New obstruction to historical justice in Guatemala

By Mike Phipps

In May 2021, the human rights unit of the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the National Civil Police in Guatemala unexpectedly arrested 11 former members of the military charged with forced disappearance and crimes against humanity.

The charges relate to crimes committed against 183 people that appear in the military intelligence document known as the Death Squad Diary. The Human Rights Prosecutor’s Office accused them of forced disappearance, torture, sexual violence, murder, and crimes against humanity. The arrests offer important hope to the families of the victims who over the years have never stopped searching for the remains of their loved ones.

The Death Squad Diary or “dossier of death” is a military intelligence document first revealed to the public in 1999 through investigative journalism work. The document includes the names of 183 people who were forcibly disappeared between August 1983 and March 1985. The document demonstrates the systematic way that forced disappearances were carried out during the internal armed conflict in Guatemala and points to the responsibility of the state in the commission of these heinous crimes.

More than 100 academics from the US, Canada and Latin America expressed their solidarity with the victims and their support for the judicial officials involved in the case, calling for an trial free of interference.

In September, the presiding judge in the Death Squad Diary case stated that the defendants had a case to answer – good news for the search for justice in Guatemala which is coming under increasing strain.

But this week, on October 11th, Mrs. Consuelo Porras, Guatemala’s Attorney General and Head of the Public Ministry, transferred Hilda Pineda, the prosecutor leading the Human Rights Office of the Public Ministry, from her leading role in the judicial process investigating genocide and mass human rights violations that occurred during the 36 year-long  conflict. This was a critical blow to the justice system in Guatemala.

This prosecutor’s office has been a bastion of hope and action for justice, presenting evidence that could lead to the prosecution of former military officers for their human rights violations during the armed conflict. The change of leadership is just the latest in a series of manoeuvres developed by the Public Ministry, the Congress and the Supreme Court of Justice, among others, to protect Guatemala’s military hierarchies.

Consuelo Porras has form on this. She obstructed investigations of acts of corruption by interfering with criminal investigations, ordering prosecutors in Guatemala’s Public Prosecutor’s Office to ignore cases based on political considerations, and undermining investigations conducted by the Special Prosecutor Against Impunity. A petition against this interference and calling for her resignation can be signed here.

The war of the Guatemalan state against its citizens lasted from 1960 to 1996. Some 200,000 people were killed and a further 45,000 ‘disappeared’ in this period. The Guatemalan military’s war on the landless Mayan community peaked in the early 1980s and involved acts of unbelievable cruelty. One documented case was a massacre of over 200 villagers by government soldiers in the village of Las Dos Erres in 1982. According to the US-based Human Rights Watch, the abuses included “burying some alive in the village well, killing infants by slamming their heads against walls, keeping young women alive to be raped over the course of three days.” Nor was this an isolated incident.

In 2005 an explosion tore through a dilapidated building being used as a munitions dump and brought to light millions of police documents. This vast archive threw new light on the role of police in kidnapping and killing activists and provided an impetus for the prosecution of those responsible.

For over 30 years, members of the Cuevas family have campaigned for justice for family members who were disappeared and murdered. Ana Lucía Cuevas, learning of the discovery of the secret police archive, returned to Guatemala and pieced together the clues that could shed light on what happened to her brother. The result was the film, El Eco del Dolor de Mucha Gente-The Echo of Pain of the Many.

Ana’s story reflects the experience of many thousands of Guatemalans during the country’s decades-long armed conflict. In 1984, her activist student brother Carlos was abducted at the hands of the state. His forced disappearance, torture and murder, like that of countless other Guatemalan civilians classed as sympathetic to leftist guerrillas, or anyone seeking change, was the product of a deliberate governmental policy of terrorising the population—a policy supported with money, arms and training from the Reagan administration.

Human Rights Watch went so far as to say that “the Reagan Administration shares in the responsibility for the gross abuses of human rights practiced by the government of Guatemala.” The CIA worked inside the Guatemalan army at this time, operating torture centres and helping to run a unit responsible for thousands of killings.

As Ana Lucía Cuevas says, “The film is my personal, intimate record of my return from exile into the still dangerous and volatile political environment of contemporary Guatemala, where over the course of four years, I discover, through the archived records of the perpetrators of the crimes themselves, the involvement of my own government and foreign Intelligence Services in the abduction, torture and murders of my brother and his young family. As writer and director, the film reflects my determination, as a survivor and member of the political opposition to dictatorship, to depict the personal and national trauma of disappearance and genocide perpetrated against us as civilians, and to tell our own story.”

The latest state-led obstruction show that the right wing and military are now mobilising in a fresh attempt to dismantle Guatemala’s fragile justice infrastructure, putting in jeopardy a series of cases that families and human rights defenders have been working on for decades. They must not succeed.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocusHis book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

Image: Alberto Fuentes, co-director of the Historical Police Archive of Guatemala, and Ana Lucía Cuevas reviewing documents found at what is now known as the Historical Archives of the National Police of Guatemala, c/o http://www.elecodeldolor.com/

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