Forensic Evidence Represents a Turning Point for Justice in Guatemala

Located in Cobán, 219 kilometers north of Guatemala City, CREOMPAZ, a former military base, was closed in 2004. Known as Military Zone 21, in 2012 it was the site of a shocking discovery—one of the largest mass graves ever unearthed in Latin America.

The discovery, and the criminal charges that followed, became widely known as the CREOMPAZ case, and may prove to be a watershed moment in accountability for grave crimes. It led to a two-year forensic investigation by the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG), which investigates and uncovers evidence of human rights violations committed during the country’s civil war. FAFG also assists the justice system with forensic evidence for prosecutions, identifies the victims of these crimes, and assists the victims’ families in recovering their remains.

The CREOMPAZ case (CREOMPAZ stands for Comando Regional de Entrenamiento de Operaciones de Mantenimiento de Paz) brought to light some of the worst state-perpetrated atrocities of the Guatemalan conflict. At the request of the public prosecutor’s office, FAFG forensic experts dug for, recorded, and exhumed the remains of 558 people, including 90 children, in 84 mass and individual graves.

To date, DNA testing has identified 97 victims from all over Guatemala using the National Genetic Database for Families and Victims of Enforced Disappearances. Many of the bodies were blindfolded and their hands and feet bound, suggesting that the base was used as a clandestine interrogation and detention center—and that its victims were summarily executed.

On January 6, the public prosecutor’s office ordered the arrest of 18 retired military officers for war crimes allegedly committed during the country’s 36-year internal armed conflict, which took place from 1960 to 1996 and claimed 200,000 lives. Fourteen of those arrested are charged with enforced disappearance, murder, and torture as crimes against humanity.

The forensic evidence gathered by FAFG has allowed the public prosecutor’s office to corroborate eyewitness testimony of the abductions and killings that happened at Military Zone 21. The remains that were found were of ordinary people who one day kissed their loved ones goodbye and left for school, college, or work and never came home. Most people who disappeared were poor, came from indigenous communities, and were branded as “subversives” by the state.

According to FAFG, military and state documents show that the state considered the unarmed civilian population an internal enemy, which led to systematic and generalized attacks by state security forces and paramilitary groups against political opposition parties, unions, priests, lawyers, journalists, professors and teachers, peasants, and indigenous people.

Should the recent arrests result in criminal prosecutions, the CREOMPAZ case has the potential to prove the critical role of forensic physical evidence in seeking justice and accountability for grave crimes. Yet Guatemala has before been at the cusp of setting meaningful precedent on holding those responsible for grave crimes accountable, and ultimately failed to do so.

In 2013, former president Efraín Ríos Montt was tried and convicted in a separate case of genocide and crimes against humanity, but the verdict was overturned just 10 days later and a retrial is still pending. A number of related trials are keeping such atrocities fresh in the minds of Guatemalans.

The CREOMPAZ case is full of tragicomic contradictions. The site of the atrocities is now a regional training center for United Nations peacekeeping operations. Instead of being commended for their work, FAFG staff are vilified in the media by state apologists and conservative entities, such as the Fundación Contra el Terrorismo, which targeted FAFG in advertisements and newspaper articles.

Perhaps most fantastically of all, many of the officers now implicated are intimately connected to the National Convergence Front (FCN–Nación), the political party founded by retired military officers that brought comic actor Jimmy Morales to victory in last year’s elections. Some of those arrested were expected to serve in Morales’s cabinet.

On January 14, just eight days after the CREOMPAZ arrests, Morales took office as president. Now, his presidency may well be defined by the most important anti-impunity efforts in Guatemala’s history—efforts that could set a standard for the rest of Latin America, or continue the farce that has left the victims’ families without the justice they so desperately seek.

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the United States should also indict Reagan administration officials who supported the genocide under General Efraín Ríos Montt

In the hands of a forensic team, rests the hope for justice to thousands of civilian victims,whose blood were used to write,the pages of terror of Guatemala. Their lives were taken,but justice should be for all of us,the dead and those who loved them.

Bringing the criminals involved in massive human rights violations to trial is a fundamental pre-rrequisite for eliminating the rule of impunity in our societies. Guatemala is currently undergoing an attempt to "clean" its political system by judging the corrupted elites of the country, the sinister amalgam of government and military officials-private sector entrepreneurs who have managed to plunder the society. The process has already begun but it most be brought to succees by bringing enough evidence to the courts to condem the authors of these crimes. In this context, forensic evidence is irreplaceable and must be continued to be gathered in order to finally out and punish those whose crimes are evident bot difficult to prove.

I read this article today, 2 years after its publication, and feel profoundly sad to compare to that date to today the actual turn around of the events.
The same entities, responsible of the inhumane actions of atrocity described in this article in the past, are still in power in Guatemala, and able to blindfold the truth from many and able to maneuver at will the results and actions of the justice courts.
Sadly, it is a never ending story in my country; where during the 70's my family and I, witnessed and suffered this atrocities in first line, with the kidnapping and murder of my own father by at the time named the G2 "special" militay forces, it was so brutal, that up to this day, we still don't find a place for his memorial.
Hope is always a tool for survival, and that is the inner energy pumping the hearts of my fellow countryman and women, justice and love will someday shine in that beautiful piece of land, and so, everybody will recover their full strenght to push away the heavy boot from our neck, that keep pushing the people's dignity against the bloddy floor, and raise, and walk proud to rebuilt a society based on justice, and equality, over a platform of peace and love.

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