The Net is Closing in on Guatemalan Criminals

by Sander Wirken

Former Guatemalan national police chief Sperisen sentenced to life in Switzerland

Erwin Sperisen

Erwin Sperisen

An accused standing trial for the murder of ten people is not a common occurrence in Swiss criminal courts. Erwin Sperisen, a former Guatemalan police chief (2004-2007) and dual Guatemalan-Swiss national, stood trial for just that this year. On 6 June 2014, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for the extrajudicial execution of seven prisoners in a campaign of ‘social cleansing’ directed by the national police leadership. The ruling marks an important victory for justice and signals that fleeing to another country is no longer a guarantee of impunity for Guatemalan criminals.

During the Oscar Berger government (2004-2008), a parallel structure emerged in Guatemala within the Ministry of the Interior and the National Civilian Police, led by the police top leadership and the Minister of the Interior. Amongst other activities, the structure dedicated itself to ‘social cleansing’, i.e., ridding Guatemalan society of what those involved in that process regarded as ‘undesired elements’.

The charges against Sperisen revolved around two incidents. First there was the case of three inmates that had escaped from the El Infiernito prison in October 2005. The escapees allegedly resisted their arrest and died in an armed confrontation with police officers. The bullet impacts, witness testimonies and other evidence were inconsistent with that scenario however and pointed rather at the escapees having been executed, after which the crime scene had been altered to resemble an armed confrontation. The Swiss court was convinced that the three escapees had indeed been extra-judicially executed. However, the court was not convinced beyond any reasonable doubt of Sperisen’s personal involvement in the killings, as Sperisen had not been present at the scene of the crime and no clear evidence linking him to the material authors of the executions was provided. Continue reading

The Guatemalan Genocide Case and the Upcoming Amnesty

By Sander Wirken – PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam, Sander Wirken is making the documentary Burden of Peace about Guatemala’s former Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz. Watch the embedded video to find out how you can become part of that project.

A Guatemalan trial court wrote history on 10 May 2013 when it convicted former president general Efraín Ríos Montt to 80 years imprisonment for his role in the genocide and in war crimes committed by the army. It was the very first time that a national court convicted its own former head of state for genocide. Lawyers all over the world applauded Guatemala for the apparent achievement of its national judicial system. Ten days after the conviction, however, the Constitutional Court declared that a procedural error had been committed. The procedural error in question did not amount to a breach of a constitutional right and should hence have been addressed by an Appeals Chamber and not by the Constitutional Court, as one of the dissenting opinions in the 3-2 majority decision pointed out. But the majority opined differently and the conviction was declared invalid on that technicality.

What followed was a concerted backlash to all forces that had supported the genocide trial.

Continue reading