Guatemala City – Guatemalan police have arrested a former military commander accused of genocide and crimes against humanity when he came out to cast his ballot in the general election.
Luis Enrique Mendoza was the military head of operations under former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, who ruled from March 1982 to July 1983. Mendoza, who has been in hiding since an arrest warrant was issued in 2011, faces charges for his alleged role in the massacre of 1,771 Maya Ixil villagers in 1982.
He went on to become defence minister in the early 1990s and was later elected to the Congress. He is also the father-in-law of Estuardo Galdamez, a legislator and the ruling FCN party’s presidential candidate in Sunday’s election.
We cannot speak of democracy if the justice system does not work to protect life and human dignity.
Relatives of genocide victims and survivors around the country celebrated the news of Mendoza’s arrest on Sunday, said Edwin Canil, the president of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), an indigenous survivor-led group.
Much of Canil’s own family was killed in a massacre when he was a child.
“As survivors from different regions, we have been communicating, and there is a feeling of jubilation and hope,” he told Al Jazeera. “We are ready for whatever hearings are necessary.”
Indigenous authorities also welcomed the news. It is one more step forward in a long struggle, according to Diego Ceto, a traditional indigenous Maya Ixil authority in Nebaj, 240km northwest of Guatemala City.
“We have never stopped in our search for justice and truth,” Ceto told Al Jazeera. “It is a struggle of all the [indigenous] peoples.”
Police arrested Mendoza outside an elementary school serving as a polling station in his hometown in the department of Baja Verapaz, 115km north of Guatemala City.
“He was apprehended for the crimes and genocide and crimes against humanity due to an arrest warrant issued on October 11, 2011,” police said in a public statement following the arrest.
An estimated 200,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed during Guatemala‘s 36-year civil war between the military and leftist guerrilla forces. More than 80 percent of the victims were indigenous Maya.
Over the course of the war, the military carried out more than 600 massacres, a United Nations-backed truth commission found. The commission also concluded that the military committed acts of genocide in four parts of the country, including the Maya Ixil region.
Mendoza evaded arrest in 2011, but former dictator Efrain Rios Montt and his chief of military intelligence Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez were arrested and stood trial for genocide and crimes against humanity.
In 2013, Rodriguez Sanchez was acquitted but Rios Montt was convicted and sentenced to 80 years in prison.
The conviction and some of the proceedings were overturned shortly thereafter, and a partial retrial later took place.
Rios Montt died in April 2018 before the retrial concluded, and Rodriguez Sanchez was acquitted in September. But in the tribunal’s ruling, the three judges unanimously concluded the state committed genocide during Rios Montt’s rule.
Genocide survivors have been asking officials to execute the 2011 arrest warrant against Mendoza for years, according to Edgar Perez. An indigenous lawyer from the Bufete de Derechos Humanos human rights law firm, Perez represented Maya Ixil relatives of victims as well as AJR in court proceedings.
“The accused have faced a weak judicial system, but on two occasions it has said that genocide occurred in Guatemala,” Perez told Al Jazeera.
After his arrest, Mendoza was taken to appear before a presiding judge. Due to the severity of the charges and the potential flight risk, he will likely be remanded into custody pending an initial hearing.
Victims, survivors, and future generations all need a sign that justice will be served regardless of social status, said Miguel de Leon, a traditional Maya Ixil authority.
“We hope the judges carry out their work and that the victims get justice,” de Leon told Al Jazeera.
“We cannot speak of democracy if the justice system does not work to protect life and human dignity,” he said.