The Case of Dos Erres, La Libertad
In 1994, the Guatemalan organization Families of the Detained and Disappeared of Guatemala (FAMDEGUA) filed charges against military personnel believed to be responsible for carrying out this massacre, as well as those who ordered it. Although the Dos Erres case represents only one of over 600 massacres committed against the civilian population, this case is especially important, because it so clearly links the massacre to the highest echelons of the military high command and government, including former dictator General Efrain Rios Montt.
Initially, this case did not carry a strong possibility for successful prosecution, since nearly every villager had been killed. Fortunately, two former members of the brutal Kaibiles military unit who were at the massacre but did not participate in the killings approached FAMDEGUA to testify on behalf of the survivors.
Yet despite overwhelming forensic and eyewitness evidence, the Public Prosecutor assigned to the case refused to pursue it, having received death threats targeting him and his family. Due to ongoing delays in the Guatemalan court system, on September 13, 1996, FAMDEGUA and the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), a legal organization based in Washington, D.C., submitted a petition on the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (Case No. 11,420).
Four years later, on
Yet since that time, the
only actions taken by the
Moreover, unethical defense attorneys and frightened and corrupt judges have prevented this case from returning to a Guatemalan courtroom. Defense attorneys - who merit severe sanctioning by the Guatemalan bar association - have filed more than 32 frivolous pre-judgment appeals called amparos. According to Guatemalan law, appeals courts must make a determination on an amparo within 17 days of such a motion being filed. However, the appeals courts have taken more than 492 days to rule on each amparo. Even the Constitutional Court has taken 318 days. These delays mean that nearly a decade has passed without any form of justice for massacre survivors.
Defense attorneys proceeded to petition the Guatemalan courts to grant the accused amnesty under the National Law of Reconciliation of 1996. This law grants amnesty for most political and common crimes committed as part of the internal armed conflict but does not relieve criminal responsibility for certain particularly egregious crimes, including genocide, torture, and forced disappearance, among others. Although this case would appear to fall within one of these egregious categories, the judge charged with making this determination was Willevaldo Contreras, who is known for his blatant antagonism toward human rights defenders.
In a sentence issued in December 2004 - but only made public in February 2005 - the Constitutional Court (CC) declared null on a technicality all the procedures carried out in the case in the past nine years. The key evidence the CC has annulled includes the detailed testimonies of two Kaibiles who came forward, full of remorse, and admitted participating in the massacre, and the testimony of a youth who survived the massacred.
The CC found that the judge in charge of the investigation of the massacre should have suspended all proceedings the moment that the Guatemalan Congress approved the Law of National Reconciliation in 1996. This law stipulates that crimes carried out during the armed conflict must be studied by the Court of Appeals before being submitted to normal judicial procedures. The Court of Appeals must decide whether the case can be tried or is eligible for amnesty. In its sentence, the CC pointed out that the judge omitted this procedure. In effect, he took a series of actions, including issuing sixteen arrest warrants, before submitting the case to the Court of Appeals for analysis. The ruling was made despite the fact that when the case was brought before the Court of Appeals, the Court concluded that the Dos Erres case did not qualify for amnesty under the Law of National Reconciliation.
Because the CC's decision generated public protest at the national and international level, the court issued a clarification affirming its decision, in spite of previous rulings in which injunctions were not accepted.
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