| Thursday, 01 April 2010 22:27
On August 31, 2009 a tribunal in Chimaltenango, Guatemala, sentenced former military commissioner Felipe Cusanero Coj to 150 years in prison. Cusanero’s conviction for surreptitiously kidnapping and murdering six Guatemalan citizens in the early 1980s, keeping their whereabouts and fate concealed, marks the first time in Guatemalan history that a court has found a member of the military guilty of a crime against humanity. It is also the first time a Guatemalan court has acknowledged the state’s specific use of forced disappearance, which claimed the lives of some 45,000 people during the country’s 36-year internal armed conflict (1960-96), according to the report published by the United Nations-sponsored Truth Clarification Commission (CEH) in 1999.
The effort to bring Cusanero to justice began in 2003, when, after almost two decades of silence, a group of surviving family members from the highland community of Choatalúm dared to do the unthinkable: They publicly denounced Cusanero and took him to court. Before then, continuing threats of disappearance and lists of suspected subversives compiled by the military had prevented people from coming forward. There was a shift, however, with the publication of two truth commission reports in 1998 and 1999, together with two national cases in 2000 and 2001 accusing former dictators Romeo Lucas García and José Efrain Ríos Montt, respectively, of committing acts of genocide during the conflict, along with their highest military commanders. In 2003, as Ríos Montt campaigned for president despite these allegations, the Choatalúm victims and their lawyers from the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH) chose to act.
Like many predominantly indigenous Guatemalan villages, Choatalúm–a community of more than 500 Maya Kaqchiquel families in San Martin Jilotepeque municipality, in the department of Chimaltenango-came under attack during the army’s intensely violent counterinsurgency campaign begun in September 1981 under Lucas García and continued until October 1982 by Ríos Montt. The army committed hundreds of massacres during the scorched-earth campaign, targeting civilians in the countryside to eliminate support for the guerrillas. Chimaltenango saw the fourth-highest percentage of human rights violations during the conflict, with San Martin Jilotepeque being one of the most affected municipalities, according to the CEH.
Most of the Choatalúm community, like hundreds of thousands of other displaced indigenous peasants in Guatemala during this time, fled into the mountains. Many had returned by 1982, when Choatalúm was converted into a “model village”–that is, a military colony-under Ríos Montt’s “rifles and beans” program, aimed at “pacifying” high land villages by providing food to communities that pledged their allegiance to the military and threatening anyone else with death. Model village inhabitants were subjected to heightened surveillance, being required to live in specific areas and to publicly present themselves when traveling. Men in the communities were forced to join Civil Self-Defense Patrols (PACs) and sent to patrol for guerrillas, serving as a kind of human shield against insurgent attacks.
Within the militarized structure of model villages, military commissioners were the lowest-ranked army officials, yet they exercised almost unlimited power at the local level and held command responsibility over the PACs. They organized and controlled the civilian population, as well as local authorities, providing intelligence to the army’s central command. Cusanero, a longtime Choatalúm resident, was military commissioner of the town during the internal armed conflict. He worked out of an army base installed on a hill in the center of the town, where, according to witness testimonies at the trial, rape, torture, and summary executions took place. Forced disappearance was one of the key tactics employed by the army to root out suspected guerrilla sympathizers in the model villages.
After the case against Cusanero was filed, it was mired for five years in the investigation phase handled by the public prosecutor (where most legal proceedings stagnate or dissolve). Public hearings finally opened in March 2008. Within weeks, Cusanero’s public defender introduced a legal stay, arguing that the case violated Guatemala’s constitutional law against retroactive prosecution, since the crime was committed well before 1996, when forced disappearance was formally outlawed in Guatemala. The hearings were suspended for 14 months (beyond the maximum length of time stipulated in the Penal Code) until July 7, when the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest, overruled the defense, declaring that forced disappearance could be tried today because the crime continues to be committed, since none of the victim’s remains have been located. “It is not when the crime began,” the court ruled, “but when it stops being committed.”
The 10 witnesses in the Choatalúam case testified despite receiving threats both during and after the trial. Cusanero’s lawyer accused them of outright lying and even argued that Cusanero had never been a military commissioner–a statement that caused many in the packed courtroom to visibly cringe. Men who were forced to serve in the PAC under Cusanero’s command hissed their contempt. When the judge later announced that the witnesses’ testimonies were considered “trustworthy and effective,” the whole room seemed to exhale. Heads turned in the audience as those who had testified sought the eyes of others in affirmation. Many blinked back tears. Handkerchiefs were pressed to noses.
read more at – http://upsidedownworld.org/main/guatemala-archives-33/2429-disappeared-but-not-forgotten-a-guatemalan-community-achieves-a-landmark-verdict-