On September 11, 1990, a Guatemalan social scientist whose reputation extended far beyond the borders of Central America was stabbed to death as she left her office in Guatemala City. Trained in England, Myrna Mack Chang returned home in the mid-1980s, just after the height of the state-inspired terror in the countryside. She embarked on pioneering work with communities displaced by rural violence and established ties with universities in the United States, including the University of Texas. To the Guatemalan military her work was more than an anathema, it was considered a threat to “national security,” since it documented the full dimensions of the violence that had plagued the nation in its decades-old civil war.
Ever since the killing, Helen Mack, a businesswoman with no previous experience as an advocate for social justice, has carried on a heroic, perhaps quixotic, fight to see justice done, not only for her sister, but for Guatemala. On September 3–nearly 12 years to the day that Myrna was murdered–the long-delayed trial of the accused masterminds of the crime, retired general Augusto Godoy Gaitán and retired colonels Juan Valencia Osorio and Juan Guillermo Oliva Carrera, finally began in Guatemala City. In 1993, Noel de Jesus Beteta Alvarez, a low-level military officer and intelligence operative, was convicted of stabbing Mack to death and sentenced to 30 years in prison. The Guatemalan Supreme Court ordered that his superiors be tried as well, but for nearly a decade the trial has been postponed through a series of byzantine procedural maneuvers–not to mention threats and assassination.
The signing of the 1996 peace accords put an end to the 36-year-old civil war that claimed over 200,000 lives, but brought something less than peace. In the past two years the human rights situation has deteriorated at an alarming rate, with increased violence in the countryside and an increased number of attacks against human rights and legal workers–just as a number of prominent cases against current and former high-ranking military and government officials have made their way through the courts in Guatemala and abroad (See “Still Searching,” June 7). For years, Helen Mack and her family have been subject to numerous threats. Last June, her name, along with that of the current director of AVANCSO, the research institution founded by her sister, appeared on a death list of prominent human rights and legal activists, issued by a clandestine group that activists say is linked to the army high command. Just days before the trial was to begin, Roberto Romero, the lawyer for the Myrna Mack Foundation, received a series of telephone threats; his home was sprayed with bullets.
The first defendant to testify was Godoy, who set the tone by declaring “my hands are clean,” and announcing that he had never issued an illegal order during his military career, that his only role was to guard the president, his family, and whomever else he was ordered to protect, that he had over 1,000 men under his command, and that he had absolutely no idea what they might have done in their spare time. The trial is expected to continue for several weeks. For Helen Mack–the businesswoman who became the first person to insist on using the Guatemalan courts to bring justice in the case of a political murder–the trial is likely to go on forever. –BB