In 2009, former military commissioner Felipe Cusanero Coj was sentenced to 150 years in prison for the forced disappearance of six community members between 1982 and 1984 in Choatalúm, in the municipality of San Martín Jilotepeque, Chimaltenango. As military commissioner at the time of the forced disappearances, Cusanero Coj wielded a significant amount of power over the communities in the area. He worked out of an army base in town where, according to witness testimonies at the trial, rape, torture, and summary executions took place.
The Choatalúm trial opened in 2008 as the first forced disappearance case in Guatemala. Despite its dramatic debut, however, the case languished in the courts for over a year as the Constitutional Court determined whether Cusanero could be legally tried for the crime of forced disappearance, which was not recognized by the government of Guatemala as a crime against humanity until 1996 – more than a decade after the disappearance of the six family members in question. In July of 2009, the Constitutional Court resolved that forced disappearance is a permanent and ongoing violation of human rights, opening the door for the crime to be prosecuted as a continued offense.
On August 31, 2009, the court sentenced Cusanero to 150 years in prison for his role in forcibly disappearing Santiago Sutuj, Alejo Culajay Ic, Lorenzo Avila, Filomena López Chajchaguin, Encarnación López López and Mario Augusto Tay. For the survivors in Choatalúm the sentence produced mixed emotions. Though Cusanero is now in prison, he refuses to provide any information as to the whereabouts of the disappeared. In the words of the survivors, “From the beginning, this is all we wanted.” Nevertheless, the verdict marked the first time a member of the military was held to account for crimes committed during the internal armed conflict, and thereby set an important precedent for future prosecutions of forced disappearances.
NISGUA, through ACOGUATE, provided international accompaniment and advocacy support to the plaintiffs and other supportive community members in the case, as well as to their lawyers, the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH).