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  • Activists hold up a banner with faces of people who disappeared during the 1960-1996 civil war, during a demonstration against the commemoration of the 142nd anniversary of the Guatemalan Army's founding, in Guatemala city June 30, 2013.

    Activists hold up a banner with faces of people who disappeared during the 1960-1996 civil war, during a demonstration against the commemoration of the 142nd anniversary of the Guatemalan Army's founding, in Guatemala city June 30, 2013. | Photo: Reuters

Published 25 October 2017
Opinion

The 36-year civil war in Guatemala became part of the U.S. government’s support for atrocities to stave off left-wing movements in Latin America

The collective Yooko eesik'b'al —meaning “we are looking for them" in Mayan language — an umbrella group for nine Guatemalan human rights groups, launched on Wednesday an international campaign to raise awareness about the 45,000 people still reported as disappeared during the country's civil war (1960-1996).

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They spread the motto “I miss them, you miss them,” on social media and interviews on various media, recalling that tens of thousands of people — children, women and men — disappeared under obscure circumstances, with no investigation carried out until now.

“In Guatemala, forced disappearances consisted in a systematic practice carried out by the repression forces and paramilitary groups in order to spread fear, to threaten and control the population, so they would not organize,” said the collective in a communique.

The collective also urged the justice system to prosecute the retired Army Coronel and former representative Edgar Justino Ovalle, currently a fugitive, for his alleged participation in the forced disappearance of 558 indigenous people in the northern department of Alta Verapaz — a case known as "Creompaz" in which 10 former military officials are under investigation.

Guatemala's bloody past is well-documented, even by the military dictatorships who kept detailed records of their death squad operations during the civil war that lasted from 1960 to 1996. The U.S. government was intimately involved in the conflict, equipping and training state security forces that murdered thousands of civilians, most of them Indigenous.

Throughout the war, the Guatemalan Armed Forces used abduction, torture and assassinations as part of the regime's sweeping scorched-earth counterinsurgency campaign targeting leftist guerrillas — including the main rebel group, the Guerrilla Army of the Poor, one of the four organizations making up the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity organization or URNG — as well as their suspected sympathizers.

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The struggle to recover their historical memory and win justice for thousands of victims continues today in Guatemala, 20 years after a peace deal brought an end to more than three decades of bloody internal conflict. At the end of 1996, the government of President Alvaro Arzu Irigoyen and the URNG — together with the United Nations playing a mediating role — concluded a long negotiating process and signed peace accords.

By the time the government and the guerrillas signed the peace deal, some 160,000 people had been killed and 45,000 disappeared. A staggering 93 percent of abuses were carried out at the hands of Guatemalan security forces, according to the definitive 1999 report by the Historical Clarification Commission titled "Guatemala: Memory of Silence."

The peace accords came along with a “reconciliation law” that was contested by grassroots movements and advocates of victims and their families, as former military officials wanted the total elimination of criminal responsibility for political crimes committed during the armed conflict.

Their position was firm and clear: to pardon crimes against humanity and crimes of the state. Human rights defenders continue to fight against the longstanding reign of impunity that has shielded the worst human rights abuses from facing justice.

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