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Committee on Human Rights
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
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Guilty Verdict Announced in Mack Trial
October 4, 2002

The CHR has worked for many years on human rights cases in Guatemala. One major focus of our efforts has been on the case of Myrna Elizabeth Mack Chang, an anthropologist who--after receiving numerous threats because of her research on indigenous populations displaced or destroyed as a result of the country's 36-year armed conflict--was murdered outside her office in Guatemala City on September 11, 1990. In 1992 the committee sent a mission to Guatemala and subsequently issued two reports--Scientists and Human Rights in Guatemala (1992) and The Myrna Mack Case: An Update (1998).

Despite continual requests by human rights groups, it was not until September 3, 2002, that the trial of three former high-level military officers accused of ordering a low-level sergeant, Noél de Jesús Beteta Alvarez, to kill Myrna Mack began. Yesterday evening one of the officers, Colonel Juan Valencia Osorio, was convicted and sentenced to 30 years' imprisonment by a three-judge panel. The other two officers were acquitted on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence that they had been directly involved in ordering the murder. The conviction of Colonel Osorio is an unprecedented event in Guatemala, as it marks the first time that a member of the military leadership has been held responsible for a crime committed during the country's armed conflict.

Two CHR members traveled to Guatemala from September 8-14, 2002, to attend the second week of the Mack trial and to visit scientific colleagues there who have received threats recently for their efforts in pushing the Mack case forward. In April 2003, the CHR issued a report on the mission, entitled Guatemala: Human Rights and the Myrna Mack Case. Copies of the report are available from the National Academy Press.

The conviction yesterday of Colonel Valencia and the previous conviction, in 1993, of Nóel Beteta for killing Myrna Mack were achieved after 12 years of what can only be called heroic efforts by Myrna Mack's sister, Helen, who is well known to the CHR and has been instrumental in the case. She has devoted the last dozen years of her life to overcoming the numerous hurtles involved in moving the case through the Guatemalan courts. In retaliation for her efforts, Helen Mack and her family, as well as staff members of the Association for the Advancement of the Social Sciences (AVANCSO, a social science research institute founded by Myrna Mack) and others involved in urging justice in the case, have suffered harassment for years, including numerous death threats believed to come from the military. The homicide detective who initially investigated the case and wrote a report implicating members of the military was murdered. Most of the judges and prosecution lawyers involved with the case, as well as the witnesses, received death threats. Many of the judges withdrew from the case, and all of the witnesses fled the country in fear for their lives. Additionally, over the past two years, there has been a notable increase in threats against human rights defenders in Guatemala, coinciding with advances in the courts of several lawsuits that have been brought against current and former Guatemalan military officers.

The CHR is, of course, gratified by the successful outcome of the trial. However, we remain greatly concerned about the safety of Helen Mack, our scientific colleagues at AVANCSO, and others involved in bringing this case to justice. We plan to stay in close contact with them and to help them in any way that we can.