Former Guatemalan army chief Gen. Héctor Mario López Fuentes was charged this week with genocide for his command role in the killings of over 300 Mayan people in 1982 and 1983.
A UN-backed commission found that during Guatemala’s 36-year armed conflict some 200,000 people were killed or disappeared and security forces committed 440 massacres in indigenous communities.
The commission specifically found that the military’s counter-insurgency operations in the Ixil Triangle amounted to acts of genocide, with 32 separate massacres targeting the indigenous Maya-Ixil population.
Gen. Fuentes is accused of being the “intellectual author” of 12 massacres from 1982-1983. At the time, he was Guatemala’s military Chief of Staff, the third-highest-ranking official in the country.
During the short-lived 1982-83 dictatorship of Efraín Ríos Montt, the army launched a brutal campaign targeting indigenous communities that it accused of supporting left-wing guerillas.
The strategy was known as “draining the water that the fish swim in.”
Any villages where signs of guerrilla activity were found — hidden weapons or propaganda — were deemed to be “subversive”, and the villagers were systematically killed.
Any villages found abandoned when terrified residents fled to the mountains were also razed to the ground, a policy known as “scorched earth.”
As a result of the regime’s genocidal policies, over 10,000 Mayans were murdered and 9,000 were displaced from their land.
Other former Guatemalan military and police officials have been arrested in recent months for their role in human rights abuses during the armed conflict.
These include Colonel Héctor Bol de la Cruz and Jorge Humberto Gómez López, both former heads of the national police force.
An army officer and a soldier who participated in a December 1982 massacre in Dos Erres village were arrested earlier this year. Guatemalan security forces tortured and killed 250 men, women and children in Dos Erres before razing the village.
On May 3, 1982, Guatemalan forces attacked the village of San Francisco.
“The soldiers killed the men, beating them on the head with axes or machetes, and they cut open pregnant women’s wombs to pull out their fetuses and throw them away”, survivor Gaspar Velasco told the court after Gen. Fuentes’s arrest in June.
“My wife, and other women from the village, were captured by soldiers and were held in captivity for 90 days, during which they were raped.”
“In the end, we were forced to flee from the village and we spent 17 years hiding in the mountains.”
Given that no efforts were made to bring the perpetrators to justice, the Mayan victims took their case to Spain’s highest level court.
Acting in accordance to the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows human rights violations committed in any part of the world to be brought to trial in another country, the Spanish court requested Guatamalan dictator Montt’s - now a Congressman - extradition in 2006, but it was denied by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court.
The battle in the Spanish courts is at an impasse but the case remains open, independently of the ongoing Guatemalan trial against Gen. Fuentes.
Amnesty International’s Central America Researcher Sebastian Elgueta says:
“For justice to be delivered to victims of human rights violations and their relatives, it is imperative that not just the foot soldiers but also the masterminds of the massacres, tortures and disappearances that terrorised Guatemala decades ago are brought to justice.
“Victims and their relatives have spent decades demanding justice and redress for the crimes against humanity they suffered.”