August 30th is the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. We remember the estimated 45,000 people who were disappeared, according to the United Nations–sponsored Truth Clarification Commission (CEH), during the internal armed conflict (1960-1996) that took place in Guatemala.
The REMHI (Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica) Report was published by Bishop Juan José Gerardi Conedera, on the 24th April 1998, two days before his brutal murder. The report speaks about forced disappearances (from the English version Guatemala – Never Again!).
Forced Disappearance: A Smoke Screen
Forced disappearance has been one of the barbaric, selective methods most frequently used by Guatemalan intelligence. It was used on a mass scale during certain periods of the armed conflict. Forced disappearance accounts for one out of every five cases reported in testimonies. Most of the victims were seized suddenly during a covert action and were never heard from again. Forced disappearance gives rise to tremendous uncertainty over the fate of the victims and their physical and psychological well-being, and it causes protracted suffering for the families.
Despite unmistakable evidence of military and police involvement, and the impunity with which they acted, the government and army have consistently denied having any control over, or responsibility for, forced disappearances. To date, the absence of official investigations has impeded attempts to search for the disappeared.
Covert actions and the initial uncertainty surrounding these incidents enabled intelligence agencies to delay public reaction and camouflage state responsibility. This also provided the captors with more opportunities to break down the detained-disappeared person’s resistance. Disappearance had additional objectives, such as spreading terror and paralyzing the victim’s social circle. In most of the cases involving intelligence corps, attempts were made to cover up any evidence to preclude investigations and ensure the perpetrators’ ability to act with impunity, to escape punishment.
Nathalie Mercier wrote in Latin America Bureau (LAB) about the Choatalúm conviction, in 2009.
The Choatalúm conviction was the first in Guatemala for the crime of “forced disappearance”. It marked the end of one phase of a long struggle for those involved in the case. There had been many hurdles to overcome.
Silence is a characteristic of the crime of “forced disappearance”, which is recognised internationally as a crime against humanity. In Guatemala, over 45,000 people were “disappeared” during the internal conflict. Victims simply vanished as though into a fog, never to be seen or heard of again, and their relatives were denied information as to their whereabouts or fate. Without knowledge of what happened, the relatives often stay in limbo.
You can read the full piece here, Emerging Out Of The Fog.
Also, Amanda Kistler wrote in NACLA, in 2010, about the first time a Guatemalan court acknowledged the state’s specific use of forced disappearance.
Today, a legal definition of forced disappearance has been codified. Although it resembles the crime of unlawful detention or abduction, it differs from these in two important ways: First, forced disappearance is perpetrated by or with the support of a state or political organization, making it part of a systematic plan. Second, the fate of the abducted person is concealed in order to remove him or her from the protections of the law and cause terror and uncertainty in the wider population.
Because forced disappearance involves the violation of several human rights—including the rights to life, liberty, physical integrity, security, justice, due process, truth, and reparation—it is internationally classified as a crime against humanity.
Part of what makes forced disappearance so egregious is that it denies those who survive the opportunity to understand what happened and to honor those lost with a proper burial—a fundamental element of the healing process. Grieving becomes a permanent state. For Mayan victims, forced disappearance does violence to their form of spirituality in severing ties with the dead, which are an integral part of Maya beliefs. Recognizing this, the judge in the Choatalúm case called forced disappearance “one of the most perversely subtle, though no less violent, ways of affecting the conscience and dignity of human beings.”
You can read this piece, in full, here, Disappeared but Not Forgotten: A Guatemalan Community Achieves a Landmark Verdict.