Ex-army chief charged with genocide
Héctor Mario López Fuentes is accused of ordering the killing of more than 10,000 Mayan civilians.
Former army Gen. Héctor Mario López Fuentes walked into the courtroom slowly, dragging his feet. López Fuentes, 81, had lived in anonymity in his home in a Guatemala City suburb since he retired from the armed forces in the early 80s. On June 17 an arrest warrant was issued for him and his name made headlines worldwide.
Now a tired old man who suffers from prostate cancer, López Fuentes is the only member of the Guatemalan armed forces to face trial for genocide and crimes against humanity.
During the short-lived 1982-83 dictatorship of Efraín Ríos Montt, the army launched a brutal campaign to persecute the remaining guerrilla groups in the highlands, together with the indigenous communities that they claimed were harboring them, a strategy known as “quitarle el agua al pez” or “draining the water that the fish swim in.”
They devised a nationwide plan known as “Victoria 82,” with an emphasis for the highlands called Plan Sofía. Any villages where signs of guerrilla activity were found — hidden weapons caches or propaganda — were deemed to be “subversive” and the villagers were systematically killed. The villages found abandoned after their terrified residents fled to the mountains, were also razed to the ground, a policy known as “tierra arrasada” or “scorched earth.”
“On May 3, 1982, nine military helicopters landed in our village and we fled as we knew that they were killing people. They took everything: our houses and farm animals. 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”, Gaspar Velasco, a survivor from the village of San Francisco, Quiché, told the court on June 21, when he was called by the prosecution to give testimony against López Fuentes.
Velasco’s three children were killed, and presumably buried in a single unmarked grave, as occurred with so many others, and to this date he is still searching for their remains in order to give them a decent burial.
“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 with no food or clothes.”
“We spent many years fighting against the odds and that’s why we’re here today, to seek justice,” he said from the witness box.
As a result of Ríos Montt’s genocidal policies, over 10,000 Mayans were murdered and 9,000 were displaced from their land, a region of the highland department of Quiché that the army referred to as the “Ixil Triangle”: the area between the municipalities of San Juan Cotzal, Nebaj and Chajul.
Survivors’ long struggle for justice
After the US non governmental organization National Security Archive, or NAS, released the “Guatemalan files” in 2010, formerly classified CIA documents related to Guatemala’s 36-year armed conflict, details of who masterminded and executed Plan Sofía began to emerge.
López Fuentes, as head of the armed forces, was Ríos Montt’s right-hand man, and signed most of the documents. These documents, supported by the testimonies of hundreds of Mayan survivors, form the backbone of the prosecution’s case against the aging general.
However, military sources argue that Plan Victoria 82 was devised by the Estado Mayor de la Defensa as a whole and that it is unfair to single out López Fuentes as the main culprit.
The defense has also requested that López Fuentes, currently under police surveillance in Guatemala City’s Hospital Militar, be freed on compassionate grounds due to his ill health.
Why has it taken so long for this case to reach the courts? Prosecutor Manuel Velásquez explains that during the early 90s, Mayan Ixil victims — most of whom had recently returned from Southern Mexico where they had sought refugee status — began to report wartime human rights violations to the Attorney General’s Office in Nebaj, Quiché. Some cases were reported collectively and others individually.
Given that no efforts were made to bring the perpetrators to justice, the Mayan Ixil victims took their case to Spain’s highest level court, the Audiencia Nacional, together with the victims of other cases such as the assault on the Spanish Embassy in 1981 in which peasants who had sought refuge in what was meant to be a neutral diplomatic territory were burnt alive during a brutal police onslaught.
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 Ríos Montt’s extradition in 2006 but it was denied by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, which argued that a Spanish court had no right to extradite a Guatemalan citizen.
The battle in the Spanish courts reached an impasse but the case remains open, independently of the ongoing Guatemalan trial against López Fuentes.
Last December, Velásquez explains, former Attorney General Amílcar Velásquez de Zárate ordered that all the human rights violations cases be transferred from Nebaj to the human rights unit at the Attorney General’s Office Human Rights Office.
A few days later, Claudia Paz y Paz — a young prosecutor with widespread support from local and international human rights organizations — took over as Attorney General and assigned extra prosecutors to the Human Rights Office.
Some 300 cases were consolidated under a single heading: “genocide in the Ixil Triangle”, and three weeks ago an arrest warrant was issued against López Fuentes. After more than a decade, victims of heinous human rights violations finally began to see light at the end of the tunnel. - Latinamerica Press.