Guatemala Arrests 14 Retired Military Officers for Civil War Atrocities

Guatemala’s Attorney General Thelma Aldana said the arrests are related to massacres and forced disappearances in the 1980s during the height of the country's civil war that killed nearly 250,000 people.
January 7, 2016, 12:30am
Imagen por Moises Castillo/AP

The Guatemalan authorities have arrested 14 retired army officers on charges of involvement in massacres and hundreds of forced disappearances at the height of the country's bitter civil war.

Guatemala's Attorney General Thelma Aldana announced the detentions at a press conference in the capital on Wednesday.

"The detainees are alleged to have participated in 88 events related to massacres carried out between 1981-1986 in the context of internal armed conflict in Guatemala," Aldana said. "It is one of the biggest cases of forced disappearances in Latin America."

Guatemala's civil war began with the emergence of a left wing guerrilla movement in the early 1960s. It was at its most intense in the early 1980s when there was a systematic campaign by military governments to suppress support for the rebels that included hundreds of massacres in rural indigenous communities.

Related: Former Dictator of Guatemala Ruled Mentally Unfit to Face Retrial for War Crimes

After peace was signed in the small Central American country in 1996, a UN-backed truth commission blamed the military for 80 percent of the estimated 245,000 deaths during the 36-year conflict.

The highest profile former officer arrested on Wednesday was retired general Manuel Benedicto Lucas García, the brother of former President Fernando Romeo Lucas García who ruled Guatemala between July 1978 and 1982 during some of the worst of the violence.

Lucas García was defiant when he spoke briefly to reporters after his arrest. "I fought the guerrillas in combat, fighting gun to gun, and not like a coward or a psychopath," he said.

Others detained included Francisco Luis Gordillo who was part of a military triumvirate that kicked Lucas García out of power and also included Efraín Ríos Montt who went on to become Guatemala's most notorious dictator. Ríos Montt was found guilty of genocide in 2013 in a groundbreaking trial, though the conviction was overturned 10 days later as hopes for justice for war crimes waned. The former dictator was declared unfit to face a retrial last summer.

Much of the case against the 14 retired officers who were just arrested appears to stem from long-standing investigations into a particularly horrendous massacre in July 1982 in the mountain village of Plan de Sánchez.

It comes at a politically delicate moment just a week before the inauguration of Jimmy Morales as Guatemala's new president.

A former TV comedian, Morales came out of nowhere to win the first round of elections in September three days after Otto Pérez Molina resigned as president to face allegations that he headed a major corruption ring. Morales went on to win a landslide victory in a second round runoff in October aided by his image as a political outsider.  Human rights activists, however, have drawn attention to the fact that his party was founded by military veterans widely believed to be involved in civil war atrocities.

Related: Former Comedian Wins Guatemala's Presidential Election

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