Guatemala: Swiss arrest ex-police commander

Swiss prosecutors announced Aug. 31 that Erwin Sperisen, former commander of Guatemala's National Civil Police, was arrested in Geneva. The arrest is based on evidence submitted in 2011 by Guatemalan authorities linking Sperisen to extrajudicial killings. Sperisen, 42, holds both Swiss and Guatemalan nationalities; because of his Swiss citizenship he cannot be extradited, but authorities say he will be put on trial in Switzerland. He is accused in at least 10 homicides carried out in Guatemala's prison during his time as police commander from 2004 to 2007, thought to be part of a campaign of "social cleansing."

Guatemalan authorities in August 2010 ordered the arrest of 18 former senior officials over the killings of seven inmates at El Pavón prison outside Guatemala City in 2006. Investigators say the prisoners were shot dead after security forces stormed the facility and took back areas that had been controlled by criminal gangs. Sperisen is also accused in the killing of three prisoners who had escaped from El Infiernito prison in 2005. After dangerous prisoners (dubbed reos) escaped from the facility, Sperisen reportedly put in place the "Gavilan Plan," aiming at hunting down and summarily executing the escaped reos. Nine prisoners were eventually captured, and three executed. Authorities say the crime scene was afterwards altered in order to be able to justify the recourse to force.

The 2010 arrest orders followed an investigation by the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). The accused "formed part of a criminal organization based in the interior ministry and civil police that was dedicated to extrajudicial executions of people detained in prisons," CICIG said in a statement. The group was also involved in other crimes including "murder, drug trafficking, money-laundering, kidnapping, extortion and the theft of drugs", CICIG further maintained.

Sperisen resigned as National Police commander and relocated to Switzerland in March 2007—weeks after three Salvadoran members of the Central American Parliament and their driver were found dead in their car outside Guatemala City. Six days after their detention in a high-security prison, four police agents that we arrested in relation to the killings were found dead as well.

Former Governance (interior) Minister Carlos Vielman, under whom Sperisen served during the presidency of Óscar Berger Perdomo, fled to Spain and was arrested there in 2010 in connection with the killings at El Pavón. He is currently out on bail. Another police official wanted in connection with the affair is said to be in Austria. (BBC News, AFP, SwissInfo, Guatemala Times, El Periodico, Guatemala, La Página, El Salvador, Aug. 31; TRIAL)