Prosecution Presents International Law Expert, and More Forensics

The backdrop for the trial today was the visit of President Otto Pérez Molina to the Ixil region, the same area that is the focus of the accusations against defendants Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez. According to El Periódico, “Six days after a witness implicated President Otto Pérez Molina in the massacres of the Ixil population, under the name ‘Tito Arias,’ the president visited the region…. The president assured that his visit wasn’t related to the references to his participation in the armed conflict….” He said, “Here in the communities they are not following what’s happening there [in the capital]….”

The day started with an impassioned statement by lawyer Edgar Pérez for the Justice and Reconciliation Association (AJR). He told the tribunal that come of the security staff at the courthouse had subjected him and the victims he represents to “tactics of intimidation” and restrictions on entry into the courtroom. He specifically pointed to acts of “racism” at the front door. The judges conferred and Judge Barrios announced they would issue written instructions to security personnel to respect all lawyers and people attending the trial. “We are a multicultural and multilingual country,” she said.

César Calderón, lawyer for Rodríguez Sánchez, then informed the court that his client had not been able to get his usual therapy and medical treatment as a result of the long hours of the trial. Calderón asked that the trial be suspended for two days. After conferring with the other judges, Judge Barrios gave Rodríguez Sánchez permission to be absent from trial on Friday morning in order to receive treatment but he will be required to return to court by 2:00pm.

The first witness was Marco Tulio Alvarez, an expert whoserved as director of the Peace Archives (Archivos de la Paz) that analyzed military records, testified about the displacement of children during the war. He stated that the army’s definition of the enemy did not exclude vulnerable groups like children. Instead, the Doctrine of National Security, which came from the United States and was employed by the Guatemalan army, defined the enemy in a way that polarized society. He said that the military plans discussed throughout the trial – including Plan Victoria 1982 and Plan Sofia – characterized the enemy as not only armed guerrillas but also Bases of Support (Bases de Apoyo), which included “collaborators, sympathizers, etc.” This included children. In this context, the displacement of children often meant death, capture, separation from family or forced adoption into new families.

He quoted a July 22, 1982 military document from Plan Sofia reporting that the army had captured twelve children. The document appeared to justify attacks on vulnerable sectors of the civilian population because they were considered internal enemies. Specifically, Alvarez referred to the case of Jacinto Lupamac Gomez, whose family was killed and he and his siblings were kidnapped and forcibly adopted into Spanish-speaking families.

Alvarez said that intelligence officials defined the “enemy” in a very imprecise way that made it apply to the entire civilian population. He referred to Annex B of Plan Victoria 1982 that said women and children should be protected “when possible.”Citing a military journal article by former Minister of Defense, Hector Gramajo, in which Gramajo wrote that 260,000 people in Quiché supported the guerrillas, Alvarez described the army’s strategy as “removing the water from the fish” (“quitarle el agua al pez”). He described four reasons for which the army targeted children: to eliminate the seeds of future guerrillas, to obtain info, to attract parents to military centers so they could be captured, and to have a supply of children for adoption. He also read from a military document in Plan Sofia that reported the elimination of two “chocolates,” which meant children.

Asked if he was a guerrilla, Alvarez said that when he worked for the Committee for Justice and Peace (Comité Pro Justicia y Paz) he was considered an internal enemy.

Questions from defense lawyers Calderón and Rodríguez drew repeated objections from the prosecutor or the victims’ lawyers for being repetitive or irrelevant. Judge Barrios sustained many of the objections. Calderón registered a protest and asked no further questions. In response to a question from Rodríguez, Alvarez said that the data he was using to indicate the number of displaced children referred to the entire country and not just the Ixil region for which there was not specific data. After the sustaining of further objections, Rodríguez also registered a protest and asked no further questions.

The next prosecution expert was Ramón Cadena, the director of the International Commission of Jurists. Cadena made an extensive presentation about international humanitarian law and its application to the Guatemalan civil war. He stated that thecivilian population can never be a military target. According to Cadena, three basic international law principles were violated in Guatemala: the distinction between military targets and civilians, the requirement that any civilian casualties be proportionate to the military benefit of an attack, and the prohibition of superfluous or unnecessary suffering.

The key sources of international humanitarian law in Guatemala include the Geneva Conventions, the Constitution, the Peace Accords and customary international law.

Cadena analyzed several military documents and concluded that the Guatemalan army violated International humanitarian law during the war. For example, he cited language in Plan Sofia that the guerrillas had achieved “100% support” from the Mayan Ixil population. He also referred to Plan Victoria 1982 that subversive proclamations had resonated with the “great indigenous masses of the altiplano.” He quoted Plan Firmeza 83 as saying, “The population is the principal objective requiring physical and psychological control.” (“Población es el objectivo principal debiendo alcanzar su control físico y psicológico.”) Cadena concluded that territory subject to military action was therefore defined with regard to the supposed support of the population rather than the presence of guerrillas in the area.

Returning to international law, Cadena stated that a central tenet was that “war criminals go to jail.” Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions applies to non-international conflicts (i.e. civil wars) and violations of Common Article 3 are considered criminal acts subject to prosecution. In Guatemala, article 378 of the Criminal Code provides penalties for inhuman acts against the civilian population. In response to questions from Edgar Pérez, Cadena said that article 378, while not a complete implementation of international law, envisions liability for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Pérez asked whether a number of acts that have been attributed to the army throughout the trial would violate international law and article 378. Cadena answered that they would. He said that the conceptualization of the “enemy” as 100% of the population would be recognized as genocide

“The application of justice is not vengeance,” he said.

Defense lawyer César Calderón asked if Cadena had made public statements about the trial and the war in Guatemala. Cadena confirmed that he had made many public statements, including writing an article about the amnesty law. Calderón asked if Cadena had been a guerrilla, which drew an objection that was sustained by Judge Barrios even though Calderón pointed out that Edgar Pérez had been permitted to ask the same question of the previous witness. Calderón’s further questions focused on whether the guerrillas had been responsible for violations of international humanitarian law.

Defense lawyer Danilo Rodríguez asked if the Fundamental Statute of the Government (passed when Ríos Montt took power) contains human rights provisions. Cadena replied that it did but they were not complied with. Several other questions by Rodríguez, focusing on violations that might have been committed by the guerrillas and whether there was a genocidal intent to eliminate the Ixil people, were disallowed by Judge Barrios. Rodríguez told the judge that if she was not going to be impartial, he could not ask more questions. “It’s useless,” he said. (“Es inutil.”)

The afternoon’s witnesses were forensic experts. Lourdes Penados testified regarding an exhumation in Nebaj. Luís Velásquez spoke of his expertise in ballistics. Bullet fragments he analyzed were entered into evidence. José Moscoso, a forensic archaeologist, testified regarding exhumations in Chel, in the municipality of Chajul in the department of Quiché. They identified remains in three areas, including two traditional cemeteries and one clandestine cemetery.

Moscoso’s testimony was followed by another member of the team in Chel, Marlon García. He served as a photographer during the exhumations. García showed maps and photographs of Chel. Several members of the Ixil community in the courtroom paid noticeable attention to the photographs. These also included pictures of skeletons and clothes found in the exhumation sites. Several earrings typical to the area were found in the graves.


  1. Thank you so much for writing these reports that allow people outside of the country to follow the trial and to refer back to testimony.

  2. I also want to thank you, because there is no accurate or impartial account here in Guatemala about this trial. Most information is incomplete, just a few lines in local newspapers, tv or radio stations. Government has control over national media, media is pro-government or both are allies. Things have not changed very much since 1982 or even 1582.

    1. Thank you for the encouraging words, which are much appreciated by everyone involved in this project.

  3. Matt, thanks so much for coming down. I really enjoyed meeting you and sharing some thoughts.

    Throughout the trial, I have continued to be struck by the quality of the forensic experts whose testimony you have described. The locating and exhumation of the bodies, the verification in detail of the cause of death, and their identification by both forensic evidence and the trial testimony of live witnesses has been a testament to their resilience and professionalism.

    Charles Thomas, Atty.
    International Observer for the Nahual Foundation

    Charles Thomas, Atty.
    International Observer for the Nahual Foundation

  4. Matt, thanks so much for coming down. I really enjoyed meeting you and sharing some thoughts.

    Throughout the trial, I have continued to be struck by the quality of the forensic experts whose testimony you have described. The locating and exhumation of the bodies, the verification in detail of the cause of death, and their identification by both forensic evidence and the trial testimony of live witnesses has been a testament to their resilience and professionalism.

    Charles Thomas, Atty.
    International Observer for the Nahual Foundation

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