Helen Mack Chang

(1992, Guatemala)

...for her personal courage and persistence in seeking justice and an end to the impunity of political murderers.

About

Born in 1952, Helen Mack Chang is a business administrator who has dedicated a large portion of her life to socially-oriented, non-profit educational and housing projects in Guatemala.

Contact Details

Fundación Myrna Mack
6A Calle 1-36, Zona 10
Edificio Valsari, Of. 504 5to nivel.
C.P. 01010
Guatemala City
GUATEMALA

Website

Biography

Born in 1952, Helen Mack Chang is a business administrator who has dedicated a large portion of her life to socially-oriented, non-profit educational and housing projects in Guatemala. Her life suddenly changed in September 1990 when her sister, Myrna Mack, a social anthropologist who studied the problems of people displaced by the internal armed conflict in the country, was brutally assassinated by a military commando.

Certain that her sister's death was a political crime, Helen Mack insisted on investigating and seeking to bring to justice those responsible, even though impunity for this type of crime was - and continues to be - the norm in Guatemala. The case went before 12 different judges, many of whom were threatened or corrupted, but after overcoming numerous obstacles the soldier convicted of direct responsibility for the murder was sentenced to 30 years in prison. During the trial, the police investigator who provided the main evidence for the prosecution was himself assassinated.

The judicial process led to much harassment, persecution and many death threats for Helen Mack. Despite this she has persevered in seeking to bring to justice those who gave the orders for her sister's assassination. Three high-ranking military officers - a General and two Colonels, were indicted and were put on trial in September 2002.

On October 3, 2002, a three-judge panel convicted and sentenced one of the officers - Colonel Juan Valencia Osorio - to 30 years in prison and acquitted the other two - General Edgar Augusto Godoy Gaitán (Col. Valencia’s superior officer) and Colonel Juan Guillermo Oliva Carrera (Col. Valencia’s deputy) - on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence that they were directly involved in ordering the murder. Upon appeal, the Guatemalan Fourth Appeals Court overturned the verdict against Col. Valencia and upheld the acquittals of the other two defendants. The prosecution then appealed the Appeals Court’s decision to the Guatemalan Supreme Court. On January 20, 2004, the Supreme Court ruled to uphold the conviction of Col. Valencia as an “intellectual author” of the assassination of Myrna Mack and to confirm his 30-year prison sentence.

Regrettably, this did not happen because Col. Valencia eluded authorities and went into hiding. He remains a free man. Nevertheless, it is only due to Helen Mack's relentless efforts that the "intellectual authors" of such a crime were brought to court and tried.

Mack's extraordinary courage in the fight against impunity has brought her wide renown. Her struggle has been supported by a wide spectrum of Guatemalan society and by thousands of citizens who are following in her footsteps in the search for justice. After receiving the Right Livelihood Award, she created the Myrna Mack Foundation to pursue research, analysis, training and other activities to defeat impunity and defend human rights. The Foundation provides training programmes for judges, lawyers, academics and community leaders.

According to Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, executive director of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights in New York: "Helen has become a symbol of the struggle against impunity in Guatemala. Many Guatemalans now have the faith to challenge the impunity of perpetrators of political crimes and admire Helen for her brave and persistent efforts to promote justice and human rights."

In addition to presiding over the Myrna Mack Foundation and acting as the accuser in the trial against the military officers, Helen Mack has been a member of the Commission for the Strengthening of Justice, which makes recommendations for reform of the judicial system including measures against impunity. She has participated as an expert witness in cases of human rights violations before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Organisation of American States, among other charges. She has also been a promoter of the strategic planning projects "Guatemalan Vision" and "Visualising a Guatemala of the 21st century". As of 2011, she is coordinator of the Commission for the Police Reform.

Helen Mack Chans received the Notre Dame Award by Public Service in Latin America in 2005, the Human Rights Award from the King of Spain in 2006, and several other significant recognitions.

Speeches

Acceptance Speech by Helen Mack

December 9th, 1992

Distinguished Prime Minister Honorable Members of the Swedish Parliament,
Distinguished Scholars of the Right Livelihood Award Foundation, 
Representatives of the Diplomatic Corps,
Honorable Celebrities who are participating and have participated in this award ceremony.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I deeply cherish this distinction.

In the midst of all the difficulties entailed in prosecuting a trial so that justice will reign in Guatemala, this moment and this honorable award provide an occasion to reflect and to listen to the voices of solidarity and recognition that have made me feel that I am not alone in this effort. To reflect and to listen to the voices that have told me that I am not mistaken in following the path of justice so that no person's impunity shall be unchallenged.

First of all, I come from a country that has written its history in blood with all the irrationality of a culture of raw power, and which has not yet discovered the social functions of the State. Nor does it allow for the formation of a national unity through the respect and development of diversity, nor through the tolerance of the social relations and the strength of the mechanisms which would allow social agreement.

Therefore, I have fought against the impunity of those who conceal the despotism of the State and protect the violators of human rights.

A painful action changed my life, my family's and the life of many others: on September 11th, 1990, my sister Myrna Elizabeth Mack Chang was murdered. She was performing anthropological studies about displaced persons and refugees in Guatemala, who are victims of the contra insurgency plans of the Guatemalan State.

Myrna's careful and detailed research and her presence in areas sensitive for the security of the State, made her a victim of a political crime. Why did her death diminish the number of cruel and painful killings and disappearances that presently afflict the Guatemalan people? Permit me to propose three factors that empowered this cause for justice:

1. The effect of the saturation of terror in the Guatemalan social conscience which reacted against a cowardly crime committed against a helpless woman, a crime perpetrated with an excess of malice and ostensible impunity.

2. The fraternal international solidarity that was moved by this act against human dignity to mobilize itself without political banners in order to clarify this crime and to end these policies of terror.

3. I must recognize that a subjective factor also became the motor of this cause: a timid claim for justice gained power and courage. A generalized clamor for justice was filled by voices of encouragement that strengthened our hopes and made me feel plural: to be myself among many and to experience within me the voices of many persons from many different backgrounds who, for the most noble ideals, supported our faith and our certainty. They gave us the strength to move forward in our pain with the hope that the death of my sister will help in the struggle for justice for those who still suffer, and will help to build justice for those who have not yet been born in Guatemala. My sister's absence is our presence in this struggle for justice for those from whom justice was taken away.

The investigation of Myrna Mack's murder and the prosecution of the material and intellectual authors of the crime is an important case for measuring the capacity of the Guatemalan judicial system and a test of the political will of the Government to put an end to the impunity that has protected the military. As long as the other material and intellectual authors of the murder of my sister remain unpunished, few Guatemalans will have faith in the will of the Government to protect the basic rights of the citizens.

Some have asked me why am I making this effort in my country for real justice, for all. Why do we insist on the end of impunity and the empowerment of the State as an expression of consensus in a renewed regime of law, where reason, understanding, and tolerance reign. They ask me why do we take this risk, facing terror, intimidations and abuse. Truly I have a first and fundamental answer: we love life and we recognize the dignity found in the fullness of the development of life, without forces that limit or condition this process. This love for life I also have for my sister, who also loved those who suffer; I have it for all of you who have filled us with the feeling of solidarity; I have it for myself in discovering that life has no meaning unless we make an effort to live together in justice and with dignity.

Let me above all accept this honor and cherish it. Allow me to receive it in the midst of a paradoxically distressed conscience, in it's most rich and intense form. In recent years of my life, I have experienced much consternation in the midst of the marvel of human solidarity, particularly among those who hunger and thirst for justice. (Mt. 5.6); this process has also built up my capacity to confront the unexpected: when the love for life and the values of reason make us forget the risk of murder and of the moral aversion that others harvest in a feast of power. I have been the protagonist of the amazement of a generation that was born to reach the peak of its maturity in the next millennium, even as Guatemalan society races to reach the twentieth century that is now ending. Nevertheless, today my generation has decided to confront terror as the foundation of the State.

This is a fight for the rationality in justice and for the common happiness that is the fruit of justice. The questions I have been creating have by no means expressed the loss of hope, but have always allowed me to find the certainty against the uncertain. Against the unexplainable and the pain I have strengthened my spirit with hope and solidarity. That explains why I am a circumstantial bearer of a collective yearning and a recipient of this honor that is for all those in Guatemala and in any other country who suffer persecution and are victims of terrorism of the State.

With this determination, a first inspiration held my conscience and strengthened my will: confronted with the murder of my sister, I learned that I have to feel, act, and value as she would have done. Today, I understand this principle as the most dignified vindication of her life: to give continuity to her ideal of justice for those who suffer. Thus, I discovered myself among the sufferers and Myrna became, among us, a collective cause.

On this path, the arbitrariness of the State, the insecurity and generalized social intimidations and the absence of a democratic alternative in Guatemala, were initially only a belief, but the deeper reality was unveiled in litigation within institutions of that State. That State which in the first place, denies that it is for all citizens, and secondly, persists in a vision of democracy from the observation tower, with the narrow belief that it's norms and not it's administration embody the unity of the nation and which exerts a power that if challenged or discussed, makes one a subversive.

The Government arrogantly assumes that the reasons, desires and interests which they imposed on the population represent the benefit and consensus of the majority. But these values are actually not a product of our society. Instead, they are decided by those groups that maintain the hegemonic interests of the State. This does not facilitate the clarification of political crimes, nor does it favor their just resolution. The political changes in Guatemala are limited and arbitrary and threats, surveillance, intimidations, persecutions, aggressions and murders continue to be used as selective resources. Any sanction must not be symbolic, but should be a real sanction against the policies of the State. Nor should it reduce the responsibility of the executor or accomplice of a crime at any level.

In essence we are putting on trial the existing policy of terror in Guatemala during the last thirty years. That is why this trial to clarify the political murder of my sister Myrna Mack, confronts many subterfuges and lies, which run from delays, to cover ups, to unwillingness of important witnesses to appear at judicial hearings, contradictions in documents, arbitrary manipulation of the law, an others. Therefore, in practice we are prosecuting a lawsuit against the State, from within the State, in which the accuser, which I represent, recidivates the State as a possibility of consensus of social accord and as a vertex of a renewed democratic development, without the need of violent ruptures nor wretched struggles for power. In this, the State puts itself in doubt and from our point of view, tests itself. However, we are not requesting action against the State, but rather the prosecution of those who are materially and intellectually responsible.

It is necessary to affirm in front of the international community that we are not looking for reprisals, but for justice. In a trial that has been courageously pursued, we do not ask for the death sentence for the one person now imprisoned for the crime (We having also provided names of other persons involved). In the trial we have declared that we will not accept any compensatory damages for the civil damages resulting from my sister's murder. What we want is justice as proof that governmental arbitrariness will not continue; justice as a condition for the development of democratic relations in Guatemala free of fear and coercion.

I know that I am not alone. This provides our strength. We have received many messages of support, solidarity and hope. Thousands of people in Guatemala and the world have mobilized in favor of justice and the respect of human rights. That is why this Award is for all. Our thanks to you the citizens of the world that place your heart in Guatemala, to my compatriots, and all those who long to live in peace with justice.

My efforts are for everyone: for Myrna, for her only daughter, for my parents and above all for the victims of injustice. Also for those who give encouragement and unify the struggle, for those who are compelled to keep silent; for those who conceal and for those who lie. My efforts are also for he who orders to kill and for the one that executes the order. My determination is to establish justice for all, for the one who suffers and for the one that causes the suffering; Justice in order to extinguish impunity! All these testimonies are moving and some are disconcerting, but they express the dimension of the effort that we undertake. I have learned many lessons. This difficult process has forged within me a human condition that previously was covered by common concerns. The suffering has contributed to eradicate the rancor and to better understand all Guatemalans: If beforehand I understood and lived in the situation of those who suffer, today, I also feel solidarity with all those who are captive of the official politics of terror, because they all suffer! We have learned to articulate what is just and necessary, in our particular yearnings and our collective hope.

The political responsibilities for the Guatemalan government are not the same as for all governments. It is not strange that the political crime that mobilized us was committed against a person without political participation in the military conflict of Guatemala; it is not strange that this murder was perpetrated in an electoral period inserted in the so called "democratic openness." Therefore, it must not be found strange, that we ask of the current government concrete proofs of its will to put an end to impunity and the eradication of the politics of "national security" that is applied against the people of Guatemala. This demand is endorsed by the fact that we have proved that active members of the armed forces who currently continue in military service, as well as others who have been demobilized, participated in Myrnas assassination.

Months ago, we decided to move our experience into the "Myrna Mack Foundation" whose objective is to look for points of social cohesion in an atomized society, following the principles of respect for human dignity, equality of rights and respect for plurality. This Award will contribute to the execution of a project that is being financed by the European Economic Community whose objective is the provision of support for the modernization of the legal system in Guatemala.

Reiterating my gratitude to the Right Livelihood Award Foundation, to the Swedish Parliament, to this fraternal community, and to all the international communities, allow me to fill my voice with the memories of my sister Myrna Mack and those whom she always loved: the poor of my country who are the ones that most suffer injustice. I believe that it is a valuable coincidence that at this time, another fellow compatriot, Rigoberta Menchu Turn, will receive the Nobel Prize for Peace, because the justice that we desire is for all, without discrimination.

Thank you.

Contact

Right Livelihood Award Foundation

Head office:
Stockholmsvägen 23
122 62 Enskede
Sweden

Phone: +46 (0)8 70 20 340
Fax: +46 (0)8 70 20 338

Geneva office:
Maison de la Paix
Chemin Eugène-Rigot 2, Building 5
1202 Geneva
Switzerland

Phone: +41 (0)22 555 09 55

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