A Still Hidden History of Brutality: The Right to Truth in Guatemala

The brutal civil war in Guatemala that ended in 1996 left an estimated 200,000 people dead or disappeared, the vast majority victims of a reign of terror instituted by the country’s then military government as part of its battle with leftist rebels and the indigenous and peasant populations perceived to be supporting them. Among the victims of state violence were 183 people listed in a death squad log-book or diary—the Diario Militar—created by The Archive (El Archivo), Guatemala’s infamous presidential intelligence unit.

Sergio Saúl Linares Morales is one of the victims listed in the Diario Militar. He was kidnapped on February 23, 1984, as he was leaving his work. His house was raided the same day. His pregnant wife and child fled for their safety and never saw him again.  

All 183 people listed in the Diario Militar were perceived political opponents of the Guatemalan government. They were abducted, detained in clandestine prisons, and in most cases executed during the 1983-86 military rule of Óscar Mejía Víctores. In a sign of calculated state action, the Diario Militar lists the victims—their photographs, names, ages, alleged associations, date of capture, and date of execution.

Strikingly, the Diario Militar is only available as a result of an unauthorized leak. In 1999, it was provided to Kate Doyle of the U.S.-based National Security Archive—the same week the country’s truth commission (El Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico) submitted its final report after two years of investigation into rights abuses during the civil war.

Even after the end of the armed conflict, the Guatemalan government has continued to systematically withhold—and in some cases outright deny the existence of—relevant information related to the disappearances of the victims listed in the Diario Militar. It has not engaged in thorough investigations or employed other mechanisms designed to uncover the truth of what happened. Access to military and intelligence archives remains severely restricted—for family members, investigators and prosecutors, and the general public.

In response, family members of some of those listed in the Diario Militar have taken their case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which held a public hearing of the case in April 2012. They are asking the court to rule, nearly 30 years after the abuses, that Guatemala violated the rights of the victims, their family members, and the public in the commission of the initial crimes, the subsequent cover-up, and the failure to investigate and prosecute the crimes.

The Open Society Justice Initiative supported the Diario Militar case with an amicus brief affirming the right to truth, filed with La Asociación Pro-Derechos Humanos (APRODEH) in Peru and La Comisión Mexicana de Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos (CMDPDH) in Mexico.

The right to truth is the right of victims and the broader society to know the truth about what happened in cases of gross violations of human rights or serious breaches of international humanitarian law. The Inter-American Court has recognized the right to truth as arising from the rights to an effective remedy (Articles 8 and 25 of the American Convention on Human Rights) and the right to information (Article 13). While the right to truth exists in all such situations, it carries a special importance during a democratic transition or following state-sanctioned repression.

Truth is not a substitute for justice, but the requirements of the right to truth go beyond the punishment of individual perpetrators. We and our partners are asking the Inter-American Court to clearly define the state responsibilities arising from the right to truth. These include the duties to

  • archive, prevent the destruction of, and permit access to records;
  • limit restrictions on disclosure, and prove the need for secrecy before an independent court or tribunal;
  • search for records, and in some circumstances, to gather and generate, or reconstruct unavailable information;
  • ensure effective and untainted oversight of records; and
  • fulfill obligations within a reasonable time.

The Guatemalan government has not met these obligations in the Diario Militar case, which represents an important challenge to a broader failure to investigate and prosecute human rights abuses by its agents, and disclose to victims and the public the facts of these abuses.

According to the truth commission, Guatemala’s state security personnel and paramilitaries were responsible for over 90 percent of all documented rights violations during the civil war, including acts of genocide.

The government repeatedly denied the truth commission information from state archives. When Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ordered the disclosure of a military operational plan—Plan Sofia—detailing the state’s 1982 efforts at “exterminating subversive elements in the area” of Ixil, in northwestern Quiché, the Ministry of Defense refused to release it and denied its existence. It is now publicly available, but only—once again—as a result of an unauthorized leak.

In March 2009, the country’s then president, Álvaro Colom, established the Presidential Commission on the Declassification of Military Archives, supposedly to investigate and disclose publicly the military records of the civil war. It existed for two years, but was largely a smokescreen. It lacked independence, access, rigor, and transparency: more than half of its members were military officers; it did not have access to the vast majority of records from the most ruthless years of the war. Even its final report remains secret.

But under the current government of President Otto Pérez Molina, a former Director of Military Intelligence, there may be even less enthusiasm for investigating past atrocities than before. In its first six months, the new government denied that there was a genocide in Guatemala and suggested a limited amnesty prohibits ongoing prosecutions. It also challenged the authority of the Inter-American Court to review thoroughly cases concerning human rights violations committed during the civil war.

A limited number of high-profile and important criminal investigations are ongoing in Guatemala and Spain—including a genocide case in Guatemala against former generals and the notorious dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt, and indictments by the Spanish National Court of Ríos Montt and his successor, Mejía Victores. But there is still no sign of justice for the victims listed in the Diario Militar.

Sergio Linares’ remains were eventually discovered by the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG) on a former military installation outside of Guatemala City. His body, identified in 2011, was one of 220 exhumed from mass graves on the site.

In the Diario Militar, he is listed as number 74, and the photo of him there is the last known of him alive. In the death squad diary, Sergio is described as a communist, a member of the Guatemalan Party of Labor (Partido Guatemalteco de los Trabajadores). The description of what happened to him has military precision and efficiency: “23-02-84: Captured in Zone 9.” And then, handwritten, “29-03-84: 300,” to indicate the date and fact of his execution. 

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