Guatemala City, Guatemala – Marcia Mendez never stopped looking for her sister.
Now, decades after Luz Haydee’s disappearance by Guatemalan military forces, justice may be on the horizon, after a Guatemalan judge ordered a trial this month for crimes committed in the 1980s.
“For us, this is already a huge step forward,” Mendez told Al Jazeera outside the Guatemala City courthouse after last week’s hearing.
Luz Haydee Mendez Calderon was detained and disappeared in 1984 – one of the few 45,000 people have disappeared during the civil war in Guatemala. An estimated 200,000 people were killed during the armed conflict of 1960-1996.
At the time, Mendez Calderon was secretary for international relations for the Guatemalan Labor Party, which had been forced into hiding after a US-backed coup in 1954 and became one of the armed combatant groups 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, leaked documents reinforced the family’s search for the truth.
The Diario Militar, or Journal of the Death Squad, documented the kidnappings, torture, disappearances and executions of 183 people, including Mendez Calderon, between 1983 and 1985. The military intelligence file includes a section with a numbered list of the 183, with their names, affiliations, photograph, date and location of abduction and other basic details.
On June 9, a Guatemalan judge ordered six former military officers to stand trial for their role in allegations in the death squad diary – a decision celebrated by relatives of the victims, who also reiterated their appeals to the remains of their loved ones. to locate and return.
“It seemed impossible”
Most – but not all – of the victims listed in the Death Squad diary were members of combatant groups and supporters, organizers of student movements, union leaders, writers and other dissidents. Some were just children.
In most cases, the victims were held for weeks and then killed, according to the document. So far, however, the remains of only eight Death Squad diary victims have been exhumed and identified, including six found in clandestine graves at a former military base 70 km west of the capital. , Guatemala City.
The six defendants were charged with crimes against humanity and five of them were charged with enforced disappearance. They are all equally charged with murder, attempted murder, or both, for the murders. The charges relate to 20 individual victims, based on testimony and documents collected over more than two decades.
“It’s a triumph to have reached this stage after almost 40 years in this fight,” Mendez said after the judge’s ruling. “For so many years, it seemed impossible to us.”
A United Nations-backed truth commission concluded in 1999 that the Guatemalan army and paramilitary forces were responsible for over 90% of the atrocities committed during the civil war. More than 80 percent of the victims were indigenous Mayan civilians, many of whom were killed in more than 600 documented massacres.
The truth commission concluded that state actors had perpetrated acts of genocide, and national courts have since agreed in landmark decisions. High-level military officials are also currently awaiting trials for genocide, enforced disappearance and other crimes against humanity, mainly in indigenous rural areas.
In contrast, the majority of Death Squad Diary victims were residents of Guatemala City. The 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 at the time of his aunt Mendez Calderon’s kidnapping and disappearance.
“I feel privileged because few cases [into the courts]. That’s 183 people out of 45,000, ”he said Wednesday in a square outside the courthouse, where he and others had lined the steps with photographs of the Death Squadron’s newspaper victims.
After the 1996 peace accords, Sanchez and other children, nieces and nephews of the missing founded the HIJOS collective to continue the fight of older generations for justice. They set up a loudspeaker outside on Wednesday to broadcast audio of the proceedings in the courtroom and set off firecrackers as Judge Miguel Angel Galvez read the indictments.
The next day, Galvez remanded the six defendants in pre-trial detention, ordering that they remain in pre-trial detention pending trial. Galvez has given prosecutors three months to continue their investigations and has scheduled an interim hearing for September.
The six former military officers are unlikely to be the only defendants in the case.
Eleven former soldiers and police were arrested on May 27 and a twelfth was arrested when he appeared in court. Six have had their first hearings and will be tried, in accordance with Galvez’s June 9 resolution.
Initial hearings of the six other former officers arrested on May 27 are underway and will determine whether they will also stand trial. Some of the other six are being held in medical facilities while others have been arrested in other parts of the country and were not transferred to the capital in time for the initial hearing.
“It took us by surprise,” said Antonio Rustrian, whose enforced disappearance of Uncle Manuel Ismael Salanic Chiquil was recorded in the Death Squad diary, of the arrests. “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 court complex.
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 then became involved in the Association of Relatives of Missing Detainees of Guatemala (FAMDEGUA).
“The struggle and the story [have] has always been part of my family, ”said Rustrian, 25, born more than a decade after his uncle passed away. “It has left a lasting impression on me since I was little.”
Salanic Chiguil was 18 when he and three other young men who were all studying to become teachers forcibly disappeared one night in 1984. Before he was 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 works – with great brutality. It is history that must be known and there must be justice so that it does not repeat itself ”, declared Rustrian, member of HIJOS.
However, veteran military groups and some right-wing politicians continue to reject this story.
When the retired officers were arrested late last month in the Death Squad Diary case, Congressional Human Rights Committee Chairman Alvaro Arzu tweeted his support for the men, calling them “War hero” and saying “they defended the sovereignty of the country and saved us from communism. “
Less than two weeks later, nine lawmakers introduced a proposed bill that would overturn prosecutions for crimes committed by anyone directly or indirectly linked to the armed conflict. The bill would be retroactive, releasing convicted former military and paramilitary forces and others awaiting trial.
A similar amnesty bill proposed in 2017 sparked months of international protests and condemnation after it was passed on first reading in Congress in 2019. The Constitutional Court ultimately ruled against the bill and ordered that it is definitely abandoned.
If the new proposed bill progresses, it will undoubtedly reignite Indigenous-led protests and legal challenges by survivors and relatives of victims. The Guatemalan government has not commented on the new amnesty proposal.
For now, however, many groups are focused on the progress of the historic Death Squad Diary case. “We are finally seeing the result of everything we’ve done,” Mendez said, carrying a photo of her sister on a sign hanging around her neck.
“We are both sad and happy,” she said, explaining that many relatives of the victims have died before they can see their missing children’s cases go to court. “We cried a lot too,” Mendez said, “with joy, with rage, with all kinds of emotions.”