The Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA (GHRC) was founded amidst the turmoil and fear of Guatemala’s civil war in 1982. Alice Zachmann, SSND, first traveled to Guatemala in 1975, and again in 1979, where she was not only struck by the beauty of the country but also the levels of poverty and discrimination among its peoples. Compelled to help, Alice resigned from her parish ministry in Saint Paul, Minnesota and united with former Guatemala missionaries and Guatemalan refugees to begin their work.
GHRC was founded to monitor, document, and report on the human rights situation in Guatemala; to educate the United States public and government about the human rights situation in Guatemala; to advocate in Washington, D.C. for better United States policy decisions regarding Guatemala; and to support and advocate for the victims of the repression. On September 20, 1982, GHRC received 501(c)3 status as a fully functioning non-profit organization. From the very beginning, Alice determined that non-violence would be a guiding principle and that no political ideology could interfere with the work of GHRC in an effort to make it a credible human rights organization.
The years 1982-1985 were the most critical. Massacres and death squads, disappearances and fear—human rights violations were drastically increasing as GHRC received reports via fax and phone. Despite attempts to influence Congress there was little interest in the US as some remarked that the reports were too horrendous to believe.
With miraculous donations and support, GHRC expanded its board of directors and added on a part-time fundraiser. Together they began producing Urgent Actions. This same year, GHRC received a significant grant to continue its advocacy and created the “Voiceless Speak” program that provides assistance for Guatemalans within the United States who are working toward peace and respect for human rights in Guatemala.
Speaking tours and delegations to Guatemala began in the late-1980s and time was spent campaigning for the release of Carmen Valenzuela, who was abducted in Guatemala for her human rights work, as well as pressure investigations for others like Sister Dianna Ortiz, Myrna Mack, Meredith Larson of Peace Brigades, and many others. In 1989, publication began of the bi-weekly Guatemala Human Rights UPDATE, which is still produced today.
Alice’s mantra, “Be not afraid,” echoed in her head as GHRC added staff and expanded its projects to reflect the needs of the Guatemalan people. In the early 1990s, GHRC sponsored a conference on the use of torture in Guatemala followed by an advertisement campaign to protest the continuing human rights violations. The Commission also supported the efforts of Jennifer Harbury whose husband, a guerrilla commander, had been captured in Guatemala in 1992 in violation of the Geneva Conventions regarding prisoners of war. Through hunger strikes and persistence, Jennifer gained more support and attention, formed Coalition Missing as a GHRC project, and joined together with other organizations to push Congress and the State Department to declassify documents pertaining to Guatemala after 1954 and finally won widespread interest when 60 Minutes covered her story. The publicity of Jennifer's case led to the revelation that CIA assets had tortured
and murdered her husband, blowing the lid off a covert CIA program that
funnelled millions of dollars a year to the worst elements of the Guatemalan military, circumventing a congressional ban on military aid begun in 1990. Jennifer's case exposed the program and led to it being shut down.
With increased involvement in controversial cases, GHRC began to receive messages accusing the staff of being “Communist bastards,” but stayed the course of monitoring the situations in Guatemala and bringing awareness to the American people and government. In 1995, the GHRC office was broken into after a member of Coalition Missing had been threatened. Violence against Jennifer and her lawyer escalated in 1996. A five-week vigil by torture victim Sister Dianna Ortiz was successful in declassifying 5,000 documents related to human rights violations in Guatemala, however most was of little substance.
That same year, the Peace Accords were signed with great relief to GHRC and other organizations. However, the battles now shifted to keeping Guatemala in the forefront and the efforts for implementation continue today.
The Puentes de Paz project began in 1998 to support the needs of a women’s group in Guatemala by providing psychologist to help with issues of mental health. The project Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition, also known as TASSC, was founded by survivors of torture in Guatemala and became a new program at the GHRC until earning its own non-profit organization status in 2002. Puentes de Paz also earned its own non-profit status in Guatemala.
Also in 1998, Bishop Juan Gerardi was assassinated due to his extensive work on the Recuperation of Historical Memory Report (REHMI), which attributed 87% of the human rights violations during the war to the Guatemalan military. His legacy is remembered at GHRC where the organization commemorates the yearly anniversary of his death.
Post-Peace Accords, the Commission has focused on monitoring and reporting on the situation in Guatemala. To the dismay of all members of the international community that have worked so hard to stress human rights in Guatemala, the situation began to deteriorate. Disappearances and death squads resumed their dominance in society and the rates of violence and human rights abuse is growing to pre-1996 levels.
GHRC participated in a series of four delegations in 2003 and 2004 to monitor, prepare for, and observe the 2003 elections. It has continued to keep heads turned toward Guatemala with the bi-weekly UPDATE, speaking tours, a film series, and a campaign to end violence against women in Guatemala as well as end impunity for the perpetrators of the violence over the last few years. GHRC also led delegations focusing on violence against women in Guatemala in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2009.
GHRC has also worked with other organizations to present Congressional resolutions regarding the escalation of violence against women in Guatemala. On May 1, 2007, House Resolution 100, sponsored by Representative Hilda Solis, was approved addressing the now over 3,000 killings of women in Guatemala since 2000. Senate Resolution 178 urges the United States to condemn the killings of women and is currently awaiting discussion.
GHRC’s current programs include the Human Rights Defenders program, For Women’s Right to Live campaign, the Voiceless Speak Fund, and Immigration and Trade program, which links US economic policy to poverty and migration in Guatemala and advocates for immigrant rights in the US. GHRC also provides assistance to Guatemalans seeking asylum in the United States. Furthermore, GHRC produces a quarterly publication, El Quetzal, and other reports on the human rights situation in Guatemala. GHRC’s full-time staff members are Director Kelsey Alford-Jones and Human Rights Defender Program Coordinator Rob Mercatante.