As Trial Nears Conclusion, Defense Witnesses Absent and Hearing Cut Short

Although the defense lawyers have said they have twelve witnesses to present to the court, only two of them appeared on Tuesday, leaving the judges to dismiss the hearings just after noon. Judge Yassmin Barrios reminded the attorneys that the trial is nearing its conclusion and they had an obligation to present their witnesses to ensure a speedy judicial process, as required by law.

The first witness of the day called was Ronal Mauricio Illescas García, a career army officer who rose to the rank of general. He was questioned by the defense on fundamental issues pertaining to the army’s structure, chain of command, and strategic planning. His rank and position during the Ríos Montt regime – he was a lieutenant and military instructor – gave him limited access to the centers of power, and at times he seemed uncertain of how to answer and contradicted his own assertions.

When Marco Antonio Cornejo, attorney for Ríos Montt, asked him about Ríos Montt’s connection to Plan Victoria 82, Illescas said the President would have known about it “but not in great detail,” as it was the Army General Staff that wrote the plan. He noted that he himself did not know Plan Victoria in great detail, pointing out: “I was only a lieutenant, so I didn’t have access to the plan, but I listened to what was going on. …There were two things I knew: 1) we had to protect the civilian population and 2) we had to combat the armed guerrilla.” Later, when a prosecutor asked whether Illescas had a responsibility to know what was in the plan, Illescas answered: “I did not have the rank for it… The President had an entire team for that; he was the person this fell to… But in my experience, one person—even the President of the Republic—doesn’t know everything about every document.”

Cornejo established through his questioning that President Ríos Montt would probably not have given a direct order to Lt. Illescas in 1982, since Army officers normally received orders from their superiors. The prosecution explored this line of reasoning further.

Q: What is “mando”?

A: It is the term used for a leader. It indicates leadership and responsibility. The “co-mandante” delegates authority.

Q: Did the comandante in 1982-83 have “mando”? …

A: [Hesitation. Judge orders him to answer] Yes.

Rodríguez Sánchez’s defense lawyer, Cesar Calderón, asked Illescas whether the Director of Intelligence (D-2) has a chain of command. The witness answered, “No. He has links to the intelligence officers and the advisors.” His answer contrasted with declarations given on Monday by prosecution expert Rodolfo Robles, who described a chain of command from the D-2 to his subordinate officers within the intelligence directorate.

The second defense witness to take the stand was Alfred Kaltschmitt, executive director of a humanitarian foundation that provides aid and services to Ixil communities (Fundación de Ayuda para el Pueblo Ixil—FUNDAPI). He is a dean in the Pan-American University, a member of the evangelical Church of Verbo (Ríos Montt’s church) and a regular columnist in the Prensa Libre, a prominent Guatemalan newspaper.

Kaltshmitt spoke from personal experience about the Ixil region during the Ríos Montt regime, as his foundation was deeply involved in administering aid programs connected to the government’s “Beans and Bullets” (Frijoles y Fusiles) project in the highlands. He described the devastation of the region in 1982, with entire villages razed, roads blocked, people returning from the mountains dying of hunger, “the whole area immersed in violence.” His organization worked directly with victims, managing development programs that served “innocent civilians” and those who had left the guerrillas under the amnesty. Financed through private, religious, international and government funds, FUNDAPI worked in the refugee camps helping victims obtain houses and land, food, work, education and health services.

Questioned by defense attorneys about the military’s role in the programs, Kaltschmitt said that the Army always supported FUNDAPI: “The helicopters would arrive, and the army would bring the medicine…This was the best moment of the Army—the best moment in the Army’s history—that they were helping the Ixil people. Everyone was sick of the war, and they were delighted with the Army.” He depicted the Mayan communities as caught in the crossfire between the military and the guerrillas: “State policy at this time was to help the population recover from war.”

In response to defense questions, he denied the existence of any policy or program to “exterminate” the Ixil; he denied seeing victims of bombing; he said he never heard anything about rape victims; and he robustly rejected the idea that the refugee camps could be equated to “concentration camps.” Kaltschmitt’s testimony directly contradicted many prior prosecution witnesses who were survivors of the violence he described.

Lawyers for the prosecution pressed him on the issue of Army control in the camps and settlements. Though he agreed that there was a “small military presence to protect the people,” he said people were free to come and go as they pleased. He denied there was genocide. When asked if he knew who had razed aldeas in the Ixil region based on his presence there, he replied the he did not: “I read in the paper that it was the guerrillas that burned the villages.”

Following Kaltschmitt’s testimony, Judge Barrios asked that three videos be projected that had been submitted by the prosecution. The videos were interviews conducted by U.S. filmmaker Pamela Yates shortly after the coup in 1982 with the three members of the military junta: Efraín Ríos Montt, Luis Gordillo Martínez and Horacio Maldonado Schaad. Each man spoke vigorously about plans of the new military regime to renovate the economy and eliminate the security threat posed by the insurgency.

Spectators in the courtroom shared the experience of seeing the now elderly Ríos Montt craning his neck to watch the younger Ríos Montt on screen, speaking when he was at the height of his powers. In the interview, the dictator insisted that his troops were not massacring campesinos in the highlands. “If I can’t control the Army, then what I am doing here?”