On August 2, a Guatemalan court sentenced four former members of the Guatemalan Special Forces known as the Kaibiles to over 6,000 years in prison for the December 1982 massacre of 200 people in the village of Dos Erres. After the 17 Kaibil members attacked the community, they committed atrocities including torture, raping and killing of women and girls, and brutal murder. The bodies of those killed were piled into a well until it was full. The stiff sentence was meant to serve as a form of symbolic reparations for the victims and survivors of the massacre.
The historic ruling is one of a growing number of cases where members of the Guatemalan military are put on trial for massacres committed during the 1960-1996 civil war that resulted in the death of over 200,000 people, mostly indigenous Mayans. In 1998, three members of the military were convicted for the murder of three people during the 1982 massacre of 177 people in Río Negro, and the following year they were each sentenced to 50 years in prison. In 2004, an officer and 13 soldiers were convicted for similar charges, but the verdict was appealed and subsequently overturned. In December 2009, a former military coronel and three former commissioners were sentenced to 53 years in prison for the 1981 forced disappearance of six people in El Jute, which was the first time that a high-ranking military official was convicted of crimes committed during the civil war. Except for this last case, most cases against military members responsible for acts of genocide during the civil war have been against low-level military members instead of the officials who ordered the murders, and few have reached a sustained conviction. Many witnesses, including Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú, have brought testimony against former generals, such as former military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, alleging involvement in torture and genocide, but the cases have not moved forward.
Due to this troubling precedent, it is too early to declare that full justice has been achieved in the case of the Dos Erres massacre. Former Second Lt. Carlos Antonio Carias, charged with being one of the intellectual authors of the massacre, has vowed to appeal this sentence, citing that he was not physically present at the massacre.
The sentencing of these four former members of the Guatemalan Special Forces for their crimes opens the door for other former Kaibiles detained in the United States and Canada to be extradited to Guatemala to be punished for their involvement in this and other massacres.
Historically, cases against high-level officials for involvement in massacres have faced a series of obstacles, including threats against those who push for the cases to go to trial. A clear political will from all areas of the Guatemalan government is necessary to address historic lack of punishment for cases of human rights violations, but this has shown to be lacking in many areas. Despite the recent declassification of more than 11,000 documents from the military archives between 1960 and 1996, there is a troubling lack of documents released from 1980 to 1984, the worst years of the civil war. The criteria for maintaining 55 other documents as classified are vague. Thus, some documents relevant to cases dealing with human rights violations might remain inaccessible to the public.
The Guatemalan government should provide access to military documents that are requested by the victims and fully prosecute those responsible to begin to rectify the damage done to its population during the civil war. The consolidation of the rule of law in Guatemala lies in the government’s ability to overcome the culture of impunity that has impeded the sanction of those responsible for past and present crimes. This recent sentence is one more step forward to bringing justice to the thousands of victims of the atrocities committed in Guatemala’s armed conflict.