Landmark Case Sentencing Former Guatemalan Military Officials for Forced Disappearances

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Amanda Martin of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA provides this important update on the arduous search for justice in the cases of disappeared Guatemalans.

On December 3, 2009, a former military official and three former commissioners were sentenced to 53 years in prison for the forced disappearance and illegal detention of six people in El Jute, Guatemala in 1981. This marks the first time in Guatemalan history that a high-ranking military official has been sentenced for forced disappearance. In the sentence, the tribunal also ordered an investigation of former defense minister Angel Anibal Guevara, former head of Defense Security (EMD) Benedicto Lucas Garcia, and other officials and soldiers assigned to the same military base as the guilty parties in 1981.

Over 47,000 people were forcibly disappeared during the war in Guatemala. The disappearance, torture, and murder of these leaders (including indigenous leaders, unionists, student leaders, Catholic priests, catechists, university professors, and community organizers, among others) was orchestrated by the military and carried out by the police, as was documented in the 183 cases detailed in the Diario Militar. According to Sergio Morales, Guatemala’s human rights ombudsman, this sentence will set a precedent that will aid in finally bringing to justice the military officers who committed these grave human rights violations during the war. 

But this verdict has not come easily. The families of the victims have received death threats throughout the entire process and have lacked adequate security protection from the government. As the investigation continues into the others involved, so will the threats. The Guatemala Human Rights Commission along with other U.S.-based solidarity organizations have contacted the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to increase security measures for the families. Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador Stephen McFarland attended the day of the hearing when the sentence was announced and then traveled to the remote village of El Jute in a strong sign of support for the families of the victims.

Momentum is building in the movement against impunity in Guatemala, as this marks the second major precedent setting case on forced disappearances in Guatemala. The first trial for forced disappearance in the Guatemalan court system took place on August 31, 2009, when ex-military Commissioner Felipe Cusanero Coj was condemned to 150 years in prison for disappearing six people in Pachalum, San Martín Jilotepeque, Chimaltenango, from 1982-84.

Now, with this new verdict in the El Jute case, families of victims can begin to hope that the genocide, torture, and disappearances committed against their loved ones can finally be brought to justice. The sentences do not deliver the remains of the bodies to their families, nor do they provide reparations for the loss of the thousands of progressive leaders; but they do force the Guatemalan government and military to recognize their role as in masterminding the killing of over 250,000 people, the majority of whom were Mayan.

To learn more about this and other ongoing cases, take a look at the Guatemala Human Rights Commission website.