War Crimes Prosecutions Update: The CREOMPAZ Case

On September 14, 2016, Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office filed an appeal with the Supreme Court in an attempt to reverse a lower court ruling that would exclude several of the criminal charges brought in the CREOMPAZ case, as well as prevent two senior former military officials from facing trial.

The CREOMPAZ trial relates to alleged crimes against humanity committed during Guatemala’s 36-year civil conflict. Among the accused are some of the most notorious military officers from the counterinsurgency years, including Manuel Benedicto Lucas García, who was head of the General High Command of the Guatemalan Army during the military regime led by his brother, Fernando Romeo Lucas García (1978-82), who is also being investigated in relation to the Molina Theissen case.

Prosecutors appeal court ruling that excludes facts and defendants

Of the original 14 military officers arrested on January 6, 2016 in relation to the CREOMPAZ case, only eight are currently set to face trial. On January 18, 11 of the former officers were indicted and jailed, while three were set free. After a series of hearings to determine whether these 11 officials would face trial, Judge Claudette Domínguez of the High Risk Tribunal A ruled on June 7, 2016 that there is sufficient cause to initiate proceedings against eight officials. The judge also ruled that one official, Luis Alberto Paredes Najera, would face special proceedings due to his ill health. The judge ruled that there is insufficient evidence in the case of two officials, Gustavo Alonso Rosales García and Ismael Segura Abularach, and ordered their immediate release. The officers are accused of criminal responsibility for numerous cases of enforced disappearance, torture, sexual violence, and extrajudicial execution carried out between 1981 and 1987 in Military Zone 21 (MZ21) in Coban, Alta Verapaz, the site now known as CREOMPAZ. (For details see “Eight military officers to stand trial in CREOMPAZ grave crimes case.”)

As previously noted, the Attorney General’s Office appealed the June 7 ruling at the tribunal level, but Judge Domínguez rejected the motion. In response, on September 14, 2016, the Attorney General’s Office filed an appeal before the Criminal Chamber of the Guatemalan Supreme Court, which has the power to review the evidence presented by the Attorney General’s Office and could potentially rule to reincorporate into the proceedings facts that were excluded by the June 7 ruling.

The appeal challenges the exclusion from the proceedings of several of the crimes charged by the Attorney General’s Office in the CREOMPAZ case. The June 7 ruling takes into account the facts in relation to 29 victims, but it omits reference to the facts surrounding more than 130 other victims detailed in the indictment. The Attorney General’s Office is also challenging the court’s ruling for not taking into account accusations of sexual violence, and for excluding two of the original defendants. It contends that Gustavo Alonso Rosales García and Ismael Segura Abularach perpetrated the enforced disappearance of Felipe Cal López on May 4, 1981 and should face trial.

Deputy Ovalle: immunity or impunity

As reported previously, the Attorney General’s Office has continued to seek the lifting of immunity of Congressman Edgar Justino Ovalle in relation to the CREOMPAZ case. Ovalle, a retired military officer, is a member of the ruling National Convergence Front (FCN), which he founded along with other military officers in 2004. The Supreme Court rejected the initial request filed by the Attorney General’s Office in January 2016 without entering into the merits of the facts, based on the argument that the Plan de Sánchez massacre case had already been prosecuted. (The Plan de Sánchez massacre is one of dozens of cases that are related to the CREOMPAZ case. A military commissioner and four civil patrol members were convicted in relation to the Plan de Sánchez massacre in March 2012).

The Attorney General’s Office filed a protective measure (amparo) before the Constitutional Court. On August 18, the Constitutional Court granted the amparo and ordered the Supreme Court to provide reasons for its decision. In response to this decision, the Supreme Court backtracked on its previous ruling, and ruled on August 29 to allow impeachment proceedings. Observers have noted that one of the judges who ruled against impeachment of Ovalle in January, Douglas Charcal, was no longer on the court. In May, Congress revoked Charcal of his judicial immunity as a result of allegations of his involvement in the Quetzal Container Terminal (TCQ) port corruption case. Charcal had taken a leave from the Court while the investigation against him continued, but after the Constitutional Court’s ruling, he sought to return to the Supreme Court in order to rule on the Ovalle impeachment decision. This was met by sharp criticism on social media. The interim president of the Supreme Court, Silvia Patricia Valdés, rejected his request.

The Supreme Court appointed Benicia Contreras Calderon, a judge who sits on the Fourth Chamber of the Court of Appeals, to investigate the charges against Ovalle and issue an opinion recommending whether to initiate a criminal case against him. The judge has 60 days to issue her opinion. If she rules in favor of bringing criminal charges against Ovalle, the Supreme Court will proceed to remove his parliamentary immunity. According to the Attorney General’s Office, Ovalle was Operations Officer “S-3” at Military Zone 21 between January 1 and April 15, 1983 and as Intelligence Officer “S-2” between April 16 and August 31, 1983.

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). This report was prepared with the assistance of Paulo Estrada, human rights activist, archaeology student at San Carlos University, and civil party in the Military Diary case.