Guatemala City, Guatemala – Marcia Méndez never stopped looking for her sister.
Now, decades after Luz Haydee was missing by Guatemalan military forces, justice could be on the horizon, after a Guatemalan judge this month ordered a trial for crimes committed in the 1980s.
“For us this is already a big step forward,” Méndez told Al Jazeera in front of the Guatemala City courthouse after last week’s hearing.
Luz Haydee Mendez Calderon was arrested and disappeared in 1984, one of the estimates 45,000 people disappeared during the civil war in Guatemala. An estimated 200,000 people died during the 1960-1996 armed conflict.
At the time, Méndez Calderón was secretary of international relations for the Guatemalan Labor Party, which had been forced underground after a US-backed coup in 1954 and became one of the groups of armed fighters involved in a 36-year conflict with the military.
She was also the mother of two children. Her nine-year-old daughter was sexually assaulted during the kidnapping and, along with her younger brother, was detained and tortured for several days. The children reappeared, but their mother never did.
In 1999, the leaked documents reinforced the search for the truth by the family.
The Diario Militar, or Death Squad Journal, documented the kidnappings, torture, disappearances and executions of 183 people, including Mendez Calderón, between 1983 and 1985. The military intelligence dossier includes a section with a numbered list of 183, with their names, affiliations, photograph, date and place of the kidnapping and other basic details.
On June 9, a Guatemalan judge ordered that six ex-servicemen be tried for their duties in allegations included in the Death Squad Journal, a move held by relatives of the victims, who also reiterated the cries of the remains of their loved ones. to be located and returned.
“It seemed impossible”
Most, but not all, of the victims listed in the Death Squad Journal were members of the combat group and supporters, organizers of student movements, union leaders, writers, and other dissidents. Some were just kids.
In most cases, the victims were detained for weeks and then killed, according to the document. So far, however, only the remains of eight victims of the Death Squad Diary have been exhumed and identified, including six clandestine burials at a former military base 70 km west of the capital, the capital. Guatemala City.
All six defendants were charged with crimes against humanity and five of them were charged with enforced disappearance. They are all also charged with murder, attempted murder or both, for the murders. The allegations relate to 20 individual victims, based on eyewitness accounts and documentation collected for more than two decades.
“It is a triumph to have reached this point after almost 40 years in this struggle,” Mendez said, following the judge’s ruling. “For so many years it seemed impossible to us.”
A UN-backed truth commission concluded in 1999 that the Guatemalan army and paramilitary forces were responsible for more than 90 percent of the atrocities committed during the civil war. More than 80 percent of the victims were Mayan indigenous civilians, many of them killed in more than 600 documented massacres.
The Truth Commission concluded that state actors perpetrated acts of genocide and since then national courts have agreed on relevant sentences. High-level military officials are currently awaiting trial for genocide, enforced disappearance and other crimes against humanity, mainly in rural indigenous areas.
In contrast, most of the victims of the Death Squad Journal were residents of Guatemala City. Urban operations were coordinated by military intelligence linked to the presidential high command, according to the prosecution.
“It was a systematic policy that gave continuity to the scorched earth policy in the countryside,” said Francisco Sanchez, who was nine years old at the time of the abduction and disappearance of his aunt Mendez Calderon.
“I feel privileged because there are few cases [into the courts]. That’s 183 of 45,000 people, “he said Wednesday in a square in front of the court, where he and others had covered the steps with photographs of the victims of the Death Squad Diary.
After the 1996 Peace Accords, Sánchez and other children, nephews and nephews of the missing founded the HIJOS collective to continue the struggle of the older generations for justice. They installed a speaker outside of Wednesday to broadcast audio of the courtroom trials and fired firecrackers while Judge Miguel Angel Galvez read the allegations.
The next day, Galvez left the six defendants in jail, ordering them to remain in pretrial detention pending trial. Galvez gave prosecutors three months to continue their investigations and scheduled an interim hearing for September.
The six ex-officers will probably not be the only defendants in the case.
Eleven ex-military and police officers were arrested on May 27 and a dozen were arrested when he appeared in court. Six had their initial hearings and will be tried, according to Galvez’s June 9 ruling.
The initial hearings of the other six former agents arrested on May 27 are pending and will determine whether they will also be subject to trial. Some of the remaining six are being held in medical centers, while others were detained in other parts of the country and were not transferred to the capital in time for the first hearing.
“We were taken by surprise,” said Antonio Rustrian, whose forced disappearance of Uncle Manuel Ismael Salanic Chiquil was recorded in the Death Squad Diary. “For me it was very symbolic, because the day of the arrests was the anniversary of my grandfather’s death,” he told Al Jazeera outside the courthouse.
Rustrian’s grandfather, who died of natural causes in 2014, dedicated 30 years of his life to the movement for truth and justice. Shortly after his son’s disappearance, he co-founded the Mutual Support Group (GAM) and later became involved with the Association of Relatives of Detainees-Disappeared of Guatemala (FAMDEGUA).
“The struggle and history [have] I have always been part of my family, “said Rustrian, 25, who was born more than a decade after his uncle’s disappearance.” He left a lasting mark on me from a young age. “
Salanic Chiguil was 18 years old when he and three other young people studying to become teachers disappeared by force one night in 1984. Before being taken away, Salanic’s kidnappers tortured him with electric shocks in front of his relatives; they also tortured his younger brother and beat his father and uncle, according to the family.
“The ongoing legal proceedings are important because they reveal how the state worked, with great brutality. It’s a story that needs to be made known and there needs to be justice so that it doesn’t happen again,” Rustrian said. member of HIJOS.
However, groups of military veterans and some right-wing politicians continue to dismiss this story.
When retired officers were arrested late last month for the Daily Death Squad case, Congress human rights commission chairman Alvaro Arzu tweeted about his support for the men, calling. the “war heroes” and saying “they defended the sovereignty of the country and saved us from communism.” ”
Less than two weeks later, nine lawmakers introduced a bill that would overturn the prosecution of crimes committed by anyone directly or indirectly related to the armed conflict. The bill would be retroactive, freeing convicted members of the paramilitary and ex-military force and others who were pending trial.
A similar amnesty bill proposed in 2017 sparked months of protests and international condemnation after a first reading was passed in Congress in 2019. The Constitutional Court finally ruled against the bill and ordered that it be left permanently in suspense.
If the new bill moves forward, it will certainly rekindle protests and legal challenges led by indigenous people by survivors and relatives of the victims. The Guatemalan government has not commented on the new amnesty proposal.
For now, however, many groups are focusing on the progress of the historic Death Squad Diary case. “We finally see the result of everything we’ve done,” Mendez said, carrying a photograph of his sister on a sign hanging around his neck.
“We are both sad and happy,” he said, explaining that many of the victims ’parents died before seeing how the cases of their missing children reached the courts. “We also cried a lot,” Mendez said, “for joy, for anger, for all sorts of emotions.”