Day three: defense challenges witness integrity as testimony continues

Twelve more people testified for the prosecution on the third day of the Rios Montt genocide trial, bringing the number of witnesses who have testified for the prosecution against the former president and his head of military intelligence to 26. One additional witness was called to testify, but he required a K’iche’ interpreter so his testimony was postponed.

On the third day, for the first time, there were no major issues regarding legal representation of the accused.

Three women testified. One man described sexual abuse against women, the first time such violations were raised. Gaspar Velasco, approximately 70 years old, recounted that soldiers stabbed women in the buttocks and left them naked. He said, after recounting many stories of violence, including the killing of his father, brothers, and children, that the soldiers said that the victims were “savages.”

Jacinta Rivera Brito, 54 years old and the first witness of the day, described soldiers attacking her village, Sumal Chiquito 2, in Nebaj. She recounted that they forced her and other family members from their house and burned the house. She tried to escape with her husband, but the soldiers shot at them, killing her husband.

The defense asked in cross-examination how Rivera “knows” Rios Montt, as she had said at the outset when asked by Judge Barrios if she knew the accused. Rivera answered that she never saw him, but knew that he was the president and “commanded the troops.” In response to Rivera’s statement that people should pay for the deaths of her husband, Palomo asked how much is the blood of her husband worth; an objection by the prosecution was sustained.

During the testimony of Domingo Rivera Pop, the defense raised a concern about the interpretation as the interpreter in the defense team heard Rivera say, in Ixil, the word “guerrilla.” The court interpreter insisted he never heard that word, but the defense persisted. The interpreter in the prosecution’s team identified that the word “guerrilla” in Ixil is similar to the word “weak.”

Juana Bernal, 68, testified about the military attack in her community in Sumalito, in Santa Maria Nebaj, on June 5, 1982, which killed her husband. She fled with her 8 children to the mountains, but the soldiers killed her husband, burned her house, cut their crops and took their animals. When asked how the soldiers were dressed, she said green, white and black. She and her children hid in the mountains for a year where they also fled from planes dropping bombs.

The defense, for its part, largely used cross-examination to discredit or challenge particular statements made; ask further questions concerning the level of direct knowledge, or certainty, of the witness’ account of events; identify the ethnicity of the soldiers; or ask about whether the witness, family members, or community members were, knew, or saw guerrillas. The defense declined to cross-examine various witnesses, especially following some of the most brutal accounts told by witnesses who were young children at the time of the events.

Ines Gomez Lopez, the first witness to testify on the second day of the trial, and the only woman to testify so far, described a September 10, 1982 attack in Chipal, when she was 11 years old, in which she witnessed soldiers kill her father. She said that her father said that they were persecuted “like animals”. She recounted that the army burned her family’s belongings and she fled to the mountains.

In the cross-examination, Calderon asked Gomez whether she knew guerrillas. this drew an objection from the civil party, which was sustained by the judge to the dismay of Calderon, who asserted to the judge that she appeared more lenient to the prosecution.

Jacinto Lopez, 82 years old, testified to a military massacre in Saquil Grande, in Santa Maria Nebaj, on July 15, 1982. In the massacre, the military killed 5 family members, including his wife’s parents and his children, all under the age of 16; the children were shot or, in the case of his daughter, stabbed in the neck multiple times. He stated that he survived only because he hid among the maize. He expressed great sadness in describing that the family members were buried hastily and without coffins. He reported that the military burned everything the family had, and robbed them of their animals. He and his surviving family fled to the mountains where they sometimes survived without food, eating only grass or plants. When asked whether he was a guerrilla, he said never.

On cross-examination, when asked from where Lopez witnessed the killings of his family exactly, the public prosecutor objected that he already answered that question; Palomo stated he was seeking more detail, but the objection was sustained. Lopez said he did not know the ethnicity of the soldiers.

Tomas Chavez Brito, 45 years old, initially testified without an interpreter because Judge Barrios suggested his Spanish was sufficient. This was the first and only time this happened so far, and was short-lived: when he faced limitations, and was emotionally affected by recounting his mother’s death, Judge Barrios invited an interpreter to assist. He testified that, on November 4, 1982, soldiers arrived at the military installation in La Perla farm and killed 6 family members, including his mother and two young siblings; he was one of only two family members to survive. He reported that the soldiers burned his family’s house and he fled to the mountains.

On cross-examination, Palomo asked about Chavez’ mention that he was living in a CPR, a community of population in resistance (comunidad de poblacion en resistencia), and whether there were guerrillas there; he replied that they were only “people.”

Pedro Solis Cruz described an incident on September 10, 1982 in which the army came to his village and killed a member of the community, and a subsequent incident in which the army shot and killed his 25-year-old brother, Mateo, and stole or killed the family’s animals.

In cross-examination, Cornejo also asked if he knew what “civilian population” meant, as he was to testify about the military’s attack against the civilian population; this line of questioning drew successful objections from the prosecution.

On cross-examination, Cornejo asked whether there was a war and between who, a question he asked repeatedly. Bernal said that the war was the reason that the soldiers killed her husband; most of the prior witnesses, in response to questions about why their family members were killed, responded that they did not know.

Jacinto Brito, from Salquil, Nebaj, testified that in late 1982, soldiers entered her village, cut the crops, burned houses, destroyed their animals, and captured and subsequently killed her father and four other people. She said that thegovernment ordered the people to kill. When asked why the soldiers persecuted the community, she said the soldiers wanted to finish them (“los soldados querian terminar con nosotros”). She and others fled to the mountains where many died from hunger. There were many in the mountains, including people who spoke different languages. Under cross-examination, she said the soldiers were ladino, speaking in Spanish, and definitely not Ixil because they could not communicate with her community.

Sebastian Cedillo Raimundo, 50 years old, described a massacre at Finca La Perla on August 13, 1982 in which the soldiers killed 17 people gathering for a meeting, including his uncle, cousin, a pregnant woman and some elderly people. Some were killed with bullets and others with knives “as if they were pigs.” He recounted that the soldiers also robbed the family’s shop, burned houses, and stole the community’s animals. He escaped to the mountains where he mostly lived until the peace agreement. There, his mother and others died of hunger. He said he still suffers and fears that he is being pursued, and his land now belongs to the members of the civilian self-defense patrols.

Calderon, in cross-examination, asked Cedillo “what war” he was referring to, who was in the war, and how were they dressed. Cedillo responded that the soldiers were the ones fighting. When Cedillo said he did not know who the soldiers were fighting against, Calderon insisted until an objection was sustained. He also said that those who took his land were his own people (our “misma gente”).

Calderon, concluding his cross-examination, asked a hostile question, rejected by Judge Barrios, about what Cedillo was given to prepare for the testimony as all of the testimony seems to be the same, with both explicit and implicit suggestions that the testimony was manipulated.

He continued, after the objection, stating that he had no problems with the tribunal or his opposing counsel, but that he felt the court was limiting his rights to test the fitness or capacity (idoneidad) of the witnesses. He asked, finally, whether Cedillo was paid to give his testimony. An objection was sustained.

This round of questions immediately preceded the lunch recess, and Calderon was swarmed by cameras, and he continued this attack on the authenticity of witness statements, and thus the integrity of the trial process, to the media.

Francisco Chavez Raimundo gave emotional testimony in Spanish without an interpreter, stopping several times to cry and collect himself. He recalled that on May 3, 1982, when he was a small child, the military came to his village by helicopter. Some in the community resisted and soldiers massacred 35 people; others fled. He was six years old at the time, and the soldiers captured him and took them to a military installation, forcing him and other children to walk long distances. Soldiers detained him for four days at the military installation, where men, women and children were segregated—and where there were up to 30 children; he and other children were eventually liberated by a church group. Chavez reported that at one point the soldiers tried to dress him in a military uniform.

Miguel Raimundo Cobo testified that on May 3, 1982 in Tu Chabuc, Nebaj, soldiers killed his wife and children, aged 6 years, 4 years and 3 months, and 9 other people. They killed his children by hitting them with a stick and shooting them in the stomach. He recounted that they destroyed their things, and a helicopter overhead dropped bombs on the community. He fled, returning five days later to bury his family, and found his village entirely destroyed and all the animals killed.

The last witness of the day, Domingo Raimundo Cobos, recounted that soldiers killed his mother, wife, siblings, and children, including a 3-month-old son, as well as others in his community. He survived only by hiding among the crops. He said that the soldiers believed them all to be guerrillas.

In the morning, when one witness began to describe the death of her husband, the defense objected that this had not been included among the list of things about which the witness would testify. The court initially sustained the objection. However, later in an examination of the same witness, Edgar Perez, for the civil party, pressed for the court to permit additional background information, noting the relevance of additional testimony and the explicit statement on the witness list that the identified subjects about which the witness would testify is non-exhaustive. In later instances, when she swore witnesses in, Judge Barrios made this explicit – identifying that the witness would testify about designated topics, “among other things”.

In the morning, the defense was vigorously engaged in questioning some of the witnesses, and repeatedly asked questions regarding, for instance, the ethnicity of the soldiers, whether they saw guerrillas in the mountains, and whether the witnesses believed there was a war and, if so, among which parties.

In the afternoon, however, the defense asked few questions in cross-examination. Of six witnesses, they asked questions of only two. For the first witness of the afternoon, Calderon asked only whether he knew guerrillas, to which the witness answered no. Cornejo asked the same witness only how he knew the accused, to which the witness responded that he heard on the radio at the time that they were the ones in charge of the decisions (“encargados de esas decisiones”).

Cornejo asked Gaspar Velasca about guerrilla groups he saw in the mountains, how the guerrillas were dressed, whether they were armed, whether they induced the same fear as the soldiers, whether there was a war, and who took away his land. No other questions were asked of any of the six witnesses who testified in the third afternoon.

The cultural challenges for the witnesses in testifying in this context were evident at various points, with some witnesses not understanding some of the specific questions, and Judge Barrios asking several witnesses to answer more concretely and asking the attorneys to ask questions to direct witnesses to specific issues. Some witnesses also began to provide their declaration when the judge was asking introductory questions; many also insisted at this stage, often fervently, that they were going to tell the truth. One witness desperately wanted to share a photo album to prove he was telling the truth; Judge Barrios explained repeatedly that it could not be shared as it had not been introduced into evidence.

In the morning, the prosecution successfully sought authorization from the court for psychological assistance for the witnesses. The security of the witnesses was also highlighted in court when Judge Barrios prohibited a witness from answering a question about where she lived now in order to protect her security.


  1. Thank you very much for the commentary! It is fascinating to be able to follow this trial in detail daily. I’ve also been very interested in the comments about the interpreters – both regarding the questioning of witnesses, and that there’s an Ixil interpreter for the audience in the public gallery. I would be very interested in a blog post about these interpreters at some point, what their experience is (have they been working with these people for a while or are they Guatemala City court interpreters?), or what the public gallery interpreter has to say about the reactions in the gallery.

    1. Thanks for the suggestion, Sophie. It’s a good idea, and hopefully we’ll be able to follow it up.

  2. Thank you for this work, giving those of us who have been touched by the survivors’ stories of the terrible tradgedies of the 80s a seat in the court room. Bravo to the judges and the prosecutors for getting the hoped-for justice to this point.

  3. Just reading and trying to keep up with the court scene so I understand how important this trial is and how indigenous people almost everywhere are persecuted and their land coveted.

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