Guatemala Transitional Justice Update: Rios Montt Challenges July Retrial and Fourth Police Official Arrested for 1991 Political Assassination


  • Former head of state Efraín Rios Montt sought to prevent a new trial scheduled for July 23 after his 2013 conviction for genocide and crimes against humanity was annulled on a technicality.
  • The former head of the National Police’s criminal investigation unit was arrested in relation with the 1991 killing of police investigator José Mérida Escobar in retaliation for his testimony about the political assassination of anthropologist Myrna Mack. Martin Alejandro Garcia is now the fourth police official arrested and awaiting trial in connection with the case.
  • An investigative judge accepted the introduction of most of the evidence in a case challenging 1980s sexual violence in the Sepur Zarco military installation, marking the last stage before a trial date can be set.
  • Guatemala’s Constitutional Court confirmed the 2012 conviction of Pedro Garcia Arredondo, the former head of a national police commando unit, for the 1981 enforced disappearance of student Edgar Saenz, leaving no more legal challenges to the conviction.
  • The Constitutional Court temporarily stopped the impeachment proceedings against President Otto Perez Molina, undoing a process ordered by the country’s Supreme Court one week ago.

Rios Montt’s Defense Attorneys Seek to Avoid New Trial

Earlier this month, a Guatemalan domestic court scheduled a new trial date of July 23 for former head of state Efraín Rios Montt, charged with genocide and crimes against humanity. However, on June 15, Ríos Montt’s defense attorneys sought to change the date. They argued that any imminent trial would violate Rios Montt’s due process rights as his deteriorated health will not allow his physical presence.

A January 2015 retrial was suspended after Rios Montt belatedly forced one of the judges to recuse herself, and the July 23 date was set after a new panel of judges was named.

Rios Montt and his then head of military intelligence, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, have been charged with genocide and crimes against humanity in connection with the deaths of 1,771 indigenous Mayans, the forced displacement of 29,000, and the rape and torture of others during Rios Montt’s 1982-1983 rule. On May 10, 2013, a court convicted Rios Montt and acquitted Rodriguez Sanchez, but the verdict was overturned 10 days later by a divided decision of the Constitutional Court.

Former Police Official Arrested in Relation with 1991 Murder of Police Investigator José Mérida Escobar

In a growing case, authorities arrested a fourth former police official in connection with the killing of police investigator José Mérida Escobar, who was shot to death in 1991 in retaliation for his investigation of the 1990 political assassination of anthropologist Myrna Mack.

Last week, on June 16, authorities arrested Martin Alejandro Garcia, former head of the criminal investigation department of the now-defunct National Police. In June 2014, authorities arrested former police officials José Gonzalez Grijalva, Julio Lopez Aguilar, and Alberto Barrios Rabanales in connection with the same killing. At the same time, Guatemalan authorities issued an arrest warrant for former police official Lucas Martinez, who remains a fugitive.

Prosecutors allege that García, and the others charged, were responsible for killing the police investigator and torturing two uninvolved individuals to cover up the political assassination of Myrna Mack.

When Myrna Mack was assassinated, she was investigating internally displaced indigenous populations in Quiché. Mérida, as a result of his official police investigation, concluded that a special government intelligence unit was responsible for Mack’s killing. Mérida was killed just weeks after presenting his conclusions in court. Soon after Mérida’s killing, authorities arrested two men—Alfredo Guerra Galindo and Gonzalo Cifuentes. Both were allegedly tortured into confessing to Mérida’s killing but were eventually acquitted at trial. Soon after, Cifuentes was killed and Guerra Galindo disappeared.

The trial is scheduled to start in January 2017.

Constitutional Court Confirms Disappearance Conviction against Former Police Agent

The Constitutional Court confirmed the 2012 conviction of Pedro Garcia Arredondo, former head of the “Command 6” special investigations unit within the previously-existing National Police, for enforced disappearance and crimes against humanity, in relation to the 1981 disappearance of university student Edgar Saenz. Arredondo had presented more than 20 legal challenges to his conviction, all of which have now been rejected.

In January 2015, a high-risk court also convicted Arredondo of murder, attempted murder, and crimes against humanity for his responsibility in the 1980 Spanish Embassy fire that killed 37 indigenous and student protesters and diplomatic officials.

Judge Accepts Most Evidence in Sepur Zarco Case, Setting the Stage for the Wartime Sexual Violence Trial

During a hearing on Monday, June 22, investigative judge Miguel Angel Galvez accepted all of the evidence proposed by the prosecutors and victims representatives and most of the evidence put forth by the defense in connection with wartime sexual violence at the Sepur Zarco military installation. After the completion of this last pre-trial stage, the case will be transferred to a three-judge high-risk court that is responsible for overseeing complex cases, and a trial date is expected to be set.

Prosecutors have charged former Sepur Zarco commander Lieutenant Colonel Esteelmer Reyes Giron and former military commissioner Heriberto Valdez with crimes against humanity, including rape and sexual violence, of at least 11 Maya Q’eqchi’ indigenous women and the enforced disappearance of at least nine men.

The parties proposed evidence on June 10, and Judge Galvez ruled in a hearing yesterday that prosecutors and victims representatives could introduce at trial the more than 40 witnesses and experts they proposed. Judge Galvez also endorsed their use of technical experts, truth commission and human rights reports, material evidence from exhumations, and documents on the status and location of the military installation, the involvement of the defendants, and the counterinsurgency policies applied by the government.

Judge Galvez also endorsed the use of most of the evidence proposed by defense lawyers, including all but one of the 18 witnesses proposed by Moises Galindo, defense attorney for Lt. Col. Reyes, as well as all documents for which an authenticated copy could be presented. Judge Galvez rejected as not relevant two of the witnesses proposed by defendant Valdez who were to testify about the initiation of the investigation.

Continuing Political Crisis

Meanwhile, the political crisis continues in Guatemala.

For the past nine weeks, thousands of Guatemalans have flooded the city center to seek constitutional and electoral forms, as well as and the resignation of president Otto Perez Molina, following corruption scandals that have plagued the last months of his presidency.

In response to an order from the Supreme Court, the Guatemalan congress established an investigative committee on June 12, presided over by opposition congressman Baudilio Hichos, to determine whether Perez Molina’s immunity should be lifted and if he should be impeached.

However, six days later, Hichos resigned as head of this congressional committee in the face of his own corruption charges. (Prosecutors and the UN’s anti-impunity commission in Guatemala, or CICIG, allege that Hichos’ company was implicated in corruption with the national social security institute.) On June 18, the Constitutional Court, in a divided decision, stopped the impeachment proceedings. The majority ruled that the impeachment process was unconstitutional and endangered the country’s stability as the Supreme Court had not analyzed if the request to open impeachment proceedings was false, politically motivated, or illegal. In a dissenting opinion, two judges rejected the authority of the individual who challenged the proceedings – lawyer Karen Fisher, acting as a private citizen.