Central America Theater
A retired lieutenant colonel and a former paramilitary were sentenced to 120 years and 240 years in prison, respectively, for sexual slavery and other crimes against humanity during Guatemala's civil war. In a Feb. 26 ruling, Judge Jazmin Barrios found that the actions of retired Lt. Col. Esteelmer Francisco Reyes Girón and former paramilitary Heriberto Valdez Asij did "irreparable harm." Reyes and Valdez were tried for murder, forced disappearances and the sexual enslavement of multiple women. The court also found that the women's husbands and children had been forcibly disappeared.
This January marked 84 years since the 1932 uprising of rural peasants and Communist Party organizers and the state-led genocide that followed in El Salvador. Indigenous organizations in the country gathered in the western departments of Ahuachapán and Sonsonate to remember those lost and call for justice. "For us, this is a painful moment. They killed many defenseless people. Our grandparents cried for justice, they couldn’t stand the hunger, the misery, the slavery, and they started to organize,”"Rafael Latin, elected indigenous leader of the town of Izalco, explained. "We have been pushed from our lands since the Spaniards arrived. They took away our collective lands; they tried to eliminate us."
The Supreme Court of Guatemala on Jan. 28 rejected a request to strip a member of congress of his immunity from prosecution for allegedly overseeing grave human rights violations during the country's civil war. Edgar Justino Ovalle is a top adviser to President Jimmy Morales and a member of Congress, which gives him immunity from prosecution. A spokesperson for the court stated that there was insufficient evidence that he participated in the alleged acts. However, the spokesman also explained that the court decided to reject the request "in limine," without further investigation. Edgar Ovalle was accused of having led operations as a military officer in which 77 massacres took place. The request to lift Ovall's immunity came from Prosecutor General Thelma Aldana.
Prosecutors in Guatemala on Jan. 6 announced the arrest of 14 former military and government officials for alleged crimes against humanity committed during the country's 1960-1996 civil war. Among the detained is Benedicto Lucas García, chief of the army High Command under the rule of his late brother, ex-dictator Fernando Romeo Lucas García, between 1978 and 1982. Also detained were retired Gen. Francisco Luis Gordillo, who helped bring José Efrain Rios Montt to power in the coup that toppled Lucas García in 1982, and Byron Barrientos, who was interior minister during the 2000-2004 presidency of Alfonso Portillo. "The cases that we have documented were [attacks] against the non-combatant civilian population including children," the country's chief proscutor Thelma Aldana said, asserting that they were among "the largest forced disappearances in Latin America."
The International Court of Justice on on Dec. 16 recognized Costa Rica's sovereignty over a 2.5-square-kilometer disputed territory on the border with Nicaragua, one of the main claims fought over by the two countries at The Hague-based court. "The sovereignty over the disputed territory belongs to Costa Rica," Justice Ronny Abraham stated. The ruling found that an artificial canal opened by Nicaragua in 2010 through Isla Calero, also called Isla Portillos or Harbour Head Island, was within Costa Rican territory and not part of the common border between the two countries. Justices also unanimously found that Nicaragua violated Costa Rican territory by invading Isla Calero with military personnel, by dredging canals in Costa Rican territory, and by violating Costa Rica’s navigation rights on the Río San Juan. Nicaragua was ordered to compensate Costa Rica for damage caused to its territory.
The Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) delivered a judgment Oct. 30 in a land-rights case brought by indigenous Maya elders in Belize, finding that the government violated communal rights. The case, Maya Leaders Alliance et al v the Attorney General of Belize, concerned indigenous communities in Toledo district whose lands have been usurped. The case was first brought in the Belizean courts more than 20 years ago. The country's Court of Appeal ruled in 2010 that the Maya do have communal land rights, but failed to order any restitution in the case. Maya leaders then brought suit before the CCJ. In its new ruling, the CCJ wrote that the Belizean government had "breached the appellants' right to protection of the law by failing to ensure that the existing property regime, inherited from the pre-independence colonial system, recognized and protected Maya land rights." It ordered Belize to take positive steps to secure and protect constitutional rights and to honor its international commitments, including its obligations to protect the rights of indigenous peoples.
Nicaragua's Canal Commission on Nov. 5 approved environmental and social impact assessments for construction of the inter-oceanic canal by Hong Kong company HKND. "We are officially authorizing HKND to now begin the structural design and construction processes," said commission president Manuel Coronel in a ceremony. The impact studies were undertaken by UK-based Environmental Resources Management (ERM) and handed in to the government in September after a year and a half of prerparation. The assessment found that the canal project "will have significant environmental and social impact," but that this can be mitigated if it is developed properly. Project adviser Bill Wild said the approval marked a "giant step" for the project, and assured rapid advancement in the construction. The studies had not yet been approved by the official groundbeaking on the project last December.
A change of government in Guatemala and Belize is reviving long-simmering fears of war between the Central American neighbors. Media in Belize are reporting that a leaked document written by a senior officer in the Belize Defense Force apparently claims an ongoing campaign of aggression and confrontation from the Guatemalan military along the Sarstoon River, which forms the border between the two nations in the south. The leaked memo, dated Oct. 22, notes incidents as far back as 2003, with tension reaching dangerous point in 2006. The tension eased when the two nations' armed forces agreed on protocols for their border forces along the Sarstoon. But the memo says late 2009 saw another incident, in which a Guatemalan army vessel anchored on the Belizean side near the mouth of the Sarstoon, and raised a Guatemalan flag from a tree-top. BDF troops apparently removed the flag, but that the Guatemalan soldiers defiantly promised to replace it.