December 4, 2009 / 5:35 AM / 10 years ago

First soldier convicted in Guatemala disappearances

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - A retired colonel was convicted of ordering the forced disappearance of people during Guatemala’s 36-year-long civil war on Thursday, marking a major break with decades of impunity for civil war-era crimes.

Marco Antonio Sanchez was sentenced to 53 years in prison for his role in the disappearance of eight peasants in October 1981. He is the first army officer to be successfully prosecuted in connection with disappearances during the brutal civil war.

Almost a quarter of a million people, mostly indigenous Mayans, were killed during the conflict between leftist guerrillas and the government. Around 45,000 of the victims are thought to have been disappeared — a term widely used in Latin America to people believed to have been kidnapped and murdered but whose bodies have never been found.

A United Nations-backed truth commission found more than 80 percent of the atrocities were carried out by the army.

“We achieved what we wanted, justice, because there’s very little justice in our country,” said Miguel Angel Gallardo, whose uncle and two cousins were among the victims, in a telephone interview.

Few people have ever been tried for crimes and human rights violations that occurred during the civil war. Former military dictator Efrain Rios Montt serves in Guatemala’s Congress even as he faces genocide charges both in Guatemala and in Spain.

Sanchez’s conviction comes after a civilian working for the military was sentenced to 150 years in prison in August in the first successful prosecution of a participant in the disappearances.

Several ambassadors, including the U.S. envoy, attended the final days of the trial to show their support for the families of the victims who came forward as witnesses in the landmark case.

Three former paramilitaries were also found guilty alongside Sanchez.

Reporting by Sarah Grainger; editing by Mohammad Zargham

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