Guatemala: the continuing tragedy of the disappeared

22-02-2010 Interview

Tens of thousands of Guatemalan families still do not know what happened to relatives who disappeared during the armed conflict that racked the country from the 1960s to the 1990s. Carlos Batallas heads the ICRC's Guatemala office. He explained the difficulties these families face.

  See also:

    Guatemala: ICRC calls for creation of a national search committee (news release)  

The missing, everybody's commitment (vídeo)    

©ICRC/Carla Molina 
The wife of a disappeared person, Alta Verapaz. 
  ©ICRC/Carla Molina    
  For many families, searching for missing relatives has been difficult and complicated.    

 What is the scale of the problem, and what do the families of the disappeared need today?  

The armed conflict that affected Guatemala for over three decades has left serious consequences. According to the commission for historical clarification and the recovery of historical memory ( Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico y la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica ) of the Roman Catholic church, some 45,000 people disappeared.

Three decades on, the families of the disappeared still want to know the truth, both because they have not lost hope and because they need to end the uncertainty and close the grieving process.

Knowing what has happened to a member of one's family who has disappeared is a right under international humanitarian and human rights law. The challenge is for States to adopt and apply rules that will give the families of the disappeared the answers they need.

The absence of a family member makes it more difficult to carry out legal and administrative procedures. In some cases, the relative of a person who has disappeared cannot legally remarry. Nor can they apply for a child's identity document, claim an inheritance or obtain title to property. All these formalities would be so much easier if a person could be legally classified as " absent due to disappearance. "

In many cases, families record the disappeared person as dead, just so they can carry out these formalities. But this makes the suffering worse; on top of the uncertainty, they feel guilty because they have denied the existence of a loved one.

 What has been done to resolve the problem of the disappeared?  

In 2003, the Guatemalan government set up a national programme to compensate families suffering as a result of the armed conflict. But that programme only provides financial assistance. It doesn't address the needs of the families.

Currently, Guatemala has no national tracing mechanism to focus the efforts of humanitarian organizations and civil society in this field. Such a mechanism would make it possible to give better answers to families who suffer because they still do not know what has happened to a relative.

Some civil society organizations are attempting to alleviate the pain endured by the families of the disappeared. In general, they are focusing on searching for missing persons, family reunification, exhumation, reburial and the identification of remains. However, these organizations have limited funds.

According to a report compiled for the ICRC, only half of all rural families from which a person disappeared have undertaken any investigations. In most cases, this is because they are afraid, are isolated or do not know about the organizations they could call on, or else are too poor to travel, carry out the formalities required or undertake a search.

 What is the ICRC doing to identify the needs of the families of the disappeared?  

In 2008 and 2009, a survey was carried out involving 292 families in rural areas of Quiché and Alta Verapaz departments and in the urban area of Guatemala department. In order to accomplish this, the ICRC worked with civil society organizations that are working on the disappearance issue and are supporting the fam ilies and communities affected.

The people interviewed had to re-live painful memories and talk about their experience of violence and the suffering they continue to endure, decades later. These testimonies formed the basis for a report that gives voice to the families of the disappeared, a report that says loud and clear that this tragedy cannot simply be forgotten. On 22 February, ICRC vice-president Christine Beerli will present the report to Rafael Espada, the vice-president of Guatemala.

 How will the new ICRC report help resolve the problems that the families of the disappeared are facing?  

The ICRC wants this report to show the Guatemalan public and authorities that the question of the disappeared is not closed, and that thousands of people are suffering uncertainty, pain and sorrow. The report highlights the difficulties they face every day and explains what they need in economic, psychological and legal terms.

It makes a series of recommendations. Implementing these would help the government fulfil its obligations to the families of the disappeared. The State does indeed have a responsibility towards those families, but only commitment on the part of all concerned can restore dignity to the families affected by this tragedy.

It is important to point out that the report is a purely humanitarian document. It does not address questions of justice, criminal or otherwise. The aim is to see how things can be so improved as to enable families to find their loved ones and to help them overcome their sorrow and distress.

 What recommendations does the report contain?  

The ICRC believes a national commission for tracing the disappeared should be set up, as provided for in draft law 3590, whic h has been before Congress since 2007. This commission would coordinate the efforts of the State in this area, in conjunction with those of civil society, by means of a comprehensive policy designed to assist the families of the disappeared. This policy would be based on international standards.

Furthermore, there is a need for mechanisms to simplify application of the law, especially as regards legal and administrative procedures. One example would be to create the status of " absent due to disappearance. "

It is important to ensure that all families affected by a disappearance benefit from the national compensation programme. The report also recommends that the government continue and improve the support given to the various organizations working in this area.

Finally, it is important that the families be able to participate in the entire tracing process and to attend specific commemoration events.

The question of the disappeared is not closed. There is much to be done.