At that meeting, the decision was made, with Pérez Molina present and also his direct—the person directly in charge of him and the head of the Estado Mayor of the Defensa Nacional, General Perussina—the decision was made to place Everardo in a special intelligence prisoner of war program, by which the prisoner was tortured long term, without killing him, in order to break him psychologically and force him to collaborate. Who was head of intelligence at that moment was Otto Pérez Molina. He was at that meeting. And in order to conceal those facts so that the human rights community would not intervene, given that they had just signed the human rights accords on human rights as part of the peace process, they decided at that meeting to kill a young soldier, place him at the combat site, and later falsely claim that that was the body of my husband, in order to prevent that intervention.

The rest of the documents show that, in 1992 and 1993, while Otto Pérez Molina was head of intelligence, that not only was Everardo taken from intelligence compound to intelligence compound to intelligence compound, tortured by intelligence specialists, and transported in intelligence helicopters, and held for a long time—and probably killed—at the intelligence death squad base in the capital, but there were 300 to 350 other prisoners of war in the same conditions, being thrown down wells, out of helicopters, etc., etc. By the time the United States embassy told the truth about what was happening, of course, all of those people were killed. And I think it’s very important to note that the embassy is still protecting Otto Pérez Molina, suggesting that somehow the evidence hasn’t stuck. The evidence has never been allowed to go to courts, in fact. And they seem to insinuate that Mr. Pérez Molina really wasn’t involved and is the great reformist.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But the WikiLeaks cables do indicate that the State Department officials are concerned about the impact on Pérez Molina and another one of the former colonels of that day, as they see them now as the great political hopes in the current times.

JENNIFER HARBURY: Well, Pérez Molina, of course, trained at the School of the Americas. Allan Nairn’s article presents some strong evidence that he was probably a CIA link, which I think is most likely. He was head of intelligence, and he rose to power at that time, and, again, was trained in the United States and has excellent relationships with the United States. So I think that’s probably true.

I think one other thing that’s of great concern to remember with the election is that he was up in the Nebaj and Ixil Triangle in a position of command throughout the massacres. In this coming election, a large percentage of the Mayan survivors will not be able to vote because of de facto Jim Crow laws. In the ’90s, that number was half of the indigenous women and between a quarter to a third of the men. The numbers are better now, I believe, but no one in Guatemala, including the electoral board, has been able to produce those statistics. They seem to toss those out as not really relevant. In addition, people forced into exile, hundreds of thousands, a large percentage of them will not be able to vote, either. And in addition to that, Pérez Molina has managed to kick Sandra Torres, his only realistic opponent, off the ballot. So, to say the least, this is a very skewed election.

The New York Times article suggested that people would vote for Pérez Molina because they wanted an iron fist to combat the rising violence, but most of that is being carried out by military leaders who took their uniforms off after the war, created large mafias to run drugs, and hired and trained gangs such as the Zetas—that’s very well documented—to help them run the drugs.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And this is a phenomenon that—not only in Guatemala, but Salvador has had a similar problem.

JENNIFER HARBURY: That’s the model.

JUAN GONZALEZ: An escalation of violence once the war has ended, as many of these former soldiers and death squad people then became involved in narcotrafficking.

JENNIFER HARBURY: That’s correct. And the kinds of assassinations and mutilations that we’re seeing are almost like signature killings from straight out of the ’80s. And in fact, the head of the survivor network in the Nebaj area was tortured to death only recently, as a sort of de facto warning that people should not press the 10 paradigmatic cases. The next one up at bat is genocide.

AMY GOODMAN: In a moment, we’re going to talk about a new documentary that’s just premiering in New York called Granito, but, Jennifer, you have been on this, trying to discover what happened to your husband, and through him, what happened to so many for decades. The information you have now about Otto Pérez Molina, you have fasted for information in front of the U.S. embassy in Guatemala, you risked death numerous times. How significant is this? And what about the fact you have this, as it looks like Pérez Molina will be the next president of Guatemala?

JENNIFER HARBURY: We believe that the 10 paradigmatic cases of war crimes, which the international community and the Inter-American Court has been backing to try to break the impunity for once and for all, so that people don’t continue to kill. Right now, no problem. It’s one of the highest murder rates in the world. But everyone knows nothing is going to be done about it. But we believe that once Otto Pérez Molina comes into the presidency, he’ll get rid of Claudia Paz, the fantastic and brilliant new attorney general, and stack all of the courts. And the killings of judges and witnesses and people like myself will, of course, increase to the point that the whole aperture for de facto Nuremberg for Guatemala, which is so crucial, we think that Nuremberg will shut down.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you afraid to go back to Guatemala?

JENNIFER HARBURY: Well, Otto Pérez Molina told the ambassador, McFarland, that he was very worried that his political opponents would have me killed "to make me look bad." And I was almost arrested recently on the grounds that I should not have pushed the Inter-American ruling requiring the case to be reopened, among other things. So—but I will go back down, because what am I facing compared to the Guatemalans, like Fredy Peccerelli here? Nothing.

AMY GOODMAN: And we’re going to talk with Fredy, as well as Pam Yates, the filmmaker, and Jennifer Harbury, when we come back. Jennifer Harbury, human rights lawyer, widow of Efraín Bámaca Velásquez, went on hunger strikes in Guatemala City and Washington to press for classified information about her husband’s case, author of Searching for Everardo: A Story of Love, War, and the CIA in Guatemala, and also the book Truth, Torture, and the American Way. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

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"Granito: How to Nail a Dictator": New Film Tracks Struggle for Justice After Guatemalan Genocide

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