Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Historic Guatemalan Massacre Trial Begins

A historic trial is underway in Guatemala this week, involving four ex-soldiers who stand accused of participating in the notorious civil-war era massacre in the village of Dos Erres. Prosecutors have accused the defendants, three of whom are former members of the Guatemalan Army’s special forces unit known as “Kaibiles,” of entering Dos Erres on December 7, 1982 in search of a guerrilla weapons cache and, upon finding nothing, torturing and killing more than 220 men, women and children in a three-day bloodbath.

As El Periodico notes, so far all four of the accused have denied being in Dos Erres when the massacre took place, despite the fact that two ex-Kaibiles testified via a satellite conference from an undisclosed location in Mexico that at least two of the four were both present and complicit in the violence.  The two former soldiers originally approached the UN Mission in Guatemala in the mid 1990s to confess their participation in the massacre, and now have protected witness status. According to the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA), which has written a very comprehensive summary of the trial’s developments so far, when one of the witnesses was asked why he agreed to testify, he said, "Because many families need it, they must know the truth."

La Prensa Libre and El Periodico report that the court has also heard testimony from Dos Erres villagers, all of whom agreed that the town’s inhabitants had no links to guerrilla forces, and in no way offered any resistance to the Kaibiles.  Perhaps the most heart-wrenching testimony in the case was delivered on Monday, when Ramiro Osorio Cristales was called to the stand. As a 5-year-old, Osorio only survived the massacre because one of the Kaibiles who took part in the massacre “adopted” him, raising him as a servant.

As the Associated Press points out, this trial is only the second "massacre trial" in Guatemala. The first occurred in 2004 and resulted in convictions for an officer and 13 soldiers, but the ruling was then overturned on appeal. This trial is expected to continue through the end of July, but regardless of its outcome, there are sure to be more trials related to the Dos Erres case to come. In addition to the four suspects in trial, three other alleged perpetrators have been arrested in the United States for immigration fraud, and are expected to face charges in the future.

News Briefs

·         In other Guatemalan human rights-related news, Prensa Libre has published an interesting interview with the mastermind of the country’s infamous “scorched earth” counter insurgency strategy, former de facto president José Efraín Ríos Montt. Rios Montt, who has been indicted by Spain's National Court on genocide charges, claims that he never ordered any mass executions, saying he only served as head of state, not “director of massacres.”

·         The Houston Chronicle takes on a favored mantra of gun rights advocates: the claim that the majority of weapons used in Mexico’s drug war originate from Central America. As the paper notes, only a tiny percentage of weapons recovered by officials have been traced to Central American arsenals.

·         El Universal reports that a prison riot which broke out in Ciudad Juarez late Monday night has left at least 17 people dead and 20 wounded. According to authorities, the conflict began when inmates stole weapons from prison guards and attempted a breakout, sparking a gunfight that lasted over an hour.

·         According to El Milenio and AP, Ciudad Juarez Mayor Hector Murguia announced yesterday that the federal police who have been in control of security in the city since April 2010 will be gradually pulling out in the coming months, with the goal of completely withdrawing them by March 2012.  Despite this announcement, CNNMéxico reports that many in the city are still concerned that local police lack the training and professionalism to take over. The process is slated to begin in September.  

·         Colombia Reports highlights the difficulties faced by Colombian Interior Minister German Vargas Lleras in investigating criminal accusations against candidates in the country’s October elections. As of yesterday, public prosecutors have been unable to release the list of candidates who face ongoing criminal procedures. Meanwhile, the International Crisis Group released a report yesterday on how to minimize the influence of armed groups and criminal organizations in the upcoming elections.  Among its recommendations, the report calls on the government to grant more autonomy to the National Electoral Council (CNE), as well as to update and simplify Colombia’s electoral rules. 

·         While other countries in the region have been plagued by a series of politicized libel cases, the Peruvian Congress has taken steps to ensure more press freedom in the country.  On June 21, legislators passed a bill which aims to eliminate prison sentences for libel convictions. As an editorial in El Comercio notes, although the move is a positive step, it still falls short of guaranteeing full freedom of speech.

·         With Peruvian President-elect Ollanta Humala set to assume the presidency in an inauguration ceremony tomorrow, AP reports that outgoing President Alan Garcia has left a mixed legacy, marked by his inability to resolve social conflicts related to the distribution of wealth in mining regions. The Inter American Dialog’s Michael Shifter takes a critical look at Peruvian President-elect Ollanta Humala’s foreign policy, which he suggests may not be dramatically different from his predecessor’s. 

·         InSight Crime profiles Venezuela’s Iris Varela, who was appointed to head the newly created Ministry of Correctional Services. Valera has said that she intends to take a “humanist” approach to reforming the country’s broken prison system, and hopes to ease overcrowding by shortening the time devoted to reviewing individual cases.