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Warrants Raise Hope for Victims in Guatemalan Massacre Case

The Inter American Court of Human Rights judge Diego Garcia Sayan gestures as he speaks on July 14, 2009 in La Paz, during a session on the case of the massacre of 250 indigenous people in Dos Erres, Guatemala, in December 7, 1982, during the dictatorship

Guatemalan rights advocates are hailing this week's decision by the country's Supreme Court to issue arrestwarrants for former members of the military accused of massacring villagers during the country's long and brutal civil war. But lawyers for the victims say bringing those responsible for the massacre to justice remains elusive.

Lawyers for some of Guatemala's most active human rights groups say the warrants for the arrest of 17 former military men is a step in the right direction after a decade of legal squabbling. The 17 are believed responsible for the 1982 Dos Erres massacre in the northern department of Peten, carried out during one of the bloodiest years of the country's civil war.

Benito Morales, a lawyer for the human rights group Rigoberta Menchu Foundation, says the large number of warrants in such a case is unprecedented.

Morales says victims' rights organizations are pleased the Guatemalan Courts have finally taken action in the case. But Morales expressed skepticism that the arrest warrants would be followed up with concrete action. He says a number of higher ranking officers named in the case, whose whereabouts were known as of last week, fled their homes in Guatemala City following news of the arrest warrants. He added Guatemalan authorities appear uninterested in their attempts to apprehend the perpetrators.

The Guatemalan Supreme Court issued the capture orders, some of which reactivate old warrants issued nearly a decade ago but never acted upon, after the Inter-American Human Rights Court urged action in the case. Some of those sought had been previously indicted ten years ago. But legal maneuvers had stalled any further action, until victims' rights associations took the case to the Inter-American court, which is based in Costa Rica.

Edgar Perez, a lawyer for the Guatemala City-based Center for Legal Action on Human Rights, says it was only because of international pressure that relatives of the victims are closer to seeing justice done.

Perez says the cases would likely still be stalled in the Guatemalan justice system had the Inter-American court not forced Guatemalan judges into action. He says there are other such cases pending before international courts, and victims' rights advocates hope for similar results.

The families of victims of the Dos Erres massacre also expressed hope that the new arrest warrants would lead to justice for their loved ones after nearly three decades of impunity for those responsible. Raul Gomez lived in Dos Erres at the time of the massacre, and though he managed to escape, he lost a number of family members.

Gomez says he will consider justice to be done only when those responsible for the killing of his family members have been tried in court. While welcoming the warrants, he and other relatives of the victims say it is outrageous that perpetrators known to be responsible for the slaying of their loved ones have not been apprehended, and continue to live in relative luxury in Guatemala.

The remains of more than 200 people, including numerous women and children, were discovered in mass graves around the town of Dos Erres in 1995. Five years later, Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo admitted government responsibility for the slayings, leading to the initial legal proceedings against the military members accused of carrying out the killings.