With the news that an arrest warrant has been issued for Congressman Edgar Justino Ovalle, in connection with the CREOMPAZ case, it’s a good idea to recap the case in question, from a report by NISGUA.
On January 6, 2016, 14 former military officers were arrested on charges of forced disappearance and crimes against humanity based on evidence uncovered at the CREOMPAZ military center in Cobán, Alta Verapaz. Now a United Nations peacekeeper training base, CREOMPAZ (Regional Training Command for Peacekeeping Operations) operated as a detention and clandestine execution center during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict, when it was known as Military Zone 21. This is the largest case of forced disappearance in Latin America’s history.
Between 2012 and 2015, the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG) carried out 14 exhumations at CREOMPAZ and found 558 human remains in four graves – some of the largest mass graves found to date in Guatemala. Ninety of the bodies found belonged to children. Most showed signs of torture, with contusions to their heads and throats; many were shot execution-style and were found with blindfolds and other ropes and chains around their ankles and necks. By the middle of 2016, FAFG had confirmed that 128 of the bodies correspond to disappearances from between 1981 and 1988, the time period when those arrested formed part of the chain of command governing Military Zone 21.
The CREOMPAZ case sets the record in Guatemala for both the time span over which the crimes were committed and for the number of disappeared victims. Among the high-ranking individuals indicted is Manuel Benedicto Lucas García, who served as former Army Chief of Staff during his brother’s 1978-1982 military dictatorship.
The trial is an important step in the legal trajectory seeking justice for crimes against humanity and represents more than 30 years of hard work by survivor organizations.
Plan de Sánchez Massacre
During the armed conflict, the areas surrounding Cobán were hit hard by the counterinsurgent scorched earth policies enacted by de facto regimes, particularly those of General Romeo Lucas García and General Efraín Ríos Montt. More than 60 massacres took place in the department of Alta Verapaz alone and thousands more were disappeared. Although survivor testimonies were documented as early as the 1980s, impunity kept justice at bay for more than 30 years.
In 2012, five former civil defense patrollers were convicted in Guatemala for their role in the July 18, 1982 Plan de Sánchez massacre, during which soldiers and civil defense patrollers rounded up the residents of the Maya Achí community and tortured, raped, and slaughtered more than 250 people. Survivors were forced to dig graves for the victims and were threatened with further violence if they spoke out.
Nevertheless, witnesses testified in 2012 to the existence of other mass graves in the former Military Zone 21. The ensuing verdict sentenced the five accused to 7,710 years each in prison for murder and crimes against humanity and ordered the Public Prosecutor’s office to verify the existence of the clandestine graves. Although the sentence did not touch the high-ranking officials that ordered the massacre, it paved the way for further investigations into the responsibility of higher-ranking positions.
Military Zone 21
While clandestine cemeteries at CREOMPAZ were originally investigated in connection to the Plan de Sánchez massacre, DNA testing has linked the site to forced disappearances in six other communities in the Alta and Baja Verapaz regions: Pambach, Río Negro, Caserío Chituj, Chiacal, Barrio San Sebastían, and Chisec.
In the case of Pambach, soldiers arrived at the community in 1982 and took 75 young men, allegedly to provide military service, but none were ever seen again. Thirty-one of those men have been positively identified in a mass grave at CREOMPAZ containing the remains of 64 people; it is believed that the remaining unidentified bodies may also be from Pambach.
Likewise, after the 1982 massacre in Río Negro, survivors testified that women and children were taken to Military Zone 21. Since then, the bodies of many women and children have been found during exhumations at CREOMPAZ, including a positive DNA identification of two women and one child who were disappeared during the Río Negro massacre.
The legal case is built on more than 350 testimonies that include survivor accounts of the forced disappearances and massacres committed by the Guatemalan military, as well as other expert testimonies on the country’s historical, political and social context, forensic anthropology and genetic identification.
For the plaintiff organizations and survivors who have assembled it, this case is about more than a guilty verdict for crimes against humanity and forced disappearance. Families have spent decades searching for their disappeared relatives, with the hope that coming forward will give them information on their whereabouts and, ultimately, a dignified burial.
GSN is a coalition member of ACOGUATE, the International Accompaniment Project in Guatemala, which is formed of autonomous committees in Europe and North America.
ACOGUATE is dedicated to offering accompaniment to provide protection and support to human rights defenders, whether individuals or organisations.
Initially formed in response to a request to accompany the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR) as they launched the legal cases against former military for committing genocide and crimes against humanity during the internal armed conflict, ACOGUATE’s mandate has expanded over the past 15 years to include other cases of truth and justice, labour rights and the defence of land, life, and territory.
ACOGUATE works closely with NISGUA in providing international human rights accompaniment in Guatemala and both have worked in providing accompaniment to plaintiff oganisations in the CREOMPAZ case.