Day two: Rios Montt representation, and prosecution testimony

When Judge Barrios asked Rios Montt his intentions for his legal representation, the former general stated that he had expected that Garcia, his expelled attorney, would be present. Judge Barrios renewed the tribunal’s rejection of Garcia. After Judge Barrios insisted that she would approach the state to identify a public defender to represent him, to ensure the protection of his constitutional rights, if he did not identify someone himself, he excused himself to make a phone call. Within an hour, Marco Antonio Cornejo Marroquin arrived at the defense table. Cornejo had previously represented Rios Montt, alongside Francisco Palomo, Danilo Rodriguez and Luis Rosales, before Rios Montt’s decision to substitute Garcia for his entire defense team on the morning of the opening of the trial.

Mid-morning, Judge Barrios also called the defense expert witnesses to be sworn in, pending a final decision from an appeals court which had provisionally suspended Judge Galvez’ February 4 decision rejecting the defense experts. The court swore in as defense experts Manuel Eduardo Conde Orellana, to testify concerning the peace process and peace agreements; General Jose Luis Quilo Ayuso, to provide testimony concerning chain of command and military structure;  Benjamin Rafael Francisco Godoy, to testify about the internal armed conflict, the insurgency in Ixil, and the National Security Doctrine; and Carlos Leonel Mendez Tejada, to testify about the chain of command in Guatemala and command responsibility. All identified that they knew the accused; Francisco Godoy stated that he had a friendship with them. Each was ordered to return April 9 and 10 to testify, and to provide a written statement in advance.

Over the course of the day, the court heard testimony from 12 prosecution witnesses describing killings, and the decimation of villages, crops and animals, committed against them and their family and communities by the Guatemalan military, often including forced evacuation from their homes,  in 1982 and 1983 during Rios Montt’s rule. All were Mayan Ixils, virtually all were either children or middle-aged in 1982 or 1983, and all but one were male.

In large part, the prosecution aimed to present an account of killings, including of many women and children and some elderly people; the destruction or theft of property or animals; and the witness’ living conditions, particularly when the witness fled into the mountains or was displaced elsewhere;  as well as the source of the witness’ knowledge of the events, any interactions with the military, the witness’ understanding of why the military committed the abuses, and the effect of the events on the witness. In some instances, the prosecution asked whether the witness or family members were guerrillas.
Santiago Perez Luz, 72 years old, described a military attack on his village in Santa Maria Nebaj on July 17, 1982 that killed his 18-year-old son. He said that a man came and killed him, and that he did not know why; and he and his surviving family fled to the mountains. They returned later to bury the son and found only bones because the animals had already gotten to him. His house and all those in the community had been burned, the community was empty, and animals had been shot.

On cross-examination, the defense questioned Perez’s account that it was the “military” that killed his son. Cornejo asked how he knew that the army had burned the village; an objection that this was a repetitive question was sustained.

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.

One witness testified that on September 2, 1982, the army killed his wife and his only children, aged 5 and 2, among others. He fled and did not see the killings, but testified that it was soldiers who committed the massacre, and that he found his family dead in the road when he returned about one month later. His wife was shot in the head, his 5-year-old son had his face slashed with a machete, and his 2-year-old son’s head was smashed. The prosecution asked what he wanted from the court. After the court overruled a defense objection, he said justice. The defense did not ask any questions.

Pedro Chavez Brito, aged 41, was the twelfth and final witness of the second day. He told a harrowing account of the military’s attack on his village on November 4, 1982, when he was six or seven years old. He reported that the military first killed his mother. He hid with his pregnant sister and two children, including a newborn baby, among the chickens, but the soldiers found their hiding spot and extracted them. His older sister begged for their lives, but the military demanded to know where the guerrillas were and insisted that she had given them food. The military tied the sister to the stairs and set the house on the fire, killing his sister, her two children, and perhaps 7 other family members. Chavez survived only by fleeing, hiding under some wood, “like an animal,” naked and with no food, for eight days. When he eventually emerged, he found his brother and uncle, and fled to the mountains. When asked why the military attacked his family, he said he did not know but that they thought that there were “ants in the house” (hormigas en la casa). He insisted that no one in the family was a guerrilla. When asked what he wants from the state, he said “justice so that my children do not see such things.”

Throughout the day, there were some difficulties with the interpretation, and the witnesses’ understanding of either the translation or the direct questions. From the first day of the trial, the prosecution had as part of their team interpreters able to contest what they identified as inaccurate interpretation. In the afternoon of the second day, the defense also introduced into their team interpreters. In response to various challenges, the judge urged the interpreter to be accurate. In response to the defense’s first challenge to a purportedly inaccurate interpretation, Judge Barrios also cautioned the lawyers to not challenge excessively the interpretation provided by the court’s interpreters. The Ixil-speaking members of the public gallery also have access to simultaneous interpretation.


  1. Big thank you Emi and OSJI for this detailed daily account of this emotionally wrenching and historic trial. Next best thing to being there! We look forward to being present next month to support this valiant process. Take care.

  2. You have provided an amazing rendition of the events in the courtroom on the second day. Your work is really appreciated, especially for its level of detail about the process and substance.

  3. Thank you for providing this detail of the trial.. It is important to ALL that justice is done.

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