US, Canada closing in on Guatemalan massacre suspects

Guatemalan soldiers of the Kaibiles Unit (AFP Photo / Jose Cabezas)
After nearly 30 years, US and Canada authorities are closing in on some of the alleged perpetrators of a Guatemalan military force which raped and slaughtered residents of a small village.

The recent arrest of four former soldiers in the past year has brought hope to victims’ families and advocates that justice will prevail and at least one of the accused will stand trial.

That one man may be Jorge Sosa Orantes.

Orantes was arrested in January in Canada on US charges. He stands accused of lying on his citizenship application about ties to the Guatemalan military. Human rights advocates are hoping for his prosecution in relation to the massacre.

However, Orantes is currently only charged in the US with immigration violations, not the massacre itself. Activists in Canada are calling on the Canadian government to try him on crimes against humanity before he is tried in the United States.

"I'd like to see a conviction for mass murder, for genocide," said Naomi Roht-Arriaza, a law professor at University of California, Hastings College of the Law. "But it's a big improvement over what used to happen."

The Guatemalan massacre took place in December 1982 when members of an elite military unit. Court papers show the group known as the "kaibiles" raided the small village of Dos Erres in search of stolen weapons, but instead killed the men with a sledgehammer and threw them into a well and raped the women and girls before killing them.

The case against the kaibiles stretches back to 1994, when, the Guatemalan government opened an investigation into the matter and found the skeletons of the people of the village. Officials then issued warrant for the members of the kaibiles, but the case never went forward and arrests were never made by Guatemalan authorities.

In Spain however Nobel Peace Prize recipient Rigoberta Menchu who once lived in Guatemala filed a lawsuit against former top Guatemalan officials accusing them of terrorism, genocide and torture and included the massacre at Dos Erres.

Since then international human rights activists have continually sought to bring the group to justice since little was done internally within Guatemala. The family members of the victims took the case before the Organization of American States, which prompted an investigation by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Thus far, there kaibiles have been arrested.

Adding to the matter is former US support of the Guatemalan government and military in the 1980’s, during which time the US provided training, weapons, and other aid to military forces like the kaibiles.

Activists now hope US and Canadian involvement will now propel authorities to act more quickly and make the case a greater priority, both internationally and within Guatemalan courts. Thus far the US has only charged those suspected of involvement with immigration violations, however Canadian laws allow for the prosecution of individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

"There has to be full accountability here," Matt Eisenbrandt, legal coordinator for the Canadian Centre for International Justice said. "Just sending him to the United States on fraud charges, even if he got the maximum sentence, would not be a sufficient punishment."