The Los Angeles Times
Friday, October 4, 2002, p. 3
Colonel Guilty in Murder of Anthropologist:
Convicted of ordering the 1990 political killing
By T. Christian Miller, Times Staff Writer
Bogotá, Colombia — One Guatemalan military officer was
convicted and two others were cleared Thursday of ordering the
murder of an anthropologist more than a decade ago, the first
time a high-ranking officer has been found guilty of a political
crime committed during the country's brutal civil war.
Col. Juan Valencia Osorio, a retired Guatemalan military
officer who was a member of an elite presidential guard unit
frequently accused of human rights violations, was found
guilty by a panel of judges of ordering the assassination of
Myrna Mack outside her Guatemala City office Sept. 11, 1990.
He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Gen. Edgar Augusto Godoy, who directed the infamous unit,
and Col. Juan Guillermo Oliva, also a member, were found not
guilty in the murder. Both men are retired. At the time of
her murder, Mack, 39, had just published a study on the
millions of Guatemalans, mostly Maya Indians, who fled
military repression during the nation's civil war, which
ended in 1996 after 36 years.
The case was a small step forward for justice in Latin
America, and it was also vindication for Mack's sister,
Helen, who spent 12 years pursuing her sibling's killers.
An army sergeant was found guilty in 1993 of stabbing Mack
to death, but Thursday's decision revealed the depth of the
military's involvement in the killing.
The country's history was a dominant theme during the trial,
which riveted a nation still trying to come to grips with
its violent past.
"I believe this is a victory for Guatemala," Helen Mack
said. "For the first time, we are talking about our recent
past in a court of law. And while Guatemalans don't talk
about our recent history, Guatemala is not going to move on,
we are not going to be able to enter into a reconciliation
But Valencia's lawyer said the focus on the past was
precisely the problem.
The lawyer blamed the verdict on intense pressure from human
rights groups, and promised to appeal.
"This was a totally unjust decision," lawyer Sergio Castro
said. "The problem is that Guatemalans continue confronting
each other. They don't want to leave behind the problems the
war left us."
Human rights groups hailed the decision as a small but
significant advance in improving the administration of
justice in Guatemala. "The fact that a verdict was reached
in the case does represent a first step in the pursuit of
justice and accountability in Guatemala," said Adriana
Beltran, the Guatemala specialist for the Washington Office
on Latin America, a left-leaning advocacy group. "But we
can't forget that the numerous legal obstacles and the
numerous attempts to threaten those involved in the case
illustrate the continuing weakness of Guatemala's justice
Mack's case became a symbol of the impunity surrounding
Guatemala's civil war, in which, a United Nations report
says, the country's military mounted a campaign that left
200,000 people dead or missing, most of them poor Mayas.
The 1996 peace agreement allowed accused military figures to
win amnesty. The failure of democratic reforms and the
country's continued poverty and corruption also have
contributed to an ongoing legacy of thwarted justice.
Indeed, Mack's killers would have gone unpunished if not for
the extraordinary efforts of her sister, who formed a human
rights group to investigate the murder. Helen Mack
reportedly spent $3 million, some of it donated, to pursue
Helen Mack faced enormous odds. Investigators and witnesses
were killed. She and her workers were threatened with death.
An enormously complicated legal system produced continuous
setbacks and delays.
Most challenging, Helen Mack had to crack the secretive
ranks of the country's military, which repeatedly blocked
the release of documents and information. The elite guard
unit to which Myrna Mack's killers belonged was supposed to
be disbanded after the peace accords, but it still exists.
"This verdict lifts a small corner of the mantle of impunity
that has for far too long characterized this and most other
human rights violations in Guatemala," Michael McClintock,
director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, said in
Myrna Mack was one of the first academics to document the
effects of the military's scorched-earth policies against
the civilian population. She had just published the first of
a two-volume study when she was killed.
A year after her murder, American immigration officials
arrested former army Sgt. Noel de Jesus Beteta in Long
Beach, where he was working after entering the U.S.
illegally shortly after Mack's murder.
Times special correspondent Alex Renderos in San Salvador contributed to this report.