For the first time in Guatemalan history, a former military official was found guilty of ordering the forced disappearances of indigenous civilian farmers during the violent 36-year civil war. On August 31, 2009, a panel of three judges sentenced Felipe Cusanero Coj to 150 years in prison: 25 years for each of the six disappeared farmers. In Guatemala cases can be brought for forced disappearances until the remains of the missing are found. Since the bodies of the six farmers have not been recovered, their families initiated proceedings against Cusanero in 2003.

The Guatemalan conflict between leftist guerrillas and government forces raged on from 1960 to 1996, ending when the two sides signed the 1996 Peace Accords. During this time about 250,000 people, primarily indigenous Mayans, were killed and about 45,000 were forcibly disappeared. Forced disappearance, a powerful tool used by the government during the conflict, is defined as the detention or abduction of a person by the government or group acting with the government’s authority, coupled with the concealment of the fate of the person. In the case of the six farmers, each one was abducted by government forces between 1982 and 1984. As is common with many of the disappeared, it is unclear why exactly these men were targeted or what specifically happened to them.

During the conflict the government created “civil defense patrols,” made up of groups of citizens who were forced or recruited to patrol their communities. Government forces detained, killed, and disappeared people, frequently ordering the “civil defense patrols” to do the same. Cusanero was in charge of one of these patrols in his community located west of Guatemala City and ordered the forced disappearances of community members. Since he was in charge of military operations in the area, he most likely ordered the forced disappearances of additional civilians, but so far only the family members of the six farmers have testified against him. Other community members have remained silent for fear of retaliation.

Such fear has several likely roots. Indigenous communities are still wary of the Guatemalan government because of the long history of government-led oppression. In addition some former military leaders still work for the government and wield significant power. For example, Efraín Rios Montt, who led the military regime from 1982 to 1983, has been charged in both Spain’s and Guatemala’s respective courts with war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity; however, he still serves in the national congress. Furthermore, since the civil defense patrols pitted community members against one another, people who were part of these patrols and those who were targeted often still live in close proximity. Survivors of the conflict are often hesitant to file causes of action because they will have to continue living in the same community as the individuals they would be accusing of committing heinous crimes.

Although the Cusanero decision sets a significant precedent in accountability for forced disappearces, Cusanero played a very small part in the larger scheme of the civil war.  The masterminds of the conflict, such as Efraín Rios Montt, whose case is moving slowing through the courts, have yet to be held responsible for their actions.

The Cusanero case is a welcome exception to past trends of the Guatemalan justice system concerning cases regarding human rights violations committed during the conflict.  Cases of this nature have often floundered, as both the parties bringing the action and the judges frequently receive threats, usually from the accused. Hopefully this change in direction will mark a new beginning of accountability in the Guatemalan justice system, while providing closure for families of the victims of the disappeared.