August 22, 2012 / 2:00 AM / 5 years ago

Guatemala sentences ex-police chief for war crimes

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - A Guatemalan court on Tuesday sentenced a former police chief to 70 years in jail for ordering the kidnapping of a university student during the country’s brutal civil war.

The landmark ruling made Pedro Garcia the highest ranking police official to be sentenced for war crimes in Guatemala and was the latest in a string of cases the government has initiated against former officials.

Garcia, arrested last year at his home southeast of the capital, was convicted of crimes against humanity and the ‘forced disappearance’ or kidnapping of engineering student Edgar Saenz, who disappeared in 1981.

Garcia, who was police chief from 1974 until 1982, faces separate murder charges in the 1980 burning of the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala, which killed 36 people including the father of Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu.

Guatemalan courts last year sentenced two former agents to 40 years in prison for their role in the disappearance of another student union leader and ordered to trial the former director of national police, Hector Bol de la Cruz, for his alleged participation in abductions.

Backed by crusading Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, prosecutors in Guatemala are going after former high-ranking officials, sending a message that wartime atrocities will be tried.

Clues in police documents found in 2005 have exposed government repression during the 36-year war and provided enough evidence to start sending cases to trial.

In January, a court sent former dictator Efrain Rios Montt to trial to face charges of genocide and crimes against humanity during the civil war.

The internal conflict wracked the Central American nation between 1960 and 1996, pitting a string of right-wing governments against leftist insurgents and leaving 200,000 people dead and 45,000 missing.

Even with recent advances, prosecutors say that the large volume of cases means they will never bring to justice all of the nation’s war criminals.

Reporting by Mike McDonald; Editing by Doina Chiacu

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