Will Former President Pérez Molina Face Investigation for Wartime Atrocities?

Guatemala’s politics drastically changed last week as President Otto Pérez Molina stepped down over corruption charges and promptly appeared in court. Could his resignation now lead to new scrutiny of allegations against him related to grave crimes committed during the 36-year long Guatemalan conflict?

And all but ignored amidst the country’s political upheaval, there were new developments in the trial of Efrain Rios Montt and Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez.

Are Pérez Molina’s Legal Problems Just Beginning?

Pérez Molina submitted his resignation to Congress during the night of September 2. It followed months of popular demands for his ouster, stemming from allegations of corruption levied against him. The Attorney General’s Office and the UN-backed Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) accused the president of being the ringleader of a major customs tax fraud scheme it uncovered in April 2015, dubbed “La Linea” (“The Line”).  The case had already led to the arrest of his former vice president, Roxana Baldetti on August 21, as well as dozens of others.

The investigation brought down Pérez Molina with incredible swiftness.  On the same day Baldetti was arrested, CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office requested that the Supreme Court lift the president’s immunity.  The court did so, but a final decision required congressional approval. On August 29, a five-member congressional investigative committee unanimously recommended lifting Pérez Molina’s immunity, followed on September 1 by the unanimous approval of all 132 members of Congress who voted.

On September 3, the morning after his resignation, Pérez Molina voluntarily appeared before Judge Miguel Angel Galvez to face charges of illicit association, bribery, and customs fraud―the same charges faced by Baldetti.  Coincidentally, September 3 was to have been the date that CICIG’s mandate in Guatemala expired; earlier this year, Pérez Molina assented to a two-year extension for the Commission after the sweeping scale of La Linea became evident, generating domestic and international pressure on him to do so.  Instead, the date marked the former president’s first night in pretrial detention.

Pérez Molina is being detained in a prison on the Matamoros military base, where he awaits Judge Galvez’s decision on the confirmation of his indictment, due today, September 8.

But in addition to possible corruption changes, does the former president now face the possibility of indictment related to his role in Guatemala’s brutal conflict?

In 2013, during the first trial against former dictator Efrain Rios Montt and his then head of military intelligence, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, a special witness gave surprise testimony that implicated President Pérez Molina.

Hugo Ramiro Leonardo Reyes, a former soldier who served as a mechanic in the Ixil region in 1982 and 1983, gave his testimony by videoconference on April 4, 2013. Under questioning, he declared that Otto Pérez Molina, then known as Commandant “Tito Arias,” ordered soldiers to burn and loot villages, and to execute people as they fled to the mountains. A documentary filmed in 1982 showed American independent journalist Allan Nairn interviewing Pérez Molina while he was serving as commander of a military installation in the Ixil region, which was particularly devastated by the conflict. The UN truth commission on Guatemala’s conflict concluded that government forces committed acts of genocide against the Maya Ixil population between 1980 and 1983―the period during which Pérez Molina was deployed in the Ixil region.

Beyond testimony from the Rios Montt trial, others have implicated Pérez Molina in serious crimes. At least one witness has accused him of involvement in the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi two years after the 1996 peace agreement that formally ended the conflict.  Bishop Gerardi was beaten to death just two days after launching a report on the military’s wartime atrocities in Guatemala.

Will prosecutors now pursue such leads? Guatemala has international obligations to effectively investigate and prosecute grave crimes.  When Pérez Molina appeared before Judge Galvez on September 3, he stood before the judge who in 2013 sent former dictator Efrain Rios Montt to trial on charges genocide and crimes against humanity.   With regard to the corruption charges, Judge Galvez noted that the Attorney General’s Office is legally obligated to open an investigation when it has knowledge that a crime has been committed.  In today’s Guatemala, grave crimes proceedings against another former president now appear entirely possible.

Developments in the Rios Montt/Rodriguez Sanchez Case

Meanwhile, a hearing quietly took place on September 1 before the high-risk court overseeing the retrial of Rios Montt and his former head of military intelligence, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez.

The re-opening of the trial has been repeatedly delayed and on August 25, 2015, Rios Montt was declared unfit for trial. However, the retrial is now scheduled to start on January 11, 2016, with special procedures applied because the court has found that Rios Montt has limited mental capacities.  Among other measures, the accused cannot be sentenced if found guilty, and the hearings are to be held behind closed doors. Rodriguez Sanchez will be tried under the same procedure, although his fitness for trial has not been questioned, because judges refused to sever the cases.

Rodriguez Sanchez’s defense team requested Tuesday’s hearing.  The lawyers argued against a new trial against their client, contending that if it proceeds, he will be the victim of double jeopardy, having already been acquitted in May 2013 based on the same facts. The chamber provisionally rejected the motion on procedural grounds, but the defense is expected to present it again on the day the trial is set to begin.

The court’s decision on the matter could have a major impact on the whole case. If it accepts the defense’s argument, the court would be acknowledging the validity of the first sentence rendered on May 10, 2013, by which Rios Montt was found guilty.  There are questions about whether this is legally possible, because the trial court would then be ruling against a decision of the Constitutional Court. Within days of the verdict in the first genocide trial against Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez, the Constitutional Court overturned the verdict and ordered the defendants’ retrial.