Guatemala City, Guatemala – Marcia Mendez never stopped searching for her sister.
Now, decades after Luz Haydee was disappeared by Guatemalan military forces, justice may be on the horizon, after a Guatemalan judge this month ordered a trial into crimes committed in the 1980s.
“For us this is already a huge step forward,” Mendez told Al Jazeera outside the Guatemala City courthouse complex following the hearing last week.
Luz Haydee Mendez Calderon was detained and disappeared in 1984 – one of an estimated 45,000 people disappeared during the civil war in Guatemala. An estimated 200,000 people were killed over the course of the 1960-1996 armed conflict.
At the time, Mendez Calderon was secretary of international relations for the Guatemalan Labour Party, which had been forced underground after a United States-backed coup in 1954 and became one of the armed fighter groups involved in a 36-year conflict with the military.
She was also a mother of two. Her nine-year-old daughter was sexually assaulted during the abduction, and together with her younger brother was held and tortured for several days. The children reappeared but their mother never did.
In 1999, leaked documents bolstered the family’s search for the truth.
The Diario Militar, or Death Squad Diary, documented the abductions, torture, disappearances and executions of 183 people, including Mendez Calderon, between 1983 and 1985. The military intelligence dossier includes a section with a numbered list of the 183, with their names, affiliations, photograph, date and location of abduction, and other basic details.
On June 9, a Guatemalan judge ordered six ex-military officers to face trial for their roles in the allegations contained in the Death Squad Diary – a move that was celebrated by relatives of the victims, who also reiterated calls for their loved ones’ remains to be located and returned.
Most – but not all – of the victims listed in the Death Squad Diary were fighter group members and sympathisers, student movement organisers, union leaders, writers, and other dissidents. Some were just children.
In most cases, victims were held for weeks and then killed, according to the document. So far, though, the remains of only eight Death Squad Diary victims have been exhumed and identified, including six found in clandestine graves on a former military base 70km west of the capital, Guatemala City.
All six defendants were indicted for crimes against humanity, and five of them were indicted for forced disappearance. They all also stand accused of murder, attempted murder or both, for the killings. The charges relate to 20 individual victims, based on witness testimonies and documentation gathered over the span of more than two decades.
“It is a triumph to have made it to this point after nearly 40 years in this struggle,” said Mendez, after the judge’s ruling. “For so many years it seemed impossible to us.”
A United Nations-backed truth commission concluded in 1999 that Guatemalan army and paramilitary forces were responsible for more than 90 percent of atrocities committed during the civil war. More than 80 percent of victims were Indigenous Maya civilians, many of them killed in more than 600 documented massacres.
The truth commission concluded state actors perpetrated acts of genocide, and domestic tribunals have since agreed in landmark rulings. High-level military officials are also currently awaiting trials for genocide, forced disappearance, and other crimes against humanity largely in rural Indigenous areas.
In contrast, the majority of Death Squad Diary victims were Guatemala City residents. The urban operations were coordinated by military intelligence tied to the Presidential High Command, according to the prosecution.
“It was a systematic policy that gave continuity to the scorched earth policy in the countryside,” said Francisco Sanchez, who was nine years old at the time of his aunt Mendez Calderon’s abduction and disappearance.
“I feel privileged because few cases make it [into the courts]. This is 183 of 45,000 people,” he said Wednesday in a plaza outside the court, where he and others had lined the steps with photographs of Death Squad Diary victims.
After the 1996 Peace Accords, Sanchez and other children, nieces and nephews of the disappeared founded the HIJOS collective to continue the older generations’ fight for justice. They set up a loudspeaker outside Wednesday to broadcast audio of the courtroom proceedings and set off firecrackers as judge Miguel Angel Galvez read out the indictments.
The next day, Galvez remanded the six defendants into custody, ordering they remain in pre-trial detention pending trial. Galvez gave prosecutors three months to continue their investigations and scheduled an intermediary hearing for September.
The six ex-military officers will likely not be the only defendants in the case.
Eleven former military and police officers were arrested on May 27, and a twelfth was arrested when he showed up in court. Six had their initial hearings and will face trial, as per Galvez’s June 9 resolution.
The initial hearings for the other six former officers arrested May 27 is pending and will determine whether they will also face trial. Some of the remaining six are in custody in medical facilities while others were arrested in other parts of the country and were not transferred to the capital in time for the initial hearing.
“It caught us by surprise,” Antonio Rustrian, whose uncle Manuel Ismael Salanic Chiquil’s forced disappearance was recorded in the Death Squad Diary, said of the arrests. “For me it was very symbolic, because the day of the arrests was the anniversary of my grandfather’s death,” he told Al Jazeera outside the court complex.
Rustrian’s grandfather, who died of natural causes in 2014, dedicated 30 years of his life to the movement for truth and justice. Shortly after his son’s disappearance, he co-founded the Mutual Support Group (GAM) and later became involved in the Association of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared of Guatemala (FAMDEGUA).
“The struggle and the history [have] always been part of my family,” said Rustrian, 25, who was born more than a decade after his uncle’s disappearance. “It left a lasting mark on me since I was little.”
Salanic Chiguil was 18 years old when he and three other young men all studying to become teachers were forcibly disappeared one night in 1984. Before he was taken away, Salanic’s abductors tortured him with electric shocks in front of his relatives; they also tortured his younger brother and beat his father and uncle, according to the family.
“The judicial proceedings that are going on are important because they reveal how the state operated – with great brutality. It is history that needs to be made known and there needs to be justice so it is not repeated,” said Rustrian, a member of HIJOS.
Military veterans’ groups and some right-wing politicians continue to reject that history, however.
When the retired officers were arrested late last month in the Death Squad Diary case, congressional human rights commission president Alvaro Arzu tweeted his support for the men, calling them “war heroes” and saying “they defended the country’s sovereignty and saved us from communism.”
Less than two weeks later, nine lawmakers presented a proposal for a bill that would quash prosecution of crimes committed by anyone directly or indirectly related to the armed conflict. The bill would be retroactive, freeing convicted ex-military and paramilitary force members and others awaiting trials.
A similar amnesty bill proposed in 2017 sparked months of protests and international condemnation after it passed a first reading in Congress in 2019. The Constitutional Court eventually ruled against the bill and ordered it be definitively shelved.
If the new bill proposal makes headway, it will undoubtedly reignite Indigenous-led protests and legal challenges by survivors and relatives of victims. The Guatemalan government has not commented on the new amnesty proposal.
For now, though, many groups are focusing on the progress in the historic Death Squad Diary case. “We finally see the result of everything we have done,” said Mendez, wearing a photograph of her sister on a sign hanging around her neck.
“We are both sad and happy,” she said, explaining that many of the victims’ parents died before they could see their disappeared children’s cases make it to court. “We have cried a lot too,” said Mendez, “out of joy, out of rage, out of all kinds of emotions.”