Interamerican Court finds against Guatemala in Dos Erres Case

After fifteen years of waiting for justice to be done in Guatemala the survivors and relatives of victims of the Dos Erres massacre have however received a favourable verdict elsewhere: the Interamerican Court of Human Rights found the state of Guatemala failed to live up to its judicial obligations to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the massacre.

The massacre itself took place in December 1982, in a small community in the Peten called Dos Erres, after the fact that the founders names began with R. Various reasons have been put forward to explain why it took place: that the villagers had been accused of being guerrillas, or an attempt to cover up the earlier rape of a woman from the village by a member of the army. Whatever the motive, the details are all too familiar to those used to reading about army massacres in the civil war. Population rounded up, brutal killing, bodies disposed of in mass graves, this time the village well or in the surrounding woodland.

In the following years information about what had happened accumulated so that in 1994 a forensic anthropology team exhumed the site and found the remains of 171 individuals, about one third of who were aged under 12. Concurrently with the forensic investigation a criminal case was opened. Unusually, two kaibiles, who had participated in the massacre carried out by this elite army unit, repented of their action and decided to testify. Two children who survived also gave testimony. Their testimony matched the findings of the forensic team precisely: they had stated that children, then women and then men were killed, and this was the order in which remains were recovered from the well.

The Association of the Families of the Disappeared, FAMDEGUA, and the Centre of International Law, CEJIL, brought the case. They had unprecedented evidence, from some direct material authors, full details of how the massacre was carried out and the command structure of the army unit and names of all its members. They hoped with such strong material they could get a conviction of the material authors and show a direct link right up to the highest levels of the military hierarchy.

So much for hope, in Guatemala it is often a small candle in a pit of darkness, and this case was to be no different from others such as that of Myrna Mack. The use of dilatory, frivolous injunctions and every delaying tactic that the lawyers of the accused could
concoct was used to belabour the case’s progress. The accused primarily claimed that they were eligible for amnesty under the National Reconciliation Law, created at the end of the civil war. This grants exemption from prosecution to members of the armed forces and those under their command for unspecified common crimes carried out in the context of the conflict aimed at preventing, repressing or punishing crimes by armed opposition groups. Incredibly, it took nine years from this claim being made by the accused for it to pass through the pending trays of the various courts which considered it before they decided that the law did not apply and reinstate the original arrest warrants. One wonders how far the horses can have bolted in the nine years it has taken to shut the stable door.

Since they were well aware of the likelihood that they were likely to meet obstruction they also brought a case to the Interamerican Commission of Human Rights. In 2000 a friendly settlement was reached between the survivors and the Guatemalan government, and the latter undertook to pay compensation and carry out other acts of recognition of what had happened. By so doing they also hoped to avoid a case being brought to the Interamerican Court. However, due to the fact that the case has been so badly handled in Guatemala a case was brought, and the court has found that this constitutes a denial of justice – and furthermore that the government has also failed to live up to the obligations of the friendly agreement reached in 2000.

It remains to be seen whether FAMDEGUA, CEJIL and the relatives’ satisfaction at this victory will be amplified by justice at home.

A good background description of the Dos Erres case can be found in this 2002 Amnesty International report – see about half way down the page.

Categories: Human Rights, Justice


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