Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-GUATEMALA: Net Closes Around Ex-Torturer in Mexico

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Dec 13 2004 (IPS) - "He’s a thug and a killer and must pay for his atrocious crimes," Guatemalan Nobel Peace laureate Rigoberta Menchú told IPS, referring to former Guatemalan interior minister Donaldo Alvarez, who the police are searching for in Mexico in connection with the murders of dozens of Guatemalans, including Menchú’s father, who were killed in the 1970s and 1980s.

Over the weekend, the Mexican police began to seek Alvarez, who has lived between Mexico and the United States since 1983, in response to an arrest warrant and extradition request from Spain, where he is wanted in the courts for the deaths of at least seven Spanish citizens in Guatemala.

"I believe Mexico has this matter under control, and that this criminal, who must pay for all of the killings and torture he committed and ordered, will be arrested soon," Menchú said by telephone from Guatemala.

As minister of the interior from 1978 to 1982, Alvarez ordered, for example, the torching of the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala in January 1980.

The embassy had been occupied by a group of activists fleeing political persecution. One of them was Vicente Menchú, Rigoberta’s father, who died in the fire along with 35 other people, including several Spanish citizens.

Alvarez was one of the most active government officials in the repression of dissidence carried out by Guatemalan governments during the 1960-1996 civil war, in which some 200,000 people were forcibly disappeared or killed at the hands of the security forces – crimes against humanity that have gone unpunished.

According to investigations, Alvarez is guilty of abductions and extrajudicial executions of activists and opponents of the regime, including students, trade unionists and politicians.

Alvarez, who is now 73, ran a torture centre in his own home while serving as interior minister, where people were brutally tortured and killed with total impunity, said Menchú.

The Spanish courts requested the arrest and extradition of Alvarez as part of a lawsuit brought in late 1999 against former members of repressive Guatemalan regimes by Menchú and the foundation that bears her name.

Others accused in the lawsuit are retired military commanders who presided over dictatorial governments in Guatemala, like Fernando Lucas García (1978-1982), Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-1983) and Oscar Mejía (1983-1986).

Alvarez and Lucas García are the only ones living outside of Guatemala – the former in Mexico, and the latter in Venezuela, where, according to a spokesman for the Rigoberta Menchú Foundation, "he is dying of skin cancer."

Although the 36-year civil war ended in Guatemala eight years ago when a peace deal was signed, the Guatemalan justice system has failed to send any of the former military leaders accused of gross human rights violations to jail, although several prosecutions are underway.

During the years of political violence, especially in the 1970s and early 1980s when the counterinsurgency war was at its height, the army was responsible for razing 450 villages to the ground (and killing every inhabitant, down to the last baby).

The U.N. Historical Clarification Commission also documented more than 600 mass killings as part of the "scorched earth campaign" followed by the military governments.

In addition, between 40,000 and 55,000 people became the victims of forced disappearance, among the total 200,000 victims, 85 percent of whom were indigenous civilians. Around 65 percent of Guatemala’s population of 12.3 million are descendants of the Mayan Indians.

"Although this murderer (Alvarez) would only be tried in Spain for the deaths of Spanish citizens, we hope the charges would be expanded to the murder and torture of hundreds of other people, including my father," said Menchú, who won the Nobel Peace prize in 1992.

"Alvarez’s prompt arrest will finally open a door by which the military repressors can begin to be brought to justice for the crimes they committed, which has not been possible up to now in Guatemala," added the indigenous activist.

According to official records, the former minister has been living in Mexico legally for the past 15 years. Before that, he reportedly lived in the United States, but frequently travelled back and forth to Mexico.

Alvarez lives in Tlalnepantla, a middle-class neighbourhood in Mexico City. The police went to his home on the weekend, but did not find the former interior minister. It is rumoured that he went into hiding when he heard that Spanish judges had issued a warrant for his arrest.

Spokespersons for the Mexican government of Vicente Fox said a special operation has been launched to locate him and keep him from fleeing the country.

Alvarez’s neighbours were shocked to hear the accusations against him. A woman who identified herself as Doña Mary said he was a quiet, calm person who did not look like someone who had killed or tortured anyone.

"This case shouldn’t be very different from that of Cavallo, and the extradition request will be dealt with as soon as possible," a source at the Mexican Foreign Ministry told IPS.

He was referring to former Argentine naval captain Ricardo Miguel Cavallo, alias Serpico or Marcelo, who Mexico extradited to Spain in June 2003 to be tried for crimes against humanity in a case handled by prosecuting Judge Baltasar Garzón, who is best-known for getting former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet put under house arrest in London from 1998 to 2000.

Cavallo’s extradition was unprecedented, because it was the first time a former member of the military in Latin America was prosecuted by a judge from a country other than the one where the human rights crimes were committed, after he was arrested in a country where he had no problems with the law.

Cavallo, who was arrested in August 2000 in Mexico, where he had become a successful businessman, is accused of torturing, murdering and "disappearing" dozens of people during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship in Argentina, where he and the rest of the members of the armed forces accused of human rights abuses were let off the hook by amnesty laws.

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