Historical Archives Lead to Arrest of Police Officers in Guatemalan Disappearance
By Kate Doyle and Jesse Franzblau
Washington, DC, March 17, 2009 -- Following a stunning breakthrough in a 25-year-old case of political terror in Guatemala, the National Security Archive today is posting declassified U.S. documents about the disappearance of Edgar Fernando García, a student leader and trade union activist captured by Guatemalan security forces in 1984. The documents show that García's capture was an organized political abduction orchestrated at the highest levels of the Guatemalan government.
Guatemalan authorities made the first arrest ever in the long-dormant kidnapping case when they detained Héctor Roderico Ramírez Ríos, a senior police officer in Quezaltenango, on March 5th and retired policeman Abraham Lancerio Gómez on March 6th as a result of an investigation into García's abduction by Guatemala's Human Rights Prosecutor (Procurador de Derechos Humanos--PDH). Arrest warrants have been issued for two more suspects, Hugo Rolando Gómez Osorio and Alfonso Guillermo de León Marroquín. The two are former officers with the notorious Special Operations Brigade (BROE) of the National Police, a unit linked to death squad activities during the 1980s by human rights groups.
According to the prosecutor Sergio Morales, the suspects were identified using evidence found in the vast archives of the former National Police. The massive, moldering cache of documents was discovered accidentally by the PDH in 2005, and has since been cleaned, organized and reviewed by dozens of investigators. The National Security Archive provided expert advice in the rescue of the archive and posted photographs and analysis on its Web site.Last week, Morales turned over hundreds of additional records to the Public Ministry containing evidence of state security force involvement in the disappearance of other student leaders between 1978 and 1980. As the Historical Archive of the National Police prepares to issue its first major report on March 24, more evidence of human rights crimes can be expected to be made public.
Government Campaign of Terror
The abduction of Fernando García was part of a government campaign of terror designed to destroy Guatemala's urban and rural social movements during the 1980s. On February 18, 1984, the young student leader was captured on the outskirts of a market near his home in Guatemala City. He was never seen again. Although witnesses pointed to police involvement, the government under then-Chief of State Gen. Oscar Humberto Mejía Víctores always denied any role in his kidnapping. According to the Historical Clarification Commission's report released in 1999, García was one of an estimated 40,000 civilians disappeared by state agents during Guatemala's 36-year civil conflict.
In the wake of García's capture, his wife, Nineth Montenegro--now a member of Congress--launched the Mutual Support Group (Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo--GAM), a new human rights organization that pressed the government for information about missing relatives. Co-founded with other families of the disappeared, GAM took shape in June of 1984, holding demonstrations, meeting with government officials and leading a domestic and international advocacy campaign over the years to find the truth behind the thousands of Guatemala's disappeared. The organization was quickly joined by hundreds more family members of victims of government-sponsored violence, including Mayan Indians affected by a brutal army counterinsurgency campaign that decimated indigenous communities in the country's rural highlands during the early 1980s.
Declassified U.S. records obtained by the National Security Archive under the Freedom of Information Act indicate that the United States was well-aware of the government campaign to kidnap, torture and kill Guatemalan labor leaders at the time of García's abduction. "Government security services have employed assassination to eliminate persons suspected of involvement with the guerrillas or who are otherwise left-wing in orientation," wrote the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research four days after García disappeared, pointing in particular to the Army's "notorious presidential intelligence service (archivos)" and the National Police, "who have traditionally considered labor activists to be communists."
The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala considered the wave of state-sponsored kidnappings part of an effort to gather information on "Marxist-Leninist" trade unions. "The government is obviously rounding up people connected with the extreme left-wing labor movement for interrogation," wrote U.S. Ambassador Frederic Chapin in a cable naming six labor leaders recently captured by security forces, including García. Despite reports that García was already dead, the ambassador was "optimistic" that he and other detainees would be released after questioning.
Many of the kidnapping victims noted in U.S. records included in this briefing book also appear in the "Death Squad Dossier," an army intelligence logbook listing 183 people disappeared by security forces in the mid-1980s. In 1999, the National Security Archive obtained the original logbook and released a public copy. The logbook indicates that García was among dozens of students, professors, doctors, journalists, labor leaders and others subjected to intensive army and police surveillance in the weeks leading up to their capture, disappearance and -- in about half of the cases -- execution. The logbook entry listing Fernando García includes his alleged subversive alias names and affiliation to the Guatemalan Communist Party, as well as detailed personal information taken from official documents such as his national identification card and his passport. Other victims listed in the Death Squad Dossier who are named in the U.S. documents posted today include Amancio Samuel Villatoro, Alfonso Alvarado Palencia, José Luis Villagrán Díaz and Santiago López Aguilar. U.S. records describe their disappearances in the context of the government campaign to systematically dismantle Guatemala's labor movement.
The U.S. records posted today contain illuminating information on how the use of illegal kidnapping as a counterinsurgency strategy reached a peak during the government of Oscar Mejía Víctores. U.S. figures estimated that there was an average of 137 abductions a month under the Mejía Víctores regime during 1984. According to one extensive State Department report written in 1986, part of the modus operandi of government kidnapping involved interrogating victims at military bases, police stations, or government safe houses, where information about alleged connections with insurgents was "extracted through torture." The security forces used the information to conduct joint military/police raids on houses throughout the city, secretly capturing hundreds of individuals who were never seen again, or whose discarded bodies were later discovered showing signs of torture. The National Police, subservient to the Army hierarchy, created special units to assist the military in the urban counter-guerrilla operations.
The records also demonstrate military efforts to cover up their role in the extra-legal activities. In 1985, for example, as Guatemala prepared to transition to a civilian government for the first time in a quarter of a century, the Army ordered the Archivos -- which the State Department called "a secret group in the President's office that collected information on insurgents and operated against them" -- to move its files out of presidential control and into the Intelligence Directorate (D-2) section of the military.
U.S. documents also chronicled developments as members of GAM became targets of government violence themselves. GAM members suffered the worst period of violence during Easter "holy week" in 1985, beginning with the kidnapping of senior member Héctor Gómez Calito, whose tortured and mutilated body was found on March 30, 1985. According to one U.S. Embassy source, agents from the Detectives Corps of the National Police had been gathering information on Gómez in the days leading to his abduction. Two weeks before his disappearance, Chief of State Oscar Mejía Víctores publicly charged that GAM members were being manipulated by guerrillas and questioned the sources of their funding. Following his murder, GAM co-founder and widow of missing student leader Carlos Ernesto Cuevas Molina, Rosario Godoy de Cuevas, who had delivered the eulogy at Gómez Calito's funeral, was found dead at the bottom of a ditch two miles outside Guatemala City, along with her 2-year-old son and 21-year-old brother. While the government claimed their deaths was an accident, Embassy sources discounted the official version of the events, and claimed that Godoy was targeted and her death a premeditated homicide. Human rights monitors who had seen the bodies reported that the infant's fingernails had been torn out.
The arrest of the police officers in Guatemala is an unprecedented step in the struggle against impunity, and a testament to the investigative efforts being carried out in the historical National Police archive. The declassified records, however, demonstrate that Fernando García's disappearance was not an ordinary police arrest, but rather an organized political abduction orchestrated by the highest-levels of government. In addition to the police files that have already proven so crucial to breaking new ground in this case, the release of the relevant military files is critical to unraveling what role the Army High Command and Chief of State played in this crime. In addition to the material authors of the crime, those who planned and ordered García's kidnapping must also be investigated. At the time of his disappearance, the key military and police personnel overseeing Guatemala's urban counter-terror campaign were:
Head of the Army Intelligence Directorate (D-2): Byron Disrael Lima Estrada
Director of the Presidential General Staff (EMP): Juan José Marroquín Siliezar
Directors of the Archivos: Marco Antonio González Taracena and Pablo Nuila Hub
Chief of the National Police: Héctor Rafael Bol de la Cruz
Oscar Mejía Víctores, Guatemala's former chief of state, is currently named as one of eight defendants charged with genocide and other crimes in an international criminal case that is being investigated by Judge Santiago Pedraz in the Audiencia Nacional (National Court) of Spain.
The García case is also important in the context of Guatemala's current struggle against organized crime. The same week authorities arrested the police officers involved in Fernando García's kidnapping 25 years ago, the PDH announced that retired and active duty police are involved in today's organized kidnapping gangs. Government prosecutors have announced they are currently investigating at least 10 members of the police's elite anti-kidnapping unit for involvement in contemporary abductions. The struggle for justice and accountability for Guatemala's past crimes has a direct relationship to the current efforts to dismantle illegal armed networks. Last week's arrests marked an important initial step in the right direction towards ending blanket impunity in Guatemala.