US Documents Released Through Freedom of Information Act Requests Introduced as Evidence in Spanish Court Hearing Guatemala Genocide Case

24 February 2009

Related Material from Guatemalan Military Archives Could Be Released Soon

Madrid, Spain — Official documents from American and Guatemalan government files were presented as evidence last week in Spains National Courtthe Audiencia Nacionaland turned over to Judge Santiago Pedraz. However, the Guatemalan documentary record remains largely inaccessible, despite rulings by the Guatemalan court and even a presidential order.

The documents are now part of the legal file supporting the prosecution in the Guatemala Genocide Case in which eight former government officialsincluding former heads of state General Ros Montt, Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores, and the late Fernando Romeo Lucas Garciahave been charged with crimes of torture, forced disappearances, and genocide. Ten years ago, the United Nations-backed Comisin para el Esclarecimiento Histrico (CEH), published its finding that the Guatemalan Army Forces committed genocide against the indigenous Mayan population in the early 1980s. Since the publication, the Audiencia Nacional has affirmed Spains jurisdiction in the case based on the principle of universal jurisdiction and upholding the right to prosecute crimes against humanity, regardless of where they took place. The victims in the case are represented by Almudena Bernabeu, International Attorney at the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), and Miguel Oll Ses, President of La Asociacin Pro Derechos Humanos de Espaa (APDHE).

Guatemala specialist and National Security Archive Senior Analyst Kate Doyle presented the US files along with expert testimony describing the provenance of the documents and an analysis of the information contained in the files. Doyle explained how the records demonstrate the responsibility of the military high command as the intellectual authors of the massacres carried out from 198182, during an offensive known as the scorched earth campaign that targeted Guatemalas indigenous population. While the US files contain illuminating information about the state-sponsored abuses committed during Guatemalas civil conflict, they do not give the complete story. The records produced by the Guatemalan military are an important link in the chain that ties the defendants to the abuses carried out by the Army.

The collection of US documents presented before the judge contained 80 records, the majority of which were released by US agencies as a result of Freedom of Information Act requests sent by the National Security Archive. Many of the requests were filed over 15 years ago. In contrast, the Guatemalan military documents have a more complicated and difficult history. Most were obtained from anonymous sources by the Guatemalan nongovernmental organization, the Centro de Accion Legal de Derechos Humanos (CALDH, or Center for Human Rights Legal Actions). Guatemalas Constitutional Court has ruled on two occasions that the military must release certified copies of the documents as evidence in two genocide cases currently under investigation by the Public Ministry. Despite these rulings, as well as a presidential order to release the documents, the official war records remain behind closed doors in the military archives.

According to Doyle, Although the survivors of the Guatemalan Armys genocidal campaign to destroy the countrys Mayan indigenous communities have willingly given their eyewitness accounts of the massacres time and time again, Guatemalas Armed Forces have never been called to account for their actions. The introduction of the Armys own records as evidence in the genocide case in Spain represents the first time the militarys role has been described in a legal proceeding through its own strategic, planning, and operational files. The Guatemalan State has the obligation to follow up on this groundbreaking development by obligating the military to turn over all existing records in support of the Spanish case and the Guatemalan judicial process, and to put an end to military impunity for the crimes committed almost two decades ago.

Based on the few military documents that have been made public, the National Security Archive has been able to create a detailed list of the types of files that should exist in the Guatemalan military archives. Among the files sought are counterinsurgency plans devised by the military high command and communications to and from the commanders of the field bases. In particular, the legal investigations are seeking records that correspond to the massacres in Guatemalas highland regions in the departments of El Quiche, Huehuetenango, Alta and Baja Verapaz, and Chimaltenango.

One year ago, on February 25, 2008, on the National Day of Dignity for Victims of the Armed Conflict, President lvaro Colom Caballeros ordered the release of all military archives related to the internal armed conflict. In March 2008, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, the countrys highest legal authority also ordered that the military archives be released, ruling in favor of Centro de Accion Legal de Derechos Humanos (CALDH), the human rights group representing victims in the domestic suit. The court identified documents known as Plan Sofia, Plan Victoria, Plan Firmeza, and Operation Ixil. The Constitutional Court ruled again on February 13, 2009, to uphold the earlier decision issued by the First Criminal Appeals Court, which had rejected Ros Montts claim that the military archives contain state secrets and that their release could endanger national security. The court ruled that, given the fact that a decade had passed since the end of the conflict and over 25 years after the creation of the documents, the information in the documents did not present any risk to Guatemalas national security or to the integrity of the nation.

In addition to its obligation to act on these orders from the executive and judicial branches, the military must also now abide by Article 24 of Guatemalas Law for Free Access to Public Information, which passed in September 2008. The law, which goes into effect next month, states: In no case may information relevant to investigations of human rights violations or mass atrocities be classified as confidential or reserved.“ The Ministry of Defense has already created a Public Information Unit, a welcome first step. With ongoing petitions before the Attorney General alleging human rights violations by the Ministry, the Public Information Unit must take immediate action and make the military archives public in accordance with the law.[2]

The passage of Guatemalas law and the inclusion of Article 24 on human rights information demonstrate the growing influence of the right-to-know movement in the promotion of human rights. The question now is a not a matter of if, but when Guatemalas war files will be released. This week Guatemala is celebrating the ten-year anniversary of the release of the UN-sponsored truth commission report (CEH). Tomorrows annual ceremony in recognition of the National Day of Dignity for Victims of the Armed Conflict would be a fitting setting for the public disclosure of the documents and would make for a ceremonial release of the long-awaited access to these incredibly important historical records.


[1] La Sala Primera de la Corte de Apelaciones del Ramo Penal, Amparo 26-2007 Of.1 (July 19, 2007).

[2] Washington Office on Latin America, letter to Guatemalan Defense Minister (February 3, 2009).


Report of the Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico (CEH) (in Spanish)

Report of the Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico (CEH) (in English)

Washington Office on Latin America, letter to Guatemalan Defense Minister (February 3, 2009)

Guatemalas Law for Free Access to Public Information


The National Security Archive, The Guatemala Genocide Case: summaries of first two rounds of hearings in Madrid, Spain

Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA): background on the Guatemala Genocide Case and original case filing by Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchu

La Asociacin Pro Derechos Humanos de Espaa (APDHE)

Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA): news of latest court ruling

The Rigoberta Menchu Foundation


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