On January 14th, a day marking the one-year anniversary of his administration, Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina presented his first annual report on the state of the country. In his speech, Pérez Molina, a former general, graduate of the School of the Americas and accused of being a war criminal implicated in the systematic use of torture and acts of genocide, hailed a “historic 10 percent reduction in violent crime” and “an almost five point drop in the homicide rate per every 100,000 inhabitants” from the previous year. Guatemala currently has one of the highest murder rates in the world (41 murders per every 100,000 inhabitants); it had a total of 5,122 murders in 2012. Ironically, while President Pérez Molina was reporting back to the nation on crime statistics and murder rates that morning, the mayor of the town of Jutiapa had just been shot down, dying almost immediately of sixteen bullet wounds.
In the 1980s, the “scorched-earth” campaign of the Guatemalan military tortured, slaughtered and massacred entire villages, resulting in the deaths of over 200,000 people. Under the dictatorship of General Efraín Ríos Montt from 1982-83 state violence in Guatemala has been said to have been the most brutal. A year ago, after years of attempts by human rights defenders to put him on trial, Ríos Montt was charged with genocide in Guatemalan courts. He has since filed two petitions to acquire amnesty from the law, the second of which is still awaiting a ruling. Last month Pérez Molina, who himself served under General Ríos Montt during the 1980s, issued and then suspended a decree stating that it would stop adhering to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on cases of crimes against humanity and genocide that occurred before 1987, which human rights defenders say could be an attempt to prevent legal challenges from taking place.
In 2011, when presidential elections were held, Guatemalan and international human rights organizations warned of the danger in electing a former general implicated in “scorched earth” campaigns and extrajudicial executions, pointing out that militarization and repression would likely escalate if Pérez Molina were to win.
On October 4th 2012, those fears were realized as military forces once again attacked, shooting indiscriminately into a crowd of peaceful protesters in the Mayan K’iché community of Totonicapán, and effectively carrying out a massacre. When the ordeal was over, at least six protestors had been killed and another 34 wounded in the first military massacre since the 1996 peace accords were signed. The 3,000 unarmed indigenous protestors had blocked a section of the Inter-American Highway in order to protest rising energy prices, a new educational reform and to negotiate a constitutional reform.
Seven days later, an investigation by the Public Ministry and the National Institute of Forensic Sciences confirmed that the 5.56 caliber bullets that killed and wounded protestors had come from the Galil rifles used by the military. Until then, Pérez Molina had steadfastly denied that his soldiers had been armed or had fired, and attempted to misrepresent details of the incident, finally insisting that soldiers had only fired into the air, and attributing the first shot fired at protestors to a private security guard.
After Pérez Molina was forced to retract his denials about the incident, the officer in charge, Coronel Chiroy, and eight of his soldiers were arrested and charged with “extrajudicial execution”.
In response to international criticism about the incident days after its occurrence, Guatemalan Foreign Minister Harold Caballeros dismissed the murder of the indigenous protestors, stating that: “With sadness, I recognize that in some parts of the world eight deaths is a very big deal, but, although it sounds bad to say this, … every day we have double that number of deaths [from violence]. So, it’s not something that we should make a big deal about.”
At a time when militarization in the region is on the rise and violent repression of dissent has returned, a president accused of war crimes who denies that genocide ever took place in his country, and who has attempted to cover up an obvious massacre, it is difficult to take with much optimism the news that 526 less homicides were reported in 2012 than in 2011. And it begs the question; does the Guatemalan government include its own murders in that calculation? Or does the massacre at Totonicapán actually put the 2012 total at 5,128?