Testimony From Benetech’s Daniel Guzmán Helps Establish Legal Precedent and Convictions for Forced Disappearance in Guatemala

I announced in this blog last month that judges in Guatemala had found two former police officers guilty in the 1984 forced disappearance of Guatemalan student and union leader Edgar Fernando García. Expert testimony by Benetech statistical consultant Daniel Guzmán provided critical evidence in the conviction of the former Guatemalan National Police officers Abraham Lancerio Gómez and Héctor Roderico Ramírez.

Gómez and Ramírez were each sentenced to the maximum term of 40 years in prison for their role in García’s disappearance. This historical ruling has established forced disappearance as a crime in Guatemala and provided government prosecutors with a key legal precedent needed to investigate higher ranking officers for their possible role in the case. You can read more about the verdict here.

The entire staff here at Benetech is extremely proud of Daniel Guzmán and his colleagues at the Benetech Human Rights Program who have spent four years analyzing random samples of the estimated 31.7 million documents in the Guatemalan National Police Archive. Guzmán’s testimony in the García case was based on his analysis of this archive which was discovered in a military munitions storehouse near Guatemala City in 2005. The archive includes documents generated during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict which took place from 1960 to 1996. An estimated 40,000 Guatemalans disappeared during this period of violence. While the Guatemalan National Police were disbanded after the country's 1996 Peace Accords, very few people have ever been held accountable for crimes that took place during the 36 years of violence.

Guzmán and the other statisticians, programmers, demographers and data analysts of Benetech’s Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG) believe that scientific arguments can help clarify the past and end impunity. But in order to prosecute perpetrators of human rights violations, the courts rightly demand evidence. HRDAG analyzes the patterns and magnitude of human rights violations to determine how many of the killed and disappeared have never been accounted for - and who is most responsible.

Guzmán conducted a comparative analysis between 667 documents pertaining to García that were found in the Archive and estimates from the entire Archive. This analysis, which was submitted as evidence in the trial, showed that units responsible for the direction and coordination of the National Police were acquainted with more than 73% of the documents related to the García case as opposed to 30% of all documents in the entire Archive. Guzmán’s findings helped support arguments by prosecutors that high-level National Police officers were aware of orders given for the planning and design of operations like the one that resulted in García’s disappearance. Guzmán’s testimony also helped confirm the credibility of our Guatemalan partners who preserve and examine the documents in the archive, a group known as the National Police Archives in Guatemala (Archivo Histórico de la Policia Nacional) or AHPN.

The García case is the first in Guatemala based primarily on archive documents and paves the way for judges to trust these records - and statistical findings - as evidence in future trials. Prosecutors announced that Benetech’s analysis of archive contents will be a key part of future investigations. The scientific methods used by HRDAG to analyze the archive has set standards of scientific rigor that helps overcome political arguments about these records. HRDAG’s analysis establishes scientific paradigms for examining large collections of human rights data in other parts of the world.

Calculating scientifically sound statistics and quantitative findings to support human rights claims offers a powerful mechanism to help halt the cycle of violence and create lasting social change. Unless the human rights community is ready with unimpeachable information about past abuses, it cannot make the most of opportunities for official acknowledgment, accountability or reform. Twenty-six years after his disappearance, the family of Edgar Fernando García knows that this opportunity for justice has not been lost.


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