Byron Humberto Barrientos Díaz

22.09.2016
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Facts

Byron Humberto Barrientos Díaz was the head of the Intelligence Section at Military Zone 21 – a former military base in Cobán, Alta Verapaz – between 1 January 1986 and 31 May 1987, during Guatemala’s civil war. He was allegedly in charge of interrogating detainees. Barrientos Díaz later served as Minister of the Interior during the administration of Alfonso Portillo (2000-2004). He was 64 years old at the time of his arrest.

During the 1980s, Military Zone 21 was used by the Guatemalan military as a secret center for illegal detentions, torture, extrajudicial killings, forced disappearance, and rape. In 2012, mass graves containing hundreds of bodies of indigenous men, women, and children from different Mayan ethnic groups – including Achí, Q’eqchi’, Pomochí, Ixil, and Kiché – were uncovered at Military Zone 21, which is now the site of a training center for U.N. peacekeepers known by the Spanish acronym CREOMPAZ. Over 550 skeletons have been exhumed, and at least 128 of the victims have been identified using DNA testing.

On 6 January 2016, Guatemalan authorities arrested 14 former high-ranking military officers in connection with the CREOMPAZ case for crimes committed at Military Zone 21 between 1981 and 1988.

Legal Procedure

Due to insufficient evidence, three of the defendants – Carlos Humberto Rodríguez López, Édgar Rolando Hernández Méndez, and Pablo Roberto Saucedo Mérida – were dismissed from the case during preliminary hearings before High Risk Tribunal “A”. On 18 January 2016, the remaining 11 accused, including Barrientos Díaz, were indicted and ordered to be held in pre-trial detention.

Barrientos Díaz, along with César Augusto Ruiz Morales and Raúl Dehesa Oliva, was charged with responsibility for the forced disappearances of Carlos Enrique Chávez, in January 1987, and Fernando Ical Mo, in March 1987. The prosecutors allege that Barrientos Díaz was aware that the two victims were at Military Zone 21 and that he could have prevented their disappearances by ordering that they be sent before a judge.

Evidentiary hearings to decide whether to send the CREOMPAZ case to trial began on 3 May 2016. During the intermediate phase hearings, one defendant, Luis Alberto Paredes Nájera, was temporarily separated from the case to determine whether he is fit to stand trial. On 7 June 2016, the Tribunal ruled that eight of the remaining ten defendants would proceed to trial. Ruiz Morales, Dehesa Oliva, and Barrientos Díaz will be tried for the forced disappearances of Carlos Enrique Chávez and Fernando Ical Mo.

The Attorney-General’s Office appealed the Tribunal’s ruling on a number of grounds, including the Tribunal’s failure to consider accusations of sexual violence and its refusal to characterize forced disappearance as a war crime in addition to a crime against humanity. A victims’ organisation also appealed the Tribunal’s refusal to grant it civil party status. The case is suspended pending review of the appeals by the High Risk Court of Appeals.

 

Context

THE CIVIL WAR (1960-1996)

Between 1960 and 1996, Guatemala was embroiled in a civil war that resulted in 250 000 victims (deaths and disappearances). The war ended following a peace signing on 29 December 1996.

The civil war, which would last for 36 years, began in 1960 when young defiant officials and countrymen revolted against the dictatorial regime. Until 1982, there were a series of military or pro military governments.

In 1978, General Fernándo Romeo Lucas García became the president of Guatemala. It was during his presidency that the first large-scale massacre against the Mayan population took place.

In 1982, General Efraín Ríos Montt took control following a coup d’état. He set up Civil Defense Patrols (PAC) made up of 900 000 militia who the army had recruited by force to fight against the guerrilla. He unleashed a scorched earth policy that included torture and forced disappearances. More than 45 000 people fled to Mexico where they stayed in refugee camps in Chiapas and Tabasco. In response, 6000 soldiers from the four main guerrilla groups (EGP, ORPA, FAR and PGT) unified to form the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG). From this point onwards, the conflict truly became a civil war.

Ríos Montt’s brief presidency (from 1982 to 1983) is considered to be the most violent period of the conflict. During this period, 440 Mayan villages were completely destroyed and 200 000 Mayan people were killed in attacks of extreme cruelty (such as; amputation, impalement and torture). Although the (left-wing) guerrilla forces and the (right-wing) death squads had committed summary executions, forced disappearances and had tortured civilians, the majority of human rights violations (93%) were committed by the Guatemalan army and by the PACs that it controlled.

In 1986, free elections were at last organised and were won by Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo of the Christian Democratic Party. It was not until 1996, however, that a peace agreement was signed between the government and the guerrilla, putting an end to a conflict that had lasted for 36 years.

THE COMMISSION FOR HISTORICAL CLARIFICATION (CEH)

In June 1994, the Oslo Accords ordered the creation of a truth commission called the Guatemalan “Commission for Historical Clarification”; its aim was to investigate human rights violations in relation to the armed conflict and to prepare a report covering these violations and their causes. The Commission also aimed to establish specific recommendations to “encourage national peace and harmony in Guatemala”. After having listened to thousands of accounts and having unearthed several clandestine burial sites, the Commission published a final report in February 1999, titled “Silent memories”.

In its report, the CEH accounted for 200 000 deaths, 50 000 disappearances, one million internally displaced refugees and more than 600 devastated communities. The majority of crimes (91%) were committed during the regimes of General Romes Lucas García (1978-1982) and General Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-1983).

The facts established by this report have been used on a number of occasions during the trials of perpetrators of human rights violations, particularly that of Felipe Cusanero Coj. A former paramilitary officer, he was the first person to be tried for the forced disappearances of civilians during the civil war.

The CEH was supported by another report, “Never again”, published on 24 April 1998 as part of the inter-diocese Recovery of Historical Memory project (REMHI).
THE INTERNATIONAL COMMISSION AGAINST IMPUNITY IN GUATEMALA (CICIG).

On 12 December 2006, an agreement signed between the United Nations and the Guatemalan government established the CICIG. It is an independent body that aims to assist the Guatemalan office of the prosecutor, the national police and other institutions involved in the investigation of sensitive cases, as well as working to dismantle illegal security groups. The CICIG has the right to initiate investigations proprio motu.

The CICIG’s investigations have led to the issuance of 18 arrest warrants, notably for Javier Figueroa and Erwin Sperisen.