By GLENN GARVIN and EDWARD HEGSTROM
Herald Staff Writers
GUATEMALA CITY -- In a potentially explosive disclosure of declassified
information, the U.S. State Department said Monday that American officials knew
of evidence implicating a Guatemalan military officer in the 1990 murder of a
prominent political activist here.
The officer, Col. Juan Valencia, is on trial for the murder, with a hearing
Wednesday on whether there is enough evidence to go forward with the case.
Valencia and two other military men are accused of involvement in the murder of
Guatemalan anthropologist Myrna Mack, whose stabbing was one of the most
infamous of the political assassinations that occurred with chilling regularity during
this country's three-decade civil war.
The State Department, in releasing a summary of information culled from
diplomatic cables and CIA reports, all but admitted it was hoping the information
would influence the outcome of the trial.
The summary was issued ``to provide the Mack family lawyers and the
Guatemalan government with an official U.S. government statement concerning the
murder of Ms. Mack, which they might use in pending legal proceedings there.''
The Mack family attorneys have been intimately involved in the murder trial's
The review of the classified cables and reports was completed in 1996.
spokesman for the U.S. Embassy here had no comment when asked why its
public release was delayed until two days before the key hearing.
Valencia's attorney, Fernando Gutierrez, was clearly stunned by the news
disclosure. ``Why is the United States government getting involved in this case?''
he asked. ``The United States should solve its own problems, and leave
Guatemalans to solve their own.''
Family attorneys elated
Mack family attorneys, on the other hand, were elated. ``This could help
William Ramirez said. ``It could convince the judge that there is a case.''
Valencia, Col. Juan Guillermo Oliva and retired Gen. Edgar Augusto Godoy
charged with being the ``intellectual authors'' of the murder of Mack. Another
soldier, Sgt. Noel de Jesus Beteta, was convicted in 1993 of actually carrying out
the murder. He is serving a 25-year prison sentence.
The State Department summary released Monday said the U.S. government had
``reports'' of secret tapes of conversations in which Beteta said the murder was
ordered by Valencia.
But Valencia's attorney said the tapes -- made by a well-known gadfly of
Guatemalan legal system named Jorge Lemus Alvarado -- had already been
discredited. Prosecutors tried to get them admitted as evidence in pretrial motions,
Gutierrez said, but they were rejected when Lemus Alvarado refused to submit to
an interview to establish their authenticity.
``The real question is why the U.S. government is bringing this up now,''
Valencia was not the only officer implicated in the State Department summary.
also said U.S. officials had reports that two other officers, Brig. Gen. Francisco
Ortega Menaldo and Lt. Gilardo Neftali Monterrosas Escobar, ``may have been
Ortega Menaldo, at the time of the murder, was chief of intelligence for
Guatemalan army's general staff, and Monterrosas Escobar was one of his
subordinates. Neither man was available for comment Monday.
U.S. not satisfied
The U.S. government has often said it was not satisfied that Mack's murder
the act of a single soldier acting on his own authority, but Monday's release of
declassified intelligence was its most direct involvement in the case.
Mack, an anthropologist involved in unearthing clandestine mass graves
by the Guatemalan army during an early-1980s rampage against peasants
suspected of supporting Marxist guerrillas, was hacked to death outside her office
in September 1990.
The Guatemalan government at first insisted that she was the victim of
black-market currency transaction gone awry. But persistent pressure by
human-rights groups forced the investigation to continue, and three years later
Beteta was convicted -- one of the very few times in recent history that the judicial
system has successfully acted against a military man.
Even so, the trial took two years to complete and was riddled with violence
controversy. Death threats and other acts of intimidation were so routine that the
case was passed around between 12 different judges.
Beteta's conviction, however, did not end the investigation. Prosecutors
human rights activists believe the murder was ordered from the very top of the
military, from within an elite unit known as the Presidential Guard.
Copyright © 1999 The Miami Herald