A relative of a victim holds a rose during the Guatemala City trial of soldiers… (Johan Ordonez, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Mexico City — International human rights advocates Wednesday praised a court in Guatemala for sentencing four former soldiers to more than 6,000 years each in prison for a 1982 massacre of 201 civilians during the nation's civil war.
The massacre in the northern village of Dos Erres was one of the ugliest episodes of repression during Guatemala's 36-year civil war, during which an estimated 200,000 people were killed or disappeared, mostly in the countryside.
The trial, which began last week, was closely watched by rights monitors.
The sentences imposed Tuesday against former Lt. Carlos Antonio Carias and special forces soldiers Manuel Pop Sun, Reyes Collin Gualip and Daniel Martinez include 30 years for each victim and another 30 years for crimes against humanity. However, the maximum anyone can be imprisoned in Guatemala is 50 years.
"This landmark sentence sends a message that Guatemala might finally be moving closer to delivering justice to the hundreds of thousands of victims of grave human rights violations during the civil war," said Sebastian Elgueta, Central America researcher at Amnesty International, in a statement from Washington.
But Elgueta said higher-ranking officers must also be brought to justice.
As many as 250 men, women and children were tortured and slain during a three-day operation in Dos Erres by about 20 members of an elite army squad known as the Kaibiles. Women and girls were raped; some victims were beaten to death with sledgehammers. Many were tossed into a well.
Some witnesses said the operation was aimed at covering up the rape of a woman in the village by a military officer, Elgueta said.
The defendants maintained their innocence and, after the ruling, their relatives vowed to appeal.
Other former members of the squad who later moved to the United States also face charges.
Jorge Sosa, a martial arts instructor from Moreno Valley, was arrested in Canada early this year. He is charged in a 2010 federal grand jury indictment in Orange County with having taken part as the army unit interrogated and killed civilians.
Pedro Pimentel Rios, a Santa Ana maintenance worker who also allegedly belonged to the patrol, was deported to Guatemala last month and turned over to authorities.