What Does Guatemala’s Presidential Election Mean for Trials of Grave Crimes? Part I: Jimmy Morales

In Guatemala’s national elections, held on September 6, no candidate achieved the necessary majority to win the presidency outright. The top two candidates, Jimmy Morales and Sandra Torres, will face each other in a runoff election on October 25.  This week, International Justice Monitor looks at what the election of Jimmy Morales might mean for the future of trials for grave crimes committed during Guatemala’s 36-year conflict.  Next week, we will do the same for Sandra Torres.

Jimmy Morales, a Guatemalan comedian, garnered 23.85% of the votes cast in the first round of the presidential election.  Amidst one of the greatest political crises of the country’s democratic era, Morales emphasized his outsider status, which appears to have appealed to voters fed up with revelations of massive corruption among Guatemala’s political elites.

During the campaign, Morales pledged that if elected, he would agree to extend the mandate of the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) until 2022. He estimates that by 2022, the country should be able to continue the fight against impunity without international assistance.  CICIG has played a major role in allowing trials for grave crimes to proceed to trial, including through promoting the independence of the Attorney General’s Office and increasing its capacity to investigate complex crime.

But even if a Morales administration were willing to extend the CICIG mandate, the background of some of Morales’s supporters and associates raises questions about how vigorously his administration would pursue justice for past atrocities.

Recently, Byron Lima Oliva, a former army captain currently behind bars for participating in the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi in April 1998, expressed support for Morales’s candidacy. Lima also faces trial on charges relating to his alleged role as ringleader of a corruption network operating within the penitentiary system.

This is not to draw conclusions about a candidate on the basis of one supporter.  But Lima is not alone.  Morales’s support appears to run deep among other former soldiers with an ideological, and perhaps personal, stake in the judicial treatment of Guatemala’s troubled past.

Morales is the candidate of the National Convergence Front party.  It was founded in 2008 by retired soldiers, many of whom played significant roles in implementing the government’s counterinsurgency strategy during the conflict.  One of the party’s prominent supporters is Pedro Garcia Arredondo, who was a member of the party’s National Executive Committee. Garcia Arredondo served as head of “Command 6,” the special investigative unit of the former National Police. On January 19, 2015, a court found him guilty of murder, attempted murder, and crimes against humanity for his role in the Spanish embassy fire that killed 37 people on January 30, 1980. He was already serving a 70-year sentence following his August 2012 conviction for the enforced disappearance of a student in 1981.

Many of the National Convergence Front’s founders are members of the conservative Guatemalan Army Veterans Association.  When former dictator Efrain Rios Montt and his then-head of military intelligence Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez went on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity in 2013, the association helped to launch a political and media campaign to stop the proceedings.  Their campaign, called “The Genocide Sham,” aimed to discredit participants in the trial, including judges, and deny that genocide ever occurred in the country.

For his part, Morales has repeatedly denied that members of the Guatemalan Army Veteran Association―or any soldiers―participate in or have influence on his political party.  But two of his close associates, Edgar Ovalle Maldonado and César Cabrera Mejia, clearly have ties to the military.

Morales’ right-hand man is Edgar Ovalle Maldonado, a National Convergence Front candidate who was elected to Congress in September. From September 1981 to September 1982, Ovalle Maldonado served as a military operations officer within the Ixil Special Force Task.  During the year of Maldonado’s posting in the Ixil region, thousands of Maya Ixil civilians were killed, tortured, and raped, and entire villages burned down in the course of 77 documented massacres.

In January 1983, Ovalle Maldonado was transferred to Coban military base, where he also served as an operations officer.  In recent years, the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG) unearthed 533 bodies from 84 clandestine graves located on the site of former Coban military base. According to FAFG, many of the bodies were blindfolded, with their hands and feet bound. To date, FAFG has identified more than 70 of the victims through DNA testing. Most of those identified disappeared between April 1981 and October 1983. The Attorney General’s Office is currently investigating the case.

Jimmy Morales has said that if elected he would name César Cabrera Mejia as his interior minister. Cabrera Mejia also served at the Coban military base between 1982 and 1983. To date, the former colonel has avoided answering when asked about the bodies that FAFG found on grounds of the former military base.  From 1986 to 1991, Cabrera Mejia served as deputy head of the Presidential Security Department of the Presidential General Staff and head of military intelligence. He was thus part of the intelligence structure when anthropologist Myrna Mack was killed on September 11, 1990. National courts subsequently found that the murder had been carried out by members of the Presidential Security Department.

During the campaign, Jimmy Morales himself has not addressed the topic of grave crimes investigations and trials, or whether he would welcome their continuation.  There are no public allegations linking his associates Ovalle Maldonado or Cabrera Mejia to specific crimes at the Coban base or elsewhere.  But if they or other former military officials associated with the National Convergence Front do have opinions on the future of grave crimes proceedings in Guatemala, a Morales victory could leave them well positioned to affect relevant policies.