Grave Crimes Case Brief: The Molina Theissen Case

A hearing is scheduled today in Guatemala City in the high-profile Molina Theissen grave crimes case. The case is presently being heard by the Fifth Criminal Court, with Judith Secaida as presiding judge. The original request by the Attorney General’s (AG) Office to try the case in the High Risk Tribunal system was rejected but was approved on appeal.

The first arrests in the Molina Theissen case occurred on January 6, 2016, when four high-ranking retired military officers were arrested. (On the same day, fourteen military officers were also arrested in the CREOMPAZ case.) They are accused of crimes against humanity, aggravated assault, and enforced disappearance of 14-year-old Marco Antonio Molina Theissen and sexual violence and torture of his sister, Emma Guadalupe Molina Theissen.


Several members of the Molina Theissen family were dissidents opposed to military rule. Military authorities arrested Carlos Molina, the father of Marco Antonio and Emma, in 1955 and 1960, then expelled him from the country. Marco Antonio and Emma’s sister, Ana Lucrecia, was a student leader and a member of the Guatemalan Workers Party (PGT). Emma was a militant of the Patriotic Worker Youth (Juventud Patriótica del Trabajo) along with her boyfriend.

Military authorities arrested, tortured, and raped Emma in 1976 and killed her boyfriend along with two other students. 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 took her brother away in an official vehicle. According to Commission for Historical Clarification, 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.

Status of the Case

The Molina Theissen family lodged a complaint with the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights in 1998. The Guatemalan state recognized its responsibility, and in 2004, the Inter-American Court for Human Rights urged Guatemala to investigate and prosecute those responsible for Marco Antonio’s disappearance. The January arrests are the first in the case.

The accused are:

  • Francisco Luis Gordillo Martínez, commander of the Quetzaltenango military zone in 1981.
  • Edilberto Letona Linares, second commander of the military zone of Quetzaltenango.
  • Hugo Ramiro Zaldaña Rojas, “S-2” intelligence official of the Quetzaltenango military base; he was in charge of the military check-point where Emma Molina Theissen was detained.
  • Manuel Antonio Callejas y Callejas, retired general and “G-2″ chief of intelligence of the Army General Staff.

Callejas y Callejas is charged, along with Gordillo Martínez, with ordering the recapture of Emma Molina Theissen after she escaped from the military base. After her escape, armed officials entered the Molina Theissen household on October 6, 1981 and not finding her, they detained Marco Antonio, who has not been seen since. Gordillo Martínez and Letona Linares are charged with criminal responsibility in these crimes as the first and second in command of the Quetzaltenango military base.

The accused remain in preventive custody and are awaiting a ruling by the first-instance court to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to go to trial. The proceedings have been delayed primarily because of numerous appeals presented by the defense to have the charges dismissed. The defendants have asserted their innocence and have filed appeals, all of which have been denied to date, to have the case moved to military court or to be moved to a court in Quetzaltenango, where the alleged crimes took place.

A hearing to determine if there was sufficient evidence to bring the case to trial was originally scheduled for April 19. During the April 19 hearing, Judge Secaida ruled to suspend the proceedings pending a decision on an appeal filed in March by defense counsel for Letona Linares before the Third Court of Appeals. Defense counsel requested that the amnesty provisions of the 1996 National Reconciliation Law applied to his client and that the case be heard before a military court.

That appeal was rejected on May 18. (While the National Reconciliation Law does have an amnesty provision, it excludes grave crimes, including genocide, torture, and crimes against humanity.) As a result the Fifth Criminal Court scheduled a new hearing for today, June 23, to hear petitions on protective custody measures and precautionary measures for the parties to the case.

However, at the end of May the Supreme Court of Justice ruled favorably on an appeal presented by the AG’s Office requesting that the case be transferred to High Risk Tribunal “C.” Therefore it is unclear if the Fifth Criminal Court will proceed today with scheduled hearing, or whether it will rule to transfer the case file to High Risk Tribunal “C.”

High Risk Case

Human rights observers told IJ Monitor that they view the Molina Theissen case as a high risk case. Several of the accused have been tied to organized crime and drug trafficking. Retired general Callejas y Callejas, for example, has long been believed to have ties to organized crime and is referred to as the “kingpin of kingpins” in Guatemala. Zaldaña Rojas is reportedly connected to military intelligence, while Gordillo Martínez was part of the military junta that carried out the coup d’état that brought José Efraín Ríos Montt to power in 1982. (Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide in 2013 but the ruling was vacated by the Constitutional Court; he remains under house arrest awaiting retrial.)

On the afternoon of June 21, the offices of Impunity Watch, a Dutch based human rights organizations that works on transitional justice cases throughout the world and has an office in Guatemala, were broken into by three armed men. They were reportedly searching for specific documents. Some human rights monitors, including Alberto Brunori, head of the Guatemala office of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, speculated that the break-in might be in relation to the Molina Theissen case. One of the lawyers who has long worked on the case is currently employed at Impunity Watch.

Other indicators of concern is the fact that individuals and organizations close to the military have staged protests outside of the Supreme Court building where the hearings are taking place in this case, as well as the CREOMPAZ case. They routinely post banners accusing the civil parties and the victims organizations of being guerrillas and of attacking the army.

Finally, the Facebook fan page “God, Country, Liberty –CCCA” (CCCA refers to Coronel Carlos Castillo Armas, who led the 1954 CIA-sponsored coup against the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz) published the testimony of Emma Molina Theissen, which was recorded in March 2011. Testimony collected in the course of an ongoing investigation is accessible only to the parties in the case, and it is illegal to make such evidence public at this phase of a trial. The fan page mentioned is openly supportive of the Guatemalan army and often engages in commentary that some characterize as racist and even hate speech. Lawyers close to the case told IJ Monitor that such incidents, along with the gravity of the crime involved in this case and the high profile of the accused, clearly reveal the need for this case to be adjudicated in the high risk court system rather than an ordinary tribunal.

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.