Slow progress in prosecuting accused Guatemalan war criminals

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala — Guatemalan human rights activists and victims of a notorious 1982 massacre are looking to U.S. courts to prosecute some of the alleged perpetrators.

Former Guatemalan special forces soldier Gilberto Jordan pled guilty on Wednesday in a south Florida court to lying when he received U.S. citizenship in the 1990s.

Jordan, an army cook who became a restaurant worker in Florida, is one of four suspected perpetrators known to have gone to the United States years ago, as first reported by GlobalPost. They are accused of participating in a massacre in the northern Guatemalan hamlet of Las Dos Erres where 251 men, women and children were killed.

Two others were arrested in the spring on immigration charges and a third is free in southern California, under investigation. They are all named among 17 defendants in warrants in a 16-year-old war crimes case in Guatemala. Officials there could request extradition though it's unclear whether the men would face any tougher penalties in their home country, where prosecution of war crimes has been rare.

Officials say Jordan denied having served in a foreign military or committing crimes on his citizenship application. U.S. authorities say that when they went to his Delray Beach home in May he confessed to killing civilians in Las Dos Erres, beginning when he threw a live baby into a well. Scheduled for sentencing Sept. 17, he could face up to 10 years in prison on the immigration charge.

“For bolstering the case (in Guatemala) legally, this isn’t necessarily important because they are not the same charges. But morally it bolsters the victims because no one can deny that these deeds were done,” Edgar Perez, attorney for the victims, said by telephone Thursday night, noting Jordan's confession to U.S. investigators.

Prosecutors and activists say Jordan and other “Kaibil” special forces systematically gathered the residents of the village and killed perhaps 251 — accounts still vary as the site was effectively closed to investigation for years. According to witnesses, including two former soldiers in hiding who have aided the Guatemalan prosecution, children were thrown alive into the dry well, many women and girls were raped, beaten to death with a hammer and thrown in also, and then men were tortured and shot.

Archeologists in 1995 found the tangled remains of more than 150 people in the well as well as remnants of more bodies scattered on the ground in two areas nearby.

The massacre was part of the Guatemalan military’s scorched earth campaign in a civil war that killed more than 200,000 people, the vast majority at the hands of the army.

There have been few prosecutions, however. Miguel Angel Albizures, a veteran human rights activist, said recently in Guatemala that he believes the case will shake up a military establishment accustomed to impunity and American Cold War backing.

“I believe they fear the United States,” Albizures said in a recent interview. “The (Americans) helped them in the old days. Now this (series of arrests in America) represents a change.”

The Guatemalan courts early this year started reviving the long-stalled court case there, ordering a new exhumation and DNA tests on the bodies and arresting three of the 17 suspects.

But there has been a deadlock in the appointment of a new attorney general, endangering prospects for aggressive prosecutions. Nominating committees stacked the list with candidates close to reactionary parties and the man chosen was quickly removed amid allegations that he had ties to criminal syndicates — generally thought to have connections in the military. Aura Elena Farfan, a human rights activist spearheading the case, said she recently met with the caretaker leadership of the attorney general’s office and said they pledged to continue pressing key war crimes cases.

Meanwhile the U.S. arrests have received occasional coverage in the local press. Luis Arevelo, whose parents, three brothers and sister were killed in the massacre, said recently that he was buoyed to hear about the U.S. prosecutions. “My hope is that they bring them to Guatemala and subject them to the law,” he said. "So this will never happen again."

Activists and victims say they believe it will require prosecutions in Guatemala on the massacre charges — not just U.S. trials on immigration charges — to move beyond the mid-level soldiers facing warrants to the high-level officers, some still in government, who organized the killing campaign.

In a case that could still run for years, that seems far off.