The endless search for justice in Guatemala

It took Guatemalan Ana Lucia Cuevas nearly two decades and a news story to find out her brother had been murdered.

One morning in 2008, she found an article online describing a leaked Guatemalan military document which contained a list of more than 170 activists who were kidnapped, tortured and murdered by the Guatemalan army and police between August 1983 and March 1984 – Lucia’s brother, Carlos, was amongst them.

“Looking on the internet I found Carlos’ entry with details of when he had been captured and a hand-written note in pencil with the number 300 and a date. When that information was decoded we found out that it meant that he had been executed three months after his capture,” said Ana Lucia from her home in Manchester, England, where she has been living for the past two decades.

Twenty-four-year-old student and activist Carlos Cuevas was last seen on the morning of 15 May 1984. According to eyewitnesses, he was riding his motorbike in central Guatemala City when two cars intercepted him and forced him into a police van. He was never seen again.

Carlos’ family immediately began searching for him. His wife Rosario courageously took to the streets to demand Carlos’ return, co-founding the Mutual Support Group (GAM – Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo) with relatives of others of the “disappeared”. Ana Lucia – who had been forced to leave Guatemala two months earlier due to threats against her family – launched a tireless campaign to alert the world to a situation that was all too common in the turbulent Central American nation.

“We knew this could happen, but when Rosario realized Carlos was not coming back she started to look for him in hospitals and mortuaries and kept updating us on what was happening. I had left Guatemala two months earlier, with only one suitcase. For me those days were particularly difficult because I knew they (the authorities) were torturing him.”

One year after Carlos’ disappearance both Rosario and their two year old son Augusto Rafael were abducted, along with Rosario’s brother. Their bodies were found on the evening of the same day, in what the authorities claimed was a car accident. Rosario had been receiving death threats, and had attended the funeral of a murdered GAM colleague the day before. 

Carlos and Rosario’s story is one which was repeated over and over in Guatemala.

More than 200,000 men, women and children were murdered or disappeared during the country’s bloody 36-year-long internal armed conflict, which ended in 1996 with the signing of a Peace Accord in which the government pledged to clarify the truth about what had happened in those dark days.

In 1999, a report by the UN-sponsored Commission of Historical Clarification concluded that the Guatemalan state was responsible for 93 per cent of abuses.

In 2005 the archives of the former police service were uncovered by chance, providing details of police and military operations in which many activists were kidnapped and disappeared, and showing the possible whereabouts of some of their remains.

To date, however, the fate of thousands of men, women and children remains a mystery as the police archives only contain information up to the point the victims were handed over to the army. The Guatemalan army has refused to provide any documents or meaningful assistance in clarifying the fate of its victims.

In the almost 30 years since the disappearance of her brother, Lucia has not lost hope of finding out exactly what happened to him and where he is.

Her search recently took her from England back to her native Guatemala, where she met many other relatives who routinely visit the sites of exhumations carried out by a team of local forensic anthropologists, in the hope of finding out where their loved ones are so they can finally lay them to rest.

Her journey was documented in a film which she released this year, The echo of the pain of many, which aims to shine a light on the recent history of a country that is still riven by poverty and violence, and to tell Carlos’ story as a symbol of so many others.

Over the past several years, some military officers have been held to account for their responsibility for past human rights abuses and in 2011, the then Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom publicly apologized for Carlos Cuevas’ disappearance.

However, the people responsible for his disappearance and murder have never been brought to justice. Sebastian Elgueta, Researcher on Guatemala at Amnesty International, says: “The crime of enforced disappearance echoes down the years, inflicting pain and trauma on the families who are still fighting to discover the truth about what happened to the people they love”.

“While the convictions of military officials in recent years are hugely significant, it is crucial that the criminal cases against other high-ranking officials at the top of the chain of command continue to progress.  Military archives containing evidence of the abuses must finally be opened so that further prosecutions can take place – and so that the relatives of those who were murdered or disappeared so long ago can learn the truth.”

Despite the decades that have passed, Lucia will not give up her struggle to find Carlos.

“There has been a very arrogant attitude (on the part of the authorities), and many insults. Until recently they treated us like criminals. I’m frequently told that after 30 years we should forget, however, when things happen that one knows are deeply unfair, you cannot leave it alone, you cannot stop looking for answers,” said Lucia.

Listen to an audio interview with Lucia Cuevas (in Spanish):

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