Until We Find Them, Part 3: The Disappeared in Guatemala

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On Monday, March 18, 2013 the Latin America Working Group Education Fund together with the Washington Office on Latin America, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, the US Office on Colombia, and the Guatemala Human Rights Commission hosted a panel event entitled “Until We Find Them: The Disappeared in Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru” to discuss the situation of forced disappearances in each country.

Wilson de los Reyes Aragón has been the Director of Impunity Watch in Guatemala since 2007. He is a Colombian lawyer, as well as a university lecturer and consultant on human rights advocacy and litigation. He spoke about the situation of forced disappearances in Guatemala, which are officially acknowledged to have occurred during the conflict era prior to the 1996 peace accords, but which continue today, now largely unacknowledged by the necessary authorities.The following is his statement, edited only for readability purposes.

“Impunity Watch is an evidence-based organization working on research and lobbying public policies in transitional justice contexts. We work in Latin America in Guatemala but also in the Great Lakes region in Africa and the Balkans in Europe. We do not actually represent victims in litigation systems, but we are trying to strengthen their voices when [authorities are] deciding and implementing public policies in matters that affect them, such as truth, justice, and reparations.

The Guatemalan context is a little bit different from that of Mexico and Colombia since we can talk about the time before and after the peace accords. Forced disappearances are treated like a past phenomenon. Wilson_de_los_Reyes_Aragon_Guatemala_PresentationWilson de los Reyes Aragón discusses forced disappearances in Guatemala.It is really difficult to talk about forced disappearances today. Nevertheless, forced disappearance in Guatemala is a current threat to the country. You can see that there is still impunity for forced disappearances. There are roughly 45,000 disappeared persons as registered by the historical commission. You can see two patterns. One [category of disappeared persons] is open opponents to the government who were university teachers [or affiliates]. However, mostly disappearances took place in the rural areas [targeting] indigenous people, social leaders, etc. At present, there are some criminal structures still operating in Guatemala, both in urban and rural areas, and also problems with the design of the state. For instance, the legal order law, which is the emergency law in Guatemala, is actually facilitating disappearances. This hasn’t been changed and it needs to be changed. Guatemala, therefore, is now at a historical crossroads because there is some progress in the Guatemalan context. This progress may lead to actual democratic transformation, but it can be easily thrown away, opening the door to a recurrence of violence that is going to affect, as always, the most vulnerable. 

The current trends analyzed by Impunity Watch leave little room for optimism. Along with the trial for genocide which starts tomorrow, March 19th, some advancement in human rights prosecution strategies is being led by the current brave attorney general, Claudia Paz; but there are major challenges yet to be overcome. The Guatemalan society, especially the urban one, is still unaware of or justifying the conflict-era as well as the current repression against the rural indigenous population. This lack of social pressure has allowed the government to implement policies intending to deny and block any further progress in the human rights fight. Some government high officials publicly deny a genocide proven by the historical commission, which was an independent international expert commission. Some government officials insist on claiming amnesty for human rights violations today, although this amnesty is forbidden by both international legal standards and Guatemalan domestic legal order. Some government officials insist on telling judges, in the press, openly, and before international fora, that they may not prosecute any military rank in human rights violation cases. [They state] any judge prosecuting military rank would be committing malfeasance.

Instead of paving the road to national reconciliation, which is the government’s public and official discourse, this attitude of the government officials toward truth and justice may strengthen the generalized impunity covering most forced disappearances cases. None of the different convictions obtained in Guatemala regarding forced disappearance have led to identifying or finding the disappeared persons.

This context actually is encouraging the remaining criminal structures to continue disappearing people. Beyond those 45,000 people who were documented as disappeared during the conflict era, there are still many people disappearing today. Most of those disappearances are perpetrated by powerful but hidden structures operating under the guarantee of impunity. This includes human trafficking networks which are trafficking women, children, and migrants. The cases of children are particularly relevant because during the conflict time in Guatemala there was a whole structure for disappearing children by illegal adoption and these illegal structures are operating today. Actually, it is illegal today to adopt kids from Guatemala internationally. 

This is particularly relevant to the U.S. because of two things. There is a ban on military aid from the US Congress to the Guatemalan military until the Guatemalan military complies with its human rights obligations. However, there are a couple senators here in the US lobbying to lift this military ban in exchange for the lifting of the prohibition of adopting children from Guatemala and bringing them to the US. It has been called the “Children for Bullets Agreement.” This specifies how deep the impunity for forced disappearance is still working. Of course, migrants are also being disappeared by criminal structures.

These cases are not visible today because they are labeled as organized crime acts without political motives. However, we can see that there are some political motives still operating. For instance, yesterday we received news from our Guatemalan office that a social leader of a movement protesting a mega mining project in rural Guatemala was kidnapped. His tortured and shot dead body was found today. We have received other information regarding some disappearing missing people after riots in the rural area protesting against mining operations and the violent riot that led to the imposition of emergency law in that area.

As you see, it is time for action in Guatemala since it is at this crossroads. Non-state actions have been crucial and effective, but it’s time for the state to comply with its obligations to achieve the ultimate goal of its research: finding the missing. State resources and means are still necessary to complete this important task. It is important that the Guatemalan government comply with its international obligations as stated in international standards and domestic legal standards, as well as with specific agreements regarding the search of the disappeared. These include, first, the creation of a national search commission, as proposed by the legal initiative pending passage by the Congress. This legal initiative is called 3590. It’s been preapproved by the Financial Constitutional Commission within Congress since 2011 but it hasn’t been taken to plenary. The Guatemalan government actually agreed with a victims’ group in the case of Fernando Garcia before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to instruct Congress to pass this law. However, a year-and-a-half later, nothing has been done yet. State agencies also need to coordinate some efficient but feasible search plans in Guatemala to compliment this commission’s actions. Second, the government should stop denying the truth and blocking criminal prosecutions for human rights violations. This is complex by nature. According to Impunity Watch research, in 2010 almost half of human rights prosecutors thought that the disappeared persons during the conflict were actually migrants living in Mexico. This was [countered] by the general attorney herself, but also by some accompanying institutions, state and non-state, international and national. However, the government still needs to stop closing agencies, such as the Peace Archives Office, which was conducting research useful to finding the disappeared. These archives should be complemented by access to military archives. Military archives in Guatemala are still classified. There was a declassification process led by the government as a way to promote the lifting of the military aid embargo, but the results of this litigation process have been useless. There are still key documents being classified by the government as top secret again because they are still used. Finally, the government should not attack but encourage human rights defenders and their supporters. There have been some really serious attacks against international cooperation supporting human rights defenders in Guatemala. 

Also you, people attending this meeting, can help. You can help us by following the genocide case via internet. There is a blog which is “Para Que Se Conozca”. We can give you that afterwards. You can help us by sharing the information from the genocide and some other criminal cases here in the US. Impunity Watch needs translators, so let me know if you’re interested. And you can visit Guatemala and attend the hearings. It would be really helpful to us. Thank you very much.”

Click here to read “Until We Find Them, Part 1: The Disappeared in Mexico.”

Click here to read “Until We Find Them, Part 2: The Disappeared in Colombia.”