MEXICO CITY — The Swiss criminal court in Geneva sentenced former Guatemalan police chief Edwin Sperisen last week to life in prison for his role in seven extrajudicial killings in 2006.
Sperisen, 43, was found guilty of the summary execution of one man and held indirectly responsible for the other six murders. The verdict was hailed by human rights activists as a breakthrough against state-sponsored violence in Guatemala, where there is growing international concern about a relapse into official impunity.
At dawn on September 25, 2006, more than 3,000 soldiers and police officers were deployed to Guatemala’s notorious Pavon Prison, armed with a blacklist of troublemakers. The raid took place in front of the national media, invited to witness government forces regain control of the prison. Seven inmates were killed.
The seven were summarily executed at close range while handcuffed, semi-naked and unarmed, the Swiss court found last week. Officers under Sperisen’s command then altered the scene to look like a confrontation had taken place, and lethal force had been justified.
Philip Grant, director of the NGO TRIAL (Track Impunity Always) which helped bring the case to trial in Switzerland, told GlobalPost: “Justice has been rendered for the victims despite the intimidation and murder of witnesses and lawyers, and continuous attempts by the defence to discredit the investigation.”
“The verdict should send a strong signal to Guatemalan authorities: state sponsored crimes can be and should be prosecuted,” he added.
The seven presiding Swiss judges also ruled that a secret death squad was in operation within the police service during Sperisen’s command between 2004 and 2007.
The death squad is linked to several other massacres, including the murder of nine farm workers and a pregnant woman at the Nueva Linda ranch in 2004.
Sperisen, who had fled to Switzerland and could not be extradited to face trial in Guatemala as he has dual Swiss-Guatemalan nationality, was acquitted by the same Swiss court of the murders of three escaped prisoners in 2005.
Friday’s verdict, which Sperisen is likely to appeal, has been welcomed as a step-forward in the fight against state sponsored violence and impunity, which has plagued Guatemala for decades.
“This verdict strengthens the rule of law and is a wake-up call for all those in Guatemala attempting to hide their crimes behind positions of authority,” said Sebastian Elgueta, from Amnesty International.
Sperisen’s boss at the time, Interior Minister Carlos Vielmann, is currently awaiting trial for the same murders in Spain, where he fled in 2010 to avoid arrest in Guatemala.
The widespread use of death squads by repressive regimes in Latin America has its roots in Guatemala’s 32-year civil war, in which 200,000 people were killed or disappeared, and thousands more suffered physical and sexual violence, according to the UN-sponsored truth commission.
Even after the war ended in 1996, around 98 percent of crimes continued to go unpunished as violence and corruption escalated, and criminal gangs, drug traffickers and crooked officials flourished.
In 2007, the UN Special Rapporteur issued a damming report on Guatemala, concluding it was “highly credible” that police officers were involved in extrajudicial executions.
The lack of accountability was so severe, that the government and United Nations took the extraordinary measure to form the Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), an independent organisation to booster the prosecution of criminal gangs and corrupt officials. CICIG investigators and the Public Ministry’s specialist prosecutor against impunity were instrumental in gathering evidence against Sperisen.
In December 2010, the tide began to turn as Claudia Paz y Paz was appointed the country’s first female attorney general. The fearless chief prosecutor set-about tackling high-level corruption, organized crime and perpetrators of civil war human rights violations, seriously denting impunity in what had become one of the world’s most violent countries.
Under her watch, the number of reported crimes that went unprosecuted fell from 95 to 70 percent; successful convictions more than doubled from 3,280 in 2009 to 7,122 in 2013. This included 116 public officials, including 17 mayors, who were convicted of corruption charges in 2013, a fivefold increase on the previous year.
Paz y Paz’s dogged pursuit of high profile criminals earned her a Nobel Peace Prize nomination and praise from the United States government, but also powerful enemies from within Guatemala’s ruling political and criminal elites — unhappy with her meddling in the status quo.
Her most high profile case was undoubtedly the conviction in May 2013 of former dictator Rios Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity linked to the killing of 1,771 Maya-Ixil indigenous people.
It was an incredible moment in the country’s violent history, especially as its indigenous Mayans had borne the brunt of civil war atrocities. But it was also the beginning of the end for Paz y Paz.
Montt’s conviction was annulled a few days later by the Constitutional Court, on a technicality. In February this year, the same court was internationally condemned after it inexplicably ended Paz y Paz’s four-year term seven months early.
The election of her successor has been clouded in controversy. The American Bar Association’s Centre for Human Rights, which observed the nomination process, wrote to President Otto Perez Molina expressing concerns about widespread irregularities. Paz y Paz did not make the final shortlist of six, even though she had the second highest score among the 26 candidates.
Thelma Aldana, who has been linked to the current President’s Patriotic Party and Rios Montt’s Republican Front Party, was declared the new attorney general last month. Her appointment coincided with a study by the Centro de Estudios de Justicia de las Americas [Center for Justice Studies of the Americas] and Open Society Foundations (OSF) which credited Paz y Paz’s leadership with significantly increasing successful prosecutions, reducing impunity for the most serious crimes, past and present, and improving transparency and accountability.
Aldana’s appointment has raised fears of a return to impunity after four years of promising reforms.
The new attorney general, a Supreme Court judge with more than 25 years judicial experience, though none as a prosecutor, has signalled that change is on its way. She has pledged to review the large number of human rights “politically Left” cases and focus more on common criminals like street gangs who blight Guatemala’s inner cities — which Paz y Paz was criticized for neglecting.
Aldana declined to answer GlobalPost’s questions through a Public Ministry spokesman.
Two other recent decisions could signal a slide back to the old days of political interference in the judiciary.
Last month, Congress passed a non-binding resolution declaring that genocide never occurred during the civil war — directly contradicting the UN’s finding of facts, said Elgueta. Montt’s retrial is scheduled to begin in January 2015, but Aldana has suggested that a formal amnesty for civil war crimes is not off the table.
Yassmin Barrios, the highly-respected judge who presided over last year’s genocide trial, was recently suspended by the ethical tribunal of the lawyers’ association following a complaint from one of Rios Montt’s lawyers that she had “humiliated and ridiculed” him in court.
“[This was] another affront to judicial independence and the rule of law,” said Liliana Gamboa, from OSF. “What is ultimately at stake is Guatemala's future: without a strong and independent judiciary, it risks losing the gains made since the 1990s and succumbing to criminality, corruption and violence.”
With Paz y Paz gone and crucial judicial elections in the Supreme and Constitutional Courts around the corner, Guatemala is at a crossroads.