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Notes from the Evidence Project: Human Rights Prosecutions

March 21, 2012

The National Security Archive’s Evidence Project Supports Human Rights Prosecutions in Latin America

By: Kristin Sekerci and Emily Willard

In recent months, the National Security Archive, Evidence Project has received an increasing number of requests for evidence in the form of declassified U.S. government documents  which will be used in human rights prosecutions around the region. On-going documentation projects provide evidence to truth commissions and domestic trials, trials in the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, and international cases arguing the principle of universal jurisdiction. The National Security Archive currently provides evidence and expert witness testimony in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, Brazil, Uruguay, El Salvador, and Paraguay.

Dr. Karl speaks on panel at WOLA event on human rights prosecutions.

Earlier this month, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) hosted the event “Recent Developments in Human Rights Prosecutions in Latin America” that looked at human rights prosecutions in three of those countries.** Panelists Dr. Terry Karl, Dr. Jo-Marie Burt, and Dr. Victoria Sanford provided thorough accounts of human rights prosecutions in their respective fields of study: El Salvador, Peru, and Guatemala.

Dr. Terry Karl is a Professor at Stanford University closely monitoring and involved in current legal actions underway to address historic human rights abuses in El Salvador. Dr. Karl explained that each of these cases set precedents for the next and create important legal mechanisms to hold violators of human rights accountable for their crimes. Cases addressed by Dr. Karl, as well as others, include:

  • Doe v. Saravia (civil case): A U.S. District Court in California charged Captain Alvaro Saravia as one of the perpetrators in the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Until this ruling, no single individual had been held responsible for Romero’s assassination. Saravia has since gone into hiding and is currently on the Department of Homeland Security’s wanted list.
  • The Jesuit case (Juzgado Central de Instrucción numero 6, Audencia Nacional, Madrid) (criminal case): indicted and posted arrest warrants in May 2011 for 20 Salvadoran ex-officers who have been charged with crimes against humanity and state terrorism for their role in the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her sixteen year old daughter. Spain is trying this case under the principle of universal jurisdiction. The National Security Archive has provided hundreds of declassified U.S. government documents as evidence for this trial. Read more about it here, and here.

    This is in front of the home where the 6 martyred Jesuits lived, along with, that night, their housekeeper and her 16-year old daughter. The rose bushes commemorate their lives and physically mark where the murders took place. Photo by Kristin Sekerci

  • Chavez v. Carranza (civil case): A Memphis jury found Colonel Nicolas Carranza, the former Vice-Minister of Defense, guilty of torture, extrajudicial killings, and crimes against humanity. Carranza was ordered to pay $6 million in damages. The verdict represents the first time that a U.S. jury has found a commander liable for crimes against humanity.
  • Romagoza Arce v. García and Vides Casanova (civil case): A 1999 case filed in a U.S. District Court in Florida that charges two former Salvadoran defense ministers, Generals José Guillermo García and Carlos Vides Casanova, for liability in the tortures of three Salvadoran civilians under the command responsibility doctrine. A $54.6 million verdict was reached in 2002 by a jury in West Palm Beach, Florida.
  • Ford et al. v. García et al. (civil case): The sister case to Romagoza Acre v. García and Vides Casanova (see above) that charges José Guillermo García and Carlos Vides Casanova liable for the torture and murder of the four U.S. churchwomen by the Salvadoran National Guard in 1980. A jury heard the case in October 2000 and reached the verdict that the generals could not be held liable on the grounds that they did not have “effective control” over their subordinates. In 2002 the case was appealed but upheld.

Dr. Jo-Marie Burt is the Director of the Latin American Studies program at George Mason University, as well as a Senior Fellow at WOLA. Dr. Burt discussed the historic significance of the Fujimori trial in Peru and the ways in which it is paradigmatic for justice in Latin America. This case and others include:

  • Ochoa Lizarbe v. Hurtado and Ochoa Lizarbe v. Rondón: civil actions brought against two Peruvian Army officers, Telmo Hurtado Hurtado and Juan Rivera Rondón. The defendants were tried for the killings during the Accomarca Massacre on August 14, 1985. Under their command, patrol units massacred 69 women, children and elderly men.
    • In March 2008, a Miami federal court ordered Hurtado to pay $37 million in damages to the plaintiffs and their family’s estates. The judgment in this case set an historic precedent: this marked the first time anyone was held accountable for atrocities committed in connection with the Accomarca Massacre. On July 14, 2011, four years after Peru’s initial request, Hurtado was extradited to Peru.
    • In March 2007 Rivera Rondón was arrested in the United States and deported to Peru in August 2008. In Peru he was immediately detained in connection with a pending criminal human rights case concerning the Accomarca massacre. His criminal trial began in November 2010.

    Declassified U.S. government document used as evidence in the Fujimori trial. So see full PDF of document, see:

  • Alberto Fujimori case: A paradigmatic case that has reverberated throughout Latin America.  On April 7, 2009, former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori was sentenced to 25 years in prison for crimes against humanity. While still a young democracy recovering from the crippling 20-year internal conflict that claimed as many as 70,000 lives, Peru has proved capable in upholding its rule of law in a time of crisis. The 2 massacres that Fujimori was tried and sentenced for were the Barrios Altos massacre and the La Cantunta massacre. National Security Archive Evidence Project Director Kate Doyle provided expert witnesstestimony in Fujimori’s trial.

Dr. Victoria Sanford is Director of the Center for Human Rights and Peace Studies at City University of New York. Dr. Sanford presented via Skype a detailed look into the Ríos Montt trial, as well as other recent instances of human rights and justice in Guatemala, describing the overall forecast as a “fast-moving train:”

  • 2004: the Inter-American Court (ICC) condemned member-state Guatemala for committing acts of genocide.
  • Plan de Sánchez massacre: an arrest warrant was issued for former military dictator Ríos Montt and his defense minister, Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores, for their role in the Plan de Sánchez massacre on July 18, 1982. Armed forces, paramilitaries, and civil self-defense patrols (Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil or PACs) massacred over 250 people in the remote Maya Achi community of Plan de Sánchez. The PAC program was created in 1982 by Ríos Montt’s government with the goal of maintaining control over rural areas. Recruitment for the PACs involved forcing male members of rural communities under threat of death or disappearance to serve without pay.
  • Efraín Ríos Montt: currently under house arrest and has been deemed by a court fit to stand trial for his leading role of genocidal atrocities during his 17-month rule from 1982-1983. A conviction would signal a paradigmatic shift in justice for Guatemala: it would hold for the first time a former dictator accountable for crimes against humanity and genocide. One of the pieces of evidence used to prove chain of command responsibility is the Guatemalan government document, Operation Sofia.

    Cover of "Operation Sofia" document.

  • Héctor Mario López Fuentes: arrested June 2011 and charged with genocide and crimes against humanity for his role as the intellectual author of 12 massacres of indigenous communities that took place from 1982-1983. At that time López Fuentes was Guatemala’s military Chief of Staff, the third-highest-ranking official in the country.
  • Dos Erres massacre: The Spanish National Court is currently hearing a genocide case, a component of which is the Dos Erres massacre and other atrocities that were committed by the Guatemalan military on December 6, 1982. National Security Archive’s Senior Analyist Kate Doyle provided expert witness testimony in Spain for this case.  A Spanish arrest warrant and extradition request were issued for one of the leaders responsible for the massacre, Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes, a Guatemalan national who holds U.S. and Canadian citizenship. Furthermore, last August four former members of the Guatemalan Special Forces unit—known as the Kaibiles—were sentenced to over 6,000 years in prison for their role in the Dos Erres Massacre.
  • Additionally, Dr. Sanford blamed Guatemala’s law of impunity following the country’s 36-year civil war as predecessor to the increased violence in Guatemala today. Dr. Sanford discussed the linkages between today’s drug trafficking, cartels, and organized crime groups with ex-military perpetrators of atrocities during the war.

The event moderator was WOLAs Program Director, Geoff Thale. His concluding remarks highlighted other significant human rights cases in Latin America:

  • Uruguay recently overturned its amnesty law, paving the way for justice in violations of human rights committed during the 1970s and 1980s.
  • Last November, Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff signed to law a two-year truth commission and is expected to name the seven-member commission in upcoming months. While the truth commission’s findings will not be delegated prosecutorial power, it will mark a first step toward acknowledging and addressing abuses committed by the State during South America’s longest military dictatorship.
  • Finally, WOLA argued that despite some of the worst violations of human rights in the last fifty years, Latin America now leads the world in seeking accountability.

Legal tools on national and international levels are tested and tried in El Salvador, Peru, and Guatemala, not to mention in many other Latin American countries not specifically discussed in last month’s WOLA meeting. While each State utilizes differing tactics, the end goal of holding perpetrators of human rights violations accountable is the same: putting an end to the historic impunity. Indeed, these movements are nothing short of paradigmatic.

**For a video recording of the event, visit WOLA’s website here.

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