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Important Cases and Political Actors

Bámaca Case/Jennifer Harbury
Las Dos Erres
Forced Disappearances
Myrna Mack Assassination/Helen Mack
Operation Sophia
Ex-President Portillo
Rio Negro Massacres
Spanish Embassy Attack

Jennifer Harbury / The Bamaca Case

**Case updates:
The Bámaca case, along with nine other paradigmatic cases, is advancing in Guatemalan courts, after an important ruling by the Inter-American Court, and a willingness on the part of Guatemala’s judiciary to prioritize them. Sign a petition in support of Jennifer and an end to impunity for Everardo's torturers.

Background on the Bámaca Case

Jennifer Harbury, a lawyer from Texas, lived in Guatemala from 1985-1986, monitoring and reporting the ongoing human rights violations against indigenous Guatemalans. She returned repeatedly during the following years, and in 1991 visited a base camp in Volcán Tajumulco to interview female URNG ( Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity) combatants for her first book, Bridge of Courage (Common Courage Press 1993). During the war, the URNG was an umbrella guerilla organization fighting against the oppression of the Guatemalan army and other government forces. The URNG included the Revolutionary Organization of the People in Arms (ORPA), the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP), the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR), and the National Directing Nucleus of PGT (PGT-NDN). Today, URNG is a legally recognized political party.

While conducting her research, she met one of the founders and commanding officers of ORPA, Efrain Bámaca Velásquez (alias “Everardo”). They fell in love and married. Bámaca was kidnapped a year later, in 1992.

Jennifer began the search for her husband the same year. She carried out two hunger strikes in Guatemala (one lasting 32 days in 1994), demanding that the government acknowledge that they had detained Everardo, and that they give him a fair trial. The military refused to admit they had Bámaca in custody, and met Jennifer’s demands with silence.

When information surfaced that the U.S. government had information on the fate of Bámaca, and the perpetrators responsible for his detention, torture, and eventual murder, Jennifer took her hunger strike to the streets of DC. She began to fight civil rights cases against the CIA, the State Department, and the National Security Council. In 1995 Congress finally released documents proving that the United States, which previously denied knowledge of his disappearance, knew that he had been captured alive by the Guatemalan military.

Her case caused a scandal at the highest levels of government, as it was revealed that Bámaca’s torturers were paid CIA assets. As a result, then-President Clinton ordered declassification of secret archives on the Bámaca murder and other human rights crimes committed by the Guatemalan military. The Guatemala Declassification Campaign led to the disclosure of thousands of records on U.S. support and collaboration with Guatemalan government atrocities. The records are now being used as evidence in dozens of Guatemalan human rights cases. Jennifer’s case demonstrates that the right to truth is an essential element to the right to justice.

With no just resolution to the case in Guatemala, Jennifer took it to the Inter-American Court on Human Rights (IACHR) in Costa Rica. In December 2000, the IACHR found the Guatemalan military guilty of the disappearance, torture, and execution of Efrain Bámaca Velazquez and in 2006 the Guatemalan government apologized for his murder. The Guatemalan government still took no action, and it wasn’t until 2009, when the IACHR ruled that Guatemala had not complied with the sentences, that the criminal process resumed in earnest in Guatemala.

A series of remarkable recent rulings by the Guatemalan Supreme Court has permitted the Bámaca case and others to move forward in the penal system once again. The rulings required Guatemalan courts to comply with international law, including the Inter-American legal principles and decisions. The case sets a crucial legal precedent prohibiting the forced disappearance and torture of any human being, no matter what their political, religious or racial backgrounds, and no matter which side of the internal conflict they supported. There is no exception to the ban on torture, and hence no justification, legal or moral, for the 200,000 dead and disappeared in Guatemala.

With the support of GHRC, Jennifer has continued to fight the case over the last 18 years. The Bámaca case has been of great interest to the international community, and of particular importance for citizens and organizations in the United States. It is now (2010) one of the ten paradigmatic human rights cases moving forward in Guatemalan courts, backed by the Dutch Embassy.


Massacre at Las Dos Erres

**Case updates:
May 5, 2010: U.S. rounds up Guatemalans accused of war crimes
April 29, 2010: Guatemala: Unearthing a massacre
June 1, 2009: Another appeal paralyzes the trial against soldiers in the Dos Erres massacre

Background on the massacre

In December 1982, during the de facto administration of Ríos Montt, approximately 300 residents of Dos Erres, Libertad, Petén were murdered by the Guatemalan military’s special Kaibil Unit. Of those killed 113 were children under the age of 14. The soldiers began with babies, throwing them down wells in the town. Next, the women and children were gathered in the town’s churches, where the women were raped and the children were beaten. The children were eventually thrown, some still alive, into wells. After the women and children, the men were beaten to death and their bodies were thrown into a well.

After having children of their own, two Kaibiles confessed to the massacre and named the other officers involved. The case was first filed by the Association of Families of the Detained and 'Disappeared' of Guatemala (FAMDEGUA) in 1994 and the site of the massacre was exhumed and the remains of 171 people were recovered. The case was highlighted in the Historical Clarification Commission report and was introduced to the Inter-American Court by FAMDEGUA in 1996. In 2001, an agreement was reached in which the state, under President Portillo, recognized the massacre; money and psychiatric help were given to the survivors and a monument was constructed in the town. In December 2001, Q14 million (around $1.7 million) was paid to the families of the victims.

In 2005, the Guatemala Supreme Court ruled to drop the charges against the officers, claiming that it could not act under the National Reconciliation Law that exempts members of the armed forces and those under their command from prosecution to for unspecified crimes carried during the conflict. The court stated that the law annulled actions taken after its passage in 1996. In January 2010, the Inter American Court ruled that the state had obstructed the case and ordered the case and arrest warrants reactivated. In February two Kaibiles were arrested in connection with the massacre. Nearly 30 years since the massacre no military officers have been convicted for the murders committed.

Read declassified U.S. documents on the case collected by the National Security Archives.


Forced Disappearances

December 11, 2009: Exhumation underway to search for victims named in the Death Squad Dossier. Ten years after the document was made public, families of those whose disappearances were recorded in the Death Squad Dossier, or "Diario Militar" will finally be able to find the remains of their loved ones. It will be the first proceeding in the department of Guatemala. [elPeriodico]

- El Jute -

December 4, 2009: First military officer sentenced for forced disappearance. Marco Antonio Sanchez became the first army officer to be convicted for the crime of forced disappearance in the Guatemalan armed conflict. He was sentenced to 53 years in prison yesterday for ordering the forced disappearance of 8 peasants in El Jute, Chiquimula in October 1981. He was convicted along with three paramilitaries. [elPeriodico][New York Times] [La Hora]
**Family members of the disappeared, though satisfied with the outcome of the case, fear reprisals. Some have already received threats from retired military personel present at the trial. Though they have been given segurity guards, the measures are only temporary. [Prensa Libre]
**Vea un video sobre la audiencia.

November 26, 2009: Seeking Justice in the El Jute Case. U.S. Ambassador Stephen McFarland attended the hearing in Chiquimula on the disappearance of eight people in 1981, hoping his presence would support the families of the victims. He stated that the Guatemalan state needed to respond to the abuses from the war. The prosecutor in the case is asking for a sentence of 570 years for the accused. [Prensa Libre]

- Cusanero Coj -

September 1, 2009: Ex-military Commissioner Condemned to 150 Years in Prison. The first trial for forzed disappearance in Guatemala, that of ex-commissioned soldier Felipe Cusanero Coj, concluded yesterday. He was found guilty of disappearing six people, and sentenced to 150 years in prison. According to the penal code, however, he will only serve 50 years. [Prensa Libre]
See also:
Guatemala Sees Landmark Sentence [BBC]
Guatemala convicts paramilitary in disappearances [Washington Post]


Myna Mack Assassination / Helen Mack

Myrna Mack Chang was a Maya/Chinese anthropologist who researched human rights violations of internally displaced populations during the Guatemala’s armed conflict. As a result of her outspoken criticism of the government, she was stabbed to death as she left her office in Guatemala City on September 11, 1990.

In 1991, Helen Mack, Myrna Mack’s sister, pursued prosecution in Guatemala of those responsible for the assassination. The case was taken to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, DC, and later to the Inter-American Court in Costa Rica. Two years later, one of Myrna's attackers, a low ranking security official, was convicted in a groundbreaking decision. The case also led to the trial of two colonels and a general, as the intellectual authors of the murder; the highest ranking officials in Guatemala ever to be tired for human rights violations. In 2002, Colonel Juan Valencia Osorio was convicted for his role in ordering her murder. The decision, however, was overturned in an appeals court in 2003, and the case has been taken to Guatemalan Supreme Court. This case was the first of its kind in Guatemala and paved the way for similar human rights cases.

Helen Mack went beyond the prosecution of her sister’s killers and in 1993 founded the Myrna Mack Foundation to “drive the fight against impunity, the formation of the Rule of Law in Guatemala, and the consolidation of peace and democracy.”  

Mack has continued to fight against impunity and human rights violations in Guatemala. In 2010, Helen was appointed by President Colom to lead investigations into police corruption. If one of her first statements after her appointment, she asserted that the low pay and poor work conditions of Guatemala’s police were key catalysts in corruption and must be addressed. On April 28, 2010, Helen won the Judith Lee Stronach Human Rights Awardfrom the Center for Justice and Accountability.


Operation Sophia

December 3, 2009: Operation Sofia: Documenting Genocide in Guatemala. The deliberate massacre of thousands of indigenous Mayans by the Guatemalan army during the summer of 1982 has been verified with internal records and was presented to the Spanish National Court yesterday. The records on "Operation Sofia," which had previously been “missing” according to the Defense Minister, implicate responsibility for what the UN-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission determined "acts of genocide" in 1999. Kate Doyle of the National Security Archive obtained the records from military intelligence sources in Guatemala and was able to verify their authenticity. [National Security Archives][New York Times]


Panzós Massacre

The massacre of 35 residents of Panzós in the department of Alta Verapaz is considered the first of many that occurred during the armed conflict that gripped Guatemala from 1960 to 1996. On May 29 1978, 179 eight hundred residents met in the town square to protest the Canadian mining company Inco, Ltd, which had taken over private lands to open a new nickel mine. While the mayor of Panzós addressed the crowd, the Guatemalan army surrounded the plaza and opened fire, killing 35. Eighteen more died attempting to flee across the Polochic River. The leader of the movement against the mine, Mama Maquín, and her grandson were killed by the gunfire.

In 1997, exhumations of the victims and an investigation into the massacre began, led by Association of Families of the Detained and Disappeared of Guatemala (FAMDEGUA). The State has taken responsibility for the massacre but the investigation has yielded few insights into who exactly was responsible for the murders.


Ex-President Portillo

Alfonso Antonio Portillo Cabrera was president of Guatemala from 2000 to 2004, as a member of the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG). During his presidential campaign, it was revealed that in 1982 he had killed two Mexican students when he was a professor of political science at the university in Chilpancingo, Mexico. He claimed that he had shot the students in self defense and fled the country because he was not a Mexican citizen. Despite this admission, he was elected in the second round of elections with 68.3% of the vote. Portillo’s administration was marked by high levels of corruption and impunity and when his political impunity ended in 2004, he quickly fled to Mexico.

His extradition from Mexico to Guatemala was approved in 2006 and he returned to the country in 2008. He then sued Guatemala to be reinstated as a member of congress in order to qualify again for political immunity, however it was not granted. In 2010, the District Attorney of Southern New York requested his extradition to the United States to face charges of laundering $70 million through American and European banks. Portillo was arrested soon thereafter by the National Police, CICIG and the Public Prosecutor’s Office. Portillo has appealed the charges and experts believe it may take five years before the ex-President is sent to the US because, if found guilty, he must first serve his sentence in Guatemala before going to trial in the U.S.


Rio Negro Massacres

**Case updates: Representatives from Rio Negro and the community organization ADIVIMA met with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in March 2010 to request that their case of the five massacres at Rio Negro be moved to the Inter-American Court in Costa Rica. The 33 communities affected by the Chixoy dam have successfully negotiated an integral reparations package with President Colom.

Background on the case

Five massacres occurred in the Rio Negro (“Black River”) communities between 1980 and 1982. The people of Rio Negro (named after the nearby river) had occupied the region since the classic Mayan age and owned 1,440 hectares of land. During the energy crisis of the 1970’s the Guatemalan government looked for local energy alternatives, creating the state-owned National Institute of Electrification (INDE). In 1975 INDE unveiled plans to dam the Rio Negro, also called the Chixoy River, to provide the country’s electricity, which would flood 31 miles of the river valley. Funds from the Inter-American Development Bank, Italian company Cogefar-Impressit, and the World Bank were used in the construction of local roads and the dam itself. The Rio Negro communities were notified that it would be relocated and the 150 families would receive two to three hectares of land. A local committee negotiated with INDE officials for a permanent settlement in Pacux, near Rabinal. After a violation of the agreement, 20 families moved back to their community, while dam construction began. During early construction a French firm was hired to excavate Ancient Mayan objects, desecrating the sacred land in the eyes of the local communities.

Five years after the plan was proposed, in March 1980, violence broke out between the local community and the developers when two men were accused of stealing coffee beans from Cogefar-Impressit and arrested. A confrontation broke out between the village and three security officers chased the men back to their village. The officers were then rounded up by the villagers and brought to the Church where one officer was hit by a community leader. The officer then opened fire, killing seven villagers. The officers fled and one was injured and drowned crossing the river. That July two villagers asked to bring a written agreement to the dam site were found murdered a few days later and the written documents were lost.

In 1981, the Guatemalan government began destroying villages as part of the scortched earth campaign, and relocating communities in ‘model villages’ that could be easily controlled and monitored by the army and also provide cheap labor to neighboring towns. The government also created Civil Defense Patrols, made up of armed locals, often forcefully recruited. One such patrol was created in the village of Xococ, near Rio Negro, and would eventually be responsible for much of the violence in the region.

In February 1982, villagers in Rio Negro were instructed to bring their identification cards to Xococ. When the villagers reached the town they were murdered by the Xococ Patrol. One woman escaped and returned to Rio Negro to warn the other villagers. The men of the village decided to flee and hide in the hills leaving the women and children in the village, under the assumption they would not be harmed. The next month Civil Patrols from Xococ arrived in Rio Negro, under the pretense of guerilla activity in the area, and massacred the women and children, killing 177. Two months later, 84 more people were killed in ‘Los Encuentros’, Rio Negro, and fifteen women were abducted. Then, in September, 92 villagers were burned alive, including survivors of previous massacres. Of Rio Negro’s almost 800 Maya-Achí inhabitants, 444 were killed in the massacres between 1980 and 1982.

Today the Rio Negro community is in negotiations with the Guatemalan government for reparations for the construction of the dam. A case is also being heard in the Inter-American Commission for integral reparations for the massacres that took place. The UN Historical Clarification Commission concluded that the killings were carried out by patrols created by the Guatemalan military, but the government has yet to take responsibility.



**Case updates:
March 30, 2010:
First jail sentence emitted in Rosenberg Case

Background on the case

On May 10, 2009 Guatemalan lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg was shot and killed while riding his bike in Zone 14 of Guatemala City. Two days later a video recorded before his murder was released in which the Rosenberg stated, “If you are watching this message, it is because I was assassinated by President Álvaro Colom, with help from Gustavo Alejos" (Colom's private secretary). He went on to claim that the President planned his assassination because he was in possession of documents linking the President to the murders of prominent businessman Khalil Musa and his daughter Marjorie a month earlier. The next day the capital erupted in protest calling for Colom’s impeachment, while the president denied any involvement. Many of the demonstrations were led by Guatemalan youths protesting impunity in Guatemala, rather than taking a specific political stance.

The murder and allegations against the President rocked the nation and threatened to destabilize the Colom Administration. However, the CICIG’s (International Anti-Impunity Commission) Special Prosecutors Office 9 (UEFAC) began its investigation on May 14, 2009. By November 13, 2009, CICIG's director Carlos Castresana expressed confidence the case would be resolved by the end of 2009.

In January, 2010, the CICIG concluded that Rosenberg had in fact planned his own death, distraught over the death of his mistress Marjorie Musa. The CICIG revealed that Rosenberg had faked his own extortion, hired hit men to kill the supposed extortionist and then posed as the extortionist with the help of two family members and multiple cell phones. Additionally, the CICIG found no connection to President Colom or his secretary. In February 2010, President Colom visited the United States to thank the Organization of American States for withholding judgment in the case which he believes helped prevent a coup in the country.

As of March 31, 2010 one person was charged in the crime, but the material and intellectual authors have not been brought to trial.

Past updates on the case of lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg.


Spanish Embassy Attack

On January 31, 1980 a group of students and farmers from the department of Quiché occupied the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City to demand an end to military repression in their communities.  In response to the occupation, security forces encircled the building and occupied the first and third floors - despite the ambassador’s warnings that to do so violated international law. Security forces then bombed the embassy, setting the building on fire. The fire killed 39 people, including farmers, diplomats and officials. Among the victims was Vincente Menchú, father of now Nobel Prize recipient, Rigoberta Menchú Tum.  The Spanish Ambassador Máximo Cajal survived along with demonstrator Gregorio Xujá. The latter was taken by a group of armed men from his hospital room where he was being treated for third degree burns. He was tortured and then shot and killed; his body was found dumped on the campus of the University of San Carlos. Thirty years later, no one has been convicted for the fire or deaths of the demonstrators and embassy workers. The case is currently being heard in Spanish Courts, along with charges of genocide, brought by the Menchú Foundation.




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