Former Guatemalan police chief found guilty for killings

The conviction of Guatemala’s former National Director of Police for a number of murders is a very significant step forward in the fight against impunity that has plagued Guatemala in the past, said Amnesty International today.

Erwin Sperisen was found guilty of the murders of seven men by a Swiss court today, and sentenced to life imprisonment. The decision can be appealed. 

The court found that he had been involved in the murder of seven inmates who were killed during a police raid on the El Pavón prison in 2006. In six cases he was indirectly involved, and in one he was found to have directly committed the murder, according to the court.

“Today’s result is a positive step in the fight against a culture of impunity in Guatemala. This verdict strengthens the rule of law and is a wake-up call for all those attempting to hide their crimes behind positions of authority,” said Sebastian Elgueta, Researcher for Guatemala, Amnesty International. 

Erwin Sperisen held the position of head of police in Guatemala from 2004 to 2007 when he fled the country and travelled to Switzerland relying on his dual Swiss-Guatemalan citizenship. He could not be extradited to Guatemala given his citizenship status, but Swiss law allows for prosecutions of crimes committed by its nationals in other countries – a form of extraterritorial jurisdiction. 

A warrant was issued for his arrest by the Guatemalan authorities in 2010 and he was arrested by Swiss authorities in August 2012. His trial began on 15 May in Geneva.

In the same trial he was acquitted of the killing of three escaped inmates from Guatemala’s Infiernito (Little Hell) prison who were allegedly recaptured by the authorities and murdered outside the prison in 2005. The court ruled that there was reasonable doubt that he was involved. 

Cases against other important former officials linked to the crime are still pending. The former Interior Minister Carlos Vielman, who was Erwin Sperisen’s boss at the time of the murders, fled to Spain. He is currently awaiting trial. Former deputy director of police investigations Javier Figueroa, allegedly linked to the murders, fled to Austria and was acquitted of the killings by a court in Vienna in October 2013.   

Last year three former officials were convicted for their roles in the two incidents. They were convicted by courts in Guatemala but in February 2014 those convictions were overturned and retrials were ordered. Their cases are still being processed.

 “Allegations of involvement in human rights violations such as extrajudicial executions should be thoroughly investigated with those deemed responsible held to account,” said Sebastian Elgueta.

Background information:

Extrajudicial executions have been a widespread and serious human rights concern in Guatemala. A UN-sponsored investigation found that extrajudicial executions were routinely carried out by government forces during the internal armed conflict (1960-1996), and estimated that some 200,000 people had been killed, including some 40,000 victims who were forcibly disappeared. 

Although most state violence during the internal conflict was directed at those perceived to be supporting armed opposition groups, investigations have also documented extrajudicial executions of those perceived by police officers to be involved in crime. In 1999 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found the state of Guatemala responsible for the extrajudicial execution in 1990 of five children living rough on the streets and noted that there was a ‘common pattern of illegal acts perpetrated by the State against street children’.

In 2007 the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions issued a damming report on Guatemala, including a conclusion that allegations that members of the police were involved in extrajudicial executions were “highly credible”.