"Intellectual Authors" of Guatemalan Forced Disappearances Convicted.
27 Years Later, Justice for Fernando García
"I wanted him back alive." An Account of Edgar Fernando García’s Case from Inside "Tribunals Tower."
Washington, D.C., September 24, 2013 – On September 20, a Guatemalan tribunal convicted the former director of the National Police of Guatemala, retired Col. Héctor Bol de la Cruz, and his subordinate Jorge Alberto Gómez López for the 1984 disappearance of student and labor leader Edgar Fernando García.
The verdict broke new ground in the case of Fernando García's abduction and presumed murder, by condemning senior police officials for their role in ordering, overseeing, and then concealing the crime. The trial also gave the prosecution the opportunity to introduce eyewitness testimony from a fellow senior police officer indicating that after his capture, Edgar Fernando García was turned over to members of Guatemalan army intelligence. The revelation prompted the court to order the investigation to continue.
The case was presided over by Judges Yassmín Barrios, Pablo Xitumul, and Patricia Bustamante — the same panel of jurists who heard the landmark genocide case against former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt last May. Theirs is the second ruling in the case; the first, on October 28, 2010, found two former police agents — Héctor Roderico Ramírez Ríos and Abraham Lancerio Gómez — guilty of the same crime. In both trials, the prosecution drew on a mix of experts and witnesses to illustrate how the government of Gen. Oscar Mejía Víctores used systematic forced disappearance to kidnap, torture, and kill Guatemalans perceived to be enemies of the state.
Edgar Fernando García was a 27-year-old engineering student at the National University of San Carlos (USAC), employee and union leader at the Central American Glass Industry (CAVISA), and member of the outlawed Guatemalan Labor Party (PGT) when he was seized on February 18, 1984, by Ramírez Ríos, Lancerio Gómez, and two other policemen indicted in the case who remain fugitives. According to eyewitnesses and documents from the Historical Archive of the National Police, García was in the company of fellow PGT member Danilo Chinchilla when the two were accosted outside a market in Zone 11 of Guatemala City by agents of the Fourth Corps of the police.
The men tried to flee but were captured, as a crowd of onlookers gathered. Chinchilla, shot in his left leg, saw García pushed into a van by the agents and driven away. He was never seen again by friends or family. Accompanied by dozens of security agents, Chinchilla was transported to the Roosevelt Hospital to recover; colleagues from the PGT organized his rescue from the hospital several days later.
Many of the same witnesses and experts who testified in 2010 returned last week on behalf of the prosecution. Fellow USAC students and PGT members Berta Elizabeth Palacios, Ana Lucrecia Molina Theissen, and Ruth del Valle described Fernando García as an enthusiastic activist in student organizations at the USAC. Aura Elena Farfán recounted how she visited Danilo Chinchilla in the hospital, where she was working as a pediatric nurse. And a tape of Chinchilla — who was himself captured and disappeared by security forces seven months after his daring escape from the hospital — was played in the courtroom, in which he described García's abduction in minute detail.
National Security Archive senior analyst Kate Doyle was asked by the prosecution to provide an analysis of the declassified U.S. documents the National Security Archive has obtained over years of Freedom of Information Act requests. The communications alerted Washington to a surge in the disappearance of students and labor leaders in early 1984, including Fernando García. "Government security services have employed assassination to eliminate persons suspected of involvement with the guerrillas or who are otherwise left-wing in orientation," wrote U.S. officials, pointing in particular to the army's "notorious presidential intelligence service ( Archivos)" and the National Police, "who have traditionally considered labor activists to be communists." To read some of the State Department, embassy, and CIA cables we used the case, see below or read our posting of March 17, 2009.
Other experts included Patrick Ball, director of the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, and his colleague Daniel Guzmán, who together assessed the flow of thousands of internal police records sent between the director's office and his subordinate commands — including the Fourth Corps — to prove that the chain of command was functioning at the time of García's capture. Command responsibility in the crime was also at the heart of expert testimony from former police official Rember Larios. Marco Antonio Tulio, former director of the now-dissolved Archives of Peace, described the political context at the time of the crime, describing how the U.S.-imported "national security doctrine" helped rationalize an extremist form of counterinsurgency, wherein Guatemalans were either fully supportive of the military anti-communist project or were considered enemies of the state and legitimate targets for "elimination."
Marina Villagrán, a social psychologist from the National University of San Carlos, spoke movingly about the effects of García's abduction on his family, and the social damage wrought by the state's coordinated and systematic use of forced disappearance to destroy its critics.
As in 2010, the expert from the Historical Archives of the National Police, Velia Muralles, delivered the most powerful evidence in the case in the form of hundreds of documents generated by or sent to the police at the time of García's abduction. The records provided overwhelming proof that García and Danilo Chinchilla were captured in a joint military-police operation that involved months of planning and preparation, that both the director Bol de la Cruz and commander of the Fourth Corps Gómez López were involved in the planning and informed of the capture, and that both men participated in a cover-up of the crime afterwards.
According to Muralles, Fernando García's internal ficha, or identification card, created by the National Police indicted that he was subject to surveillance for years prior to his capture. The card — which Muralles displayed on a screen in the courtroom — had handwritten notations scribbled in its margins that said "kidnapped" and "subversive," in addition to references to the intelligence units Archivo and the army's Intelligence Directorate. Following García's disappearance, his family submitted dozens of missing person reports and requests under habeas corpus, to no avail. Muralles showed one such request sent by the family on June 24, 1984. On June 25, the National Police responded negatively, saying it had no record of his capture or whereabouts. The response was signed by Héctor Bol de la Cruz.
To read some of the National Police records used by expert Velia Muralles in her testimony, see below or read our posting of February 18, 2011.
The final, surprise witness for the prosecution was the former third commander of the Fourth Corps, Miguel Ángel Ramírez Espinso, who was serving under Gómez López when the operation to capture García and Chinchilla occurred. Ramírez was deposed behind closed doors last July and the deposition played for the courtroom on tape. In it, he described signing a document acknowledging the capture of Edgar Fernando García and told the court that García was taken to the Fourth Corps headquarters immediately after his detention. Although Ramírez was not present during García's interrogation, he said the unit's intelligence officers, known as PN-2, questioned García and that he could hear "lamentos" (moans, cries) coming from the room. The witness described what happened next under questioning from lead prosecutor Hilda Pineda García:
On the strength of the prosecution, the judges found both defendants guilty as "intellectual authors" of the crime of forced disappearance of Fernando García and sentenced them to 40 years in prison. In her summary of the sentence, Judge Yassmín Barrios, the president of the "High Risk" Tribunal A, called on all Guatemalans to absorb the lessons of this and other human rights trials taking place in the country.
"Guatemalans want to live in peace as a society," declared Barrios. "This is our obligation now — to live in peace, to tolerate difference, and not to try and simply eliminate those who think in a distinct manner from us." The judge declared the damage caused by Fernando García disappearance "irreparable," and evoked the anguish of his family, "living day after day waiting for someone who possibly no longer exists. Waiting for a response that never comes.
"Guatemala should never have to experience that era of darkness again!"
Read the U.S. Documents
The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala informs Washington about the abduction of Fernando García and other trade-union officials in the recent weeks. According to press accounts on his disappearance, armed men kidnapped him while he was walking in Guatemala City on February 18, 1984. The cable provides information on related incidents of abductions of labor activists in the weeks leading up to Fernando García’s capture, describing the disappearances in the context of the widespread government targeting of Guatemala’s labor leaders. The document provides information on the political and organizational affiliation of the recently disappeared labor activists. According to the cable, Fernando García was part of CAVISA, the industrial glass union, which is an “affiliate of the communist trade-union confederation FASGUA,” Guatemala’s autonomous federal trade-union.
It also mentions that the disappeared victims were associated with the CNT (Confederacion Nacional de Trabajadores), and makes reference to the case of the 28 CNT labor leaders, who “disappeared in 1980 in one fell swoop. It is believed that GOG security forces murdered all of them.” The other group mentioned is the National Council for Trade Union Unity – CNUS, which asserted that Fernando García was already dead. Despite those claims, the U.S. Embassy remained “optimistic that Fernando García of CAVISA will be released.” Edgar Fernando García was never seen or heard from again.
The same day that Embassy officials inform Washington of Fernando García’s disappearance, the State Department produces an intelligence report on the recent spike in political assassinations and disappearances. The intelligence report describes several notable cases of victims in the “new wave of violence,” over the past several weeks, and provides key information on police coordination with military intelligence in government kidnappings. It mentions the recent abduction and release of a labor leader and confirms that “he had been kidnapped by the National Police, who have traditionally considered labor activists to be communists.” It states that the detective corps (the DIT) of the National Police has traditionally been involved in “extra-legal” activities, working alongside the Army’s presidential intelligence unit, the Archivos.
Less than a month after Fernando García’s disappearance, the U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission in Guatemala, Paul D. Taylor reports on the growing protests from the Confederation of Syndicalist Unity (CUSG) over the recent disappearance of trade-union leaders, “especially the disappearance of STICAVISA trade-union official Edgar Fernando García.” The CUSG blames the disappearances on the “government attempts to destabilize the Guatemalan labor movement,” a charge which the government denies. The cable goes on to describe the individual cases of the disappeared, including the case of the escaped prisoner Álvaro René Sosa Ramos, who “fled to asylum in the Belgian Ambassador’s residence after being shot in an attempt to escape his captors. Once recovered from gunshot wounds, he will be going into exile.” Sosa Ramos is mentioned in the Death Squad Dossier as entry number 87.
The document offers further background as to why the labor leaders are disappearing. According to the U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission Paul D. Taylor, “By picking up leftist trade-union leaders connected with the CNT and the FASGUA, the government of Guatemala – advertently or inadvertently – is destabilizing the Marxist-Leninist wing of the Guatemalan labor movement.” His analysis concludes that the individuals were most likely targeted due to government suspicion that they were connected to armed insurgent groups, and that “security forces are after them for that reason.”
International pressure continues to mount for investigations into the disappearances of Fernando García and other labor leaders. The cable reports on a trade-union delegation visit to Guatemala, led by former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Pat Derian. The delegation presses Embassy officials for information on the missing trade-union leaders. The Embassy continues to make the point that “all of these abducted union leaders are from the leftist CNT,” emphasizing the political orientation of the disappeared victims.
The delegation maintains that Fernando García was being held by the army, and asked the Embassy to look into his disappearance, as well as that of Jose Luis Villagrán, “disappeared February 11, 1984 in zone 11.” U.S. officials promise they will “make inquiries to the government about all these people.” Ms. Derian presses further, asking them to make “representations,” not just “inquiries” into the disappearances. Deputy Chief of Mission Paul D. Taylor still maintains, however, that it has yet to be demonstrated “whether government forces seized all these trade-unionists” and further comments “If the GOG has picked them up, it is almost certainly for matters other than their trade-union activities.”
The cable reports on the death of Héctor Orlando Gómez Galito, a member of the activist Mutual Support Group (GAM). The Embassy reports that he was “abducted and assassinated the weekend of March 30-31.” Gómez was kidnapped by unidentified men after leaving a weekly GAM meeting in Zone 11 of Guatemala City, and his body was discovered near the Pacific highway 15 miles from the city. “His assassination follows in the wake of reports that members of the groups had been the subject of unspecified threats.”
The cable lists the co-directors of GAM as Beatriz Velasquez de Estrada, Aura Farfán, Maria Rosario Godoy de Cuevas, Maria Choxom de Castañón, Nineth Montenegro de García, and another Mrs. García, the mother of Edgar Fernando. The cable examines Héctor Gómez Calito’s involvement in the organization, concluding that he may have acted as a spokesperson unofficially because of security concerns. Gómez was one of the group’s planner for a march to be held on April 12 or 13, and, “According to reports, the GAM claims that Gómez was killed because of his involvement with the organization.”
GAM director, Nineth Montonegro de García, and Father Alain Richard, member of Peace Brigades International (PBI), meet with U.S. officials to provide the Embassy with background information on the death of Héctor Gómez. They explain that Gómez had joined GAM following the disappearance of his brother, and had acted as a publicist for the group. Richard tells officials that the police detective corps (DIT) had asked the mayor of the town of Amatitlan, where Gómez was from, for information about his activities, and that his house was reportedly under surveillance by “men in automobiles.”
The Embassy also states “Richard had no doubts that the GOG [the Government of Guatemala] was directly responsible for Gomez’s murder.” Richard added that regardless of the belief that the entire group was being watched, GAM would continue their advocacy efforts. The cable ends by noting “Embassy officers will meet GAM directors on Monday, April 8.”
The Embassy provides a summary of GAM organizing in March, “with some emphasis on its activist activities (blocking traffic, occupation of government offices, etc.) and the GOG reaction to those activities.” It gives background on the creation of the group, dating its first public appearance in early July 1984, when GAM members began publicly campaigning for an investigation into the disappearances of their relatives and calling upon others to join. They approached the Embassy shortly thereafter, “asking for our assistance on behalf of 67 missing persons.”
A few days after a GAM event in November 1984, they were received by Chief of State General Mejía, where “they repeated their demands” to investigate the disappeared. They met with Mejía a second time, which led to the formation of a government commission ostensibly to look into the GAM charges. In March 1985, they occupied the offices of the Guatemalan Attorney General, “protesting the lack of action by the GOG Tripartite Commission.” Beginning in mid March, the government began to express disapproval of the tactics chosen by GAM to pursue their objectives. Press reports carried warnings issued by Mejía Víctores in which he “charged that the GAM was being manipulated by the insurgents and questioned the source of the group’s funds.”
According to the cable, the Embassy had informed Washington on March 25 that four members of GAM had allegedly received various threats. One of the names on their list was Héctor Gómez, even though he was “not then known to the Embassy in any capacity related to GAM. Additional information regarding the specifics of Gómez’s murder have been provided.”
Before Embassy officials had the chance to meet with GAM members again, another one of their members was killed. “At about 8:00 pm April 4, Maria del Rosario Godoy Aldana de Cuevas, a founder and member of the board of directors of GAM was found dead in her automobile.” Three days after Rosario Godoy de Cuevas delivered the eulogy at Héctor Gómez’ funeral, she was found dead along with her 2-year-old son and 21-year-old brother. U.S. Embassy provides the official story given by the Guatemalan government, that she was “the victim of an apparent vehicular accident.” Embassy sources, however, believe the death was premeditated, and note several contradictory facts in the official version of events. Rosario de Cuevas helped found GAM following the disappearance of her husband, Carlos Ernesto Cuevas Molina, another labor leader who was kidnapped on May 15, 1984.
Provides further information on the death of Maria Godoy de Cuevas, and describes the “sense of threats felt by GAM members.” In press broadcasts Archbishop Prospero Penados referred to the recent events, including the Cuevas deaths, as the “holy week of shame and fear” in Guatemala, and called the deaths a “bloody act.”
Embassy comments on the matter of the autopsy, noting that it is unclear what examination was completed by “police forensic specialists.” An Embassy source also said “he had heard that the victims had died of asphyxiation and that a ‘bogus autopsy’ had been performed ... another rumor circulating said that the victims had died from gunfire. But again, no details or proof have been offered.” The Guatemalan Interior Minister said he had the “official report that showed the Cuevas case to have been an accident.”
The cable reiterates that “GAM members had recently began to receive anonymous threats by letter and telephone,” and that other press reports spoke of anonymous threats against the organization. Threats notwithstanding, the group announced plans for another public protest later that month.
Piedra also takes aside the Foreign Minister, who tells the Ambassador that he was against the “continuance of these types of crime.” He added that the U.S. Embassy should continue opposing such violations to all sectors of Guatemalan society, “and in a very special way to the military.”
This Department of State report from 1986 provides details on the evolution of the use of forced disappearance by security forces over the decade prior, and how this tactic became institutionalized under the Mejía Víctores regime. “In the cities, out of frustration from the judiciary’s unwillingness to convict and sentence insurgents, and convinced that the kidnapping of suspected insurgents and their relatives would lead to a quick destruction of the guerilla urban networks, the security forces began to systematically kidnap anyone suspected of insurgent connections.” The documents estimates there were 183 reported cases of government kidnapping the first month of the Mejía government, and an average of 137 abductions a month through the end of 1984. Part of the modus operandi of government kidnapping involved interrogating victims at military bases, police stations, or government safe houses, where information about alleged connections with insurgents was “extracted through torture.”
The document concludes that the U.S. embassy and the State Department have failed in the past to adequately grasp the magnitude of Guatemala’s problem of government kidnapping.
Read the Guatemala Documents
This document is the official ruling of the Guatemalan court, which convicted former National Police officers Héctor Roderico Ramírez Ríos and Abraham Lancerio Gómez of forced disappearance in the case of Edgar Fernando García. The two men received the maximum sentence of 40 years in prison. The ruling, written by three Guatemala judges, acknowledges that Edgar Fernando García was illegally detained; the disappearance was committed by state security agents within national security policy; and the crime was against the individual liberties and freedoms of Fernando García.
The official ruling also includes parts of the testimony from eye witnesses, as well as expert witness testimony on the documents from the Historical Archive of the National Police (AHPN) and the declassified U.S. government documents from the National Security Archive collections.
This documents records the nomination of four police officers, Hector Roderico Ramírez Ríos, Alfonso Guillermo de Leon, Hugo Rolando Gomez Osorio, and Abraham Lancerio Gómez to receive awards for their actions on February 18, 1984 at 11:00 in the morning with their encounter with "two subversives" who had subversive propaganda and fire arms at the "Mercado de Guarda" in zone 11. This was the exact date, time, and place that Fernando García and his companion Danilo Chinchilla were abducted. In her testimony, expert witness Velia Muralles used this document to demonstrate that these four former National Police officers took part in the crime of the forced disappearance of Fernando García because of the awards they received for participating in the cleansing operation the morning he was shot and disappeared.
These four documents (three through six) are from the "Centro de Operaciones Conjuntas" or COC, which was the "Center of Cooperative Operations" between the military and the police. These documents are from February 1984, days before Fernando García was disappeared. Expert witness Muralles explained that this document showed the coordination between the military and police in the overall national strategy of "cleansing operations" or "operación limpieza."
This is another document from Joint Operations Center giving instructions to the National Police regarding cleansing operations. This documents contains two pages that show which sectors of the city were assigned to specific corps of the National Police. The second to last page, titled "Sectores de la Ciudad Capital para Operaciones Limpieza de los Cuerpos P.N." shows that the Fourth Corps was in charge of Zone 11 for the patrol for "operacion limpieza". The defendents, Héctor Roderico Ramírez Ríos and Abraham Lancerio Gómez, were members of the fourth corps. The last page, titled "Croquis Demostrativo Sectores Ciudad Capital Para Operacion Limpeza de los Cuerpos P.N." is a hand-drawn map shows a yellow-gold outline for Zone 11, where Fernando García was captured.
This document is a logbook list of which units were assigned to patrol which areas on certain days. We see that the Fourth Corps of the National Police was assigned to patrol Zones 11 and 12 during the hours of 9:00am and 12:00pm on Feburary 18, 1984. The defendents, Héctor Roderico Ramírez Ríos and Abraham Lancerio Gómez, were members of the fourth corps.
Guatemalan Court Convicts National Police Chief
Commander of Infamous 1984 Fernando Garcia Disappearance
Archive Analyst Testifies on Key U.S. Documentary Evidence
National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 440
Posted – September 24, 2013
Edited by Kate Doyle
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