RIGHTS-GUATEMALA: Still Waiting for Justice, 28 Years On
Ines Benitez, IPS
"I suffer because three of my kids were
murdered. One of them, who was just 17, was killed when the Spanish embassy was
burnt down. I am sad because in Guatemala there is no justice," Catarina Lux, a
68-year-old indigenous woman from the northwestern province of El Quiche, told
Twenty-eight years after the security forces set
fire to the embassy in Guatemala City on Jan. 31, 1980, family members of the
victims of the fire and of the 1960-1996 civil war gathered outside the
Constitutional Court in the capital to protest its decision to throw out
international arrest warrants for seven former military officials accused of
crimes against humanity.
"In Guatemala there are 250,000 dead and
disappeared on one hand and on the other no single guilty person in jail. Where
is justice?" Julio Solorzano Foppa, the son of writer Alaide Foppa, who fell
victim to forced disappearance under the military regime, asked in statements to
On Dec. 12, 2007, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court decided
not to honour a Spanish judge's extradition request for five generals, including
former dictator Efrain Rios Montt (1982-1983) who is currently a member of
parliament, former president Romeo Lucas Garcia (1978-1982), and two former
civilian officials, arguing that Spain has no jurisdiction over crimes committed
During the government of former dictator Lucas Garcia, a
group of indigenous campesinos (small farmers) from several communities in the
region of El Quiche, along with university students, peacefully occupied the
Spanish embassy in the capital to draw attention to the bloody military
repression in their villages.
The security forces set fire to the
embassy, and 37 people died, including Spanish consul Jaime Ruiz del Arbol,
former Guatemalan foreign minister Adolfo Molina, former Guatemalan vice
president Eduardo Caceres, and the father of 1992 Nobel Peace Prize-winner
Rigoberta Menchu, Vicente Menchu.
"They killed my sons and my husband
died in the fire," another elderly Quiche woman, 66-year-old Angelica Catarina,
told IPS, drying her tears with a red handkerchief as she called for justice.
Members of the Committee of Campesino Unity and representatives of human
rights groups demonstrated outside the Constitutional Court, holding signs
reading "Court of Impunity" and "Why, If Genocide Was Committed?" along with
photos from that period, mainly of the burning of the Spanish embassy.
Menchu, the founder of the foundation that carries her name, filed a
lawsuit in 1999 in a high court in Spain against former leaders of Guatemala's
dictatorship on charges of genocide, torture, state terrorism and other crimes
against humanity committed in Guatemala during the armed conflict between the
state security forces and leftist insurgents.
The Spanish court
investigated the charges and issued international warrants for arrest and
extradition to Spain against Rios Montt -- currently a legislator representing
the rightwing Guatemalan Republican Front -- and other officials of his
dictatorship, on Jul. 7, 2006.
In the case of the embassy fire, the
Spanish high court (Audiencia Nacional) issued warrants for Rios Montt, retired
generals Oscar Humberto Mejia and Romeo Lucas Garcia, and two former ministers,
Donaldo Alvarez Ruiz and General Angel Anibal Guevara.
Also among the
accused are chief of the National Police, German Chupina, police officer Pedro
Garcia Arredondo and former armed forces Chief of Staff Benedicto Lucas Garcia.
Menchu, with the backing of the Genocide Never Again Coordinating
committee, filed a lawsuit in a local court on Jan. 17 against the five
Constitutional Court justices who threw out the arrest warrants and extradition
request for the former military officials.
But the activist's lawsuit
was also thrown out, on the argument that the Constitutional Court magistrates
cannot be persecuted for opinions expressed in the course of their duties.
A day earlier, Spain's Audiencia Nacional, had stated that Guatemalan
authorities had refused to cooperate with the extradition requests, which, it
said, remained in effect.
Since 2005, Audiencia Nacional Justice
Santiago Pedraz has been investigating the deaths of around 250,000 people,
mainly Maya Indians, under the military regimes that ruled Guatemala with an
iron fist from 1961 to 1996, and with heightened violence between 1978 and 1984.
Under a scorched earth counterinsurgency policy applied in the early
1980s, some 440 indigenous villages and their inhabitants were wiped off the map
by the security forces and the roughly 50,000 members of the paramilitary "civil
defence patrols" armed by the military.
According to a 1999 report by
the United Nations-sponsored Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification
(CEH), agents of the state were responsible for the great majority of the
Sixteen witnesses of the massacres committed in Guatemala
during the armed conflict flew to Spain Thursday to testify before the Audiencia
Nacional, which will take declarations from two other groups of witnesses in
March and May, Benito Morales, a lawyer for the Rigoberta Menchu Foundation,
"They are testifying in Spain because Guatemala does not want
to live up to its legal obligations," he lamented.
In his view, both the
Constitutional Court decision and the verdict of the Guatemalan court that
rejected the charges brought against the Constitutional Court justices demonstre
the "complicity" of the Guatemalan judges with the accused.
compelling signs that political interests underlie these decisions," he said.
"The power of the accused, especially that of some of them, is very deep-rooted,
and they have an influence over the system."
During the protest, the
demonstrators carried coffins, from which were hung signs accusing the
Constitutional Court of complicity. They also covered dozens of shoes with red
paint, as well as a placard reading "Efrain Rios Montt, Wanted for Genocide".
The head of the Centre for Legal Action on Human Rights (CALDH), Mario
Minera, said the Constitutional Court decision "was shameful." He also told IPS
that he found it "inexplicable" that the witnesses of the massacres would have
to testify in a Spanish court.
"The Guatemalan people should be reminded
that the state has not had the will to do justice or to compensate the victims.
They have ruled in favour of the accused," Eduardo de Leon, director of the
Rigoberta Menchu Foundation, remarked to IPS.
Jose Ernesto Menchu,
Rigoberta's cousin, told the press that he hoped for "justice and reparations
for the victims," and that "human rights violators" would stop being favoured.
Solorzano Foppa, a plaintiff in the case against the former military
officials, asked the government of President Alvaro Colom, who took office on
Jan. 14, to "please tell us what is his opinion on the Constitutional Court
ruling and his position with respect to the question of the appearance in court
of those responsible for the massacres."
"The Court resolution is not
only unconstitutional, but violates the international treaties on human rights
signed by the state and hurts its international relations," he argued.
As part of the events held to mark the anniversary of the
embassy fire, families of the victims organised a vigil outside the embassy
Thursday and on Wednesday held a ceremony at the Maya ruins of Kaminal Juyu to
the south of the capital, organised by the Committee of Campesino Unity, to
which Menchu's father belonged.