Guatemala Opens a New Court to Hear Cases Related to Grave Crimes

Last Wednesday, October 28, Guatemala’s judiciary opened a third high-risk court, called group C, which includes a preliminary proceedings judge and a three-judge trial chamber. This new court will be in charge of overseeing complex criminal cases, including cases related to grave crimes committed during the country’s 36-year long internal conflict. The development of the new chamber, with financial support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), will allow some grave crimes cases to proceed to court more quickly than previously scheduled.

High-risk courts were first established in Guatemala in 2009 to ensure the personal safety of judicial actors involved in cases related to grave crimes, including judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and witnesses, and thus protect judicial independence. The cases overseen by these courts are related to the alleged commission of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, grave and complex corruption crimes, and drug trafficking, amongst others.

The Supreme Court of Justice appointed Judge Victor Hugo Herrera Rios as the preliminary proceedings judge of group C court, with Judge Pablo Xitumul presiding over the tribunal. Xitumul was a sitting judge on the group A court, which heard the 2013 genocide trial against former dictator Efrain Rios Montt and his then-head of military intelligence, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez. A replacement will eventually be appointed to the group A court. Judges Eva Mariana Recinos and Elvis David Hernandez were also appointed to the group C court to complete its three-judge panel. The Supreme Court of Justice made the appointments following an internal call for applications.

The new court was created with the aim of reducing the workload of the two existing high-risk courts, each of which oversees approximately 120 cases each per year.  Many of these cases involve numerous defendants. For example, 40 defendants have been charged in the recent “La Linea” customs fraud case, among them former President Otto Pérez Molina and former Vice-President Roxana Baldetti.  Preliminary proceedings Judge Miguel Angel Galvez of high risk court B is overseeing the preliminary phase of the trial.

That chamber has taken on many of the cases initially assigned to group A, and is now overloaded.  The transfer of cases followed a complaint against the preliminary proceedings judge of high risk court A, Carol Patricia Flores. On April 30, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and the Attorney General’s Office filed a request with the judiciary to impeach Judge Flores and remove her immunity from prosecution. According to both entities, a preliminary investigation revealed that Judge Flores has assets that exceed her purchasing power, based on her monthly income.  On July 30, the Supreme Court of Justice unanimously decided to lift Judge Flores’ immunity. She recused herself from hearing any case in which CICIG was a party, but remained on the bench until September 24, when the Supreme Court decided to transfer her  and appointed Judge René Lopez to provisionally replace her.  Over the intervening months, many cases were transferred to high risk court B.

Ever since high-risk court A sentenced Rios Montt to 80 years in prison in 2013 after finding him guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity (a decision quickly overturned by the Constitutional Court), the few new cases related to crimes committed during the civil war have all been assigned to group B.  This includes the retrial of Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez, which had been scheduled to start on January 11, 2016, before a recent appeals court decision  provisionally suspended it.

High-risk courts A and B will not receive any new cases for the next six months. Instead, the Supreme Court of Justice will send all new cases to Judge Victor Hugo Herrera Lopez of court C.  Additionally, a representative of the Supreme Court confirmed that all cases assigned to groups A or B that had been scheduled to start after January 1, 2017, will now be transferred to group C.

Most clearly, it appears that a case against four former members of the now-defunct National Police for killings, torture, and disappearance could proceed to trial in 2016 instead of January 2017, as previously scheduled before high risk court B.  The suspects allegedly committed the crimes to cover up state involvement in the September 1990 assassination of anthropologist Myrna Mack. José Miguel Mérida, the police investigator charged with investigating Myrna Mack’s death, was shot dead on August 5, 1991, weeks after he testified before a judge that the Presidential Security Department of the Presidential General Staff was responsible for Mack’s murder. Following his death, authorities arrested two men: Alfredo Guerra Galindo and Gonzalo Cifuentes. Both were allegedly tortured until they confessed to the murder, and were eventually acquitted at trial and freed. Soon after, Cifuentes was killed and Guerra Galindo disappeared.

Former police agents José Gonzalez Grijalva, Julio Lopez Aguilar, and Alberto Barrios Rabanales were arrested in relation to these crimes in June 2014, and the former head of the criminal investigation department of the National Police, Martin Alejandro Garcia, was arrested in June 2015. Once court C three judges would have knowledge of the cases, they will set a date for the trial to begin.