Like water on stone : the story of Amnesty International /
Jonathan Power.
Boston, Mass. : Northeastern University Press, c2001.
xvii, 331 p. : ill. ; 24 cm.
1555534872 (cloth)
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added author
Boston, Mass. : Northeastern University Press, c2001.
1555534872 (cloth)
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Includes index.
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A Look Inside
About the Author
Author Affiliation
Jonathan Power was a foreign affairs columnist for the International Herald Tribune for seventeen years. He is also a regular contributor to the New York Times, Washington Post, Encounter, and Prospect. He is the author of A Vision of Hope: The Fiftieth Anniversary of the United Nations, and his documentary film, "It's Ours Whatever They Say," won the silver medal at the Venice Film Festival. He lives in England
First Chapter

Chapter One

Guatemala -- `Only Political Killings'

In Guatemala there has been no paramount leader in the struggle for human rights and democracy to single out. Indeed, there is no defining moment when one could say that things started to get better after a particular event. Guatemala is simply one of the contemporary world's worst horror stories that gradually, often enough imperceptibly, got better. Amnesty was in at the struggle from the beginning. Some of its exposés gained world attention, but none profoundly changed the situation for the better. Again, improvement came by the dripping of water on hard stone, incrementally, painfully slowly, but, over time, clearly ameliorating an appalling state of affairs, where not that long ago assassinations and disappearances were as common and as prevalent as cars and motorbikes on the capital's overcrowded streets.

    Guatemala is part of the isthmus that links the great continents of North and South America. In the 1970s and early 1980s it was, along with El Salvador and Nicaragua, the part of the world where human rights were most violated. Proportionally to its population, more people were tortured and killed for their beliefs than anywhere else on the globe. For centuries, since the Spanish moved their initial interest in Central America to the vast continent to the south, these countries have been a backwater. (Costa Rica and Panama, also Central American countries, have different histories, the latter because of US occupation of the Canal Zone and the former because of its lack of feudal history and its distinct, liberal political culture.) They have all been feudal, reactionary states par excellence , long used to the writ of the local strong man. In the 1970s they became the focus of superpower interest. In each of these countries anti-establishment guerrilla groups were formed with discreet support from communist Cuba -- but also from Venezuela, Panama, Costa Rica, Mexico, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia and, it was said, without any evidence, from Moscow. The USA, long the passive supporter of the status quo, became increasingly an active participant, not always on the side of the dictators, but more often than not.

    In 1981 I made my first visit to Guatemala, struck by an interview I'd recently done with Thomas Hammarberg, who was then Amnesty's secretary-general, in which he had singled out Guatemala as Amnesty's no. 1 priority. The organization, I learnt, was just about to publish a report in which it concluded that `the selection of targets for detention and murder, and the deployment of official forces for extra-legal operations can be pinpointed to secret offices in an annexe to Guatemala's National Palace, under the direct control of the President of the Republic.'

    Before I left, Hammarberg cautioned me: `Guatemala is not a typical Amnesty country -- there are no political prisoners, only political killings.' Amnesty's usual practice of dealing with human rights violations -- the adoption of prisoners -- was fruitless in the Guatemalan case, he explained. Most of the time, news of an arrest arrived after the prisoner was dead. When the notification had been immediate and Amnesty had been able to intervene within hours of the arrest, there had been a handful of successes. But, he added, no more than ten or fifteen in the whole of the preceding ten years.

    Surprisingly, to enter Guatemala was not difficult. Passport control was lax and it was easy to disappear into the airport throng with only a tourist visa. There were a few soldiers lazing in the sunshine. Even a visit to the press spokesman for the army, Major Francisco Djalma Domínguez, whose predecessor had been murdered by guerrillas a year before, was made without inspection of papers and with only a pleasant middle-aged secretary to question my purpose. The single soldier on the doorstep was day-dreaming.

    All this was deceptive. Guatemala, I soon found, was a country in the grip of fear. Government critics, with very rare exceptions, would not be seen talking to a foreign reporter inside Guatemala. To do so was to court assassination. Every day the morning newspapers had more of the same: ten or a dozen bodies discovered, another wave of killing. The bodies of the victims were found piled up in ravines, dumped at roadsides or buried in mass graves.

    Since 1944 the Guatemalan ruling class had been living in fear of a left-wing revolution. In that year a military rebellion broke the grip of fourteen years' dictatorial rule by Jorge Ubico. A university don, Juan José Arévalo, was given the job of sorting out the long legacy of misrule, social deprivation and economic inequality. He stepped down in 1951 and in free and fair elections his defence minister, Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, took over the reins of government.

    Guatemala, at that time, was a classic `banana republic'. Arbenz, a determined reformer, decided to end once and for all the United Fruit Company's control of vast estates and its near monopoly of banana production. The first beneficiaries were to be the Indian population. Despite the spectacular cultural heritage of the native Indians -- their direct ancestors, the Mayans, built mammoth temples and houses and pioneered major breakthroughs in astronomy and mathematics -- they were a people who had experienced worsening poverty right through the twentieth century. The Indians made up half of the population and they were becoming increasingly overcrowded on their traditional territory, the mountainside fields. Their infant mortality rate was high, their diet was deteriorating annually, and younger sons were reduced to scraping a living on precipitous slopes that barely held the soil to the mountainside.

    Arbenz issued a decree expropriating parts of large estates -- in the main their uncultivated portions. In doing so, he took on imperial capitalism at its crudest. The United Fruit Company had for decades had its way throughout Central America, much of the Caribbean and parts of South America. By the 1950s United Fruit's investment in Guatemala accounted for almost two-thirds of the country's total foreign capital. It owned 2,500,000 square kilometres of territory and the country's single railway line, and had great influence in many of Guatemala's most important institutions.

    Arbenz's experiments not only threatened United Fruit, they aroused Washington's fears. At the height of the Cold War, the US government was afraid of anything that smacked of communist influence. No matter that Arbenz himself was clearly not a communist and that only four out of fifty-six Guatemalan congressmen were self-confessed communists at that time. The CIA was asked by President Eisenhower to help overthrow Arbenz, using as a cover a group of mercenaries and exiles.

    The deed was done, United Fruit retrieved its estates, Arbenz and his sympathizers were hunted down and killed or went into hurried exile. Arbenz's successors ruled largely by decree. Occasionally there were street demonstrations led by students and trade unionists. But nothing really disturbed the status quo until 1960. Then a small group of nationalist army officers attempted an uprising. It came to nothing in itself. It was the start, however, of a guerrilla campaign which waxed and waned for most of the next forty years.

    By 1966 the guerrillas' strongholds in the mountain ranges of Sierra de Las Minas and Sierra de Santa Cruz seemed a genuine threat to the government, which, with the aid of paramilitary civilian groups, moved ruthlessly to suppress them. Colonel John Webber, the US military attaché, was reported by Time magazine on 26 January 1968 to have acknowledged that it was his `idea' to mobilize these groups, which were the precursors of the `independent' civilian death-squads that still exist today. In June 1966 the first leaflets of the Mano Blanca (White Hand) appeared. (Mano was the acronym for the Movimiento Anti-comunista Nacional Organizado (National Organized Anti-communist Movement).) The guerrilla movement did not re-emerge until the mid-1970s, when a group surfaced calling itself, disarmingly, the Guerrilla Army of the Poor. By 1981 there were another three groups at work in different parts of the country, concentrated in the highlands and mountains of the north -- the People's Armed Organization, the Revolutionary Armed Forces and a breakaway branch of Guatemala's communist trade union.

    Their members were few -- the army told me only two hundred, sympathizers said one or two thousand. But they were multiplying fast and, to the surprise of observers of the Latin American scene, were winning a great deal of support and membership from the Indians. (When Che Guevara was hunted down and killed by the Bolivian army in 1967 it was widely observed by both left and right that he made the mistake of thinking the Latin American Indians and mestizos would be willing supporters of the guerrillas. In fact, they were too apathetic and fearful and he was quickly isolated. It was Guatemala that became the first country in Latin America where significant numbers of Indians were politically active to the point of lending their support in measurable terms to a guerrilla effort to overthrow the government.) However, while the guerrilla movements' activities were sporadic, the right-wing pro-government death squads operated on full throttle.

    Amnesty International from the beginning always maintained that the association of the death-squads with important key government and political figures was close enough to cause serious concern. In its 1981 annual report covering the year 1980, it talked of the `political murder' encouraged by the Guatemalan government. But it stopped short of saying that the killings were directed by the government. Amnesty at that time was still awaiting irrefutable evidence to confirm its suspicions.

    The nuanced approach was discarded on 18 February 1981. In one of the most outspoken reports ever issued by Amnesty, it stated unequivocally: `People who oppose or are imagined to oppose the government are systematically seized without warrant, tortured and murdered. These tortures and murders are part of the deliberate and long-standing programme of the Guatemalan government.' The government, for its part, denied having made a single political arrest or having held a single political prisoner. The `disappearances', senior government officials told me, were brought about by right-wing and left-wing death-squads. That Amnesty report is an accumulation of horrors that pointed a firm finger at the government. My own conversations with exiles in Costa Rica and with the vice-president of Guatemala, who fled the country in late 1980, backed it up.

    Nearly 3,000 Guatemalans were seized without warrant and killed in the years immediately following General Lucas Garcia's accession to the presidency of Guatemala in 1978. (And thousands more subsequently.) Many of them were tortured. Death for some had been quick and clean, a bullet in the head. Others had died slowly and painfully, suffocated in a rubber hood or strangled with a garrotte. One letter received by Amnesty International described a secret grave in a gorge, used by army units who had seized and murdered the leaders of a village earthquake reconstruction committee (Guatemala was rocked by an earthquake in 1976; 20,000 people died):

More than thirty bodies were pulled out of the 120-foot gorge ... but farmers who live near the site told me there were more bodies, many more, but that the authorities didn't want to admit as much or go to the trouble of dragging them out. They said vehicles have been arriving at the edge of the gorge at night, turning out their lights, engaging in some mysterious activities.

    We went down to the bottom of the ravine the next day ... About halfway down the ravine the stench became unbearable. Barely visible in the dim light were piles of bodies. Most were in extremely advanced states of decomposition, but still with remnants of tattered clothing.

The people killed were often, like these villagers, simple peasant folk, but ones who had shown some initiative like running an earthquake reconstruction committee that badgered the government for help, or a co-operative or church leadership training group. Overwhelmingly it was the incipient peasant leadership that had suffered the most. The next sizeable group to have been penalized were students and labour leaders. After that, a whole range of professional people disappeared -- journalists, clergy, doctors and educators and the cream of the Social Democratic and Christian Democratic parties. Anyone who spoke out and complained, much less organized a formal opposition grouping, was the target for assassination.

    How did Amnesty arrive at its conviction that the government were in charge of the killings? A series of violent events, observed and recorded by reliable witnesses, all suggested government involvement. The most widely reported mass killing by regular army forces took place on 29 May 1978. One hundred Indians, including five children, were shot dead in the town square of Panzos. The Indians had been protesting about land rights. They were cold-bloodedly shot down by soldiers positioned on rooftops and inside buildings. Townspeople have told Amnesty that mass graves were dug two days before the killings. In January 1980 a group of Indians occupied the Spanish embassy to protest against this and other abuses carried out by the army in El Quiche province. The government, outraged by the protest, ordered the army to attack the embassy. One peasant, Gregorio Yuja Xona, and the Spanish ambassador were the only survivors. Yuja Xona was held under police guard in a hospital, then, without explanation, the police allowed him to be removed. His body was later found, mutilated.

    There were a number of occasions when prisoners officially acknowledged to be in police custody were later found dead -- for example, thirty-seven killed by garrotte in 1979 and dumped in a ravine. Or the twenty-six labour unionists who, in June 1980, were arrested by plain-clothes men while the street was closed to traffic by uniformed police, and have not been seen since. The government denied holding them.

    There is evidence from one of the very few who have escaped after being picked up. Amnesty International published a taped interview with the former prisoner. He described how he was held in Huehuetenango Military Base and tortured by being pulled up by his testicles and hooded with a rubber inner tube of a tyre lined with quicklime. His testimony was terrifying in its simple directness:

Before my very eyes they killed three people; they strangled them. The way they killed them was with a piece of rope, a kind of noose, which they put around the neck and then used a stick to tighten it like a tourniquet from behind and with their heads held down in the trough. When they came out, their eyes were open; they'd already turned purple. It took at most three minutes in the water. I also saw that one of these three, a boy, when they threw him down on the floor with his clothes wet, was still moving and one of the officers ordered them to put the tourniquet on him again until he stopped moving.

    They just showed me the other six bodies and said the same thing would happen to me if I tried to lie to them.

On other occasions, plain-clothes men have been overpowered and found to possess identification papers associating them with the intelligence services. One such event occurred when Victor Manuel Valverth Morales, student representative on the executive committee of the Universidad de San Carlos, was seized at gunpoint on 10 June 1980 by two men in plain clothes inside the university school of engineering in Guatemala City. His assailants did not identify themselves as law enforcement officers or produce a warrant for his arrest; when he tried to escape they shot him several times. Other students then came to his assistance and overpowered the attackers, one of whom, Adán de Jesús Melgar Solares, was murdered by students when a force of uniformed army troops attacked his student captors inside the university precincts.

    Students took the dead man's identification card, which showed him to be a military intelligence agent from the `General Aguilar Santa Maria' army base in Jutiapa Province. The second man, who was not harmed, carried an identification card issued by the Guardia de Hacienda (Treasury police) for `Servicio Especial' (Special Service), in the name of Baldomero Medoza. The government denied that either of the two men who attacked Víctor Valverth were members of the security services, but the dead man's widow later confirmed his identity to the press.

    I spent four hours in Mexico City with the researcher for Amnesty International, Mike McClintock, cross-examining him on how Amnesty garnered such a wealth of information and established its truth. It was clearly an exhaustive process. External organizations -- church, union and political -- who had live networks inside Guatemala fed him with information all the time. He and other members of the small Amnesty team had to evaluate it carefully, learning over time who could be trusted, who had a propensity to exaggerate and who they could ask to double- and even triple-check. When it came to the crucial indictment -- that these killings were organized from an annexe to the central palace -- Amnesty's method of verification and double-checking indicated to me, an outside investigator, the difficulties and complexities that confront Amnesty.

    Amnesty research on the matter required a visit to Washington in 1979 to look at the records and files of US government agencies. With access granted under the Freedom of Information Act, they enabled Mr McClintock to pinpoint key developments in the Guatemalan security apparatus. A 1974 document described the Centro Regional de Telecomunicaciones at Guatemala's principal presidential-level security agency working with a `high-level security/administrative network linking the principal officials of the National Police, Treasury Police, Detective Corps, the Presidential House and the Military Communications Centre'. This organization had built up a sophisticated filing system, listing anyone who might be a potential leader of anti-government movements or a critic of the government. Amnesty also knew from reliable sources that the agency was directed by the joint head of the presidential general staff and military intelligence, Major Hecht Montalván. How could Amnesty confirm, however, that the organization was something more than a records agency? The research team answered by pointing to the lines of command under Major Montalván, which led directly to some of the killings described above, the capture by dissidents of papers on agents they had overpowered, and denunciations from people who were well known and trusted and who had friends and relatives who worked in the presidential palace.

    Montalván's headquarters were situated in the presidential guard annexe to the National Palace, adjoining the presidential house. I walked around it. Next door, innocently sandwiched into the same block, is the office of the Obras Pontificias Misionales (Roman Catholic missionaries). For a moment I assumed I was at the wrong building, but only yards further on a soldier peered over a balcony and caught my eye; and to his right a television camera monitored the street. On top of the roof were three large telecommunications masts and around the side of the building was the main entrance. In this side street, which on the other side had the door to the president's house, heavily armed soldiers stared at passers-by. Cars with foreign plates or without licence plates at all were parked alongside.

    A slip of the tongue in a later conversation confirmed that this was indeed the centre of intelligence operations. I was interviewing the head of press information of the army, Major Domíguez. In an aside, he told me he knew that a distinguished Social Democrat politician had been bumped off by a rival. I asked him how he knew. `You see, I used to be military intelligence. But don't tell anyone or the guerrillas will kill me.' Casually as I could, I said, `Oh yes, you had your office in the presidential annexe.' Surprised, he nodded: `Yes, but remember, don't tell anyone what I've told you.'

    My loyalty to secrecy in such a situation is, I regret, non-existent. The only task left to do was to confirm the Amnesty investigators' conviction that the intelligence operation did do the killings. Since in Guatemala it is impossible to talk to anyone about politics frankly, I flew to Costa Rica and met some of the Guatemalan exiles who live there. In the relaxed atmosphere of this green and pleasant land -- Costa Rica has been democratic for all but a year since it gained its independence from Spain in 1821 -- it was possible to talk to people who underlined Amnesty's findings. Frustratingly, they were still secondary sources. They insisted that they knew soldiers or officials who had links with the intelligence agency. But only one person I met said he had sources right within the heart of the operation centre.


Excerpted from Like Water on Stone by JONATHAN POWER. Copyright © 2001 by Jonathan Power. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2001-07-30:
In 1961, a news report about human rights violations in Portugal motivated a British lawyer named Peter Benenson to set up a group to push for the release of prisoners locked up solely for exercising their freedom of speech on political matters. Forty years later, as British journalist Power puts it in this sympathetic account, Amnesty International "has been the catalyst that has transformed, invigorated and even transfigured the debate" over human rights. A chapter in the middle of the book relates the history of Amnesty, but Power focuses more on specific countries Nigeria (where a former prisoner "adopted" by Amnesty is now the country's president), Guatemala, Northern Ireland, Chile, China and the U.S. (Amnesty opposes capital punishment). Power, an internationally syndicated columnist (and editor of A Vision of Hope: The Fiftieth Anniversary of the United Nations) strongly supports the increased attention that groups like Amnesty have brought to human rights, and he devotes a good deal of discussion to the group's "success stories" from released "prisoners of conscience" to an overall improvement in the human rights climate in countries like Morocco. To his credit, Power is willing to offer some criticisms of the group where its efforts have gone awry as in Germany, where the local branch became too close with the violent Baader-Meinhof gang in the 1970s but, even here, he includes some positive comments about Amnesty's activities. The organization "was right to intervene and insist on a decent prison regime" for members of the radical group. Some may wish that Power had more distance from his subject, but this book is a valuable addition to a growing library on the recent advances in human rights. (Sept. 5) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Appeared in Choice on 2002-04-01:
Power, a former journalist for the The International Herald Tribune, has written a highly personalized account of Amnesty International (AI). A novice can learn much from this account about the basic workings of the London-based human rights advocacy group founded in 1961. One can learn the basics of its mandate, and how it evolved from a focus on persons detained because of their beliefs (and who had not used violence) to include a much broader range of concerns touching on such things as detention because of gender orientation, the death penalty, and atrocities in armed conflict. Acknowledging the difficulty of precise analysis in this domain, the author reviews some clear successes by AI in getting some of its "adopted prisoners" released. The book presents a strange organization, starting with a long focus on Nigeria that seems to reflect the author's contacts rather than the intrinsic importance of that country or of AI's efforts there. An overview of AI is not presented until the fourth chapter. Separate chapters treat four of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council--Russia is excluded. Though highly readable, Power's book is not as scholarly or systematic as Ann Marie Clark, Diplomacy of Conscience (2001). Recommended for general readers and undergraduates. D. P. Forsythe University of Nebraska
This item was reviewed in:
Publishers Weekly, July 2001
Kirkus Reviews, August 2001
Booklist, October 2001
Reference & Research Book News, November 2001
Choice, April 2002
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Main Description
When British attorney Peter Beneson founded Amnesty International in 1961 to campaign for the release of political prisoners, his idea of bombarding offending governments with letters, postcards, and telegrams was sharply criticized as "one of the larger lunacies of our time." Forty years later, with more than one million members and supporters in over 160 countries and territories, London-based Amnesty has impacted individual lives and played a significant role in shaping public policy, if not always practice, of governments around the globe. Amnesty's extraordinary strategies to reduce human rights abuses are critically examined in this objective look at the successes and failures of the organization over the last four decades. In Like Water on Stone, author Jonathan Power recognizes Amnesty's considerable achievements-the difficult struggles in Guatemala to help those facing death squads, discusses the case in the Central African Republic where Amnesty's masterful detective work exposed the massacre of defenseless children, and investigates attempts to bring former Chilean strongman Augustine Pinochet to justice. But Power does not shy away from raising the difficult questions about Amnesty's strategies. Do Amnesty's campaigns lead repressive governments to murder rather than jail political prisoners? Is the organization's research and reports always accurate? Was Amnesty right to label British methods of interrogation in Northern Ireland as "torture?" Was Amnesty right to lobby for better prison conditions for the notorious Baader-Meinhoff gang in Germany? Like Water on Stone also explores Amnesty's efforts in China, Morocco, Sri Lanka, and Colombia. A sobering review of Amnesty's work in the United States considers the hypocrisies of a nation that champions human rights abroad but tolerates police brutality, racial profiling, and capital punishment within its own borders. One of Amnesty's best known adopted political prisoners, Olusegun Obasanjo, now the democratically elected president of Nigeria and a personal friend of author Power, once described Amnesty International as operating "like water on stone." According to Jonathan Power, the world is indeed a better place because of the organization's slow yet steady strides in the fight for human rights.
Table of Contents
Acknowledgementsp. ix
Introductionp. xi
Prologue: The Wheel Turns in Nigeriap. 1
Guatemala--'Only Political Killings'p. 45
Bokassa, the Dead Children and the Lessons Unlearntp. 77
The Pinochet Casep. 95
Amnesty's Forty Yearsp. 119
Northern Ireland--Britain's Dirty Warp. 165
Amnesty's Black Mark--the Baader-Meinhof Gangp. 182
Amnesty's Success Storiesp. 191
China--from Better to Worse?p. 224
The USA--Land of the Free?p. 252
Conclusion--the World is a Better Placep. 281
Indexp. 315
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