Guatemalan authorities have arrested 18 former military officials accused of committing human rights abuses during the country’s 36-year civil war.
Charged in connection with forced disappearances and massacres, the men have this week been taken into custody.
Among those arrested was the brother of the late former president, Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia, who gained a reputation for leading an oppressive regime from 1978 to 1982.
His brother, 83-year-old Manuel Benedicto Lucas Garcia, a former commander who reputedly founded paramilitary groups during the war, was also detained.
The country’s Attorney General, Thelma Aldana, who announced the arrests at a press conference in Guatemala City on Wednesday (January 6), stated that the accused are implicated in 88 events related to massacres which occurred between 1981 and 1986.
“It is one of the biggest cases of forced disappearances in Latin America,” she said.
Impunity in the wake of civil war
In 1996, peace accords were signed between Guatemala’s governing party, the National Advancement Party (PAN); the military; and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) guerrillas, ending the country’s 36-year civil war.
Following the signing of the accords, the Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) was established, and in 1999 it published its report on the conflict.
It stated that 93 percent of the violations recorded were committed by the state, with 3 percent attributed to the guerrillas, and that 83 percent of the victims were indigenous Maya and 17 percent Ladino.
The report concluded that the state had pursued a “genocidal campaign” against groups of Maya peoples in the western highlands – a finding which remains disputed today.
The CEH was not allowed to call for prosecution or allow perpetrators to be named. But since then several attempts have been made to bring those responsible for gross human rights violations to justice.
It, however, has not been an easy task for prosecutors to achieve in a country where impunity for war crimes has been an enduring problem.
In 2013, the genocide conviction of former military dictator Efrain Ríos Montt was overturned due to a supposed technicality. A retrial is set to start this month, although the former dictator is too frail to attend court.
Steps towards achieving justice
The fresh wave of arrests has been viewed, by some, as an encouraging sign that Guatemala is continuing to take steps towards justice and accountability.
The detentions have occurred just a week away from the country’s new president, Jimmy Morales’ inauguration.
The New York Times reports that one of the alleged war criminals, Edgar Justino Ovalle, who co-foundered the party which supports President Morales, could not be arrested. As a soon-to-be legislator, he has immunity. The Attorney General has stated that her office had asked the Supreme Court to lift his immunity.
The new president’s apparent ties to former military personnel implicated in alleged war crimes has concerned human rights organisations.
However, Jo Marie Burt, a political science professor at George Mason University, told the New York Times that the detentions are “a message that the incoming government has to distance itself from these Jurassic figures”.