Defense presents military experts, prosecution presents forensic experts

Wednesday, April 10 saw evidence from a series of prosecution experts on forensic anthropology and archaeology, and defense experts on military command structures and the history of the insurgency in Guatemala. Several public figures also attended parts of the trial, including Alberto Brunori, representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights;  Arnold Chacon, U.S. ambassador to Guatemala; Helen Mack, a leading Guatemalan human rights activist; and Rigoberta Menchu, Nobel Peace Prize winner and a prominent indigenous rights activist.

Fredy Peccerelli, the director of the Guatemalan Foundation for Forensic Anthropology (FAFG), was the first witness. The start of his testimony was slowed by discussions between the lawyers and judges about the various reports that have been prepared by him and other FAFG witnesses. Using a power point presentation, Peccerelli summarized for the court the conclusions of his expert report. He described the investigations done by FAFG between 1992 and 2009, which totaled 1,116 cases across the country, involving the remains of over 5,800 people*. Of those, remains of 420 people were collected from the time period covered by the trial (1982-1983) in the Ixil area. Though the largest group of remains were from people 26-49 years of age, 33% (140 people) were under 18 years old. Peccerelli concluded that 98% of the deaths were by government forces, while 1.14% were attributable to guerrillas. Of the remains that showed signs of trauma, the majority were from gunshots.

Expert Witness: Fredy Peccerelli. Video from Skylight Pictures.

Peccerelli then discussed a 2008 report by his colleague, Clyde Snow, examining fatal versus non-fatal injuries. 83% of the injuries found in the remains were fatal. Peccerelli compared this to the average rate of 20% of injuries in combat being fatal. He concluded that the probability of an 83% rate of fatal injuries occurring randomly in combat is 8 in an octillion. “This cannot happen,” he said. This pattern would only be found from execution-style killings.

The defense asked only one question, noting that Peccerelli’s expert report relied on the work of others.

The next witness to testify from FAFG was Claudia Rivera Fernández, an expert in forensic archaeology. She discussed the methodology for identifying remains which included two forms: genetic and osteological. Often interviews with family or witnesses play an important role. In response to defense questions, she clarified that they do not declare a cause of death.

Carmen Valle Palencia, also of FAFG, described one set of remains that was found, of an adult and two minors. The adult was identified but the minors were not. A question from defense counsel César Calderón as to whether the witness could identify the socio-economic level of the victim drew an objection that the judge sustained. There were no further questions.

Three defense experts then testified. They had been barred by Judge Miguel Angel Gálvez, who prevoously handled the case in its preliminary phases, but Judge Yassmin Barrios ordered on the opening day of the trial that they could nonetheless be heard pending a defense appeal of Judge Galvez’s decision; on April 4, the Constitutional Court (Corte de la Constitucionalidad) ruled that the witnesses must be heard.

Lawyer Manuel Conde Orellana was the first of the three to testify for the defense. He previously had served as a representative of the government of Guatemala during the peace negotiations and as president of the Peace Commission. Having lost family members, he considered himself a victim of both sides in the war.

In reading the conclusions reached in his expert report, Conde Orellana first described the difference between a peace process, which attempts to find solutions to national problems and lay the foundations for democracy, and negotiations, which constitute dialogue between fighting parties. Labeling it a “war between brothers” (“guerra entre hermanos”) and the many deaths the country’s “daily bread,” Conde Orellana said the killing had to end once and for all. (“Los muertos eran el pan de cada día, todo esto tenia que terminar una vez por todas.”) He outlined the objectives of the peace accords, including creating reforms in Guatemalan society and respect for indigenous languages and cultures. He characterized the Guatemalan peace as “strong” because, compared to other countries, there were no revenge killings after the accords were signed.

Conde Orellana credited the negotiations with opening the big door (“abrir la puerta grande”) toward reconciliation that allowed, for the first time, a discussion of “transcendental” subjects in Guatemala, like indigenous issues and strengthening of civil society.

On several occasions, Judge Barrios reminded Conde Orellana to answer only the question being asked. Defense lawyer César Calderón inquired if it was difficult to reach an agreement with the guerrillas. Conde Orellana said it was. The guerrillas were represented at the negotiations by the URNG (Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity) and they were very mistrustful of the government. He stated that the URNG believed that the government violated human rights. He also said there were many “radicals” who did not want peace and were critical of the Oslo Accords for political reasons.

When asked if they discussed forgiveness in the negotiations, Conde Orellana replied that they did not because you can only forgive “when you know whom to pardon.” He said this was impossible with the guerrillas because they used different aliases and their leaders did not have a public profile like government officials. On two occasions, lawyers for the defense asked about whether guerrilla leaders should be subject to criminal penalties but Judge Barrios disallowed the questions.

Edgar Pérez, lawyer for one of the civil parties, the Justice and Reconciliation Association (AJR), asked whether reconciliation is synonymous with impunity.  Conde Orellana answered, “Definitely not.” Prosecutor Orlando López asked why the civilian population was not included in the peace process and whether it was a good step that information had come to light about who is responsible for human rights abuses. Conde Orellana responded, “The historical truth in Guatemala is written with the left hand.”

The next defense witness was José Luís Quilo Ayuso, a retired military officer, called as an expert on the military chain of command. He stated that he knew the defendants and had served under Rios Montt’s command starting in 1971.

His expert reports contained numerous specific conclusions about the dictates of military laws. With regard to General Ríos Montt, he characterized the Commander in Chief (“Comandante en General”) as a position that by law did not have national control. The Commander in Chief set military policy at a national level but was not responsible for military campaigns. The chief of the General Staff (“Estado Mayor”) rather than the Commander in Chief or Minister of Defense was the figure who issued key orders and the zone commanders implemented those orders and campaigns.

With regard to Rodríguez Sánchez, who served as chief of intelligence in the General Staff, Quilo Ayuso described the different sections of the General Staff. He stated that the heads of the sections were not in the chain of command and could not issue orders to field commanders. They only communicated with the chief of the General Staff. Their signatures appeared in documents only as a form of authentication or acknowledgement of receipt. The head of intelligence (known as G-2 or D-2) assisted the chief of the General Staff and collected information about the enemy and the theaters of war, maintaining all information collected by different elements of the army. He also makes recommendations to the chief of the General Staff on plans of action but does not make any decisions.

The chief of the General Staff is the person who gives orders to the military commanders, usually in the form of written plans or directives. Even these plans are general in nature and the subordinate commanders give detail to the concept the chief of the General Staff ordered (“los comandos subordinados van detallando el concepto que el jefe de Estado Mayor ordenó”).

Lawyers from CALDH, representing the civil party, asked Quilo Ayuso about his involvement in any organizations and he confirmed that he has a role with the Association of Military Veterans and that he  called for public support for the accused through the Association.

Asked if the Commander in Chief has “command,” he answered yes. At the highest level, there are campaign plans (“plan de campaña”) like Plan Victoria 1982. Then operational plans are created by lower commanders. When asked who ordered Plan Victoria 1982, he said it was the President of the Republic, then Rios Montt. Of the various annexes that accompany such plans, the annex on intelligence was created by the Director of Intelligence,then Rodriguez Sanchez.

In describing terms used in the annexes, he said that “bases of support” (“bases de apoyo”) are organizations of the clandestine security committee in the Ixil area. They had a “communitarian” form and were composed of local clandestine groups.

Counsel for Ríos Montt, Danilo Rodríguez, strongly objected that Judge Barrios was allowing questions about Plan Victoria 1982. Judge Barrios indicated that Quilo Ayuso had raised Plan Victoria 1982 and it was central to the case. Rodríguez then complained that the court had “lacked balance” since the beginning of the trial.

Focusing again on expert conclusion #4, that orders did not rise to the level of the Commander in Chief, CALDH lawyers asked Quilo Ayuso to read from Plan Victoria 1982. He explained that although the plan mentions the Commander in Chief it does not mean he ordered anything. It only means that he must have had the relevant information.

Furthering describing information from Plan Victoria 1982, Quilo Ayuso blamed local clandestine committees for impeding the movement of people in their area. He characterized the military’s objective as protection of civilians. Asked if the population in the mountains was a military target, he said the military wanted to help civilians but the clandestine committees prevented it.

He described Plan Victoria 1982 as expressing the policy of the government, showing what the wants and intentions of the President were. The annexes flowed from this and were critical for communicating these ideas to his subordinates.  This is why the Commander in Chief was mentioned but it does not mean that field reports would later reach his level.

On questioning from prosecutor Orlando López, Quilo Ayuso confirmed he was in Quiché in late 1983 and 1984. He also declared that there was no genocide. (“Mi criterio es que no hubo genocidio.“) He explained that genocide required intent and there was no intent on the part of the army. He also admitted to saying previously that the court was not competent to try this case.

Asked to explain who made up the High Command, he answered that it was the Commander in Chief, the Minister of Defense and the chief of the General Staff and that Ríos Montt occupied these positions.

In examining a telegram related to Plan Sofia, prosecutor Orlando López asked if the G-2 director of intelligence would have had knowledge of military operations in Plan Sofia. He answered, “I don’t think so.” When asked why the document was copied to the G-2,  Quilo Ayuso said that was done only for his knowledge.

After the lunch break, other experts for the prosecution testified. Guillermo Vásquez Escobar, a forensic archaeologist, reviewed numerous reports on sites where remains were found. He also explained the methodology of the archaeological work, including the initial digging, cleaning and photography of the site. The next witness, Sergio Osvaldo García López, likewise reviewed several reports, each one identifying victims by name and describing the forensic evidence found with the remains. In particular, he described the difference between clandestine burial and burial by families which often showed signs of “preparation” including the presence of personal items.

The day’s final witness was another defense expert, retired General Benjamín Godoy, who served 33 years in the military. His focus was the insurgency, particularly in the Ixil area. Godoy was not under the command of either defendant in 1982-83 but in 1970, Ríos Montt was his first commander. He has extensive military training, in Guatemala and abroad, including on international humanitarian law from the International Committee of the Red Cross. He is a member of different military organizations, including the Guatemalan Association of Christian Military Personnel and the Guatemalan Association of Military Veterans.

Godoy read his lengthy conclusions, stating that his report was a historical examination. He characterized Guatemala as a place that was ripe for totalitarian and communist ideas as a result of its strategic geographic location. He described links to Cuba and other “international groups.” He stated that, from the start, the communists used the civilian population to try to gain power. In 1981, the guerrillas had 2000 armed combatants and 60,000 “irregular” forces (known as FIL). In particular, he blamed priests for spreading revolutionary theology. The guerrillas carried out acts of “terrorism” including murders of local officials, bombings and destruction of infrastructure.

Godoy cited open-source materials that included statements and analysis by former guerrillas, including the Manolo Report, a series of captured tapes that laid out the strategy of the Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres (EGP). He concluded that 1981 was the time at which the insurgency was at its maximum capacity for organization and logistics, with large reserves of weapons. He said the guerrillas had a strategy of exercising full control over certain territories. In response to a question from César Calderón, he said there was some territory that was under full guerrilla control, including in Ixcan. Godoy characterized the possible loss of territory as devastating for Guatemala, particularly in light of a strong embargo implemented by the United States in the 1970s. Although the Guatemalan government did not know it until 1981, the EGP had 120,000 people under their control.

Godoy characterized the recruitment strategy, particularly of the EGP, as one of motivating and captivating the population. There was a focus on “the masses” not as human beings but as an instrument for power. He said their creed was “The Masses, Land and Power” (“Masa, Terreno, Poder”). Godoy again cited Catholic priests as evangelizers spreading revolutionary ideas and coopting the people. By 1979-82, they were organizing the population through terror and destruction of normal civic institutions. The guerrillas were tearing down local government functions and replacing them with their own.

According to Godoy, there was eventually a realization that armed action was not going to bring them to power so their tactics changed to use armed activity to support their political objectives, employing the concept of the prolonged popular war.

Defense lawyer Danilo Rodríguez asked if the Ixil area was a strategic one for the guerrillas. Godoy said it was and pointed to the presence of the Frente Ho Chi Minh in the area.

In questioning by CALDH lawyer Héctor Reyes, Godoy said he had worked in intelligence, but that he did not rely on any intelligence information in preparing his expert report. He did not have access to those kinds of documents and relied only on open-source materials. He also said, however, that he he did not look at the report of the Commission on Historical Clarification, explaining that he did not think it could be used in court.

Reyes asked additional questions about the term “internal enemies.” Godoy indicated that he did not use that word in the report because he is not familiar with it. However, he stated that the 120,000 civilians under guerrilla control were not internal enemies, and that the army’s objective was to protect the civilian population.

Lawyer Edgar Pérez asked for Godoy’s source on the number of insurgent forces. Godoy responded that documents from guerrillas themselves stated these numbers. He then agreed with Pérez that it is possible the guerrillas inflated those numbers to gain a psychological advantage over the government. Pérez then used a document in Plan Sofia to ask how many combatants the EGP had in the Ixil area. Godoy said he did not know based on the open sources.

Prosecutor Orlando López shifted the questioning to Godoy’s background in intelligence. He described the General Staff as divided in sections with each section’s director focused on his area. The G-2 did not exist in 1982; there was only a director of intelligence who gathered information, particularly from the capture of documents like Plan Manolo. López then highlighted a passage of Plan Victoria 1982 discussing the capture and interrogation of subversives. Godoy said the G-2 section should have knowledge about a captured subversive.

Godoy testified that the 60,000 irregular forces (FIL) were not enemies of the army. Instead, they were people who had been “kidnapped” by the guerrillas so it was the army’s duty to free them. The only internal enemies were the armed, uniformed guerrillas.

Asked if Godoy ever used the term “Red Zone” (“Zona Roja”), he answered that he did and it referred to a territory with permanent insurgent presence. Asked if the Ixil area was a Zona Roja, Godoy said no.

Godoy’s testimony ended with a discussion about protection of civilians. He stated that Plan Victoria 1982 protected civilians and that the army was not trained to kill women and children. Under article 380 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, Prosecutor López asked Godoy to read from the Manual on Subversive War. The section stated that soldiers usually have an aversion to repressive actions against women and children in civilian populations but they can be indoctrinated. Asked to explain the statement, Godoy said he was not familiar with the document.

*An earlier version of this report published on 04/11/2013 mistakenly reported that these were the total case numbers and remains for the Ixil area alone. (Corrected 04/12/2013)