“With one order from him, he could have changed the entire situation”: Prosecution Expert Witnesses Testify about Internal Displacement, Command Responsibility, and the History of the Conflict

On Monday, April 15, the genocide trial heard the last of the prosecution’s expert witnesses. This is reportedly the last week of the trial, barring unforeseen circumstances.

At the start of the day, Marco Antonio Cornejo, Ríos Montt’s attorney, sought to substitute one defense lawyer – Danilo Rodríguez – with another, Jaime Hernández. According to Cornejo, Rodríguez had been called away to attend another judicial proceeding and could no longer assist as Ríos Montt’s counsel. After a lengthy deliberation, the court denied the request on the grounds that Rodríguez had participated in the trial since the beginning and should have been more professional in weighing his obligations to the case, and that the trial was near its conclusion—too late to bring in a new defense lawyer.

The prosecution’s first expert witness of the day, Dr. Héctor Rosada Granados, is a Guatemalan social scientist who served as a peace negotiator on behalf of the government from 1993-96 and as the President’s Secretary of Peace. His book, Soldados en el Poder (Soldiers in Power), is widely regarded as a seminal text for understanding the Guatemalan armed forces during the armed conflict. His expert report concerned the history of the conflict, the counterinsurgency campaign against the Ixil community, and genocide.

Rosada opened his testimony by affirming that, “In the Ixil region, between 1981 and 1983, the State used the army to systematically commit the crime of genocide.” The perpetrators were members of every rank within the military institution, from troops on the ground to mid-level officers to the commanders. The State’s central objective was to control the civilian population where the guerrillas operated, and it did so by carrying out extensive massacres, razing villages, destroying crops and animals, and persecuting those who tried to flee the violence. This massive repression was justified by the State’s view of the Ixil people as the “enemy,” entirely allied with the insurgency, who had to be annihilated in order to rescue the nation.

In response to prosecution questions, Rosada discussed the effects of U.S. national security doctrine on the Guatemalan army and how its concept of the “internal enemy” coincided with longstanding racism by the country’s elites. He described the Ixil as “rebellious” – an ethnic group that was traditionally organized, assertive and courageous in the face of the demands of the country’s landowners, not always willing to provide cheap labor to the large plantations, for example. As a result, the elites alerted the military to keep an eye on the Ixil, and that attitude in turn began to generate a stigma around the community.

Rosada paraphrased a declassified CIA report written in February 1982 stating that the army viewed the Ixiles as a whole as guerrilla supporters. According to Rosada, while the rebel EGP forces operated in and around the Ixil region, its proximity to the community did not justify the genocidal slaughter unleashed by the military.

In Rosada’s examination of the military strategic plans, he found general instructions that ordered and facilitated the commission of the crime of genocide. In response to the prosecution question, “was there a State policy of genocide?”, Rosada answered that the “actions speak for themselves.” In his analysis, there was intentionality to commit genocide and it did not need to be expressed explicitly.

Elizabeth Ann Oglesby, a professor of geography at the University of Arizona, was called to testify about the displacement of the Ixil population. Oglesby participated in research on displacement in Guatemala initially in 1986 with Georgetown University, from 1989-90 working with anthropologist Myrna Mack, and finally, from 1997-99, with the Historical Clarification Commission, with research from more than 1,000 testimonies.

Oglesby stated that Guatemalan military doctrine proposed the annihilation of the internal enemy, which was equated with the Ixil communities; she stated that the word “annihilation” even appears in the army’s “Plan Victoria 82.” Displacement of the population was a principal objective of Plan Victoria, or as the plan affirmed: “the control of territory was a means to control the guerrillas.” There were two phases: first, the extermination of the Ixil through scorched earth operations that resulted in massacres and mass displacement. Tactics included the capture and forced settlement of civilians and the bombing of those who fled. This resulted in the dismemberment of familial and communitarian ties, with the accompanying psychological effects.

This was complemented in 1983 with a new military policy to reeducate and resettle the survivors. Plan Firmeza 83 explicitly required the population to live in controlled areas. The army’s new project divided the Ixil into Good Guatemalans and Bad Guatemalans. In the army’s perception, the Bad ones were carrying out an “illegal” existence in the mountains, as internal refugees allied with the EGP guerrillas. Many of the internally displaced organized themselves into Communities of Popular Resistance (CPRs) and were subject to constant persecution. Firmeza 83 ordered the army to destroy any crops found, indicating the army’s intention to starve the population to death. According to Oglesby’s testimony, the army used airplanes and helicopters to hunt the refugees down and kill them. These policies affected children and old people in particular and the refugees suffered a high mortality rate.

Although some suffered forced displacement into “model villages,” all settlements were thoroughly militarized and the inhabitants subjected to constant psychological operations. Residents were forced to participate in civilian self-defense patrols, or PACs, and coerced into committing abuses – including massacres – against their own people. Oglesby testified that the army exerted a tight control on the flow of goods into the villages and movement of people out; growing food, gaining access to land, and the import of medications were all subject to scrutiny. The reeducation programs, the psychological operations, all were aimed at creating a “new indigenous subject” – one that would obey the army. Those who did not agree were punished or killed.

Orlando Lopez of the Public Ministry asked about the concept of the internal enemy. Oglesby answered that the social history of the zone helped explain how the communities were converted into targets. Land conflicts in the Ixil region were relatively recent; there were violent confrontations throughout the 20th century between the Ixils and landowners and the experience of earlier confrontations was still fresh when the armed conflict began.

Oglesby estimated that a minimum of 29,000 civilians fled into the mountains and described the conditions they lived in. She testified that resettled Ixiles could spend several months inside a military detachment, had to participate in reeducation, were forced to join the PACs or engage in forced labor. In militarized villages, they had to ask permission from either the military or the local PAC if they wanted to leave; they were prohibited from planting or keeping animals, and lived in total dependency.

The defense tried several times to ask about the connection between the Ixil and the guerrillas but Oglesby insisted that the topic was not the focus of her academic work.

Lobsan Eduardo Vásquez, a specialist in maps and consultant for the Public Ministry, projected a series of magnified maps and analyzed three different variables: displacements from armed conflict in the Ixil region, deaths of the civilian population, and military operations based on the documents associated with Plan Sofia. The expert showed the trajectories of flight by Ixiles trying to escape the violence in the 1980s, with some displaced for years.

After Vásquez answered several questions from the prosecution about his methodology, and about the distances people traveled to escape (on average 60-90 kilometers as the crow flies, but probably three times that amount given the terrain).

Rodolfo Robles Espina – a retired Peruvian army general, and for many years a consultant on national security and defense issues – delivered expert testimony for the prosecution on the Guatemalan army’s chain of command during the conflict. Robles testified that the Guatemalan armed forces under Ríos Montt – like all militaries in Latin America – operated according to a strict command structure, and was governed not only by internal regulations, but through discipline, obedience, and control. Everything that took place during the regime’s military operations against the guerrillas in the Ixil region during 1982-83 was a result of the strategies and tactics promulgated by military chain of command.

Prosecuton witness Rodolfo Robles Espinoza. Video from Skylight Pictures.

Robles testified that, following the 1982 coup, the military revoked the Constitution, suspended Congress, and passed the Fundamental Government Statute (Estatuto Fundamental de Gobierno) to provide legal justification for its powers. On April 1, 1982, the regime approved its “National Plan for Security and Development” (PNSD), a sweeping vision for establishing stability in Guatemala through a massive and coordinated counterinsurgency project.

Robles testified about relevant military operational plans. Plan Victoria 82, written by the Army General Staff and signed by its chief Héctor López Fuentes on June 16, 1982, laid out the strategy necessary to achieve the government’s counterinsurgency goals. It created special brigades and new, subordinate commands that reported directly to the army chief of staff. It required the military zones in conflictive areas of the country to produce their own operational plans to eliminate the insurgency. Plan Sofía, produced in July 1982, was the tactical blueprint for the scorched earth operations that unfolded in the Ixil area.

Robles testified that abuses were carried out in a coordinated manner by patrols on the ground from Task Force Gumarcaj, the Airborne Brigade (Paracaidistas), and other units, as well as air assaults from planes and helicopters. He noted that this provided clear evidence of military planning, with operations accepted and approved by the army chief of staff. He further noted that the Army General Staff had real-time knowledge of the development of operations as they occurred, and that field commanders constantly sent information to the army’s Joint Operations Center (Centro de Operaciones Conjuntas—COC), requesting weapons, personnel or logistical support, and filed regular intelligence and operational reports, several of which show up in the Plan Sofía documents.

Robles testified that the High Command never investigated or sanctioned its officers, or tried to halt the actions in the Ixil or stop the impunity, thus sharing responsibility for the commission of human rights violations and crimes against humanity, with responsibility at highest level to Ríos Montt as President and commander in chief of the Army. Ríos Montt signed off on the Fundamental Government Statute and the PNSD, which provided the legal basis for the strategic plans and counterinsurgency operations that followed. He never attempted to halt the resulting violations committed – even though, Robles said, “With one order from him, he could have changed the entire situation.”

Prosecutor Orlando López questioned Robles on the way military intelligence functioned within the command structure. Robles explained that the director of military intelligence, or G-2, was the governing entity for all intelligence personnel: from the S-2 officers in the military zones to the brigades, army bases, detachments, to the networks of agents and informants. These specialized intelligence personnel had their own channels of communication, so that directives or dispositions from commanding intelligence officers would flow directly to their subordinates, and intelligence gathered in the field would in turn be rapidly conveyed to their superior officers. The director of the G-2 had command responsibility for this entire structure – though not for military personnel from other directorates within the general staff. He did not have command over patrols operating on the ground, for example – they fell under the command of the G-3 (Operations).

The defense asked a series of questions concerning a technical report Robles wrote for the Public Ministry in 2011 concerning the case of a guerrilla commander, Efraín Bámaca, captured in 1992. In the report, Robles stated that the D-2 (as the directorate of intelligence came to be known after 1985) would not have been aware of the interrogation of Bámaca, even though it was carried out to gather intelligence. Robles told defense lawyer Cornejo that the alleged crimes related to Bámaca were committed on military bases controlled by the Directorate of Operations (D-3). The interrogation of Bámaca were aimed at obtaining tactical intelligence for future operations, and as such, according to Robles, fell outside the command responsibility of the D-2.

Robles’s analysis of the role of the D-2 in the Bámaca case created some tense back and forth between the prosecution, defense and Judge Barrios. The issue was highly sensitive for at least two reasons: first, it may have bearing on the way the court rules on the accusations against former director of intelligence José Rodríguez Sánchez; and second, because the director of intelligence when Efraín Bámaca was captured, tortured and killed in 1992 was Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina.


  1. The brutal effort at extermination of the indigenous people of central America under the guise of anti communism is another example of the ongoing campaign initiated by Columbus and continued by virtually every colonizing power on this continent, including the United States. Was the American foreign service so myopic and gullible that it swallowed the anti communist slant that powerfull interests presented as a justification for the actions against a virtually defenseless civilian population, and resulted in more than a quarter of a million people killed and countless others terrorized, displaced and otherwise prosecuted? I’m afraid of the answer: We are either incredibly dumb or evil.

  2. I disagree only with your last statement that we (the United States) are “either incredibly dumb or evil.” I do not believe that we as a nation are dumb or inherently evil. Nevertheless, we have indeed tolerated and/or perpetrated terrible atrocities across Latin America in the name of stopping Communist incursions, real or imagined. To wit: Guatemala 1954, Cuba 1961, Chile 1976, Nicaragua & El Salvador 1980’s, and our turning a blind eye to the suffering of the Ixil and other indigenous peoples of Guatemala throughout it long civil war. Our record in Latin America is indeed shameful.

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