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Notes from the Evidence Project: The Death Squad Diary Hearing

May 3, 2012

On Wednesday, April 25, 2012, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) heard testimony in Case 12.590, Gudiel Álvarez et al. (Diario Militar) vs. Guatemala during the court’s 45th Extraordinary Session, held in Guayaquil, Ecuador.  The Diario Militar, or Death Squad Diary, a Guatemalan military intelligence document, was leaked to the National Security Archive and made public in 1999.

The Myrna Mack Foundation and family members filed the Diario Militar case against the Guatemalan government in 2005 for its failure to investigate the crimes of the 183 forced disappearances registered in the document. The case concerns 26 victims of forced disappearance; the disappearance and extrajudicial execution of Rudy Gustavo Figueroa Muñoz; and the detention and torture of the child Wendy Santizo Méndez.

Room is packed with observers.

The room at the convention center in downtown Guayaquil was packed with observers, captivated by the proceedings as the court listened to the witness testimony, questioning, and final arguments. The National Security Archive’s senior analyst and director of the Guatemala Documentation Project, Kate Doyle, gave expert witness testimony at the trial.** Wendy Santizo Méndez a survivor and the daughter of one of the Diario Militar’s victims), and Efraín García, the father of another victim, gave eye-witness testimony before the court. Manuel Vásquez, a Guatemalan public prosecutor, testified as an expert witness on behalf of the state. The legal team was led by international lawyer Roxanna Altholz from Berkeley International Human Rights Law Clinic, and Mónica Leonardo, the staff attorney at the Myrna Mack foundation, with support from lawyer Carmen Atkins and four Berkeley law students.

Why is this case important?

First, it is one of the only opportunities that the families of the disappeared in the Diario Militar have had to publicly talk and testify about the crimes committed against them, their search for disappeared family members, and their pain during almost thirty years.

Wendy Santizo Méndez testifies before the court.

While Wendy Santizo Méndez has been outspoken about her torture and rape at 9 years old and the disappearance of her mother, Luz Haydee Méndez, this is the first time she has been able to testify to her experience before a court. Santizo Méndez told the judges of the hole left in her life when her mother was disappeared by Guatemalan security forces in March 1984. She explained how the birth of her own child magnified her sense of emptiness, without her mother to show her how to breast feed her new baby. Santizo Méndez told the court that she feels the loss of her mother every day, and continues to struggle with the scars left behind by her own torture and rape at such a young age. [See the page in the Diario Militar where Luz Haydee Méndez (entry #83) appears here.]

During his testimony, Efraín García shows the court the photocopy of the page of the Diario Militar where his daughter, Lesbia, appears.

Efraín García spoke of the anguish he has experienced as a father searching for the truth about what happened to his vibrant daughter who disappeared almost thirty years ago. He showed the judges the photocopy of the page of the Diario Militar where his daughter Lesbia Lucrecia García Escobar is registered, which he carries with him everywhere.. It is the only information he has about what happened to her after she failed to come home in April 1984. He lamented that if his daughter had survived he would now have grandchildren, and a large family, but her disappearance has left him alone in his old age. [See the page in the Diario Militar where Lesbia Lucrecia García Escobar (entry #116) appears here.]

Second, because  the Guatemalan government has failed to conduct a serious and thorough investigation into the disappearance of the 183 people that appear in the Diario Militar, this is one tool that the families can use to push for justice in their case. It is the hope that a strong ruling from the Inter-American Court will compel the government to open a credible investigation and try the case in a domestic court.

Third, beyond the search for justice for the disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial executions registered in the Diario Militar, another core part of this case is promotion of the right to information as a fundamental human right. A large focus of the testimony provided by the petitioners was not only of the events that took place regarding the crimes in the Diario Militar, but also the Guatemalan government’s failure to provide information about the crimes to family members for nearly 30 years. Many of the family members formed groups in order to support each other and search for information about their disappeared loved ones, constantly filing missing person’s reports, visiting morgues, police stations, and sending letters to high-ranking Guatemalan security officials—all without fruitful response. Even after 30 years, the signing of the peace accords, and a return to democracy, the family members’ requests have still not been answered.

Access to Information is a Human Right

One of the key arguments in the Diario Militar case is the failure of the Guatemalan government to provide information to the families about the whereabouts of their disappeared loved ones. Doyle’s testimony, an excerpt of which is available here, explains how the Guatemalan government has systematically destroyed or hidden records, ignored the requests of families for information, and in the cases when the government has willingly provided information, it has been irrelevant to human rights cases. (Be sure to see excerpts from Kate Doyle’s testimony for more detailed information about the issue of access to information in this case, here.)

In an event in December 2011 to recognize the one year anniversary of the passing of the Inter-American Court ruling in the Araguaia case, (Gomes Lund and Others (Guerrilha do Araguaia) v. Brazil), Doyle issued a call to action to human rights organizations in the Americas to incorporate the right to truth as part of their defense of fundamental human rights. The legal team in the Diario Militar case also developed the concept of the right to truth beyond the search for justice to include the right of victims, family members and society as a whole to have access to information about the violations registered in the document. The hope is that the Inter-American Court will issue a ruling that builds upon and strengthens the jurisprudence established in the Araguaia ruling that would have an impact on human rights justice initiatives throughout the region. The recommendations would include:

  • The government is required to release any and all information related to human rights violations;
  • In cases where the government claims that documents were destroyed or lost, they will be required to show documentation of the destruction, i.e. an order to burn records, and provide concrete details about the search they undertook; and
  • In the cases where documents have been destroyed, the government would be required to reconstruct records, to the best of their ability. For example, by conducting detailed interviews of military or security personnel carrying out the operations that led to the crimes.

Some Closing Observations

What struck me most about observing the Inter-American Court proceedings was that this court, its power and influence, exists because people believe in it. Hundreds of people put in endless amounts of time and effort: from families, lawyers and activists working years to put cases together to the court staff putting the logistics of the hearings together to the judges serving on the bench. We all come together because we believe in the hope that the court provides to those seeking justice for crimes against humanity and a region on the path to healing from past crimes.

While a ruling from this court will not directly convict perpetrators, and no one will go to jail as a result , it will have an impact on not only the families, the survivors, and their country, but the region as a whole. The families and victims have the opportunity to present their testimony, in public, in a court of law. Sometimes this is the only opportunity people have to tell their story. The purpose of the international court system such as the Inter-American Court is to put international pressure on domestic governments to bring their own cases to trial in domestic courts. These rulings can lead to domestic trials, such as in the case of Myrna Mack.

The process can have lasting change in the Americas. Rulings from the Inter-American Court can set trends throughout Latin America, and can influence domestic court rulings. While this can, at times, be an excruciatingly slow process, hundreds have committed themselves to using the tools at hand to help to heal the wounds of the past; wounds that are a part of the everyday lives of thousands of people, as well as wounds that are a part of our society. We will all be on the edge of our seat in anticipation of the court’s ruling. It has the possibility to change lives, as well as the society in which we live.

After giving their testimony, Wendy Santizo Méndez and Efraín García hold up photographs of their disappeared loved ones.

**Be sure to check out an excerpt of Kate Doyle’s expert witness testimony here, at on the National Security Archive’s main website.

Also see video of Doyle’s commentary about the significance of the hearing, here.

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