Progress and Controversy in Guatemala Grave Crimes Cases

The January arrest of 18 former senior military officers in two high-profile cases, followed by the landmark trial and conviction in the Sepur Zarco sexual violence and domestic and sexual slavery case, energized Guatemala’s transitional justice process in early 2016. Since then, the genocide retrial of former dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt and his former chief of intelligence José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, has gotten off to a rocky and controversial start. This report provides a brief update on the status of each of these cases.

New Genocide Trial

After several false starts, the retrial proceedings against Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez in the Maya Ixil genocide case began on March 16 in special closed-door proceedings. The trial started despite controversy about the legality of the proceedings raised by the civil parties in the case and continued on March 17 and 18. After a hiatus due to the Holy Week holiday, the proceedings started up again on Monday, March 28, and remained closed to the press and the general public. Scheduled to testify are forensic anthropologists called as expert witnesses by the prosecution.

Sepur Zarco Case

On February 26, 2016, High Risk Tribunal “A” convicted Lieutenant Colonel Esteelmer Reyes Girón, former commander of Sepur Zarco military base, and former military commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asig of crimes against humanity in the form of sexual violence and domestic and sexual slavery against 15 Maya Q’eqchi’ women, as well as several counts of homicide and enforced disappearance. The defense attorneys for the former military officers have filed an appeal challenging the sentence. At the time of publishing, the civil parties have not received formal notification of the appeal, so its details are not yet known.

In addition, defense attorney Moisés Galindo filed three amparos (petitions for constitutional protection). Two of these challenge the legitimacy of the trial court.  A third seeks to remove the judges in the Fourth Court of Appeals, though no clear reason was argued for this demand. Nevertheless, the judges recused themselves, and a new panel of judges has been appointed.

Paula Barrios, director of Women Transforming the World (Mujeres Transformando el Mundo), one of the civil parties to the case, asserted that these actions constitute a form of “malicious litigation.” “The Code of Ethics states that lawyers must limit themselves in the use of such amparos and other legal motions,” Barrios stated. “In our view, by seeking judges’ recusal and filing so many amparos, the defense is searching for a court that will emit a ruling in his favor. The defendants had the opportunity to defend themselves in a court of law. This is an effort to distort the judicial process.”

Molina Theissen Case

In this case, four retired military officers – Francisco Luis Gordillo Martínez, Edilberto Letona Linares, Hugo Ramiro Zaldaña Rojas, and Manuel Antonio Callejas y Callejas – are accused of crimes against humanity, aggravated assault, and enforced disappearance of 14-year-old Marco Antonio Molina Theissen, and of sexual violence and torture of his sister, Emma Guadalupe Molina Theissen. The Supreme Court of Justice rejected a prosecution request for this case to be heard in one of the High Risk Tribunals, but the Attorney General’s office has appealed this decision. The case is being heard by the Fifth Criminal Court, with Judith Secaida as presiding judge.

This case is currently in the intermediate phase of investigation. Prosecutors are scheduled to deliver their final investigation on April 8, and at evidentiary hearings scheduled for April 19, the judge will examine the evidence and determine whether there is sufficient evidence to initiate a public trial.

In the meantime, the defendants have presented a series of appeals and amparos to stop the legal proceedings. The defense lawyer for Letona Linares sought withdrawal of the case based on the 1996 Law of National Reconciliation, but Judge Secaida rejected this. (The law provides amnesty for political crimes, but explicitly excludes the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, and torture). The defense lawyer for Gordillo Martínez, in an effort to prove his client’s innocence, requested the judicial sequestering of military plans from 1981, and judicial orders to this effect were carried out on March 17 in the installations of the General Staff of the Guatemalan Army. The defense lawyer for Zaldaña Rojas has called for his case to be heard in military court and has also presented a motion asserting that the proceedings should be transferred to a jurisdiction in Quetzaltenango, where the alleged crime occurred. A hearing on these motions was scheduled for March 29, but they were interrupted by a power outage and rescheduled for March 31.

Creompaz Case

On January 6 of this year, 14 senior former military officers were arrested in the Creompaz case and charged with crimes against humanity in the form of enforced disappearance, murder, and torture in relation to dozens of mass graves found at the former military base, known as Military Zone 21 (MZ21), in Cobán, in the department of Alta Verapaz. In 2012, the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG) began exhumations at the site. To date, FAFG has exhumed 558 bodies from 84 clandestine graves and identified 97 people using DNA testing. These identifications have permitted investigators to link victims of enforced disappearance between 1981 and 1988 with the military officers who were in charge of the MZ21 during those years.

Among those detained was former Minister of Defense Benedicto Lucas García, brother of former Guatemalan dictator Fernando Romeo Lucas García (1978-82). Prosecutors also requested lifting the immunity of Edgar Faustino Ovalle, currently a member of Congress for the governing National Convergence Front (FCN), who is wanted for several enforced disappearances. The request was rejected, but the Attorney General’s office is appealing the decision before the Constitutional Court.

Eleven of the defendants were ordered into pre-trial detention, while three were released but remain under investigation. Several have appealed their pretrial detention. In at least four cases, the courts have rejected these appeals, upholding the pretrial detentions.

The prosecution request to have this case heard by a High Risk Tribunal was accepted, and the case is currently being overseen by Judge Claudette Dominguez of the High Risk Tribunal “A.” Prosecutors are scheduled to present their final investigation on April 15. A public hearing is scheduled for May 3, where Judge Dominguez will examine the evidence and determine whether it is sufficient to initiate a public trial.

Jo-Marie Burt is an associate professor of political science and director of Latin American Studies at George Mason University. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Paulo Estrada contributed to the research and writing of this report.