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‘Huge step’: relatives in Guatemala have lost hope for justice | Tribunal News

Guatemala City, Guatemala Marcia Mendes never stopped looking for her sister.

Now, decades after Luz Haydee was disappeared by the Guatemalan army, justice may be on the horizon after a Guatemalan judge this month ordered trials for crimes committed in the 1980s.

“For us, this is already a big step forward,” Mendes told Al Jazeera outside the Guatemala City courthouse after the hearing last week.

Luz Haydee Mendez Calderon was detained in 1984 and disappeared-it is estimated to be one of them. 45,000 missing During the civil war in Guatemala. During the armed conflict from 1960 to 1996, an estimated 200,000 people were killed.

At that time, Mendes Calderón was the International Relations Secretary of the Guatemalan Labor Party, which was forced to go underground after a coup d’état supported by the United States in 1954 and became one of the armed combat groups involved in 36 years of conflict with the military.

She is also the mother of two children. Her nine-year-old daughter was sexually assaulted during the kidnapping process and was detained and tortured for several days with her brother. The children appeared again, but their mother never appeared.

In 1999, leaked documents supported the family’s pursuit of the truth.

Luz Haydee Mendez Calderon was detained and disappeared in 1984. An estimated 45,000 people disappeared during the civil war in Guatemala, among them. [Sandra Cuffe/Al Jazeera]

Diario Militar, or the Diary of the Death Squad, records the kidnapping, torture, disappearance and execution of 183 people including Mendes Calderon from 1983 to 1985. Affiliation, photos, date and location of kidnapping, and other basic details.

On June 9, a Guatemalan judge ordered six former military officers to face trial for their charges in The Expendables Diaries-a move that was celebrated by the relatives of the victims, who also reiterated their call to find the remains of their loved ones. Was located and returned.

‘It seems impossible’

Most (but not all) victims listed in the Diaries of the Death Squad were fighter group members and sympathizers, student movement organizers, union leaders, writers, and other dissidents. Some are just children.

According to the document, in most cases, the victim was held for several weeks and then killed. However, so far, only the remains of eight death squad diary victims have been exhumed and identified, and six of them have been found in a secret grave at a former military base 70 kilometers west of the capital Guatemala City.

All six defendants were charged with crimes against humanity, and five of them were charged with enforced disappearance. They were also charged with murder, attempted murder, or both. Based on witness testimonies and documents collected over two decades, these allegations involved 20 victims.

“After nearly 40 years in this struggle, being able to get to this point is a victory,” Mendes said after the judge’s ruling. “For so many years, it seems impossible for us.”

Marcia Mendes (bottom middle) and other relatives of the Guatemalan enforced disappearance victim put up banners asking “Where are they?” [Sandra Cuffe/Al Jazeera]

Truth commission

The UN-supported truth commission concluded in 1999 that the Guatemalan army and paramilitary forces are responsible for more than 90% of the atrocities committed during the civil war. More than 80% of the victims were indigenous Mayan civilians, many of whom were killed in more than 600 recorded massacres.

The truth commission concluded that state actors committed acts of genocide, and domestic courts have since agreed on landmark rulings. Senior military officials are also currently awaiting trials for genocide, enforced disappearance and other crimes against humanity, mainly in rural indigenous areas.

In contrast, most of the victims in the Diary of the Death Squad were residents of Guatemala City. According to the prosecutors, the city operations were coordinated by military intelligence agencies associated with the President’s Supreme Command.

“This is a systemic policy that continues the scorched earth policy in the countryside,” said Francisco Sanchez, whose aunt Mendez Calderon was abducted and disappeared when he was only 9 years old. .

“I feel very honored because there are very few cases that can do it [into the courts]This is 183 out of 45,000 people,” he said in a square outside the courtroom on Wednesday, where he and others were filled with pictures of the death squad diary victims on the steps.

After the signing of the peace agreement in 1996, Sanchez and the children, nieces and nephews of other missing persons established the HIJOS collective to continue the just struggle of the older generation. They set up a speaker outside on Wednesday to play audio from the court proceedings, and set off firecrackers when judge Miguel Angel Galvez read the indictment.

The next day, Galvez remanded the six defendants in custody and ordered them to be detained before the trial. Galves gave the prosecutor three months to continue the investigation and arranged for an intermediate hearing in September.

Others arrested

These six former military officers may not be the only defendants in this case.

Eleven former soldiers and policemen were arrested on May 27, and the 12th was arrested while appearing in court. According to Galvez’s June 9th resolution, the six people had a preliminary hearing and will face trial.

The preliminary hearing of the other six former police officers arrested on May 27 has not ended and will decide whether they will also face trial. Some of the remaining six people were detained in medical institutions, while others were arrested in other parts of the country and were not transferred to the capital in time to attend the preliminary hearing.

“It surprised us,” Antonio Rustrian said of the arrest, his uncle Manuel Ismael Salanic Chiquil (Manuel Ismael Salanic Chiquil) )’S forced disappearance was recorded in the “Death Squad Diary”. “To me, this is very iconic, because the day of the arrest is the anniversary of my grandfather’s death,” he told Al Jazeera outside the court building.

Relatives of missing persons in Guatemala have been fighting for answers for decades [Sandra Cuffe/Al Jazeera]

Rustrian’s grandfather died of natural causes in 2014, and he dedicated 30 years of his life to the pursuit of truth and justice. Soon after his son disappeared, he co-founded the Mutual Aid Group (GAM) and later joined the Guatemalan Detained-Missing Person Relatives Association (FAMDEGUA).

“Struggle and History [have] It has always been part of my family,” said 25-year-old Rustrian, who was born more than a decade after his uncle disappeared. “It left a lasting mark on me when I was very young. “

When Salanic Chiguil was 18 years old, he and three other young men who were learning to become teachers were forcibly disappeared one night in 1984. Before he was taken away, Salanic Chiguil’s kidnappers tortured him with electric shocks in front of his relatives; according to the family, they also tortured his brother and beat his father and uncle.

“The ongoing judicial proceedings are important because they reveal how the country works-very cruel. HIJOS member Rustrian said: “History needs to be widely known and justice is needed, so it will not repeat itself. “

Some resistance

However, veteran groups and some right-wing politicians continue to reject this history.

When retired military officers were arrested in the “Death Squad Diary” case at the end of last month, Alvaro Alzu, chairman of the Congressional Human Rights Committee, expressed support for these people on Twitter, calling them “war heroes” and saying “They defended national sovereignty and saved us from communism.”

Less than two weeks later, nine legislators proposed a bill that would eliminate the prosecution of crimes committed by anyone directly or indirectly related to the armed conflict. The bill will have retrospective effect and release convicted former military and paramilitary members and others awaiting trial.

A similar amnesty bill introduced in 2017 triggered months of protests and international condemnation after it passed the first reading of Congress in 2019. The Constitutional Court finally ruled on the bill and ordered it to be clearly shelved.

In Guatemala City in 2019, a woman walks on a wall with a picture of a person missing during the Guatemala civil war [File: Saul Martinez/Reuters]

If the new bill proposal makes progress, it will undoubtedly reignite the protests of the indigenous democratic leaders and the legal challenges of the survivors and relatives of the victims. The Guatemalan government has not yet commented on the new amnesty proposal.

However, for now, many groups are paying attention to the progress of the historic death squad diary. “We finally saw the result of everything we did,” Mendes said, with a picture of her sister hanging around her neck.

“We are both sad and happy,” she said, explaining that many of the victims’ parents died before seeing the case of their missing child in court. “We also cried many times,” Mendes said, “because of happiness, anger, and emotions.”

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