What does a fair trial look like in a country with no justice? Guatemala found out on October 3, when three judges concluded a month of hearings by finding Col. Juan Valencia Osorio guilty of planning and ordering the 1990 assassination of anthropologist Myrna Mack Chang. The verdict set a precedent: A senior Guatemalan military officer was convicted as the intellectual author of a human rights crime. And–another first–declassified US government records were used as legal evidence against Washington’s former allies.
Myrna Mack documented the fate of indigenous communities on the run from the army’s brutal counterinsurgency operations. Her work infuriated government and military officials. On September 11, 1990, army intelligence specialist Noel de Jesús Beteta stabbed her twenty-seven times as she left her office in downtown Guatemala City. She was left to die on the sidewalk.
Twelve years later, the trial of the men accused of planning the killing took place in a crowded courtroom in the capital, just blocks from the street where Myrna was murdered. Hundreds of spectators filled the folding chairs. Military families sat elbow to elbow with the country’s leading human rights activists–including Myrna’s sister, Helen Mack. Helen’s success in winning a conviction against Beteta in 1993 and her subsequent fight to bring his superiors to justice has made her a national champion.
Opposite Helen and her legal team sat the defendants–Gen. Edgar Godoy Gaitán, chief of the presidential staff in 1990; Valencia Osorio, head of Godoy’s clandestine intelligence unit, the Archivo; and Col. Juan Oliva Carrera, Valencia’s second-in-command and Beteta’s immediate superior. Six lawyers representing the officers jostled one another at a rickety table covered with papers, cell phones and laptops.
Simply to be in the courtroom was to make history. From the day Myrna was killed, Helen Mack and her allies have been relentlessly pressured by surveillance, harassment, death threats, physical attacks and murder. In 1991 the government’s chief homicide investigator was assassinated in Guatemala City. Key witnesses were silenced or forced to seek refuge outside the country. Judge Henry Monroy, who in 1999 ordered the trial to proceed against the three officers, resigned from the judiciary and fled Guatemala because of threats on his life. Even as the trial was under way, Mack’s lead lawyer, Roberto Romero, sent his wife and three children out of the country after a series of frightening incidents, including a drive-by shooting at their house.
Government stonewalling and a dysfunctional justice system also jeopardized the case. The defendants delayed the trial for years with dozens of frivolous appeals. The government refused to provide Mack’s lawyers with records necessary for their investigation, including basic information on the structure of the armed forces and biographical data on the three officers.