The killing fields of Guatemala
Genocide victims of former military regimes seek justice in Spain13 February 2008
MADRID - The family of the Catholic catechist Juan Manuel Jerónimo, 65, was murdered on 18 July 1982, when Guatemala was ruled by Efraín Ríos Montt, a general who is now facing accusations in Spain of genocide.
"They killed my mother, my wife, my two sons and my two girls," said Jerónimo, whose eldest son was seven years old. "We're here [in Spain] because in my country there's no justice and because the killers haven't been brought to justice."
The Guatemalans, who gave testimony a week ago to Spanish Judge Santiago Pedraz, offered disturbing evidence of the scorched-earth tactics used by former military regimes against left-wing guerrillas during a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996 and left over 200,000 dead. Eighty percent of the victims were indigenous Mayas.
The trial against eight former military rulers won't be easy - in Guatemala or in Spain. Their extradition, like that of 82-year-old Ríos Montt, who governed in 1982 and 1983, is being pursued by the Spanish judge. Sentencing these former Guatemalan leaders will be difficult because, among other obstacles, the former dictator Ríos Montt is a deputy of the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (FRG) party. His daughter Zuri Ríos is an influential figure in Congress and the 14 seats controlled by the FRG (out of a total of 154) are crucial in some votes.
"All this has created a blanket of impunity around such cases. The judicial authorities have not wanted to acquaint themselves with an issue such as genocide," says José Francisco Soto of the human rights group Centro de Acción Legal por los Derechos Humanos de Guatemala.
Judge Pedraz wants to hand down sentences despite a Guatemalan Constitutional Court ruling on 12 December that refused to allow the opening up of cases that involve genocide, terrorism, torture, killings and illegal detentions. Far from being intimidated, the High Court magistrate took the cases of a group of Guatemalan victims of state terrorism in open defiance of the Guatemalan state, which has been incapable of opening a legal investigation into the horrific crimes of civil war era.
The aim of such repression by the Guatemalan authorities, which was especially tough during the 1978-1984 period, was to eradicate any popular support that armed left-wing guerrilla groups had in the country.
Ninety-three percent of all the killings were carried out by the army, Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil (PAC), and the rest by left-wing guerrillas and other unknown groups. Another witness of such crimes stated that soldiers burned his harvest and stole his animals. "In three months 600 children died, nearly five a day [from hunger and sickness]," the witness said.
American journalist Allan Naim, who followed the Guatemalan army for four months, maintained in various articles that the killings were carried out in a systematic fashion.
Lawyer Almudena Bernabéu, vice president of Spanish human rights group Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos de España who advises the US-based Center for Justice & Accountability, is confident of a European response to such crimes on the grounds Guatemala violates international conventions and treaties. "I hope the European Union reacts," she said. Jerónimo, who escaped death at a hamlet where 184 victims perished, is hopeful as well. From a hiding place he witnessed gunfire and the anguish and fear of the victims.
Jesús Tecú was 10 years old when on 13 March 1982 he was apprehended by a childless policeman who had been involved in the deaths of 177 people in Guatemala. The boy's three brothers and sister, who had a child, were among those killed. Tecú's parents were killed before the policeman enslaved the young boy for two years. "But I didn't have the strength of an adult," he said. "I was a child. He hit me very hard with a stick used for oxen."
The policeman got tired of the child and hung him on a wooden roof of the house. "I woke up on the ground with a rope around my neck," Tecú said. The wife of the policeman had saved the young boy. Tecú, like others in Madrid, is seeking in Spain justice that Guatemala has denied him.
[Copyright EL PAÍS / JUAN JESÚS AZNÁREZ 2008]
Subject: Spanish news