Death Squads

By Jean-Marie Simon 

They lounged outside police detective headquarters in Guatemala City, wearing mismatched suits and leaning on their machine guns as if they were umbrellas. They were experts in torture, disappearances, and executions. During the Guatemalan military government’s undeclared civil war against its own people, which reached its height in the early 1980s, these men, who composed the death squads, terrorized Guatemala.

Death squads were literally called escuadrones de la muerte but often were known as judiciales, a misnomer, as there was nothing judicial about them.

On Christmas Day, 1980, a judicial followed me out of a movie theater and told me I could accompany him either to McDonald’s for a Big Mac or to police headquarters. Since the police station was a torture center, where passers-by heard screams coming from the basement, I opted for a brief date with a death squad agent. On another occasion, four heavily armed men in a Bronco Jeep followed two colleagues and me down a deserted street one night. When a friend, a well-connected politician, looked into the matter, he reported that, yes, the men had been after us, but it was just a scare tactic. (“If they had wanted to kill you, you’d be dead,” he reassured me.)

Tens of thousands of people died in Guatemala, either in rural massacres conducted by uniformed army troops or, in the cities, in the form of “disappearances” at the hands of death squads.

Some were members of the military who donned civilian clothing to carry out the kidnappings. Others, however, were former soldiers, police, bodyguards, or unemployed civilians deputized to do the army’s dirty work for pay. Judiciales were rural peasants recruited into so-called civil patrols whom the army told to denounce their neighbors in return for a gun, some land, some money, or immunity from becoming army targets themselves. For most of them, it was nothing political, just money; if you told a judicial you would pay him twice as much to wash cars, he would wash cars instead.

Death squads kidnap and kill because someone in the government or
the military commands, sanctions, or condones their behavior. Governments, armed forces, and political organizations have a practical reason to utilize death squads—deniability—but it is rarely plausible.

Death squad executions violate the laws of armed conflict as well as many human rights covenants. A related crime, forced disappearances, is now considered a crime against humanity under specific circumstances.

The laws of armed conflict as codified in the Four Geneva Conventions of 1949 explicitly prohibit executions without a fair trial. Common Article 3, which applies in internal conflict, forbids “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture” of persons who have not taken part in hostilities. It also forbids “the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.”

Additional Protocol II of 1977, covering internal armed conflict, states that the court must offer “the essential guarantees of independence and impartiality.” The court must inform the accused without delay of the particulars of the offense and provide necessary rights and defense; no one shall be accused except for individual penal responsibility; no one shall be held guilty for a criminal offense which did not exist in law at the time it was committed; those charged with offenses are presumed innocent until proven guilty; anyone charged has the right to be tried in his presence and not to be compelled to testify against himself. Although the protocol is less widely accepted than the 1949 Conventions, Guatemala became a party in 1987.

The Organization of American States in 1994 declared the systematic practice of forced disappearances a crime against humanity, a standard adopted by the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Human rights covenants, which apply in situations of riots or disturbances but may legally be restricted and temporarily suspended during armed conflict, prohibit the death sentence without a judgment by a competent court.

The situation in Guatemala was clearly an internal armed conflict, and humanitarian law applied. Therefore, the government, army, death squads, and anyone else using force for the government were bound by its terms.

The death squads left very few survivors, and most of these either escaped captivity or were released on the eve of Guatemala’s first civilian election in three decades, when the government was eager to bend to foreign demands in exchange for the promise of economic assistance.

Although the army denied any connection to the death squads, no one believed it. Even in Guatemala, where the army was infamous for leaving no witnesses or written accounts of its actions (“We’re not Argentina, we leave no survivors,” boasted former Army Public Relations Director, Col. Edgar D’Jalma Dominguez, in 1984), it was occasionally indiscreet. When the wife of a trade unionist sought news of her disappeared husband, she was directed to an obscure corner office in the National Palace, where a judicial with a black hood over his face recited the details of the kidnapping and torture.

Related posts:

  1. Disappearances