Thursday, December 17, 2009

Documenting Genocide in Guatemala

National Security Archive Update, December 2, 2009

Operation Sofia: Documenting Genocide in Guatemala

For more information contact:
Kate Doyle -

Washington, DC, December 2, 2009 - The Guatemalan army, under the direction of military ruler Efraín Ríos Montt, carried out a deliberate counterinsurgency campaign in the summer of 1982 aimed a massacring thousands of indigenous peasants, according to a comprehensive set of internal records presented as evidence to the Spanish National Court and posted today by National Security Archive on its Web site. The files on "Operation Sofia" detail official responsibility for what the 1999 UN-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission determined were "acts of genocide against groups of Mayan people."

The National Security Archive's Kate Doyle presented the documentation as evidence in the international genocide case, which is under investigation by Judge Santiago Pedraz in Madrid. Ms. Doyle testified today before Judge Pedraz on the authenticity of the documents, which were obtained from military intelligence sources in Guatemala. Earlier this year, Defense Minister Gen. Abraham Valenzuela González claimed that the military could not locate the documents nor turn them over to a judge in Guatemala, as ordered by the Guatemalan Constitutional Court in 2008.

After months of analysis, which included evaluations of letterheads and signatures on the documents and comparisons to other available military records, Doyle said, "we have determined that these records were created by military officials during the regime of Efraín Ríos Montt to plan and implement a 'scorched earth' policy on Mayan communities in El Quiché. The documents record the military's genocidal assault against indigenous populations in Guatemala."

The appearance of the original "Operation Sofía" documents provides the first public glimpse into secret military files on the counterinsurgency campaign that resulted in massacres of tens of thousands of unarmed Mayan civilians during the early 1980s, and displaced hundreds of thousands more as they fled the Army's attacks on their communities. The records
contain explicit references to the killing of unarmed men, women and children, the burning of homes, destruction of crops, slaughter of animals and indiscriminate aerial bombing of refugees trying to escape the violence.

Among the 359 pages of original planning documents, directives, telegrams, maps, and hand-written patrol reports is the initial order to launch the operation issued on July 8, 1982, by Army Chief of Staff Héctor Mario López Fuentes. The records make clear that Operation Sofía was executed as part of the military strategy of Guatemala's de facto president,
Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, under the command and control of the country's senior military officers, including then Vice Minister of Defense Gen. Mejía Víctores. Both men are defendants in the international genocide case in front of the Spanish Court.

The posting today includes a complete inventory of the Operation Sofia documents, as well as photographs from the Ixil region taken in 1982 by photojournalist and human rights advocate, Jean-Marie Simon.

For more information, visit the Archive Web site:

THE NATIONAL SECURITY ARCHIVE is an independent non-governmental research institute and library located at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The Archive collects and publishes declassified documents acquired through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). A tax-exempt public charity, the Archive receives no U.S. government funding; its budget is supported by publication royalties and donations from foundations and individuals.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Governor General Celebrates International Human Rights Day in Guatemala

SITRAPETEN Workers Evicted from Central Plaza on the International Day for Human Rights
Guatemala City, December 11, 2009
By Jackie McVicar

It is ironic that while Canada’s Governor General Michaëlle Jean was
replacing the white rose to commemorate 24 hours of “peace” in
Guatemala inside the country’s Constitutional Palace, 150 National
Civil Police agents were outside violently evicting the SITRAPETEN
workers from their make-shift homes in the Central Plaza. Employees of
the Peten Distributors Workers´ Union (SITRAPETEN) – distributors of
Agua Salvavida - were fired after creating the SITRAPETEN union in May
2008 and have been occupying the Central Plaza since September 2008 as
a form of peaceful protest to demand that their labour rights be
respected. The International Human Rights Accompaniment Project in
Guatemala (ACOGUATE) has been accompanying the workers ever since and
according to their blog, the workers have “been subjected to attempts
to bribe them to leave the union. In February this year, there was a
court order for their reinstatement. To date, the order has not been
respected.” Workers have not received any payment since they were
illegally fired over a year and a half ago.

When Mexico’s TV Azteca announced that it would be bringing “La
Academia” (The Academy, a Mexican version of American Idol) to
Guatemala for a live performance on December 13, Alvaro Arzu’s
municipal government decided to clean up the streets and get rid of
the strikers who set up shelters made out of laminate, covered with
banners and demanded justice. The strikers had legal permission to be
there and were carrying out their constitutional right to peaceful
resistance. “That’s what I told them [the police]. When a businessman
comes to have an event and all of this [the protest] is about to come
to light, now you come to evict us. It’s simply for this reason,”
expressed Edwin Enrique Álvarez Guevara, Secretary General of the
Union, in an interview moments before the police started moving in on
the SITRAPETEN workers. Alvaro Arzu is the famed “President of Peace”
who signed the 1996 Peace Accords in Guatemala with the Guatemalan
National Revolutionary Unity, ending 36 years of civil war in the
country. There are allegations that he has been trying to get the
workers out of the plaza for months by giving them a bad name through
print media and television reports. It is believed that the request to
evict the workers from the plaza came directly from Arzu’s office.

On the night of December 9, a municipal judge and various police
officers tried to evict the SITRAPETEN strikers. Nonetheless, the
workers were aware of their rights and subsequently demanded that they
be respected. As such, they were able to hold off the eviction until
the next day when members of popular and civil society organizations
rallied to show support around 12pm. Legally, an eviction must be carried out between 6am to 6pm.

In the hour and a half that ensued, the anti-riot squad circled the park
while other officers advanced toward the 15 or so workers who were
doing everything they could to protect themselves and their belongings
from being destroyed. As the non-armed workers and supporters gathered
around the final standing structure arm-in-arm in defense yelling,
“JUSTICE!” police officials shot tear gas and other toxic substances,
forcing many to leave to seek medical attention.

Despite the interventions of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (PDH)
and the Presidential Commission for Human Rights (COPREDEH), the
police, armed with automatic assault riffles and dozens of canisters
of tear gas and other highly toxic agents, carried out the violent
eviction without the legal order of the Presiding Judge that led to at
least three people injured.

According to a press release by the Human Rights Convergence members
of SITRAPETEN were, “violently evicted with a disproportionate use of
force by members of the National Civil Police (PNC) accompanied by
Municipal Traffic Police (PMT) who, with their trucks, took not only
the precarious shelters that they have upkept, but also all their
personal belongings.” Following the eviction, the SITRAPETEN workers
stayed on site, while supporters gathered around. Hours later, around
11:30pm, following a Christmas gala hosted by the President’s wife
inside the Constitutional Palace, police agents returned and once
again proceeded to carry out another illegal eviction, using tear gas
to expel the union workers and once again confiscating all of their
possessions. SITRAPETEN workers have relocated in front of the
Cathedral in the plaza and have denounced the illegal actions taken
against them to the Public Prosecutor’s Office and office of the Human
Rights Ombudsman.

Given the fact that SITRAPETEN’s battle is with one of Guatemala’s
richest families, the Castillo family, and its Castillo Brothers
Corporation which is a holding of 82 companies primarily focused on
food and beverage and entertainment, it is not surprising that little
has been reported in the local printed press. Almost no coverage has
been given to the strikers since May 2008 and much of what has been
covered are misleading reports about illegal invaders.

Meanwhile, on her last day in Guatemala, the Governor General’s first
visit this morning was with Mayor Alvaro Arzu, where Michaëlle Jean
was presented the “Keys of the City” in a ceremony closed to the
press. La Academia will go ahead as planned on Sunday.

Her Excellency will finish her tour of the region following her visit
to Costa Rica on December 15.

See pictures by the Anti-imperialist Block at:
For a 3 minutes video by Comunicarte about the violent eviction, see:

For a backgrounder in English:

For ACOGUATE reports see:

Justice: Transparency or Incarceration?


150 years for forced disappearance a precedent, families not satisfied

by Valerie Croft

TORONTO—An historic verdict was reached in Guatemala’s first tried case of forced disappearance, leading to the conviction of ex-military commissioner Felipe Cusanero Coj*, with a sentence of 150 years in prison.

Eleven witness testimonies accompanied evidence including bones from clandestine graves found around the military compound, and historical records and reports of the nature of forced disappearance. On August 31, 2009, President Judge Walter Paulino Jiminez Texaj, representing the Criminal Court of the Department of Chimaltenango ruled that Cusanero’s “innocence was destroyed,” and sentenced him to 25 years in prison for each of the six cases being tried.

Charges were brought against him April, 2003 for crimes he committed between 1982 and 1984 while acting as Military Commissioner in the region. The Centre for Legal Action in Human Rights (CALDH) and the Association for Families of the Detained-Disappeared of Guatemala (FAMDEGUA) began the process as joint plaintiffs to the witnesses.

Several years later, the case made it to court March, 2008. The trial was stalled, however, after Cusanero claimed his constitutional right not to be tried retroactively was being violated, since his crimes were committed before Guatemala recognized forced disappearance as illegal in 1996.

After a lengthy delay in Cusanero's case, the Constitutional Court made an historic ruling when it declared that since the very nature of forced disappearance makes it an ongoing crime, Cusanero should be fully tried for it. (Since no bodies have been recovered, and Cusanero refuses to give further information about what happened and the whereabouts of the bodies, the victims are still considered “disappeared.”) The Court ruled that it did not matter when they were disappeared, but more importantly that the crime was continuing—it was being committed in the present.

Following the verdict's reading at the Constitutional Court, the case returned to the Court in Chimaltenango, where Jiminez Texaj concluded there was sufficient evidence to lead to a conviction of forced disappearance.

The implications in the judge's conclusion are deep. When the 1996 Peace Accords were signed, political amnesty was given to all military members for crimes they had committed during the war. (Without this clause the accords wouldn’t have been signed.) However, crimes against humanity—such as forced disappearance—are outside this amnesty law and can be tried.

Cusanero became the first person in the country to be tried for a crime against humanity. At the same time, he was a low-level military commissioner. Rios Montt, one of the authors of the genocide, enjoys political immunity by being a member of Congress.

Although many human rights organizations are claiming this to be a major step forward in the struggle for social justice in Guatemala, the witnesses' reality is much different.

For many, the hope in bringing the case forward was to find out information about their loved ones. “How is it important to us if he goes to prison?” asked Hilarion Lopez, father of one of the disappeared and a witness in the case. “We have always wanted to know where our loved ones are and what happened to them. But he never told us.”

Lack of information about those disappeared leaves families imagining horrors of rape and torture, and, on the flip-side, leaves room for the (unfounded) hope that their loved ones may still be alive. The nature of the crime creates such a degree of uncertainty that families are incapable of moving past or healing from its trauma. Particularly in cultures where proper burial rites are of extreme importance, the inability to lay individuals to rest leaves families in a perpetual state of paralysis and grief.

In a statement made during the reading of the verdict, Jiminez said, “For all of the cultures and religions present in Guatemala, it is almost inconceivable not to grant dignity to the deceased; it violates the dignity of everyone. For the Mayans, this phenomenon is of particular importance due to the central relevance in their culture of the active link between the living and the dead.”

He continued by describing the findings of a report made by the Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH), stating that the lack of information about the disappeared continues to be an open sore in the country. “The CEH considers locating and exhuming the clandestine graves where the bodies are buried to be an act of justice and reparation, while being a fundamental step in the road to reconciliation."

Echoing these sentiments in a news conference the day after the verdict, Lopez stated, “[Cusanero] should ask forgiveness of the people of San Martin, of the community of Choatalum. I am really upset because my son is still not returned to me. And I want justice....I want to bury him in the cemetery so that I can bring him flowers and candles.”

Despite the seemingly successful verdict, it doesn’t go without notice by the witnesses that what means most—information—will likely die with Cusanero in prison.

Even so, the verdict and declaration by the Constitutional Court open doors to the possibility of trying other crimes against humanity which took place during the armed conflict.

According to representatives from CALDH, the legal organization representing the witnesses in the Choatalum trial, several other cases that have gone through the courts in Guatemala should have been tried as forced disappearance. Instead they were reduced to charges of kidnapping. Kidnapping is a much less severe crime with a maximum sentence of eight years, compared to 40 for forced disappearance.

Judges often try the accused for kidnapping instead of forced disappearance, says a representative from CALDH, because it won’t implicate the State. “[It is easier to say that] it was just some senseless members of the military who were responsible for each individual crime, and that it doesn’t have anything to do with the subsequent military leader, or the whole chain of command.”

According to CALDH, kidnapping can be an individual crime, whereas to be classified as forced disappearance, proof of a systematic plan, implemented by the state to use forced disappearance as a terror tactic, is required. The fact that the State has been implicated in a Guatemalan Court for its role in creating and facilitating a culture of forced disappearance might have widespread implications for the intellectual authors of the genocide.

Written with files from Amanda Kistler, an international human rights observer with the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA). Amanda currently lives in Guatemala City. Valerie Croft is a freelance journalist living in Toronto. She worked as an International Accompanier in 2008, in the department of Chimaltenango.

* Cusanero was the military commissioner in the community of Choatalum, in the municipality of San Martin Jilotepeque in Chimaltenango, during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict that took place between 1960 and 1996. The conflict was characterized by widespread massacres, scorched earth policies, the forming of civil patrol units, and genocide against the Mayan indigenous peoples. In addition, the use of “forced disappearance” was employed as a common terror tactic.

Forced disappearance is the kidnapping of an individual by military or paramilitary forces after which they are often raped or tortured, and eventually murdered. By selecting individuals arbitrarily, it heightens a climate of fear and uncertainty. A UN-sponsored Truth Commission found that 45,000 people were disappeared in Guatemala during the armed conflict.