Twenty years ago, on May 20, 1999, a document detailing state-sponsored atrocities of the Guatemalan military was made public by National Security Archive researcher Kate Doyle, who received it from an anonymous source. The Diario Militar (Military Diary), or the Death-Squad Dossier, is a logbook documenting the fate of scores of Guatemalan citizens who were forcibly disappeared by security forces during the mid-1980s.
The publication of the Diario Militar revealed that despite its claims to the contrary, the Guatemalan military kept detailed records of its death squad operations. The logbook included photographs of 183 people who were forcibly disappeared as well as coded references to their executions. To date, the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG) has helped identify eight of the Diario Militar victims.
Families of the victims convened a press conference in Guatemala City yesterday to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the publication. They highlighted the importance of the publication of the Diario Militar and reaffirmed their determination to continue to demand truth and justice for their loved ones.
During the press conference, the families of the victims recalled how, in the face of the absence of any real investigation into the fate of their missing loved ones, they brought the case to the Inter-American System. In 2012, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found the state of Guatemala responsible for the enforced disappearance of dozens of Guatemalans listed in the Diario Militar and ordered it to investigate, prosecute, and punish those responsible. To date, however, no accusations or arrests have been made in the case.
One Hand Gives, the Other Takes Away
The Guatemalan state has acted at cross-purposes in the Diario Militar case. On the one hand, the human rights section of the Attorney General’s Office began a serious investigation into the case under the leadership of Claudia Paz y Paz. Several of the families and some survivors have given their testimonies in pretrial proceedings.
During a pretrial hearing in March 2016, Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez, who is overseeing the evidentiary hearings, disclosed that he had seized a series of military documents and made them available to the parties in the case. Among the documents were military campaign plans from 1983 through 1990 that document the army’s counter-insurgency strategy and specific actions. This was a major development in the case, as the Guatemalan army has, since the signing of peace agreements in 1996, repeatedly denied the existence of military documents related to the internal armed conflict.
Other state entities have sought to derail the proceedings. Shortly after the Inter-American Court ruling was handed down, then-Secretary of Peace Antonio Arenales Forno published a ministerial resolution rebuffing the ruling. The families of the victims held a press conference denouncing the resolution for its open defiance of the Inter-American Court’s sentence, prompting the government to retract the resolution. Still, the case remain under investigation with no formal accusations or arrests. In 2014, the Inter-American Court found that Guatemala was in open defiance of the sentence—as well as a dozen others—for failing to implement the court’s recommendations to investigate, prosecute, and punish those responsible in the case.
Private individuals have also attempted to thwart the Diario Militar investigation. Following Judge Gálvez’s public announcement about the military documents, Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, president of the Foundation Against Terrorism, a rightist organization that opposes criminal prosecutions of former military officials accused of human rights violations, published a list of several individuals presumably under investigation by the Attorney General’s Office. Despite the fact that this was privileged information, Méndez Ruiz was never prosecuted for disclosing the names of the presumed accused.
As a result of the leaking of this information, the Attorney General’s Office made the case confidential. Since then, virtually no information about the status of the case has been made public.
Demands of the Families of the Diario Militar Victims
During the press conference, the families of the Diario Militar victims issued a series of demands, starting with a call for congress to approve legislative proposal 3590. First introduced ten years ago, the proposal would create a national mechanism to search for the 45,000 victims of enforced disappearance. They also called for the creation of a genetic database and the declassification of all relevant military documents.
Similarly, the families pressed for the continuance of exhumations in military bases and detachments, given that there is more than sufficient evidence that many of these installations contain clandestine graves. One example of this is the former military detachment at San Juan Comalapa, where six individuals who appear in the Diario Militar were located and identified, along with the human remains of some 200 other people, mostly Maya Kaqchikel. Another is the CREOMPAZ or Military Zone No. 21 case, in which 565 human remains were found in 87 clandestine graves in 2011 and 2012. Of those remains, 145 have been positively identified as victims of the armed conflict. Eight senior military officials await trial in this case, which has been on hold since 2016.
The families of the Diario Militar victims demanded further that the state of Guatemala continue the investigation, prosecution, and punishment of former military officials responsible in this and other cases of grave human rights violations. “Such processes contribute to the clarification of the truth about the events of the past and to the moral reparation of the harm committed against the Guatemalan people,” they affirmed. “And only when there is truth and justice can peace and reconciliation be achieved.”
The families also called upon the state of Guatemala to refrain from passing any legislation that promotes impunity, noting that any law granting amnesty for grave violations of human rights, including enforced disappearance, is contrary to both international and Guatemalan law. This is important in light of the recent efforts of the congress to pass a blanket amnesty for war crimes as well as a back-door amnesty law. Finally, the families called on the government to stop the criminalization of human rights defenders.
The Diario Militar case, which involves dozens of victims of state-sponsored enforced disappearance, is of fundamental symbolic and historic importance. Bringing those responsible to justice is essential for Guatemala’s effort to reckon with its past and to uphold victims’ families’ rights to truth, justice, and reparation.
Jo-Marie Burt is a political scientist, human rights activist and international expert on transitional justice. She is associate professor at the Schar School of Politics and Government at George Mason University and Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Paulo Estrada is a human rights activist, archaeology student at San Carlos University, and civil party in the Military Diary case.