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Former Senior Guatemalan Officials Arrested for Genocide and Forced Disappearance

June 30, 2011

Guatemalan authorities have arrested a former Army chief of staff on charges of genocide and other crimes against humanity committed during the conflict, and a former director of the National Police for his role in the forced disappearance of a student leader in 1984.

Héctor Mario López Fuentes - (c) J. Rodriguez, mimundo.org

Héctor Mario López Fuentes, former Army chief of staff under military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, was arrested at his home on June 17, 2011. He is the highest ranking official in Guatemala to be detained for human rights crimes related to the army’s war against guerrillas and the Mayan people. As head of the Army General Staff, López Fuentes was the third ranking government official during the Ríos Montt regime (1982-1983), and is charged with command responsibility for “scorched earth” counterinsurgency operations that resulted in more than 400 massacres of unarmed Mayan men, women, and children. Though also named in the case, his command superiors – Ríos Montt and then-Minister of Defense Oscar Humberto Mejía Víctores – have not been arrested.

Héctor Mario López Fuentes - (c) J. Rodriguez, mimundo.org

The retired general’s arrest comes ten years after lawyers representing massacre survivors filed a criminal case charging López Fuentes and others with genocide. According to press accounts, he is being charged by the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office for Human Rights in the deaths of 317 residents during massacres that took place in 1983 in the three towns that form the Maya Ixil triangle in central Quiché: Nebaj, San Juan Cotzal and Chajul. He is also accused of command responsibility for thousands more murders, rapes and forced displacements in the Ixil region. The prosecutor assigned to the case, Manuel Vásquez, told reporters that the crimes were committed during the execution of Plans Sofía, Victoria 82, and Firmeza 83, the central counterinsurgency plans promulgated by armed forces under Ríos Montt.

López Fuentes was arraigned on June 20. He is currently being held at the Matamoros prison in Guatemala City.

Arrests in Edgar Fernando García Case

The arrest of López Fuentes followed a separate but equally extraordinary development for justice in Guatemala: the June 9 detention of Héctor Rafael Bol de la Cruz, former Director of the notoriously brutal National Police. Captured at his home in El Progreso, Jutiapa, Bol de la Cruz – who led the police from 1983-85 – was charged for his command role in the forced disappearance of student and labor leader Edgar Fernando García.

Héctor Bol de la Cruz arrested at his home in El Progreso, Jutiapa - courtesy of Prensa Libre

García was kidnapped by security forces on February 18, 1984, and never seen again. His disappearance was one of an estimated 40,000 that took place at the hands of Guatemala’s police and military forces during the country’s civil conflict. It is not yet known whether the prosecutor’s office plans to charge the former police director with any of the other cases of disappearance that took place under his watch.

What is clear is that the new Attorney General of Guatemala, Claudia Paz y Paz, intends to go after the chain of command in some of the country’s most notorious human rights cases. Prosecutors launched the García case in 2010 when they issued arrest warrants for the four former low-ranking police agents who seized Fernando García as he passed through an outdoor market in Guatemala’s capital. In October of 2010, two of the agents, Héctor Roderico Ramírez Ríos and Abraham Lancerio Gómez, were sentenced to 40 years in prison for their role in the disappearance. The two other agents charged, Alfonso Guillermo de Leon and Hugo Rolando Gómez Osorio, remain fugitives.

Since Attorney General Paz y Paz took office in early 2011, her human rights legal team has focused its investigative efforts on the command structure of the Guatemalan army and security forces. Prior to Bol de la Cruz’s capture, on April 8 authorities detained Jorge Humberto Gómez López, commander of the Fourth Corps of the National Police under Bol. According to records found in the Historical Archive of the National Police, the Fourth Corps was the unit in charge of the security operation that resulted in García’s capture. Gómez now awaits trial under house arrest at his home in a suburb of Guatemala City, due to his poor health.

Kate Doyle, director of the National Security Archive’s Guatemala Project, commented on the recent developments: “The arrest of senior military and police officers for their command responsibility for horrifying human rights crimes committed decades ago is a direct challenge to the calcified system of impunity that has dominated Guatemala for too long,” Doyle said. “Jailing the killers of unarmed civilians and political activists is a first step toward restoring the rule of law, but jailing their superiors – those officers at the top of the chain of command who planned and ordered the operations – is a watershed for human rights justice in Guatemala.”

Government Records as Evidence

page of document recommending officers for awards - from the Archivos Historicos de la Policia Nacional

When the cases against these men go to trial, it is likely that official government records will be used as evidence against them. The Historical Archives of the National Police (AHPN) played an essential role in the case against the former police officers charged with forcibly disappearing Edgar Fernando Garcia. Velia Muralles, AHPN investigator, provided expert testimony on police documents used as evidence during the trial, including an internal record from the Fourth Corps naming the four agents responsible for García’s capture and recommending them for an award for their “heroic actions.” See a National Security Archive briefing bookfor a sample of documents used in trial, and a copy of the court’s ruling. The police documents will have direct bearing on the trials of Héctor Bol de la Cruz and Jorge Gómez López.

Declassified U.S. documents and official Guatemalan government records will also play a critical role in legal proceedings against López Fuentes. In 2009, the National Security Archive introduced Plan Sofía and hundreds of additional Guatemalan military documents as evidence against the armed forces in the international genocide case being heard in Spain’s National Court. One of the key records associated with Plan Sofía is a telegram from Army Chief of Staff López Fuentes to the commander of his Special Forces airborne brigade ordering the launching of Operation Sofía in the Ixil region of the Quiché. The counterinsurgency assault that resulted displaced hundreds of Mayan residents and left an unknown number dead as soldiers destroyed their villages, burned their houses and slaughtered their livestock. The testimony presented by Doyle and other experts during the Spanish hearings corroborated eye witness accounts also provided to the Spanish judge, and a selection of the documents used will be incorporated into the national genocide case against López Fuentes. (See summaries of witness testimony and more about the Spanish proceedings here.)

***James Rodríguez, independent Mexico-U.S. documentary photographer and photojournalist, was present at López Fuentes’ court appearance on June 20th. See additional photographs of the June 20th court appearance in a photo essay he produced which can be seen on his blog, mimundo.org.

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