Friday, April 5, 2013

Guatemalan President Implicated in Civil War Massacres

Allegations that Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina had a hand in the atrocities of the country’s civil war have resurfaced after a witness in the genocide trial of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt claimed the president led troops who committed massacres during Rios Montt’s 1982-1983 rule.
In court on Thursday, the tenth day of the trial, former army engineer Hugo Ramiro Leonardo Reyes testified via video link from an undisclosed location, Reuters and Prensa Libre report. When questioned by the prosecution, he said soldiers systematically burnt homes and rounded up civilians in the vicinity of the northwestern municipality of Santa Maria Nebaj.

When the prisoners were brought to a nearby military base, Leonardo Reyes claimed they had been tortured, and said he saw captives “with their tongues removed and fingernails pulled out, among other injuries.” They were subsequently executed.

According to Leonardo Reyes, among the commanding officers in the area was President Perez, then a major who went by the nom de guerre “Major Tito.” The witness also implicated retired General Jose Luis Quilo Ayuso in the crimes, and said it was impossible for the officers to be unaware of the violence. As elPeriodico notes, Quilo Ayuso was named by Rios Montt’s lawyers as a witness for the defense, and the allegation is sure to cast doubt on his testimony.

This is far from the first time that Perez has been linked to alleged atrocities. Rights groups have long maintained that troops under his command committed human rights violations in the western Cuchumatanes highlands in the early 1980s, and Jennifer Harbury, an American activist whose guerrilla leader husband was tortured and disappeared by the military in 1992, has alleged that Perez ordered his killing.

Like most civil war-era military officers accused of perpetrating human rights abuses, Perez has never faced criminal charges in court. In all likelihood he never will. Still, yesterday’s testimony serves as an important illustration of the institutionalized brutality of the government’s counterinsurgency campaign, and a reminder that many of its orchestrators remain in positions of power today.

Note: There was some variation in the media coverage on the degree to which Leonardo Reyes was implicating Perez in the abuses in Nebaj. Plaza Publica has the most nuanced overview of the testimony, provided in the context of the questions being asked by the prosecution.

News Briefs
  • Colombian "Emerald Czar" Victor Carranza, a political powerbroker and alleged paramilitary financier who made his vast fortune by taking over the country’s emerald trade, has died after years of battling cancer, Semana reports. As InSight Crime noted back in July, a number of criminal organizations have been eyeing his assets in parts of Colombia’s lawless interior recently, and there is reason to believe his death could spark a wave of violence in the country as these groups fight over the right to control them either directly or through extortion.
  • 86-year-old retired Cuban leader Fidel Castro has weighed in on the escalating tension between North Korea and the United States. In a a letter published in Granma, the country’s official daily, Fidel called on both countries to avoid causing a nuclear war which would affect “70 percent of the planet’s population.”
  • Writing for Upside Down World, Medellin-based journalist James Bargent profiles the autonomous education system created by the San Jose de Apartado Peace Community in the northern Colombian region of Uraba. When public schoolteachers were driven away by paramilitary violence, the community created a “Campesino University,” geared towards mixing elements of campesino culture with basic teaching subjects like reading and arithmetic.
  • Uruguayan President Jose Mujica’s penchant for irreverence has once again landed him in hot water with the press, El Pais reports. Following a press conference on trade relations with Argentina and Brazil, Mujica made disparaging remarks about Argentine President Cristina Fernandez to a local official without realizing that his microphone was on, saying: “This old lady is worse than the cross-eyed man,” a reference to Fernandez and her late husband, Nestor Kirchner. “He was more of a politician, she’s stubborn,” he added.
  • Reuters takes an in-depth look at Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s popularity, with a view to the October 2014 presidential elections. Although opinion polls put support for the president around 79 percent, the news agency suggests that her re-election is not as certain as many believe.
  • Julia Michaels of The Rio Real blog argues that the media attention given to the recent rape of an American woman on a transport van in Rio de Janeiro reveals a discriminatory social division in the city. Brazilian women regularly report incidents of sexual assault on the vans -- a common form of transportation for lower class Brazilians -- but city officials took no action until after the most recent incident involving a tourist.  
  • The AP reports that a Brazilian jury on Thursday convicted two men of the 2011 murder of a pair of land rights activists in the north of the country. A third suspect, accused of masterminding the killing, was acquitted.
  • On Wednesday, Peruvian President Ollanta Humala traveled to China, Peru’s largest trading partner, to discuss economic relations between the two nations.
  • The New York Times has the latest on calls for an independent investigation into the death of Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya, who was killed last year in a car crash in eastern Cuba. After the driver of the vehicle claimed that the crash was caused by the impact of another car, the United States government joined those requesting an inquiry of the crash. Paya’s daughter is now touring the U.S. and Europe, pressing the case for an investigation.

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