A Spanish court has acquitted Carlos Vielman, Guatemala’s former interior minister, of taking part in the extra-judicial killings of at least ten inmates in the country.
The court’s ruling on March 16, in which two judges voted to acquit Vielman but one voted against, poses new questions about the fight against impunity in Central America.
Between 2005 and 2006, two prison massacres shocked Guatemala. Both occurred during operations carried out by the National Police (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC), then led by Vielman and the head of police Erwin Sperinsen.
The first took place on September 25, 2006. The PNC, together with Guatemala’s Army, had implemented Plan Peacock (“Plan Pavo Real”), designed to take back control of the Pavón penitentiary. Pavón, one of the country’s largest prisons, was run by gang members and drug traffickers with the help of corrupt police and prison guards. That day, some 3,000 police secured the perimeter of the penitentiary, and allowed special forces to storm in. Security forces killed seven inmates during the operation.
Almost a year earlier, in October 2005, under the orders of Vielman and Sperinsen, state agents set out to capture 19 convicts who had escaped from the maximum security prison of Escuintla, known as “Little Hell” (“El Infiernito”). Three fugitives were killed.
In 2009, Vielman became a Spanish citizen. He was arrested in Spain in 2010 as part of a case started in Guatemala by the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG). Sperinsen, a Swiss national, was captured in his own country and sentenced to life in prison for the same crimes for which Vielman was acquitted by Spain’s National Court.
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Vielman’s acquittal brings to an end one of the first chapters of the recent struggle against impunity in Central America’s Northern Triangle, which began in Guatemala in the mid-2000s after the establishment of the CICIG.
The main argument of the two judges that voted to acquit Vielman is that the former minister’s rank, which was above the agents who took part in the massacres, does not imply his responsibility for their actions. This premise contradicts several principles of the command chain that have been validated by many judicial rulings across the world, ever since the concept was accepted in the Nuremberg Trials after World War II.
“If responsibility were to be shared [along the command chain], then it would follow that all members of the security staff who approved of the operation in the prison center, including Guatemala’s President and Vice-President, were then equally responsible,” claimed Juan Pablo González, one of the judges quoted by El País.
However, José Ricardo de Prada, who voted against the acquittal, thinks it is unlikely that the minister was not aware of what was going on in the Pavón prison.
Finally, the ruling opens new questions about the applicability of the command hierarchy principle. Most of the cases against Latin American military and police leaders whose troops have been implicated in massacres and human rights abuses, as well as cases of alleged cooperation with organized crime, have been based on this concept.