Key Hearings Start in War Crimes Trial Against High-Ranking Military Officers in Guatemala

The intermediate phase of the CREOMPAZ case got underway yesterday as the first in a series of preliminary hearings was held before High Risk Tribunal A, presided over by Judge Claudette Domínguez. The proceedings will determine whether several high-ranking military officials will go to trial for war crimes committed in the 1980s, the worst years of violence in a 36-year internal conflict that claimed 200,000 lives, the majority of them from the indigenous Mayan population.

On January 6, 18 high-ranking retired military officers were arrested for war crimes, 14 in relation to the CREOMPAZ case and four in relation to the case of the 1982 forced disappearance of 14-year old Marco Antonio Molina Theissen. On January 18, 11 of the 14 military officials in the CREOMPAZ case were indicted and jailed. The Attorney General’s Office was given until now to finalize its investigation. Several of those indicted are also implicated in present-day crimes, including some who are reportedly powerful figures in organized crime networks.

In yesterday’s hearing, public prosecutor Hilda Pineda García read aloud the charges against ten military officials. They are accused of committing crimes against humanity, including enforced disappearance, against hundreds of people from different indigenous communities during the 1980s. Since 2012, investigators have exhumed 565 bodies from 85 clandestine graves within the installations of Military Zone 21 (MZ21), a center of military coordination and intelligence located in Cobán, in the department of Alta Verapaz, during the 1980s. The former military base is now known as CREOMPAZ and is used to train UN peacekeepers.

More than 100 of the 565 bodies exhumed from MZ21 have been positively identified using DNA evidence by investigators from the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG). This has permitted prosecutors to link victims reported as forcibly disappeared between 1981 and 1988 with the military officers who were in charge of the MZ21 during those years. According to investigators, the human remains belong to individuals from different Mayan ethnic groups, including Achí, Q’eqhi’, Pomochí, Ixil, and Kiché.

Among the accused are some of the most notorious military officers from the Guatemalan counterinsurgency years. Perhaps the most notorious is Manuel Benedicto Lucas García, who was chief of the General High Command of the Guatemalan Army during the military regime led by his brother, Romeo Lucas García (1978-82).

The remaining officials are: Ismael Segura Alburalach, Byron Humberto Barrientos Díaz, Gustavo Alonso Rosales García, José Antonio Vásquez García, Carlos Humberto Rodríguez López, Pablo Roberto Saucedo Mérida, César Augusto Ruiz Morales, Juan Ovalle Salazar, Édgar Rolando Hernández Méndez, Carlos Augusto Garavito Morán, Luis Alberto Paredes Nájera, César Augusto Cabrera Mejía, and Raúl Dehesa Oliva.

At the start of the hearing, prosecutor Pineda addressed the situation of the other three officials implicated in the CREOMPAZ case. In the case of Édgar Rolando Hernández Méndez and Carlos Humberto Rodríguez López, who remain under house arrest, Pineda stated that prosecutors lacked sufficient evidence to merit their arrest at this time but were continuing their investigation. As for Pablo Saucedo Mérida, also under house arrest, a hearing will be held later in May to determine the status of the charges against him.

The defendants requested permission to be absent from the hearing, saying they were experiencing anxiety. Surprisingly, the judge accepted the petition and dismissed all of the defendants, who were returned to the Mariscal Zabala military prison. In addition, defendant Paredes Nájera was temporarily removed from the proceedings by order of the judge after his lawyers presented a medical report stating that he was neither mentally nor physically suited to stand trial. The judge ordered a commission of two specialists to review the health of the defendant to determine his fitness to stand trial.

In the afternoon, prosecutor Pineda outlined specific and individualized charges against each of the military officers. She stated that the MP’s investigations consisted of 20,828 pages of evidence. In her presentation, she said that of the 565 human remains, the forensic investigators were able to determine that 22 victims were 0-3 years of age; 20 were 4-12 years of age; 52 were 13-17 years of age; 130 were 18-25; 315 were 26-49, and three were over age 50. The ages of 23 victims could not be positively identified.

The hearing took place under heightened security measures. Relatives of the accused military officers, along with retired military officers and others, protested outside the Tribunales building where the hearing took place.

The Attorney General’s Office asked judicial authorities to lift the immunity of retired general Edgar Justino Ovalle, co-founder of President Jimmy Morales’ party, National Convergence Front (FCN). Ovalle, who is wanted in connection with the disappearances in MZ21, was elected a member of Congress in last year’s elections and is currently head of the FCN bloc in Congress. He is also reportedly President Morales’ right-hand man. The Supreme Court denied the Attorney General’s initial request, but an appeal of this decision is still pending. Eight military officials under investigation remain at large, according to investigators.

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Thursday, May 5.

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.