Back to top
6 January 2016

14 former military officers arrested over civil war crimes

On 6 January, the Guatemalan authorities arrested 14 retired military officers, who were implicated in serious human rights violations in the 1980s, during the country's 36-year long civil war.

The detainees were accused of involvement in 88 massacres and forced disappearances carried out between 1981 and 1986, the bloodiest period of the conflict, and they face charges of crimes against humanity.

Among the detainees there are several high-ranking officers, such as General Manuel Benedicto Lucas, the brother of former President Fernando Romeo Lucas García, who was in charge between 1978 and 1982. During his brother's presidency, Manuel Benedicto Lucas was the army chief of staff. Other detainees are Manuel Antonio Callejas y Callejas, a senior officer who was working with the military intelligence service; former general Francisco Luis Gordillo, a close ally of former dictator Jose Efrain Rioss Montt, who ruled the country between1982 and 1983; and Byron Barrientos, interior minister from 2000 to 2004.

The authorities could not arrest one of the accused, Edgar Justino Ovalle. He co-founded the party Listado Nacional del Frente de Convergencia Nacional, that backed Jimmy Morales, the current Guatemalan president who was elected in October 2015. Ovalle enjoys immunity as a sitting congressman, but the prosecutors have asked the Supreme Court to end his immunity.

Convergence for Human Rights (Convergencia por los derechos humanos), a coalition of several Guatemalan human rights organisations, published a statement supporting the Attorney General and his team, saying that these arrests mark an important step in the search for justice in the country.

According to a UN-backed truth commission, established after the signing of the peace agreement in 1996, the military was responsible for around 80 per cent of the 245,000 victims of the Guatemalan civil war. In the past, however, military officers have enjoyed immunity for their crimes. For instance, former dictator Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide in a ground-breaking trial in 2013, but the verdict was then overturned, in a process marred by irregularities.

In their statement, Convergence for Human Rights also urged the authorities to guarantee the physical integrity of the surviving victims, families, communities, judicial officers and prosecutors, ensuring that influential people cannot intimidate witnesses and cannot maintain the present state of impunity.

The crimes that the detainees are accused of include cases of enforced disappearances, torture, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, and destruction of villages and the private property of the victims. One of the case relates to the crimes committed in the city of Coban, in the Alta Verapaz department, where more than 558 bodies were found, including those of 90 children. Four detainees were also charged with the disappearance of Marco Antonio Molina Theissen in October 1981, when the boy was only 14-years-old.

Front Line Defenders welcomes the Attorney General's decision and the arrests of the former military officers, which mark a positive change from the pattern of impunity for human rights violations committed during Guatemala's civil war.