Guatemala: president-elect accused in 1980s genocide

Retired military general Otto Pérez Molina emerged victorious from Nov. 6 run-off elections for the presidency of Guatemala, vowing a crackdown on crime and drug-related violence. Pérez Molina was elected despite being accused by rights campaigners of having overseen genocide when he commanded military forces at Nebaj, Quiche department, in 1982-3. Pérez Molina will take office the first week of January. The US embassy released a statement congratulating him.

The crimes Pérez Molina is accused of occurred before creation of the International Criminal Court. However, Spain’s National Court is investigating the Guatemala genocide under the principle of universal jurisdiction. The Spanish court has received testimony concerning Pérez Molina’s participation in war crimes in Nebaj. But no public official in Guatemala has publicly broached war crimes charges against Pérez Molina. Unlike Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, under whose dictatorship he served at Nebaj, he has not been barred from holding public office because of possible responsibility for genocide.

Jennifer Harbury, a US citizen whose husband, guerrilla commander Efraín Bámaca, was illegally detained, tortured and killed in a clandestine prison in 1992, initiated a case in the Guatemalan courts this March against Pérez Molina, charging him with covering up the crime. Pérez Molina was head of the G2 military intelligence service at the time of Bámaca’s disappearance. He was reported to have run a secret torture center on the Mariscal Zavala military base at this time—when he was also said to be on the CIA payroll. In September 2011, a complaint was submitted to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture calling for an investigation into Pérez Molina.

Pérez Molina has denied not only participation in war crimes, but has also publicly denied that genocide took place in Guatemala. In 1999, the UN released its Truth Commission report (“Memory of Silence“), concluding that over 93% of the atrocities during the country’s 36-year civil war were carried out by the military, police and paramilitaries. It also found that the military conducted genocide against the Mayan population in certain areas, including the Nebaj region. In the war, which was at its worst in the years Pérez Molina commanded at Nebaj, at least 200,000 people were killed, over 45,000 people disappeared, more than 600 massacres were committed, and over 1,000,000 people were forcibly displaced.

In April 1998, the Catholic Church released its own report (“Recovery of the Historic Memory“) detailing decades of repression that culminated in the genocide of the early ’80s. The night following the release of the Church report, the man who led the investigation, Bishop Juan Gerardi, was bludgeoned to death. While two former military officers are serving sentences for the assassination of Gerardi, investigators claim that evidence points to Pérez Molina’s involvement in the Gerardi killing—even placing him at the scene of the crime on the night of the killing. (UDW, La Jornada, Nov. 7; WSJ, Nov. 5)

Gen. Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores, the dictator who succeeded Ríos Montt in a 1983 coup, was arrested in Guatemala City last month, after having been declared a fugitive. However, he has been ruled unable to stand trial on genocide charges following a medical evaluation by the National Institute of Forensic Science (INACIF), which found he had recently suffered a stroke. (Guatemala Times, Oct. 31)

See our last posts on Guatemala and the struggle in Central America.

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