On January 6, 2016, the arrest of 18 high-ranking military officers on charges of human rights violations connected to the most violent years of Guatemalan armed conflict convulsed Guatemala. While some transitional justice cases have moved forward in recent years, these arrests are different because of the number of officials involved and because those arrested are high-ranking military officials who are believed to be responsible for some of the worst abuses during the Guatemalan counterinsurgency war in the 1980s. Four of the 18 officers arrested were charged in the case of the enforced disappearances of 14-year old Marco Antonio Molina Theissen, while the remaining 14 were charged in the CREOMPAZ case. The now retired military officers are accused of criminal responsibility for numerous cases of enforced disappearances, torture, sexual violence, and extrajudicial execution carried out between 1981 and 1987 in Military Zone 21 (MZ21), a former military base that was the center of military coordination and intelligence in Cobán, Alta Verapaz, and is now used to train UN peacekeepers.
This case has been painstakingly developed by government prosecutors since the initial discovery of human remains at CREOMPAZ in 2012. Since then, investigators from the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG) have exhumed more than 550 bodies from 85 clandestine graves within the CREOMPAZ installations, and have positively identified over 130 victims using DNA evidence. The victims were forcibly disappeared between 1981 and 1987, 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. The human remains at CREOMPAZ belong to individuals from different Mayan ethnic groups, including Achí, Q’eqchi’, Pomochí, Ixil, and Kiché.
The CREOMPAZ case is being heard before High Risk Tribunal A, with Judge Claudette Dominguez presiding. In preliminary hearings, the tribunal found sufficient cause to continue the investigation into eleven of the defendants, and sent them to preventive detention. Three of the defendants —Humberto Rodríguez López, Édgar Rolando Hernández Méndez and Pablo Roberto Saucedo Mérida— were removed from the case due to insufficient evidence, though the investigation of their responsibility continues. Eight individuals wanted in relation to the case remain at large. The Attorney General’s Office is seeking to have the immunity lifted of Congressman Edgar Justino Ovalle, of the official National Convergence Front, so he can face charges in the CREOMPAZ case as well.
On May 3, evidentiary hearings began in the case, to determine whether the accused will face a public trial. The Attorney General’s Office presented evidence and specific charges against each of the accused. The hearings drew to a close last week after several sessions. The tribunal is scheduled to rule today, June 7, as to whether the military officials named in the case will stand trial.
On the first day of the intermediate phase hearings, one defendant, Luis Alberto Paredes Najera, colonel of the General Staff of the army and second commander of MZ21 between January 1, 1981 and August 15, 1982, was provisionally separated from the proceedings while an independent medical commission evaluates him to determine whether he is fit to stand trial in these proceedings. The Public Ministry stated its view that should Paredes Najera be found to suffer some level of mental incapacity, he should be tried under separate special measures similar to those being applied to José Efraín Ríos Montt, since he is accused of 140 cases of enforced disappearance and at least four cases of sexual violence.
Another unusual characteristic of these proceedings is that the judge has consented to allow the defendants to absent themselves from the proceedings. Defendants have only been required to appear briefly in court in response to specific issues, for example when they request a change in legal counsel. Normally defendants are required to be present during the proceedings.
The Attorney General’s Office, represented by Hilda Pineda García, head of the Human Rights Violations During the Internal Armed Conflict unit, presented the conclusions of its investigation to date, consisting of 20,828 pages of evidence. Among the documents were certified reports of the CREOMPAZ exhumations, documenting that they were carried out in the presence of members of the police, military officials, government prosecutors, and forensic experts. Documentation of the chain of custody for the human remains and medical reports was also introduced, as was evidence of collaborative work agreements between FAFG, the AG’s Office, and the National institute of Forensic Sciences (INACIF), dating to 2009.
In the remaining sessions, which stretched out over the course of three weeks, prosecutor Pineda García outlined a harrowing number of specific human rights violations committed against individuals and communities, attributing each to specific defendants in the CREOMPAZ case. She provided details of several massacres, cases of forced disappearance, and specific cases of sexual violation against women, including young girls, and outlined the connections each of the defendants have with the crimes she outlined.
Enforced Disappearance Cases, 1981-82
Gustavo Alonso Rosales García was an infantry captain, who later ascended to major, as well as an intelligence officer (“S-2”). According to prosecutors, he was in charge of interrogations in MZ21 during the time he was stationed there, between August 1, 1978 and August 31, 1981, and is responsible for allowing torture, sexual violence and extrajudicial execution at the military base.
Ismael Segura Abularach was an infantry captain and member of the General Staff of the Army (Estado Mayor). He was the official in charge of military operations (“S3”) at MZ21 between April 1, 1981 and June 31, 1981. As such, prosecutors charge, he had full knowledge of the army’s operative manuals and plans, and without his order, military operations could not be carried out.
Both men are accused of the enforced disappearance of Felipe Cal López. On May 4, 1981, Cal López was taken away by soldiers from his home village of Chituj in San Cristóbal Verapaz, and brought to MZ21. His whereabouts were unknown until FAFG investigators exhumed his remains in 2012 and positively identified him.
The AG’s Office also charged Manuel Benedicto Lucas García, who was chief of the General Staff of the Army (Estado Mayor del Ejército) between April 16, 1981 and March 22, 1982, with command responsibility of the crimes committed in MZ21 during this period. Lucas García is charged with designing the military strategy that led to the systematic practice of enforced disappearances, massacres, and other human rights violations, as well as giving directives and orders that led to the implementation of these crimes. Government prosecutors also charge Lucas García with responsibility, as the head of the army, for the conversion of the military base into a center of detention, torture, sexual violence, extrajudicial execution, and clandestine burials. At the same time Lucas García is charged with 14 counts of enforced disappearance, which correspond to 14 individuals who were detained in MZ21 and forcibly disappeared, and who were exhumed, more than 30 years later, from the former military base and positively identified by FAFG investigators using DNA testing.
The Massacres of Pambach and Los Encuentros (Río Negro), 1982
Three military officers are charged with responsibility for a series of massacres, enforced disappearances and cases of sexual violence that occurred in MZ21 in 1982: Luis Alberto Paredes Najera, an army colonel of the Chief of Staff and, between January 1, 1981 and August 15, 1982, the second commander of MZ21; Juan Ovalle Salazar, a lieutenant colonel and, between May 1, 1982 and November 30, 1982, was commander of the first batallion of the infantry based at MZ21; and César Augusto Cabrera Mejía, an army major of the infantry and the “S2” intelligence official at MZ21 between May 1, 1982 and November 30, 1982.
Paredes Najera is charged with a total 140 cases of enforced disappearance and four cases of sexual violence, but as noted above, he was provisionally separated from the case pending the outcome of his medical evaluation. Ovalle Salazar is charged with 55 cases of enforced disappearance and four cases of sexual violence; and Cabrera Mejía is charged with 125 cases of enforced disappearance and four cases of sexual violence. (Sexual violence is imputed as a crime against humanity.)
Public prosecutor Hilda Pineda detailed the specific cases against each of the three officials, starting with the case of Pambach. On June 2, 1982, the army arrived early in the morning to the village of Pambach, approximately 38 kilometers from Cobán, and forced all the villagers out of their homes and into the community school. They separated the men and the women. They brought the women to the school, then took the men away, saying they had to fulfill their military service. The men were never seen again.
Thirty years later, in 2012, FAFG exhumed 64 human remains in CREOMPAZ, 31 of whom were positively identified, using DNA testing, as the villagers from Pambach who had been detained in 1982. Pineda García read each of the victims’ names aloud in court and said that one man who survived the massacre will be called as a witness. The three officials are also charged with four cases of sexual violence that occurred in the context of the massacre of Pambach, including one case against an 11-year old girl, which the AG’s Office imputed as crimes against humanity.
Each of the accused is charged in a number of other crimes. Paredes Najera and Cabrera Mejía are charged with responsibility in the massacre of 10 people at Los Encuentros, a small hamlet in the village of Río Negro, in Rabinal, Baja Verapaz, and the transfer of 40 survivors via helicopter to MZ21, where they were interrogated, tortured, executed, and buried. Cabrera Mejía faces 19 additional counts of enforced disappearance.
Enforced Disappearance Cases, 1983-84
Two military officers are charged in the case of seven cases of enforced disappearance and one case of sexual violence, which is imputed as a crime against humanity, that took place in 1983 and 1984.
Carlos Augusto Garavito Morán, a lieutenant colonel who was second in command of the MZ21 between September 1, 1983 and January 31, 1984, was allegedly in charge of the officials and the battallions at the military base. He is charged with responsibility for converting the MZ21 into a clandestine center in which detainees were held, interrogated, tortured, sexually violated, executed, and buried.
In relation to one of the cases of enforced disappearance, the AG’s Office said that it would present the testimony of the wife of Miguel Pop, whose human remains were found at CREOMPAZ and who has been positively identified by FAFG investigators. Pop’s wife will testify about the detention of her husband from their home in the village of Salac in La Tinta, Alta Verapaz in October 1983 at the hands of Heriberto “Canche” Valdez Asig. Pop’s wife looked for him at MZ21, but authorities denied he was there and threatened to kill her if she continued searching for him. Pop was never seen or heard from again, until his body was exhumed from CREOMPAZ in 2012. Valdez Asig is the military commissioner who was convicted on February 26 for his role in sexual violence and enforced disappearance in Sepur Zarco.
José Antonio Vásquez García, an army major and intelligence officer (“S2”) based at the MZ21 between September 1, 1983 and April 30, 1984, is also charged in these cases. He is accused of carrying out the orders to detain, torture, sexually violate, and execute victims. Four military commissioners who collaborated with the military in conducting these operations will be called to testify about Vásquez García’s role.
Enforced Disappearance Cases, 1986-87
Three military officials are charged for responsibility of the enforced disappearance of Carlos Enrique Chávez and Fernando Ical Mo, who were forcibly detained in January 1987 and March 1987 respectively: Raúl Dehesa Oliva, Byron Humberto Barrientos Díaz, and César Augusto Ruíz Morales.
Dehesa Oliva was a colonel in the Guatemalan army and was the commander in charge of MZ21 between April 1, 1986 and March 31, 1987. He is charged with planning, directing, and coordinating counterinsurgency operations. The AG’s Office presented documents from the Historic Archive of the National Police that it says demonstrate that military authorities denied information about the disappeared to their relatives.
Barrientos Díaz, former head of the Intelligence Section (“S2”) of MZ21 between January 1, 1986 and May 31, 1987, was allegedly in charge of interrogating detainees. Government prosecutors say he was aware that the two victims, Chávez and Ical Mo, had been brought to MZ21, and that an order from him would have resulted in their being sent before a judge, which could have prevented their enforced disappearance.
César Augusto Ruíz Morales, a major in the artillery, was an operations officer (“S3”) in MZ21 between July 1, 1986 and March 31, 1987, and is charged in the same crimes. As head of military operations, he is charged with being responsible for the detention of the two victims, who were turned over to the “S2” intelligence officers.
As the hearings unfolded, Pineda García presented evidence that would be used to determine the context in which the violations at MZ21 took place. She asserted that the crimes occurred during the internal armed conflict under the framework of the counter-subversive policy developed by successive military governments and guided by the Doctrine of National Security. Between 1981 and 1987, MZ21 was utilized as a prison, a center of illegal detention, interrogation, torture, and sexual violence of detainees; as an execution site; and as a clandestine cemetery.
The prosecutor noted the following documents would be presented to sustain their case: The final report of the Commission of Historical Clarification (CEH); sentences emitted by the Inter-American Court for Human Rights, including the ruling in the case of the Rio Negro massacre (Baja Verapaz); and military plans and documents, including several military documents that were recently seized by judicial order from the Ministry of Defense.
The military had previously denied the existence of these documents, and their inclusion in these proceedings was questioned by the defense counsel for Benedicto Lucas García, Jorge Alfonso Lucas Cerna. He argued that a judge who is not part of this case (Miguel Ángel Gálvez) had certified the documents. He also asserted that the documents are classified and called upon the court to review them in a closed session. The prosecutor clarified that some of the documents were previously declassified, while others were seized and made public by Judge Galvez in relation to the Diario Militar case. Nevertheless, the tribunal assented to this defense counsel request, and the documents were presented in a subsequent hearing that was closed to the public and the press. This was surprising given that Judge Gálvez had presented these documents in a public hearing on March 31 in the Diario Militar case.
The prosecutor also presented several expert reports, including psycho-social reports evaluating the impact of human rights violations on the victims and the affected communities; psychological reports on the impact of enforced disappearance; reports on the historical, political, and social context in which the crimes occurred; and reports on the investigation and identification of the victims, including forensic and genetic evidence. Several witnesses will also be called to testify.
Arguments of the Defense
The defense lawyers adopted different tactics during the course of the hearings. At one point they challenged the entire proceeding, claiming that the charges were baseless and the process rife with irregularities, and demanding the immediate freedom of their clients. At other times their challenges were more pointed and specific. For example, they challenged some of the evidence presented by prosecutors, especially the forensic evidence, claiming, alternatively, that the chain of custody of evidence was not properly handled by the FAFG, that FAFG was making fraudulent claims, and asserting that INACIF is the only institution legally authorized to conduct forensic investigations in such cases.
The defense lawyers also questioned the AG Office’s request that some of the witness testimony be taken in preliminary hearings and recorded so as to avoid the re-traumatization of the victims. (This practice was used in the Sepur Zarco case, for example.) The defense attorneys challenged the civil party status of the victims’ associations and human rights organizations in the case. Several defense lawyers also proposed that the 1986 amnesty law should be applied to their clients. (In earlier hearings, such motions have been denied, based on the fact that the 1996 Law of National Reconciliation supersedes the 1986 amnesty law, and though it provides amnesty for political crimes, it specifically excludes crimes of genocide, torture, forced disappearance, and other international crimes.) They also sought to have the proceedings suspended invoking the statute of limitation of the alleged crimes. None of these substantive challenges was accepted by the court.
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.