Chimaltenango: After the Sentencing of Cusanero Coj
Cusanero's verdict is only the beginning; justice is still needed
The sentencing of Felipe Cusanero Coj, ex-military commissioner from the town of Choatalum in San Martin Jilotepeque, Chimaltenango, left a satisfactory impression on human rights relatives and activists; however, there are two more requests: that the disappeared reappear and the process continue against others who are implicated.
As the trial developed, two other people were named who could be linked to this case and were superior officers to Cusanero Coj. As part of the conclusions in the case, it was recommended that investigations continue into these two individuals (who remain unnamed) in order to present a formal accusation against them.
The ex-paramilitary was sent to prison in the northern part of the country, but his lawyers have appealed the verdict. According to the report of the United Nations sponsored Truth Commission in 1999, 93% of the human rights violations during the civil war were committed by State forces.
In spite of the precedent-setting verdict, the families still wait for something more important: to find their disappeared relatives. "I went to ask three times in the military base and he told me, 'Leave immediately, because you can't just stay here without an excuse'" said Hilarion Lopez, one of the survivors whose testimony was fundamental to the verdict.
"I feel angry because my son was never returned to me, not ever. And what I want is justice. And I wish, if it were possible, that [Cusanero] would turn him over to me; with that I would be much more satisfied, at whatever cost, God willing. But unfortunately he doesn't say anything to me, and this is what I want to know from him. He should ask for forgiveness from the town of San Martin and from the community of Choatalum."
For Hilarion Lopez, the sentence was a consequence of a violation of a law, but the community would have given Cusanero the opportunity to redeem himself: "We called on him three times. In the school, there were about two thousand people. He should have apologized; we are all human beings, he should have apologized to the whole community, not just to me," he said, echoing the petition of the victims when they asked Cusanero to show them where the disappeared were. Having refused to do this, Cusanero was taken to court by the victims.
Lopez said that he felt satisfied with the verdict, though he added that he still would like to know where the body of his disappeared son is located. "I want to bury him in a cemetery so I can bring him a flower arrangement and light a candle."
THERE IS MORE
Manuel Tay, another relative of the disappeared, also described the process; "Unfortunately, this didn't just happen to [Lopez]; thanks to the bravery of the six family members to publicly denounce the crime. This isn't easy; it has been very difficult and caused much sleeplessness, exhaustion, ridicule from the commissioner and his former military cohorts."
"We have worked years in ten exhumations in areas of Chimaltenango and Quiche (where there are also) the same issues. Right now, there is just the clarification of these six. Mr. Cusanero had sufficient opportunity to say 'sorry, I was under the order of blank-commander or blank-captain,'" Tay explained.
Tay added that the road forward will not be easy. There are still many more cases and it is assumed that the community might be threatened after the sentence and further reports of the crimes. "We want to make it very clear that any attempt by [Cusanero's] family against the well-being of the of the victims . we will denounce. We want to make this clear so that the victims can live in peace. He is in prison, but he didn't tell us where the disappeared are. The most important part is still hidden. We want more processes so that justice doesn't remain in impunity."
The disappearances of Lorenzo Avila, Alejo Culajay, Filomena Lopez, Encarnacion Lopez, Santiago Sutuj y Mario Augusto Tay, occurred in the community of Choatalum, in the town of San Martin Jilotepeque, between November 5th, 1982 and October 28th, 1984.
The legal accusation against the ex-military commissioner was formally presented June 9th, 2003 by the surviving family members of the six people disappeared. They united with the organization Families of the Disappeared and Detained of Guatemala (FAMDEGUA - for its initials in Spanish) to form the co-plaintiff.
REACTION: Approval of the Sentence
Human rights organizations expressed their satisfaction with the first guilty sentence of an ex-paramilitary for the forced disappearance of six indigenous people during the 36 year civil war (1960-1996) achieved through the justice system in Guatemala.
For activist Mario Polanco, the 150 year sentence for Felipe Cusanero sets a precedent and "opens hope for family members of victims searching for justice" for crimes committed during the armed conflict.
Cusanero became the first ex-paramilitary sentenced by a tribunal which declared on Monday he was guilty of disappearing six indigenous Guatemalans between 1982 and 1984 from the community of Choatalum, Chimaltenango - one of the departments most hard-hit from the civil war.
"The sentence is very important in the history of the justice system and in this type of case. What's more, it's the first to make it to the stage of public hearings despite the many obstacles and legal hurdles posed by the defense," Miguel Albizures of FAMDEGUA commented to AFP.
He added that the trial also sets a precedent by giving value and legal standing to the documents about human rights violations committed during the war - documents that have been rejected by the military and conservative sectors of society.
"This sentence is of huge importance for the thousands of victims of the internal armed conflict in having created a light of hope for the those that suffered war crimes and crimes against humanity at the orders of the State of Guatemala and executed by its repressive forces," indicated a publication by the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH - for its initials in Spanish).
"Today a military commissioner (paramilitary) is in prison, but there are many missing, like those that gave the orders and tried to destroy the Maya people," which constituted 83.3% of the 200,000 killed and disappeared during the war, it added.
The publication also noted that the sentence was delivered on the E day of the Maya calendar - a day that "marks a change, where doors are opened in the path to justice, not just in forced disappearance but for those enormous crimes that were perpetrated against the dignity of humanity as a whole."
On Tuesday, the central plaintiff against Cusanero, Hilarion Lopez, asked the press to come on a tour to see the place where his son was buried in order to exhume him "and give him a dignified burial."
Lopez recalled that his son, Encarnacion was illegally captured on March 19th, 1984 by Cusanero. With the sentence "we have received the first peace of the law," but for the moment, they are still looking for the remains.
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