From msnbc.com news services – August 3, 2011
A Guatemalan court has sentenced four former soldiers to more than 6,000 years in prison each for the 1982 massacre of 201 men, women and children during the Central American country’s civil war.
Three former special forces soldiers received 6,060 years in prison each on Tuesday. The court also sentenced a former army second lieutenant to 6,066 years in prison for the same massacre in the village of Dos Erres in Guatemala’s northern Peten region.
The length of the sentences is largely symbolic since under Guatemalan law the maximum time a convict can serve is 50 years.
The sentences for Manuel Pop Sun, Reyes Collin Gualip and Daniel Martinez include thirty years for each death, plus thirty years for crimes against humanity. The three men are former members the Guatemalan military’s elite Kaibil unit.
Former 2nd Lt. Carlos Antonio Carias received an extra six years for stealing the victims’ belongings, the court said in a statement. Prosecutors say Carias was in charge of a military base near the community of Dos Erres and provided information to the army that led to the massacre.
Outside the court, survivors of the massacre cried when the sentences were announced and held red roses. They spelled the word “justice” on the ground with red petals.
“We waited many years for justice,” said survivor Raul de Jesus Gomez. “I saw when they were killing people. They had us kneeling for five hours and would put their rifles in our mouths every time we asked them to stop killing the others.”
A group of the relatives of the accused soldiers shouted that the court was biased.
Carias called the sentence “unjust” and said, “I would risk my life again for that honorable institution that is the Army.”
Court filings say 17 Kaibiles attacked the community of Dos Erres before dawn on Dec. 7, 1982, looking for missing weapons that guerrilla groups operating in the region had stolen from the soldiers days earlier. They accused the farmers of collaborating with the rebels.
While more than 40 soldiers guarded the perimeter of the community, the men raped and killed women and girls, and banished hundreds of people from the community, according to the filings.
The officers shot, strangled and bludgeoned the villagers to death with sledgehammers, Reuters reported.
Witnesses say villagers were tortured and robbed by the soldiers as part of a “scorched earth” effort to eliminate communities supporting insurgent groups at the height of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war.
Dozens of bodies were exhumed from a well in the community in the 1990s and the remains from 171 victims were recovered in all. At least 67 children under the age of 12 were among the dead.
This is Guatemala’s second massacre trial related to its 1960-1996 civil war, when more than 200,000 people, mostly Mayan Indians, were killed or went missing and entire villages were exterminated, according to the United Nations.
The first trial ended in a 2004 verdict against an officer and 13 soldiers, but the verdict was overturned on appeal.
This trial had been delayed since 2000 through dozens of court injunctions.
Another three Kaibiles from the same unit were detained in the United States. One, Pedro Pimentel Rios, 54, has been already been deported. Guatemala’s Public Ministry will hold a separate hearing for Rios.
A fourth one was detained in Canada. Guatemala has requested extradition.
The ruling center-left administration of President Alvaro Colom has been under pressure by human rights organizations to bring war criminals to justice in Guatemala, one of the poorest and most lawless countries in Latin America.