For her personal courage and persistence in seeking justice and an end to the impunity of political murderers.
Helen Mack Chang is an internationally recognised human rights defender, who has contributed to peace, democracy and reconciliation in Guatemala. In the country marred by decades of armed conflict, she emerged as an unrelenting fighter for justice in the aftermath of her sister’s assassination. Her struggle has since led to a broad campaign to transform the country’s justice, security, national defence and intelligence systems.
Helen Mack became a human rights defender while fighting against impunity after the brutal murder of her sister. The anthropologist Myrna Mack Chang was assassinated in 1990 by a military group that wanted to hide her studies on social displacement after the civil war. The Myrna Mack case, pursued by former business advisor Helen Mack, became emblematic in Guatemala. For the first time, it proved the direct participation of state agents in the violation of human rights and the use of the country’s entire military apparatus to prevent accountability for its members. It was also the first judicial process for intellectual authorship in Guatemala, where senior Army officers faced a formal accusation at civil courts.
The extraordinary courage shown by Helen Mack in this long, unequal and unprecedented judiciary challenge has made her a symbol of the fight for accountability. A broad spectrum of Guatemalan society supported her struggle and followed in her footsteps in pursuing justice.
Helen Mack Chang became a human rights defender after her sister’s murder by a Guatemalan State commando, in 1990. She started seeking justice when the country was still suffering from 30 years of internal armed conflict. She has since worked to promote reforms to the judicial system, and the operation and accountability of security forces, making her one of the most respected – and most often attacked – human rights advocates in the country.
A tragedy becomes a turning point
Helen Mack Chang is a business administrator by trade, who has dedicated a large portion of her life to socially-oriented, non-profit educational and housing projects in Guatemala. However, her life was suddenly turned upside down in September 1990 when her sister, Myrna Mack Chang, was brutally assassinated by a military commando. Myrna was a social anthropologist, who studied people displaced by the armed conflict in the country.
Confident that her sister’s death was politically motivated, 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. Still, after overcoming numerous obstacles, the sergeant convicted of executing the murder was sentenced to 25 years in prison. During the trial, the police investigator who had provided the primary evidence for the prosecution was himself assassinated.
The judicial process led to harassment, persecution and death threats for Helen Mack. Nevertheless, she persevered. Three high-ranking military officers – a general and two colonels - were indicted and put on trial in September 2002.
A landmark case for justice in Guatemala
On October 3, 2002, a three-judge panel convicted and sentenced one of those military officers, Colonel Juan Valencia Osorio, to 30 years in prison. The other two defendants – General Edgar Augusto Godoy Gaitán (Col. Valencia’s superior officer) and Colonel Juan Guillermo Oliva Carrera (Col. Valencia’s deputy) – were acquitted because of insufficient evidence for their direct involvement 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 case ended up going all the way up 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 confirmed his 30-year prison sentence. However, before his sentence could be carried out, Col. Valencia eluded authorities and went into hiding. He remains a free man to this day.
The Myrna Mack Foundation is born
Helen Mack received the Right Livelihood Award in 1992. Using her award money, she created the Myrna Mack Foundation in 1993 to pursue research, analysis, training and other activities to fight impunity and defend human rights. The Foundation works to promote the transformation of the security and intelligence apparatus, democratic consolidation, strengthening the rule of law, peacebuilding, and citizen participation. It has provided training programmes for judges, lawyers, academics and community leaders.
In 2003, after 13 years as a petitioner, Mack also won her case against the State of Guatemala at the Inter-American Human Rights System. In compliance with the reparation measures ordered by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the Guatemalan State publicly admitted its institutional responsibility in the murder of Myrna Mack in April 2004. In a public ceremony attended by all sectors of society, including the army, government representatives apologized to Myrna’s relatives.
Helen Mack has taken part in the development of legal strategies and advised victims and their relatives in cases presented to local justice bodies. For her tireless activism, she has been subject to harassment and condemnations based on false allegations aiming to discredit the causes she defends and her person. At the same time, she has received several significant international recognitions like the Notre Dame Award by Public Service in Latin America in 2005, the Human Rights Award from the King of Spain in 2006 and the 2012 Human Rights Award by the Washington Office on Latin America.