Activist feels passionately about struggles in Guatemala
By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
ST. JOSEPH - Guatemala: a country still reeling from a 36-year civil war, a country of violence and fear, of faith in God and simple beauty; a country St. Joseph activist Margaret D'Huyvetter fell in love with over 20 years ago.
Marty Denzer/Key photo
St. Joseph activist Margaret D'Huyvetter.
She first visited the country in 1979 with her husband, Albert. "That's when my infatuation with Guatemala began," she said.
The former Maryknoll sister and retired pharmacist, now a widow, activist for peace and justice causes and member of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, kept in contact with missionary friends in Guatemala through the next 10 years, and stayed "aware of the escalating violence, guerilla warfare, fear and hate cultivated by the military," she said.
During the late 1980s, Guatemalan anthropologist Myrna Mack Chang reported on the military's "scorched earth" campaign of massive displacement and destruction of rural indigenous communities throughout the country. Mack was one of the first Guatemalans to identify the displaced communities and the military's genocidal treatment of these populations.
D'Huyvetter said the scorched earth campaign resulted in "1 million internal refugees in a country about the size of Missouri, and almost 200,000 dead or disappeared."
According to D'Huyvetter, the military assumed that the communities in hiding supported the guerillas. She said the law of the land was impunity, the military's ability to act outside the law without fear of reprisal. People were afraid to speak out about the human rights abuses, because "the perpetrators were still in the neighborhood," she said.
Then, on Sept. 11, 1990, Myrna Mack was stabbed 27 times on a busy street in Guatemala City. In 1993, a low-level noncommissioned officer, Noel de Jesus Beteta, was convicted and sentenced to 25 years for the murder. Testimony at his trial revealed that in the days before the murder, numerous individuals were seen keeping Mack under surveillance. This suggested that Beteta was part of an organized assassination team.
Charging that the verdict did not zero in on the "intellectual authors" of the crime, Helen Mack, Myrna's sister and president of the Myrna Mack Foundation, pursued a private prosecution to bring to trial the former heads of the EMP, an acronym for the Presidential General Staff. The trial, part of an effort to end military impunity in Guatemala, began Sept. 3. The military personnel on trial were Retired General Edgar Augusto Godoy Gaitan (former EMP chief), Colonel Guillermo Oliva Carrera (EMP deputy security chief) and Colonel Juan Valencia Osorio (EMP security chief).
Former Guatemalan president Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo (1986-91) claimed no knowledge of EMP involvement in anything illegal. According to him, their function was to protect the president and his family.
Global Exchange, a nonprofit human rights advocacy organization, sent out appeals for international observers to witness the trial. According to an e-mail D'Huyvetter received, the request was in reaction to "Guatemala's long history of army rights abuses and impunity for military perpetrators," which led to concern by human rights organizations about potential intimidation and harassment of those involved in the court case.
D'Huyvetter visited Guatemala many times as a tourist, a delegate of the Ecumenical Program on Central America and the Carribean, and as a student at a Spanish language school. She had also been an international observer at last year's Bishop Juan Gerardi murder trial.
She didn't reach the decision to attend the trial overnight. She said she was soberly aware of the seriousness of the situation, but was not afraid or worried. She intended her presence at the trial to represent solidarity with Guatemala and with Helen Mack, and Myrna Mack Chang's daughter, Lucretia.
D'Huyvetter also represented the Peace and Justice office of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and the Catholics for Justice Association at the trial, who sent a statement of support to Helen Mack through D'Huyvetter.
Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish is exploring a Guatemalan sister parish relationship, and D'Huyvetter considered her presence at the trial part of the process. "I want to offer whatever I can to the process and rely on the Spirit to lead us where we are to go. I feel my passion for Guatemala is a gift given me to be shared," she said.
International observers from the United States and Canada sat in on the trial, which was run by a team of three judges with no jury, based on a Napoleonic-style court system, she said. Of the three judges, two were women: Morelia Rios (the presiding judge) and Jasmin Barrios. Carlos Chinn served as the third judge on the team. D'Huyvetter sat in the "sober, grave courtroom" watching and listening as the judges read the written depositions of the accused, and decided to begin the trial at once.
During her week at the Supreme Court, D'Huyvetter observed the all-male defense team butt heads with the prosecution, made up of two men and two women. She said she was proud to be a woman as she watched the female judges and attorneys "do their jobs valiantly and bravely, despite reported death threats and harassment."
Judge Rios, several of the prosecuting attorneys and Helen Mack all reported threats to themselves or their families.
The international observers were not threatened, although D'Huyvetter said there were protestors outside the Supreme Court carrying signs and banners. One banner proclaimed, "Derechos humanos para los militares tambien," (human rights for the military), while another said, "La ley sin justicia no es ley," (the law without justice is not law). The protestors may have been encouraged by the military, D'Huyvetter said, because the army officers had families also, families who believed in their innocence.
Some of the testimony she heard discomfited D'Huyvetter. Kate Doyle, an expert witness from the National Security Archives, a non-governmental organization disseminating information from declassified documents under the Freedom of Information Act, testified about documents relating to U.S.-Guatemalan issues. D'Huyvetter said Doyle went to great lengths to emphasize a deep, long-term relationship between Guatemala and the U.S. in terms of business and military armaments. Her evidence pointed to open military aid given to Guatemalan counter-insurgency corps, and the economic influence of companies such as United Fruit.
Doyle's testimony stated that in the early 1990s, after the violence of the 1980s came to light, the U.S. urged military self-reform in Guatemala, D'Huyvetter said. She said she was "painfully aware of being a U.S. citizen and North American when the U.S. role in the truths about military impunity and genocide in Guatemala" were brought out.
"It is not that there wouldn't have been evil without our involvement, it still would have been bad," she said. "It was the U.S. complicity that bothered me."
D'Huyvetter returned to St. Joseph after one week, while the trial continued for three more weeks. She said she came away with a feeling of life and hope. "There was a sense of resurrection, of life beyond death, of life stronger than death."
She said she hoped this trial would help nudge Guatemalans toward reconciliation within their country. "There is a precarious opening for democracy," she said. "Forces are still at work in the background - whether military or not, they're still malevolent."
She followed the trial on the Internet. The verdict was announced late Oct. 4. Colonel Valencia, former EMP chief, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for orchestrating the murder of Myrna Mack. General Godoy and Colonel Oliva were acquitted.
Back home, D'Huyvetter is involved in the development of a Guatemalan sister parish relationship for Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, doing fund-raising for human rights programs and staying attuned to the on-going struggles in Guatemala. In November, she plans to speak at the St. Charles Guatemala Task Force pre-Thanksgiving benefit dinner.
D'Huyvetter said, "The reality is that we are all interdependent. The people on trial and the victims are all part of a system that went awry."