A court in Guatemala City on Aug. 21 sentenced Pedro García Arredondo, former chief of the National Police, to 70 years in prison for the 1981 disappearance and torture of a university student, Édgar Enrique Sáenz Calito. Enforced disappearance is a crime under international law, and the First Tribunal for High Risk found that the victim’s torture in detention amounted to a crime against humanity. The judgment found that Arredondo “planned, cooperated with and aided in” Sáenz Calito’s disappearance, and that he “had full authority and as a consequence, knowledge of what happened to the disappeared person.” The ruling was hailed by human rights groups. “It has taken more than three decades for justice to catch up to Pedro García Arredondo, but this ruling sends another strong message that those responsible for past human rights violations in Guatemala will be held accountable,” said Sebastian Elgueta, researcher on Central America at Amnesty International.
On March 4, 1981, officials from the National Police Sixth Command arrested the agronomy student on suspicion of “undermining national security” after he was found carrying literature from an armed resistance group, the Revolutionary Organization of Armed People (ORPA). Witnesses testified how Sáenz Calito was taken to “the little room” (el cuartito) where the Sixth Command typically interrogated guerilla suspects. The victim’s wife, Violeta Ramírez Estrada, told the court how she visited her husband in a prison hospital following his arrest, and he bore signs of having been tortured—he had been subjected to beatings, water-boarding and cigarette burns, and electric shocks had been applied to his genitals. He was released on June 9 due to a lack of evidence against him—but just minutes after he left the Sixth Command building, four armed men in plainclothes pulled him into a vehicle and drove off. His remains have never been found.
Violeta Ramírez explained how ongoing harassment by the authorities after her husband’s disappearance caused her to go into exile with their daughter. “Édgar Enrique Sáenz Calito and his family suffered a terrible ordeal at the hands of Guatemala’s security forces, but justice has been finally delivered,” said Elgueta. “This ruling will give hope to the tens of thousands of other victims and relatives of victims that they, too, will see their tormentors held accountable for the horrendous abuses that took place during Guatemala’s civil war.”
Arredondo is the most senior Guatemalan police official to be imprisoned for war crimes. Head of the National Police from 1974 to 1982, he was arrested last year at his home near the capital. He also faces separate murder charges in connection with the 1980 burning of the occupied Spanish embassy in Guatemala City, in which 36 people died. The dead included Vicente Menchú, the father of Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú.
The release of police archives from the 1980s aided in the investigation and prosecution of García Arredondo. Amnesty International is calling for the similar disclosure of military archives from the same time period. During the course of Guatemala’s 36-year internal armed conflict that began in 1960, an estimated 200,000 people were killed—including approximately 45,000 who were disappeared, according to Amnesty.
A peace agreement signed in 1996 brought an end to the conflict, and the National Police force was reorganized as the National Civil Police. But it was not until 2008 that the country’s first trial in a disappearance case opened. Guatemala’s congress introduced a bill in 2007 to form a National Search Committee that would help with the investigation work into cases of enforced disappearances. Amnesty International is calling on Guatemala’s government to finally enact this legislation. “The ongoing efforts to prosecute those responsible for human rights violations during the course of Guatemala’s internal armed conflict must move forward,” said Elgueta. (Amnesty International, BBC News, RTVE, Spain, Prensa Libre, Guatemala, Aug. 22; Siglo21, Guatemala, Aug. 21)