In 1999, a leaked Guatemalan government death squad diary revealed details about the last moments of 183 purported political opponents of the former military regime—their names, photos, alleged affiliations, and the facts of their executions between 1983 and 1985. Nearly thirty years after their enforced disappearances and executions, there have been no prosecutions into their deaths and the military has denied family members, prosecutors, and Guatemalan society the truth about these human rights violations. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights found that Guatemala was responsible for the disappearances and the failure to investigate them, violating the rights of the victims and their families, and a violation of the right to truth.
Brutality during Guatemala’s Civil War
During Guatemala’s brutal internal armed conflict from 1960 to 1996, an estimated 200,000 people died due to political violence. According to the Guatemalan Commission on Historical Clarification, a United Nations-truth commission resulting from the Peace Accords, Guatemala’s state security personnel and paramilitaries were responsible for over 90 percent of all documented rights violations during the civil war, including acts of genocide against Mayan ethnic groups.
Both during the war and in the years since, the actions of the state security forces in perpetrating an overwhelming quantity of gross human rights violations have remained largely secret, due to a cover-up institutionalized at the highest levels. The government has not engaged in thorough investigations or employed other mechanisms designed to uncover the truth of what happened. Even the Commission on Historical Clarification expressed strong concerns about the government’s refusal to cooperate to allow the commission to implement its mandate. Access to military and intelligence archives remains severely restricted—for family members, investigators and prosecutors, and the general public.
Available information about the role of the state security forces in the brutality has been uncovered mostly either by accident or through unauthorized disclosures. Among these unauthorized disclosures is a death squad diary—known as the Diario Militar. The Diario Militar is a 74-page detailed intelligence record of information on 183 political opponents abducted, forcibly disappeared and/or executed by state agents during the political violence and repression of the 1983-86 military government of President Oscar Mejía Víctores. The Diario Militar was leaked in 1999 to Kate Doyle of the National Security Archive, a non-governmental organization based in the United States, and the State has acknowledged its authenticity.
Efforts to seek truth and justice
For nearly 30 years, the family members of the victims listed in the Diario Militar have sought to determine the circumstances of their disappearances. Immediately after the events, they searched the morgues, hospitals and cemeteries, reported the incidents to the police, requested meetings with the president, and lodged various habeas corpus actions with the courts, seeking information about the reasons for arrest, identity of captors and location of victims. The military police and civilian authorities denied repeatedly all requests for information and refused to acknowledge the illegal arrests.
Family members of victims listed in the Diario Militar took their case to the Inter-American System in the case of José Miguel Gudiel Álvarez and Others v. Guatemala. In 2011, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights found a violation of the American Convention on Human Rights, and due to an inadequate state response referred the case to the Inter-American Court. The court held a public hearing in Guayaquil, Ecuador, in April 2012. The families are represented by the Myrna Mack Foundation and the University of California at Berkeley Human Rights clinic.
The Justice Initiative, with La Asociación Pro-Derechos Humanos (APRODEH) in Peru and La Comisión Mexicana de Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos (CMDPDH) in Mexico, filed a third party intervention in May 2012 on issues related to the right to truth and access to information concerning human rights violations.
The Myrna Mack Foundation and the University of California-Berkeley International Human Rights Clinic represented the victims before the Inter-American Commission and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
The Right to Truth. The right to truth is a free-standing right that exists alongside but independent of other rights, and does not depend on the request of victims for information or the existence of an ongoing investigation. The right to truth exists as a right for victims and broader society. In cases of gross violations of human rights or serious breaches of international humanitarian law, the right to truth includes, at a minimum, the right to know the full and complete truth about the events that transpired, and their specific circumstances and participants. While right to truth exists in all such situations, it carries a special importance during a democratic transition or following state-sanctioned repression.
State Duties under the Right to Truth. The state has a duty to record, preserve and archive relevant information, prevent its destruction, and permit meaningful access to archives. The right to truth also imposes a duty to search for records, and in certain circumstances, to proactively generate or reconstruct certain information that may not be readily available. The duty to ensure the integrity and proper oversight of such records will in some cases require independent control of the search for or management of records. The state must limit restrictions on disclosure, and ensure judicial oversight over assertions that secrecy is warranted in relation to gross human rights violations. The requisite state obligations must be met within a reasonable time.
The Diario Militar. Guatemala has violated the right to truth of the applicants, the investigators and prosecutors, and Guatemalan society, through its failure to disclose evidence concerning the gross violations of human rights suffered by the applicants. The state has failed to record and preserve information required for the meaningful implementation of the right to truth. The state has failed to conduct adequate searches and recover information not readily available. The state has also failed to apply restrictions to disclosure narrowly, and in a manner consistent with its obligations pursuant to the right to truth and the court’s Article 13 jurisprudence. The systematic obstruction of the right to truth of the applicants and Guatemalan society by the state, and especially its military and intelligence bodies, demands independent oversight of its archives related to the operations of the internal armed conflict.
1983-1985. Enforced disappearances of 27 victims, and abduction and rape of one victim, during some of the most brutal years of Guatemala’s civil war.
February 2011. Inter-American Commission for Human Rights finds a violation and inadequate State response and refers the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
April 2012. Inter-American Court of Human Rights holds a public hearing in Diario Militar in Guayaquil, Ecuador.
May 2012. Third party intervention filed before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
November 20, 2012. Judgment of the Inter-American Court (released December 21, 2012).
In 2012, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found Guatemala was responsible for the forced disappearances alleged, and acknowledged by the State, and that this violated the rights of the victims and their families.
The Court ruled that the State violated the victims’ rights to life, liberty and freedom from torture; as well as their freedom of association, given that the intention of the disappearances was to silence the victims.
The Court also found that Guatemala failed to conduct an effective investigation, recognizing a “systematic pattern of denial of justice and of impunity.” While an investigation ostensibly began in 1999, following the disclosure of the death squad diary, the Court found it neither “diligent nor effective” for the “clarification of the facts, identification and, eventually, sanctioning of those responsible, or for the determination of the locations of the disappeared.” The Court laid particular blame on the doorstep of the Ministry of Justice, given the Ministry’s “constant denials of information.” The Court reaffirmed that impunity for systematic disappearances must be avoided to ensure that violations do not recur.
The Court further found a violation of the right to truth, grounded in the personal integrity right of relatives of the disappeared. The Court emphasized that the State’s failure to collaborate with the country’s truth commission—and indeed “the hiding of state information about the facts”—entailed a form of cruel and inhuman treatment for the family members.
The Court nonetheless failed to find autonomous freedom of expression or right to information violations, ruling that the infringement of these rights, while present, was bound to other violations.
The Court ordered the State to investigate and identify, prosecute and sanction those responsible for the disappearances and other violations—and refrain from applying amnesty or other related laws undermining individual and State responsibility. The Court also required the State to determine the whereabouts of the victims, both to ensure a close to the grieving process for the families and to ensure access to information about what happened and who was responsible. The Court further ordered financial remuneration, rehabilitation, and symbolic measures of redress, honoring the victims.