By Major (Ret'd) Eva Martinez
On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Canada’s contribution to the Agreement on a Firm and Lasting Peace in Guatemala, it is only appropriate that the story is once again told.
In 1997, 15 Spanish-speaking Canadian Armed Forces officers were selected to serve as United Nations Military Observers (UNMOs) in Guatemala for a peacekeeping mission, dubbed MINUGUA (from the Spanish Misión de Verificación de las Naciones Unidas en Guatemala). The mission was established to verify a ceasefire following a brutal 36-year civil war that had pitted the government and the Guatemalan Army against the guerrillas of the National Revolutionary Unit of Guatemala (URNG).
An international contingent of 155 officers from various countries dismantled the URNG by collecting their weapons, ammunition, and uniforms before demobilizing the ex-combatants and reintegrating them into society as civilians. The Canadian contingent included Luiz Araujo (ARTY), Carlos Belsham (SIGS), Robert Champagne (CELE), Alex Dieryckx (MARS), Doug Eaton (INF), Alex Fieglar (LOG), Miguel Gonzalez (CELE), Louis Lafrance (INF), Paul Lansey (INF), Eva Martinez (AERE), Carlos Olivas (PLT), Bob Taylor (ARMD), Claude Vadeboncoeur (INF), Pierre Van Doesburg (ARTY), and Walter Watkins (INF).
Guatemala’s history is a complex picture to paint, like the intricate hand-woven huipils (tops) and cortes (skirts) worn by the indigenous women of Guatemala, with strong underpinnings in religion, politics, human rights, geography, and socio-economics. Over the centuries, it has become a tapestry of revolution, counterrevolution, exploitation and suppression, dispossession, and racial and economic oppression against the majority Indian population who have fought against brutal military dictatorships to defend their lives, fight for their rights, and regain their lands.
The guerrilla movement took root following a failed coup attempt in November 1960 by a group of reformist army officers who had become dissatisfied with the army command, the political tampering with promotions, the incompetence and corruption of the government, and the use of Guatemalan territory to train Cuban exiles for the Bay of Pigs invasion. When their revolt failed, they and their followers went into hiding in Honduras, forged ties with Cuba, and began forming the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR) guerrilla unit for armed insurrection against the government, returning to the Guatemalan highlands three years later. In 1966, the Guatemalan Army, with the help of U.S. Green Beret advisors, developed counterinsurgency tactics, defeated the FAR and banished them to the jungles of Petén, where the guerrillas then adopted an urban warfare strategy.
The URNG was formed in 1982 with an aim to establish a revolution that “will guarantee equality between Indians and Ladinos, and will end cultural oppression and discrimination.” The URNG was well structured and effectively organized with as many as 5,000 troops supported throughout the country by countless civilians who provided shelter, food and transportation as well as reserve personnel when required. The URNG consisted of four guerrilla armies: EGP (Guerrilla Army of the Poor), PGT (Guatemalan Workers Party/Communist Party), FAR (Rebel Armed Forces), and ORPA (Organization of People in Arms).
By 1982, the U.S. and other countries like Israel and Taiwan were providing support to the Guatemalan Army in a massive anti-guerrilla counterinsurgency campaign that resulted in the most violent period in Guatemala’s history. With the Army often resorting to scorched-earth tactics, the war ripped the country apart and led to numerous massacres. Over time, the URNG would assert its will to end armed conflict through dialog and political negotiations. Until the signing of the Agreement on a Firm and Lasting Peace, the civil war had reportedly resulted in the loss of 150,000 lives, 45,000 disappearances, 50,000 refugees, up to one million displaced people, and over 400 destroyed villages.
The international contingent of UNMOs was made up of officers and medical support staff from the armed forces of Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Ecuador, Germany, Norway, Russia, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Ukraine, United States, Uruguay and Venezuela. By military peacekeeping standards, this was one of the shortest missions (lasting only three months), smallest in terms of personnel, and cheapest (grossing just $3.9-million in expenses).
The UNMOs — completely unarmed during the mission — were deployed around the country to one of two headquarters — in Guatemala City and Quiché — or to one of six Verification Centres (VCs) — Las Abejas, Finca Claudia, Finca Sacol, Tzalbal, Tululché and Mayalán. The VCs were situated in very remote areas of Guatemala, near the URNG’s assembly points. From these VCs, military observers would conduct over 1,600 kilometres of foot patrols and 65,000 kilometres of road patrols in the Security and Coordination Zones, escort the guerrillas from their camps to the assembly points, and demilitarize them by collecting their weapons, ammunition, and uniforms before preparing them to be demobilized as civilians. Throughout the mission, the URNG demonstrated tremendous support for the process and a full willingness to cooperate.
At the same time, an intense demining operation took place on the Tajumulco Volcano — at 4,220 metres in elevation, it is Guatemala’s highest peak and the highest volcano in Central America (which last erupted in 1863). Surrendered as part of the peace agreement, the URNG’s largest minefield was cleared by UNMOs in April 1997. As a show of confidence, members of the Guatemalan Mountain Climbing Federation, with representatives from the Army, URNG, and UNMOs, climbed the demined volcano and christened it the “Guatemalan Peace Summit.”
A total of 2,928 combatants were demobilized — a number that reflects the diminished size of the URNG from its heyday of 5,000 in the 1980s, including those that had retired, been expelled, or had defected. While at the VCs, the combatants were identified and their weapons, ammunition, and uniforms were turned in. Various non-government organizations (NGOs) administered a comprehensive program of alphabetization, medical and dental care, and vocation testing in preparation for their new life as civilians. A total of 1,824 weapons, 535,000 rounds of ammunition, 2,321 explosive devices and mines, and 1,720 kilograms of explosives were turned in.
To the URNG, the weapons were symbolic of their struggle. Unwilling to accept defeat, the URNG refused to have the weapons turned over to the Army as this could be interpreted as surrender. It was agreed that the weapons would be donated to the new national police force being established by the peace process, although less than 50 per cent were considered in good condition.
As the end of the mission neared and closing ceremonies were carried out, much praise was given for the UNMOs’ impartiality, credibility, effectiveness and professionalism, although the contribution seemed more about ending the war and less about the resolution of the conflict.
In 1999, a United Nations truth commission found Guatemalan security forces responsible for more than 90 per cent of the human rights violations committed during the country’s 36-year civil war. Then U.S. President Bill Clinton travelled to Guatemala to apologize — an admission that the Guatemalan military had not acted alone. American support for Guatemalan security forces that had engaged in “violent and widespread repression,” the U.S. president said, “was wrong.” Although it has managed to avoid a fall back to full-scale civil war, Guatemala today isn’t much closer to achieving a true democratic and egalitarian society. There is still rampant corruption in the government and the momentum to fully implement the peace accords has waned. Criminal organizations have a strong hold on the country and the government has not been able to contain the violence.
Without strong leadership and adequate resources to keep moving the initiative forward, poverty, lack of education, social disparity, lack of infrastructure and administrative problems will prove to be insurmountable in the quest for peace.