Cleaning Up Guatemala

Author: Don Wycliff '69


You enter the Archdiocesan Office of Human Rights in Guatemala City through a pair of heavy wooden doors that open inward from the street. If you are on foot, you approach the receptionist’s station to the left of the doors, conversing through a set of protective bars. If you are driving, you ease your car over the threshold into a kind of vehicular vestibule. As the wooden doors close behind you, a massive black steel door slides open in front. Cross this second threshold and you emerge into a small, rectangular courtyard surrounded by a colonnaded two-story building.

If you are Mario Domingo and you are back for your first visit since you left last summer for a year of study at the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the Notre Dame Law School, you are greeted like a returning hero. There are bear hugs and back slaps from the men and gentler embraces, kisses and some tears from the women. Obviously, Domingo is deeply loved and respected in this place.

Domingo didn’t come to Notre Dame just because he was seized with the need at age 43 for a mid-career professional tuneup. Certainly that was a big part of it. But he also came for the same reason that the entrance to the Archdiocesan Office of Human Rights—in Spanish, Oficina de Derechos Humanos del Arzobispado or ODHA—is so elaborately protected, for the same reason that you see men in quasimilitary garb and with powerful shotguns at the entrances to everything from shoe stores to taco shops in Guatemala City. Domingo is at Notre Dame because it isn’t safe for him to be in Guatemala.

He shares the general insecurity of every resident in this country where, in the words of the U.S. State Department’s latest human rights report, “societal violence [is] rampant.” For Domingo there’s something else besides. He believes, with reason, that he has been specifically targeted for retaliation because of his work as a human-rights lawyer.

He was possibly the most aggressive member of an ODHA legal and investigative team that, in support of a special state prosecutor, helped win convictions of four men, including a father/son pair of military officers, for the 1998 murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera. At the time of his death, Gerardi was Guatemala’s leading advocate for human rights and the leading critic of abuses by the Guatemalan military during the nation’s 36-year civil war (1960–96).

Bishop Gerardi was bludgeoned to death in the parish house of San Sebastian Church on April 26, 1998, just two days after he had unveiled the findings of an archdiocesan study of the estimated 200,000 civilian deaths during the war. Called the Recovery of Historical Memory project, the study concluded that almost 90 percent of the deaths had been caused by the Guatemalan military and its paramilitary allies, and about 5 percent by its guerrilla opponents. A United Nations “truth commission” later put the percentages at 93 for the military and just 3 for the guerrillas.

Right from the start, Domingo says—and others back him up—he was convinced that the bishop’s murder was a political crime. He pressed his human-rights colleagues and a series of special prosecutors to investigate it as such. And he was vindicated when, three years later, a three-judge Guatemalan court found four defendants guilty. They included Captain Byron Lima Oliva, a member of the elite presidential protective force, and his father, retired Colonel Byron Disrael Lima Estrada, a former counterinsurgency commander and former head of Guatemalan military intelligence. The Limas gained the dubious distinction of becoming the first Guatemalan military officers ever convicted of a human rights crime.

Domingo gained the distinction of seeing his theory of a political motive for the bishop’s murder vindicated. In the process, he made himself a target for revenge.

The Center for Civil and Human Rights, founded 35 years ago by then Notre Dame President Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC, is not routinely a refuge. But the center was glad to extend an offer of admission and a scholarship to Domingo because of his unique attributes and experience, notes Sean O’Brien ’95, ’01J.D., ’02LL.M., assistant director of the center.

Not only is Domingo substantially older than the norm for students in the center’s master of laws program in International Human Rights Law, but his experience as a labor lawyer and in pressing a high-profile criminal case in Guatemala, one of the most challenging human rights environments in the world, promised to make him a valuable addition to the intellectual mix in the law school’s classrooms.

So it was that last August, Domingo and his wife, Jessica Yarrow, and their 3-year-old daughter, Sofia, arrived at Notre Dame.

Domingo recalls how one of their neighbors in University Village, Notre Dame’s married student housing complex, cautioned them that some parts of South Bend could be “dangerous.” He laughs at the recollection. If you visit Guatemala, you understand why.

Getting away with murder

Certain words and phrases come up again and again in discussions of human rights in Guatemala, like obbligatos in a discordant symphony. One such phrase is “culture of impunity.” What it means, quite simply, is that if you want to get away with murder (or almost any other crime), Guatemala is a good place to do it.

In its Human Rights Report for 2007, the State Department lists “impunity for criminal activity” as one of the country’s many serious human-rights shortcomings. In a nation of just under 13 million people, there were 5,781 killings last year. Guatemala’s rate works out to more than 44 persons per 100,000 of population, more than seven times the rate in the United States. Figures from the office of the Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman indicate that convictions are obtained in only about 6 percent of criminal cases. That rate goes down to less than 3 percent in murder cases involving women and children.

Helen Mack knows about Guatemala’s culture of impunity in a most intimate way. Her younger sister, Myrna, was murdered in particularly gruesome fashion by members of the Guatemalan military in 1990. Myrna had been working among Guatemala’s indigenous peoples, especially the Mayans, collecting stories of atrocities committed against them by the army during the ongoing civil war.

Mack blames the tsunami of criminality now washing over the nation on a social system steeped for centuries in racism and economic inequality. “The whole system, it’s only for a [small] percentage of the population,” she says. Historically “there’s too much racism and discrimination here. I think this left more than 70 percent of the population in a serious condition of poverty.”

According to the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development reports, 56.2 percent of Guatemala’s population live below the poverty line. The still-disadvantaged lower class are the Mayans, who were conquered by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, and other indigenous groups. A substantial mixed-race group known as Ladinos occupy an economic position somewhere between the upper crust and the lower-class.

On the UNDP’s Gini index, a generally accepted measure of income inequality, Guatemala scores 55.1. By comparison, Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, stands at 59.2, while Canada, with perhaps the greatest income equality in the Western Hemisphere, is at 32.6. (Perfect equality, zero, exists nowhere.)

Amid these disturbing statistics, getting justice for her sister became Helen Mack’s crusade. She gave up a business career to press full time for the prosecution of her sister’s killers. Along the way, she established the Myrna Mack Foundation, to expand her efforts beyond her sister’s case to those of thousands of other victims of human rights crimes and abuses by the military.

In 2005, shortly after the Guatemalan Supreme Court had affirmed the conviction of an army colonel as one of those who plotted the murder, Helen Mack was awarded the Notre Dame Prize for Distinguished Public Service in Latin America by the University’s Kellogg Institute for International Studies.

Rev. Edward “Monk” Malloy, CSC, Notre Dame’s president emeritus, lauded Mack then as “an unlikely champion for human rights and justice in a country where that can be a hazardous occupation.”

It can also leave one feeling frustrated, even after “victory.” Last February, sitting in the offices of the Myrna Mack Foundation in Guatemala City, Helen Mack noted that it took 14 years to win a conviction of her sister’s killers. “I don’t know,” she says with a touch of bitterness, “if you can call that justice.”

Her words take on special poignancy in view of this item from the State Department’s Human Rights report, released on March 11: “There were no new developments regarding the search for fugitive Colonel Juan Valencia Osorio, whose 25-year prison sentence for orchestrating the 1990 killing of anthropologist Myrna Mack Chang was reinstated by the Supreme Court of Justice in 2004. By year’s end Valencia had been at large for almost four years.”

Prison epiphany
“I know they want to get me,” Domingo is telling a nervous passenger in the backseat of the borrowed SUV he’s piloting down the Avenida La Reforma in Guatemala City on a Friday in February. The passenger’s anxiety stems not from fear that he might catch a bullet intended for the driver but from the fact that Domingo, always passionate, seems focused more on his passengers and the argument he is making than on the traffic in front of him.

Mario is the eldest of 10 children in the Domingo family; eight of them are still alive. One sister died in childhood. His youngest brother, Darinel, was murdered in Guatemala City in 2006, less than a month after the Supreme Court upheld the verdicts in the Gerardi case. Whether 21-year-old Darinel’s killing was political—retaliation for Domingo’s work on the Gerardi case—or a result of the rampant violence in the society has never been officially determined. Domingo says he believes it was not political, but he and his family probably will never know for sure.

Domingo’s parents, now separated, live in Guatemala City, but in his youth they lived in a village in western Guatemala, near the Mexican border. The civil war already was five years old when Mario was born in 1965. In 1982, when the army began laying waste to the villages of the indigenous peoples in their area, his family joined the stream of refugees fleeing to Mexico.

The teenage Mario remained behind to finish school then headed north to join his family in Mexico. It was during that journey, he says, that he found his vocation in the law.

Rebuffed at one border crossing, he heard from a man in the nearby town of La Mesilla about “a path through the woods” into Mexico. He gave it a try and was caught again. He spent the next four days in jail, without food and without anyone to speak up on his behalf. “I said then,” he recalled, “‘Never again in my life do I want to be in this condition.’”

After his release, he stayed briefly with an aunt, who mentioned to him that one of his cousins had received a scholarship from a Quaker group to study at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City. Domingo made his way there and found the Quakers, who gave him a scholarship to study law at San Carlos. He proved to be an able student, with an aptitude for poetry as well as the law. He won several prizes for his poetry and has since published two books of poetry.

He also began to learn that education was no guarantee against abuse by the state. In 1989, he said, 14 of his college friends were kidnapped; four of them were tortured and killed. Domingo himself learned about living with death threats. At one point, he says, he received a letter from an outfit calling itself the “Secret Anti-Communist Army.” It read: “We know you and your family. We know where your family are at this moment. If you continue this subversive activity, we will kill you soon.”

It was no surprise to him when, years later, during the Gerardi murder investigation, one of his brothers picked up a ringing telephone at Domingo’s house and heard a popular song about “the disappeared”—the people who are there and then suddenly not there, and their families and friends never know what happened to them. Domingo didn’t need an interpreter to get the message.

By 1993 Domingo was out of school and working as a lawyer for Guatemala’s biggest labor federation. One of his most vivid memories from that time was standing between a group of peasant laborers, who were his clients, and a group of police who had killed three union members while protecting the estates of a wealthy family. The laborers wanted revenge, but Domingo pleaded with them to refrain from violence.

His action was half principle and half pragmatism. “My personal conviction,” he says, “is that we don’t need to kill other people. We need to respect life.” At the same time, he says, the retribution against his clients if they had attacked the military “would have been worse than the first killings.”

In 1994, Domingo made two contacts that would stand him in good stead years later. He earned a scholarship to a summer program on international human rights law at DePaul University in Chicago. The director of that program was a rising star in the field: Douglass Cassel.

While Domingo was at DePaul, one of the guest speakers in Cassel’s class was another Guatemalan, Ronalth Ochaeta, the head of the country’s new Archdiocesan Office of Human Rights. Ochaeta was enrolled at the time in the same program at Notre Dame that Domingo is in today: the LL.M. in International Human Rights Law. And Doug Cassel is now at Notre Dame as director of the Center for Civil and Human Rights.

Shortly after Ochaeta returned to Guatemala, he tried to lure Domingo to the ODHA, but Domingo remained committed at that point to labor law and the people at the union federation. Eventually, however, he yielded to Ochaeta’s overtures and, in February 1997, went to work at ODHA. Just over a year later, Bishop Gerardi was murdered.

“At that moment,” Domingo says, “the dance started.”

A gathering menace
It took more than three years—until June 2001—to bring to trial and convict three military men and a priest in the murder of Bishop Gerardi. It also took extraordinary courage on the part of many who were involved in investigating, prosecuting and judging the case.

Ochaeta hung in through threats and a near-fatal episode with ulcers and internal bleeding. But after three armed thugs broke into his house, terrorized his young son and his housekeeper, and left a calling card—a chunk of concrete like that used to beat Gerardi to death—Ochaeta fled with his family into exile.

So, later, did Celvin Galindo, the second of three special prosecutors who served during the investigation and trial phases of the case. Galindo’s successor, Leopoldo Zeissig, hung in until the court delivered its guilty verdict. Then, when he was stripped of his special security and his office by the attorney general, Zeissig also gathered his family and went into exile. After four years, however, he returned and now works with the office of the Human Rights Ombudsman.

Mynor Melgar, a coordinator of the ODHA legal team along with Nery Rodenas, Ochaeta’s successor, went into exile and remains there. Rodenas, however, has refused to leave Guatemala, even though the younger Lima, in a chilling rant during a post-trial hearing, suggested he would avenge himself against Rodenas by going after his children. Domingo himself has three older children from an earlier marriage who still live with their mother in Guatemala City. He can never be entirely without worry about them.

One of the most remarkable figures in the Gerardi case was Judge Flor de Maria García Villatoro. This woman, another disciple of the ubiquitous Doug Cassel, accepted the responsibility of overseeing the pretrial investigation after the original judge, under constant threat as a result of his roles in both the Gerardi and the Myrna Mack cases, fled into exile.

These days, Garcia Villatoro looks back at a conversation she had with her parents at the time of her appointment. “They asked me whether I was running the risk of death by taking this case,” she said. “I told them yes, I might be. But I could take the risk because I had no children.”

“Yes,” she says her parents replied, “but you have parents.”

Only now that she has two children, she says, does she fully appreciate what her parents must have felt then.

Why did she face the risk? Garcia Villatoro talks about her religious faith and the obligations it imposes. Then she moves on to something that sounds like . . . patriotism. “I have a personal commitment,” she says, “to do something about the injustices in this country.”

She wanted, she says, to demonstrate personally that Guatemalan judges could be independent, because judicial independence is crucial to establishing the rule of law.

Zeissig strikes a similarly patriotic note in explaining why he took on the prosecutor’s role after Galindo departed to exile. “I was a career prosecutor,” he says. “As an attorney, as a prosecutor and as a Guatemalan, I knew it was the right thing to do.”

That sense of Guatemalan patriotism comes through in conversations with both governmental and private human-rights activists. With Iduvina Hernandez, a former journalist who co-founded Seguridad en Democracia, a human rights organization devoted to enshrining in Guatemalan law and practice something that Americans take for granted: civilian control of and separation of the military and the police. With Claudia Samayoa, founder of the Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, who fights to see that those who work for human rights in Guatemala enjoy the protection of the government, rather than being left to the wolves of organized crime and the rich and powerful.

Jorge Garcia, who accepted the job of special prosecutor for the second phase of the Gerardi case—the trial judges named more than a dozen other potential defendants, including three military officers believed to be the “intellectual authors” of the murder—puts this patriotic imperative bluntly. “This country is sick,” he says, “and it doesn’t deserve to be this way.”

Domingo, safe for now in South Bend with his wife and their daughter, wrestles with two questions: Can he safely go back to Guatemala? Should he?

He was turning those questions over in his mind during his February visit home. If he went back, would he get drawn back into the unfinished business of the Gerardi case? Was it perhaps time to go to a different part of the world, and work in human rights there? Maybe to Darfur, about which he was writing a research paper for one of his CCHR courses.

Jessica wasn’t buying this, however. She said she would be very surprised if, come the end of the academic year, she and Mario and Sofia were not headed back to Guatemala, dangerous though it might be.

Claudia Mendez, an editor for the newspaper el Periódico who covered the Gerardi case from the beginning and later became friends with the legal team at ODHA, says she hopes Domingo and his family do return.

“I believe Mario has to come back,” she says, “or [final justice in the Gerardi case] just won’t happen.”

Don Wycliff is the associate vice president of news and information at Notre Dame.

Photo of Mario Domingo by Sean O’Brien