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09GUATEMALA1023 2009-12-11 00:50:00 UNCLASSIFIED//FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY Embassy Guatemala
Cable title:  

Retired Colonel Sentenced to 53 Years in Ground-Breaking War

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DE RUEHGT #1023/01 3450050
R 110050Z DEC 09
					  UNCLAS GUATEMALA 001023 


E.O. 12958: N/A
SUBJECT: Retired Colonel Sentenced to 53 Years in Ground-Breaking War
Crimes Trial


1. (U) Summary: On December 3, for the first time in Guatemala's
history, a former high-ranking army officer was convicted for
directly participating in war crimes that occurred during the
country's 36 year-long armed internal conflict. Retired Colonel
Marco Antonio Sanchez Samayoa, along with three military
commissioners (civilian army informants), were each sentenced to 53
years in prison for their respective roles in the 1981 forced
disappearance of eight indigenous villagers from El Jute, an
impoverished town in the south-eastern department of Chiquimula.
Ambassador McFarland attended the trial on two occasions - the
first on Thanksgiving Day and later when sentence was passed - to
emphasize the importance the case holds for Guatemala in addressing
impunity and reconciliation. His presence at the trial also
generated significant newspaper and television coverage. The
guilty verdict was a major victory for the country's human rights
community - in addition to establishing a precedent by convicting a
retired high-ranking officer, the presiding tribunal also ordered a
wider investigation of the roles former Defense Minister Angel
Anibal Guevara and other high-ranking officers and soldiers may
have played in the disappearance. End Summary.

2. (U) At the time the eight villagers disappeared in October of
1981, Sanchez commanded the Zacapa army base. The three
co-defendants in the case - Jose Domingo Ruiz, Gabriel Alvarez
Ramos and Salomon Maldonado Rios - served as military commissioners
in the area under Sanchez's command. While many of them were
prior soldiers, military commissioners were actually civilians who
served as informants to the army. At the trial that ended on
December 3, the tribunal found that three commissioners were
responsible for forcibly taking eight family members from the
village of El Jute to the army base. It also found that Sanchez
knew about their illegal detention. The tribunal subsequently
sentenced all four to forty years in prison for forced
disappearance - which the Constitutional Court ruled earlier this
year is a crime against humanity - and an additional thirteen years
for illegal detention. The court also ordered the initiation of an
investigation against ex-Defense Minister Angel Anibal Guevar,
ex-Chief of Staff Benedicto Luca Garcia, and other former officers
and soldiers who were assigned to the Zacapa base in 1981.

3. (SBU) On the same day the sentence was passed, Ambassador
McFarland returned to Chiquimula for the second time since his
visit a week earlier on Thanksgiving (REF A) to reiterate the USG's
commitment to justice and human rights and the importance the case
holds for addressing impunity and reconciliation. One retired
military officer attending the trial expressed his deep annoyance
with the Ambassador for attending the trial. This same retired
officer was among several army veterans, members of AVEMILGUA, the
association of military veterans of Guatemala, who took pictures of
witnesses and family members also attending the trial, presumably
in an attempt to intimidate them. Before making the three-hour
trip back to Guatemala City, the Ambassador visited the village of
El Jute, where he met with a number of family members of the
victims, including two women who had been raped in the operation
that led to the disappearances of the eight villagers. The
Attorney General's Office, a number of human rights groups, and
community members thanked the Ambassador for supporting their
efforts, and for assisting their safety (witnesses say they have
been threatened) by raising the case's profile. The Ambassador's
presence at the trial and in El Jute received extensive newspaper
and television coverage.

4. (SBU) Comment: Sanchez's conviction comes three months after
a similar trial in the department of Chimaltenango. In that case,
former military commissioner Felipe Cusanero was sentenced to 150
years for his role in the forced disappearances of six members of
the Kaqchiquel Mayan indigenous group between 1982 and 1984 (Ref
B). The precedent established by Cusanero's conviction likely made
it easier for the tribunal in Chiquimula to find Colonel Sanchez
and the three military commissioners there guilty for the same
crime. Sanchez's conviction, in turn, represents the first time a
former high-ranking military officer has been convicted for direct
participation in a war crime (as opposed to being the intellectual
author of a war crime). In 2002, a tribunal sentenced Colonel Juan
Valencia Osorio to 30 years in prison for ordering the 1990

assassination of anthropologist Myrna Mack. Osorio disappeared
while under house arrest and remains at large. No other
high-ranking officers have been convicted of directly participating
in war crimes committed over the course of Guatemala's 36-year long
armed internal conflict. As many as 45,000 Guatemalans were
forcibly disappeared during a conflict that ultimately took some
200,000 lives.

5. (SBU) Guatemala's human rights community, not surprisingly,
has hailed the ground-breaking conviction. Mario Polanco,
executive director of the NGO Mutual Support Group, Guatemala's
oldest existing human-rights group, told the press that the
tribunal's ruling is as an "historic decision because it is the
first time a colonel was sentenced for a crime against humanity,
and it is the beginning of the struggle against impunity." In a
meeting with post's human rights officer the day before the
sentence was announced, Mario Minera, the director of the Center
for Legal Action on Human Rights, said that for the first time the
human rights community has found an Attorney General's Office with
which it can work. While the tribunal's ruling against Sanchez
and the three military commissioners will no doubt be appealed,
their convictions in the meantime will likely accelerate the pace
of other cases of forced disappearance that have been filed in the
Guatemalan judicial system in the years since the conflict ended in
1996 or that will be filed in the future. End Comment.