City of the Disappeared – three decades of searching for Guatemala’s missing

Twelve stone pillars flank one end of Guatemala City’s central plaza, framing the entrance to the imposing Metropolitan Cathedral.They stand as a solemn memorial to hundreds of those who died or disappeared during Guatemala’s civil war – a 36-year armed conflict that claimed some 200,000 civilian lives before the government and guerrilla forces signed a peace accord in 1996. While most victims of the conflict were Indigenous Peoples and the rural poor, repression and fear also stalked the streets of Guatemala’s cities. The names etched in gilded letters on the pillars outside the Cathedral include hundreds of people from Guatemala City who were put to death or taken and never heard from again.In the early 1980s in particular, the army and police force in the capital killed or kidnapped scores of people in the guise of putting down a leftist insurgency – most of their targets were outspoken student leaders, trade unionists and human rights activists. The baker on the protest lineJorge Humberto Granados Hernández, 41, was one such victim.A baker by trade, in the late 1970s and early 1980s Jorge became involved in human rights and social justice activism. He joined a nascent trade union for bakery workers in the capital, and often coordinated marches demanding better pay and respect for rural farmers. It was these activities that raised the suspicion of the authorities. Jorge seemed to know that he was a marked man. He would tell his wife, Sara Poroj Vázquez: “If one day I don’t appear or they kidnap me or something happens to me, don’t go looking for me, because you’ll never find me.”He and Sara witnessed others being taken away – in early 1984, a young couple living on their street were dragged out of their house and beaten by police. That was the last anyone saw or heard of them. Not long after, on 9 May that year, the police came for Jorge. Shortly after he left home around 5:30pm that day, a neighbour said she saw security officials beating him up in an unmarked car close by.Later that evening, around a dozen armed officers from the police Special Operations Brigade (Brigada de Operaciones Especiales, BROE) raided the home, terrifying Jorge’s wife Sara and their three young children. Staying for nearly half an hour, they ransacked the house and made off with photographs, some of Jorge’s clothing and around 3,000 quetzales in cash (around US$375 in today’s money). When Sara asked why her home had been targeted, a BROE officer said they were responding to a tip that guerrillas had been hiding out there.To this day, Jorge’s fate has never been revealed. Nearly three decades later, like tens of thousands of other Guatemalans, Sara is still seeking answers. For almost that entire time, she has been involved with an organization called the Mutual Assistance Group (Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo, GAM) made up of people who demand justice for family members who were disappeared during Guatemala’s civil war. Legal battlesAmong GAM’s founding members was Nineth Montenegro de García, whose husband Edgar Fernando García also disappeared in 1984. A student at the capital’s University of San Carlos, Edgar also worked at a glass factory where he helped to found a trade union, raising suspicion among the authorities.On 18 February that year, BROE officials stopped him and a friend in the street. When Edgar tried to flee, he was shot in the legs and forced into a police vehicle – he was never seen again. A group of police later raided his home and took his belongings.His daughter, Alejandra García Montenegro – who was only a baby at the time – went on to become a lawyer and in 2010 acted as a private prosecutor in a trial that led to convictions against some of the police officers involved in her father’s abduction.Sixteen years after Edgar disappeared, two former police officers were each sentenced to 40 years in prison for the crime, while two other low-ranking police officers who are wanted in the case remain on the run. An investigation is still under way into the alleged involvement of higher-ranking security force personnel, including retired Colonel Héctor Bol de la Cruz and Jorge Alberto Gómez López. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights took on the case in February 2011. In the course of investigating her father’s case, Alejandra made the unsettling discovery that the authorities had monitored his activities for years before his disappearance and death.“From when he was around 17 years old – since 1978 – the police began to keep documents about him and all of this. So there is a definite thread here that they were watching him for some time. Obviously once he became more heavily involved, he began to become a target as an enemy of the state, which is what they had him filed as,” Alejandra told Amnesty International.She describes it as a “miracle” that the police files that eventually led to convictions in her father’s case ever emerged at all – their existence only came to light after a freak explosion in an old police archives building. “I thought I was going to die without ever knowing anything about my father. So when my mother told me about that, all I could do was cry a lot because I knew who those people were who, one 18 February, decided to change our lives completely,” she said. Poetic injusticeAmong those who lost their lives defending the rights of others in Guatemala was Alaíde Foppa de Solórzano – a political dissident, human rights activist, academic, poet and journalist. Alaíde and her driver, Leocadio Axtun Chiroy, were kidnapped in broad daylight by members of the G-2 intelligence unit in Guatemala City on 19 December 1980.A report in the newspaper Prensa Libre the next day said that several armed men beat her and forced her into her Chevrolet. The car, which was never recovered, then sped away and she and her driver were never seen again.Although the incident took place in a busy residential area of the capital, Alaíde’s son Julio Solórzano Foppa explained to Amnesty International why nobody came forward with information about it:“In the beginning it seemed like there were two witnesses…[but] in those days, nobody saw anything. It was suicide for anyone to testify that they had witnessed an incident like that,” he said. At the time of her disappearance, Alaíde had been visiting relatives in Guatemala, after having gone into exile with her husband in Mexico in 1954. An active member of Amnesty International in Mexico, she campaigned for human rights in Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America. She was also an active feminist – having co-founded the Mexican feminist magazine Fem and presented on women’s rights issues for a university radio station. Alaíde’s work with the radio station may have been one of the factors motivating those who ordered her disappearance. Just before her abduction she had recorded interviews with indigenous women from the Guatemalan region of El Quiché, where the armed opposition was particularly strong at the time. Her disappearance may also have been intended as a warning to her family members, some of whom were active in the opposition – two of her sons died in the armed conflict after joining the guerrillas. Her other son Julio – who has returned to live in Guatemala where he is trying to investigate what happened – explained that while the army was carrying out scorched earth policies in rural areas, the police targeted intellectuals and activists in Guatemala’s cities. “The repression was clearly divided up – the police became an instrument of the army in the city, where various police units carried out the majority of the abductions. In the countryside it was the army,” Julio said. “The majority of the population still has a very vague idea of what happened, after being exposed to lies and half-truths for so long – it’s not included in studies or schoolbooks, in the universities, but it’s something that has to be talked about, to clear it up.”Seeking answersAlthough information on more than 180 disappeared people was revealed in 1999 with the unofficial publication of a “Death Squad Diary” (Diario Militar) – which revealed the fate of disappeared activist Carlos Cuevas, among others – the military has yet to grant access to archives which hold crucial information on thousands of other cases. This is despite a court order for the release of some documents and a pledge from former Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom to make all the files public. “It’s absolutely imperative that Guatemala’s military provide access to these archives, which may go a long way to resolving a massive backlog of disappearances and other cases of human rights violations dating back decades to the darkest days of the civil war,” said Sebastian Elgueta, Amnesty International’s researcher on Guatemala.City of the DisappearedAccording to a 1999 UN-backed truth commission, a total of 6,159 enforced disappearances were registered during Guatemala’s civil war, but many of those who were taken never made it onto the official records. It is estimated that the total number of disappeared people is closer to 45,000. Like Jorge Humberto Granados Hernández, Alaíde Foppa de Solórzano and Edgar Fernando García, all those represented by the names are etched on the pillars outside Guatemala’s Cathedral can no longer speak for themselves – but their family members left behind still demand to know the truth.Meanwhile Amnesty International, GAM and other organizations press the current Guatemalan administration to deliver justice. Several recent court rulings have convicted former military and police officials for civil war abuses – and ex-military ruler José Efraín Ríos Montt is on trial for the genocide of Indigenous Maya villagers in 1982. But there is so much left unresolved, and no stone should be left unturned until the truth is revealed. As Julio Solórzano Foppa put it, “It’s important for these high-profile cases to be enforced by Guatemala’s justice system, to urge other people who maybe haven’t yet found the courage to do the same [to seek justice].”For now, the only testament to the fate of Jorge, Alaíde and Edgar Fernando – and that of hundreds of other disappeared people – is the silent stone monument outside Guatemala City’s cathedral.