Day 11 of Rios Montt trial: Forensic experts testify regarding exhumations

On Friday, April 5, the 11th day of the Rios Montt trial, the prosecution presented ten additional expert witnesses associated with the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (Fundacion de Antropologia Forense de Guatemala, or FAFG), who provided graphic details regarding exhumations performed by FAFG in the Ixil region of Guatemala in recent years. Many reports provided scientific support for the claims set forth in earlier testimonies of fact witnesses.

Also on Friday, defense attorney Moises Galindo, representing Rodriguez Sanchez, formally objected to the continuation of the trial in light of the April 3 decision of the Constitutional Court (Corte de Constitucionalidad, or CC). Galindo insisted that the Constitutional Court’s decision required that the tribunal suspend the trial proceedings “to ensure that the legal validity of the trial is not impaired.”

After deliberation, Judge Barrios denied the defense request and insisted that, while the tribunal would comply with the Constitutional Court judgment, the tribunal would not suspend the proceedings, and could not given the obligations of a speedy trial and Guatemala’s Criminal Procedure Code.  Judge Barrios said that the tribunal would, however, as indicated by the Constitutional Court judgment, “admit the expert reports and witnesses proposed by the defense.”

After the close of court, Galindo indicated that the defense would appeal the decision to proceed, and that all of the testimonies by the fact witnesses and experts presented to date in the trial – as well as any sentence ultimately issued – could be nullified by a successful appeal.

Several FAFG forensic anthropologists and archeologists provided expert testimony regarding the exhumation of remains of people killed in 1982 and 1983. Myrna Graciela Diaz Guiarte testified regarding human remains exhumed and identified by FAFG in 2008 in Vijolom III, TuJolom, and TuUchuch. Diaz indicated that FAFG was able to identify several of the remains, including an elderly couple whose deaths resulted from traumatic lacerations in the cervical region (the neck) and two younger adults whose remains were found along with a “neonate” (an infant from 0-6 months of age).

Defense attorney Cornejo questioned Diaz’ academic credentials and asked if it was possible to determine the date a person had died through forensic analyses. Diaz responded that it was not biologically possible to determine the date of death. Other experts during the day clarified that the date of death could often be approximated through interviews with family members, other witnesses, or artifacts (dated coins, etc.) found on remains.

Raul Humberto Archila Garcia and Oscar Ariel Ixpatá, FAFG forensic experts, testified regarding human remains disinterred in Canaquil in 2008. Archila testified that exhumations revealed that 22 individuals had been interred at the site, and that those responsible for their burial had “burned them or dismembered them.” He also described remains from Vijolom I, Villa Hortensia I and II, and Cotzal, indicating that one individual exhumed had at least 10 lesions made by a sharp object in the thorax (area between the neck and the abdomen); another had a blue cloth around her cervical vertabra, showing signs of trauma.  Others died from gunshot wounds, or had metal fragments in their remains.

Ariel also testified regarding remains found in Xeo, Trapachitos, Vatzpolli, Sumalito, and Parramos Grande – including of a woman with bullet holes in her cranium whose remains were found alongside those of her young children.

Daniel Alonzo Jiménez Gaitán and Gabriela Alejandra Meléndez Méndez, FAFG forensic anthropologists, testified concerning exhumations in Chuatuj and Parramos Grande. Jiménez indicated that the remains disinterred were “mongoloid.” When asked to clarify what that term meant, he indicated that it referred to a group of people who were not “Caucasoid” or “Negroid.” In Guatemala, it was used to indicate that the person was indigenous.

Forensic experts Edwin Joaquin Gomez Conde, Heidy Hirúa Quezada Arriaga, and Juan Carlos Gatica Perez, also testified regarding FAFG exhumations in which they were involved.

Various FAFG-affiliated social anthropologists also testified as prosecution expert witnesses. One expert, Juan Raymundo Donado Vivar, explained that “social anthropology helps to identify remains … by obtaining social and biological information related to individual victims.” Donado testified about sections of FAFG reports related to the remains of workers from Finca San Francisco, whose extremities were cut off before they were buried in a mass grave.  Donado reported that he conducted interviews revealing that soldiers in Tzalbal gathered members of the community (mostly women and children), interrogated them, and then executed them and burned their corpses.  Other interviews revealed that in Sacsiguan, houses were burned, including one with a woman inside her house with her young child. The defense asked if social anthropologists could determine who was responsible for the killings. Donado responded: “no, we are not able to determine that.”

Social anthropologist Gabriela Sofia Padilla del Aguila, who worked with FAFG, was asked to explain her use of the term “contexto cerrado” (“closed context”); she explained that it indicated that a conclusion could be reached regarding the circumstances of the death and internment of the subjects of a report. Social anthropologist Danila Marienela Rodriguez Martinez described the methods used in interviewing family members of victims to assist in identifying remains.

Audio problems continue in the court, with quality complaints from attorneys, witnesses and observers regarding the difficulties in hearing in a variety of locations around the courtroom.

Week 4 of the trial will begin on Monday, April 8, at 8:30 am.