Guatemala Arrests Suggest New Momentum for Grave Crimes Trials

On Wednesday, January 6, police in Guatemala arrested 17 former military officers in relation to crimes committed during Guatemala’s 36-year conflict. Among those detained was Manuel Benedicto Lucas García, the brother of Guatemala’s military dictator from 1978-1982, Fernando Romeo Lucas García. Others charged included a general who later served as interior minister, and a key ally of President-Elect Jimmy Morales who is due to be sworn into Congress – and was not arrested because of his immunity as an elected official.

The dramatic arrests came as the retrial of former head of state Efrain Rios Montt is scheduled to begin on Monday January 11, to be followed on February 1 by the start of a path-breaking sexual violence case (known as Sepur Zarco) also related to the conflict. These developments could portend new momentum for grave crimes trials in Guatemala, but potential political backlash could still delay or derail proceedings.

Cobán/CREOMPAZ case

Fourteen of those arrested on Wednesday are charged with enforced disappearance, murder, and torture as crimes against humanity in relation to a mass grave found at the former Cobán military base. (Today the base is used by the United Nations as a regional training center for peacekeeping missions – Comando Regional de Entrenamiento de Operaciones de Mantenimiento de Paz, or CREOMPAZ.) In 2012, the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG) began exhumations at the site, unearthing 533 bodies from 84 clandestine graves. Those identified were from various parts of the country, suggesting that the site may have been an interrogation and detention center. Many of the bodies were blindfolded, with their hands and feet bound, suggesting summary executions. Some had gunshot wounds or broken bones that were healed and re-broken, suggesting that they were tortured prior to execution.

In response to the discovery, the military initially asserted that the bodies were victims of a 1976 earthquake, and attributed the blindfolds and ropes to community rituals. Ricardo Mendez Ruiz, president of the Foundation Against Terrorism, asserted that the graves may have existed prior to the military’s use of the base, and contested the findings of the FAFG. His father, Colonel Ricardo Mendez Ruiz Rohrmoser, was commander of the Cobán military zone from July 1, 1981 to June 9, 1982, and subsequently served as Interior Minister under the military dictatorship of General Efrain Rios Montt. He was not among those arrested. On New Year’s Day, five days before Wednesday’s sweeping arrests in the case, Mendez Ruiz Rohrmoser died.

Theissen case

The four remaining former military officers arrested on Wednesday are charged in relation to the 1981 enforced disappearance of 14-year-old Marco Antonio Molina Theissen. Theissen came from a family of dissidents opposed to military rule. Military authorities tortured and deported his father between 1955 and 1960; they arrested, tortured, and raped his sister Emma in 1976, and killed her boyfriend along with two other students; then in 1981, authorities arrested and tortured Emma again, but she escaped from detention. The next day, two armed men entered her family’s home, beat her mother and kidnapped her brother, Marco Antonio, taking him away in an official vehicle. According to the Guatemala’s Truth Commission, it is believed that members of the intelligence section of the military, or G-2, dressed in civilian clothes, disappeared Marco Antonio in retaliation for the family’s activism and his sister’s escape.

The Molina Theissen family, with the support of the Mutual Support Group (GAM), an organization composed of families of the disappeared, lodged a complaint with the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights in 1998. The state recognized its responsibility, and in 2003 and 2004 respectively, the Inter-American Commission and Court urged Guatemala to investigate and prosecute those responsible for Marco Antonio’s disappearance. Wednesday’s arrests are the first in the case.

Rios Montt/Rodriguez Sanchez retrial

The new arrests came just days before the Monday begin of a retrial in the case of Efrain Rios Montt and his former chief of military intelligence, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez.  Both men face charges of genocide and crimes against humanity for their roles in relation to the deaths of 1,771 Maya Ixiles between March 1982 and August 1983. Following the conviction of Rios Montt and acquittal of Rodriguez Sanchez in May 2013, the Constitutional Court threw out the verdict and ordered a retrial.

There were a series of delays in the case throughout 2015. Proceedings were suspended following a recusal motion lodged by Rios Montt’s defense attorneys against the court’s president, Judge Jeannette Valdes, on allegations of bias. Then on August 25, Rios Montt was declared unfit for trial, as experts found he suffers from vascular dementia and concluded that he no longer had the necessary mental capacities to understand the charges against him.

The retrial now scheduled to begin on Monday is to proceed under special procedures to account for Rios Montt’s health. They include holding the trial behind closed doors, which means that victims will be able to attend hearings, but no media or observers will be allowed in the courtroom. Yet, uncertainty persists, among other things due to objections by Rodriguez Sanchez’s counsel that he is facing double jeopardy. The retrial could once again be delayed and even ultimately derailed.

Sepur Zarco case

The Sepur Zarco trial, scheduled to open on February 1 before high-risk court A, will be the first in which a Guatemalan court considers a case of sexual violence as an international crime, and the first time worldly that a domestic court will hear charges of sexual slavery. Prosecutors charged two men —Lieutenant Colonel Esteelmer Reyes Giron, former commander of Sepur Zarco military base, and former military commissioner Heriberto Valdez—for their roles in mass sexual violence and slavery at the base during Guatemala’s conflict. Some Mayan Q’eqchi’ victims were allegedly enslaved in 1982, following their husbands’ disappearances, and were held as long as six years, until the 1988 closure of the military installation.

Survivors and their supporters have been seeking justice for the alleged crimes committed at Sepur Zarco for over six years. In June 2015, a pre-trial judge accepted the introduction of most evidence in the case, paving the way for the trial to open. The proceedings are likely to shed new light on the nature of Guatemala’s conflict, and could draw global attention for their relevance to the broader movement for gender justice.

Prospects for other prosecutions

On October 5, 2015, in a long-awaited judgement in the Rios Montt case, an appellate court ruled out the application of a 1986 amnesty decree to international crimes, including genocide and crimes against humanity. The ruling emphasized the state’s international obligation and commitment to investigate, prosecute, and punish the perpetrators of gross human rights violations, and set a major precedent for grave crimes trials still under investigation.

Developments on grave crimes cases—including the January 2015 conviction of a former police chief in relation to the 1980 siege and fire at the Spanish embassy, which killed 37 student activists and diplomats—come in the context of broader, dramatic developments in the area of grand corruption. Joint investigations by the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and the Attorney General’s Office sparked popular protests, leading to the resignations of President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice-president Roxana Baldetti. Both have been imprisoned and await trial. Various other high-profile public servants have also been arrested for alleged involvement in corruption within public institutions.

If prosecutors feel newly emboldened in their independence and strengthened capacities—and perhaps protected by the continuing presence of CICIG—they may be willing to further expand their work on grave crimes cases. There is no shortage of potential cases. The unit of the Attorney General’s Office that oversees cases related to grave crimes committed during the civil war has received thousands of criminal complaints, and so far not even one percent of these has led to a criminal sentence.

Any new push to expand the scope of grave crimes cases is likely to encounter a backlash from those who view the military as having properly defended the country during the civil war. There are reports that allies of those arrested on Wednesday will mount public demonstrations over the weekend. In 2015, the Foundation Against Terrorism filed criminal complaints against Orlando Lopez, the prosecutor in charge of the grave crimes unit, in relation to public comments Lopez made about the Rios Montt case.  And President-Elect Jimmy Morales will take office together with a government that may include former senior military officers.  Even as major trials are launched and resumed, the future of domestic justice for grave crimes in Guatemala remains very much contested.

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