Major Breakthrough for Guatemala Grave Crimes Cases: Judge Seizes Previously Denied Military Documents

Yesterday saw a stunning development in the Diario Militar (Military Diary) case. In a pre-trial hearing that was initially closed, pre-trial judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez decided to open the hearing to the public and press, and then revealed that he had in his possession new military documents pertaining to the case. Judge Gálvez explained that during a hearing held at the compound of the General Staff of the Ministry of Defense on March 4, he ordered the sequestering of the documents and that he was now making them available to the parties in the case. This is a major development, in part because since the signing of the Peace Agreements in 1996, the Guatemalan army has repeatedly denied the existence of military documents related to the internal armed conflict.

The Diario Militar, leaked in 1999 to National Security Archive researcher Kate Doyle, was a kind of logbook that revealed the fate of scores of Guatemalan citizens who were forcibly disappeared by security forces during the mid-1980s.  It also revealed that the Guatemalan military kept detailed records of its death-squad operations. It included photographs of 183 people who were forcibly disappeared and coded references to their executions. To date, the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG) has helped identify seven of the Diario Militar victims.*

New documents divulged by Judge Gálvez

The new documents revealed appear to all be previously unknown. Unlike the Diario Militar logbook, these documents provide detailed information about military counterinsurgency objectives, operations, and campaigns. They are of great importance because the military documents, which span from 1983 to 1990, could provide additional critical evidence for prosecutors and civil parties not only in the Diario Militar case but in other key grave crimes cases. Judge Gálvez’s revelation of the existence of these military documents marks a historic step forward for the victims’ right to truth and justice.

The documents, which remained under reserve until yesterday, were opened in court and copies were provided to the parties in the Diario Militar case. Among the documents are the key military “campaign plans” (planes de campaña) between 1983 and 1990. The military campaign plans revealed in yesterday’s hearing include:

  • Firmeza 83-1
  • Reencuentro Institucional 84
  • Estabilidad Nacional 85
  • Consolidacion Nacional 86
  • Fortaleza 87
  • Unidad 88
  • Fortalecimiento Institucional 89
  • Avance 90

These military campaign plans (in which the numbers in the title refer to the years of effect) document the operational activities of the army. In the context of the 1980s, they document the counterinsurgency operations conducted by the Guatemalan army that resulted in massive human rights violations, including 626 massacres, forced displacement, and enforced disappearance, according to the Historical Clarification Commission (CEH). One of the plans leaked in 1999 (Plan Firmeza 83), for example, outlines the military orders regarding psychological operations, the organization of civil defense patrols, intelligence matters, and counterinsurgency operations. (Plan “Firmeza 83-1,” among the plans revealed today, appears to be a separate document.)

The campaign plans are usually associated with operational plans (planes de operación) like Plan Sofía, which outlines a broad plan of operations and the mechanisms for its execution. Plan Sofía documented several massacres committed by the Guatemalan army in the Ixil region and was one of the key pieces of evidence used to convict former dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt of genocide and crimes against humanity in 2013 (before the Constitutional Court partially suspended the hearings in the case, effectively vacating the verdict; after more than two years, the retrial in this case started on March 16).

Other developments in the Molina Theissen and Creompaz cases

New developments also occurred in the Molina Theissen and the Creompaz cases. In the Molina Theissen case, after the interruption of a hearing originally scheduled on Tuesday, March 29, another hearing was held on Thursday, March 31, to address the legal motions filed by defendant Hugo Ramiro Zaldaña Rojas. Judge Judith Secaida rejected both motions, one calling for his case to be heard in military court, and another calling for the proceedings to be transferred to Quetzaltenango, where the alleged crime occurred.

In the Creompaz case, a hearing is scheduled for today, April 1, in which seven witnesses will present their testimony before a pre-trial judge. The witnesses lived in the area where the Creompaz installation is located. They allege that they were forcibly removed from their homes and lands by the army in order to build the military base, known in the 1980s as Military Zone 21. The government prosecutor and civil parties in the case are requesting that these testimonies be introduced as evidence at this pre-trial phase of the proceedings in accordance with Guatemalan criminal procedure. Defense counsel for the 14 defendants in the case are expected to be present and to cross-examine the witnesses.

*The Open Society Justice Initiative has provided support on behalf of the family members of victims listed in the Diario Militar seeking to asset their right to truth in relation to the atrocities. For more information, please see the following case report.   

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.