NEBAJ, Guatemala: Genocide Trial Sought For Former General Lopez Fuentes

20 Sep

NEBAJ, Guatemala (AP) — Juana Matom was just 8 or 9 when soldiers marched into her remote village in the highlands of Guatemala. Horrified, she watched them take her older brother and beat him bloody.

When the soldiers turned to her, Matom fled barefoot into the dense jungle near her village in Nejab, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Guatemala City.

FILE - In this July 23, 2011, file photo, villagers gather in the municipality of Nebaj in Guatemala. Guatemalan soldiers allegedly killed villagers during 1982 raids on communities in the municipalit

“They told us we had to go with them,” said Matom, an indigenous Ixil who is now about 38. “I thought that if I stayed, they would kill me.”The next day, villagers found the body of her brother and 12 others.

This week, 29 years after her brother’s death, Matom hopes to find a measure of justice: A judge is expected to decide Wednesday whether a former army general should be tried for genocide in connection with 635 massacres of indigenous people that reportedly took place during the 36-year civil war between the government and leftist guerrillas. If the general goes to trial, it would mark the first genocide case in Guatemala’s history.

Former Gen. Hector Mario Lopez Fuentes was detained in Guatemala City in June on charges that he planned and ordered about 300 massacres when he was chief of staff of the Guatemalan military between 1982 and 1983, under the dictatorship of Gen. Efrain Rios Montt.

The charges against Lopez are a first not just for Guatemala.

“No one else in America has answered to this type of atrocious crime,” said lawyer Edgar Perez Archila, who is representing survivors and families of victims of the massacres. “There have been allegations in the past in Guatemala, but they didn’t get anywhere.”

Countries like Argentina, Chile and Uruguay have pursued charges of human rights violations against military figures from their respective civil turmoil, but no genocide charges.

According to a United Nations investigation, the killings in Guatemala occurred between 1978 and 1984. About 95 percent took place in Matom’s home state of Quiche during a brutal war that wore on from 1960 to 1996 and claimed 200,000 lives.

Francisco Chavez, 35, says he was 6 years old when soldiers appeared in his town, also in Quiche, and killed his father. He was kept at a military compound for six months, then spent the next dozen years in an orphanage. He was not reunited with his mother until he was 18.

“What we want is justice,” said Chavez, a founding member of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation. “They were not criminals, the people who were being seized. They were our families.”

FILE - In this July 23, 2011, file photo, relatives of villagers allegedly killed by Guatemalan soldiers during a 1982 raid in the community of Vivitz, gather in Vijolom II cemetery in the municipalit

A few weeks ago, Lopez’s lawyers filed a motion seeking to dismiss the charges because the 81-year-old former general has prostate cancer, suffers from depression and is no longer coherent. The judge, Flores, rejected the motion.Lopez’s lawyer, Edgar Leonel de Leon, declined to speak with The Associated Press.

Other activists and human rights advocates have sought to have similar charges pressed against Rios Montt, but the former dictator now enjoys immunity because he is a legislator in Guatemala’s Congress.

Rios Montt told a local radio station in June that he would be willing to face justice as well for the events of the early 1980s.

“It was a time of war, of guerrilla wars,” Montt told the Emisoras Unidas station. “If there is no justice, there can be no talk of peace.”

The U.N. investigation said 90 percent of the civil war’s human rights violation were committed by the army or allied paramilitary forces under the government’s “scorched earth” campaign. The rest were blamed on rebel guerrillas.

Indigenous communities were targeted by the government because they were considered recruiting grounds for guerrilla forces, the United Nations says.

Mario Merida, a former army colonel who is now a political science professor, disputes that allegation.

He said that there was no intent to commit excessive killings and that military leaders never wanted unarmed communities to be targeted. It’s “perverse” to try Lopez for crimes committed by people not following orders, he said.

The civil war ended in 1996 when peace accords were signed. But daily life hasn’t changed much in Matom’s village.

She and many of her neighbors go barefoot. There’s no running water in their village and no bathrooms in their homes. During the rainy season, the village is not accessible. Most here live on subsistence farming, growing corn for their needs.

Many here don’t know about Lopez’s arrest.

Matom remembers that survivors of the raid returned to the village and hurriedly buried the dead in two mass graves before they disappeared again into the hills.

The bodies remained there until 1999, when they were exhumed as part of an investigation. Most had been beaten or stabbed to death. Family members identified their loved ones by their clothing or their placement in the mass graves.

In 2000, the victims were memorialized with a formal funeral.

“Finally, we could bury them,” Matom said during a recent visit to her brother’s grave, where she brings flowers to each month.

“Here’s my brother,” she said, pointing to the tombstone.


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