Molina Theissen Case: Former Guatemalan Army Chief Testifies

Manuel Benedicto Lucas García, a former chief of the Guatemalan army, has now given his first statement before Judge Víctor Hugo Herrera Ríos of the High Risk Tribunal “C”, in proceedings for the illegal capture, detention and torture of Emma Guadalupe Molina Theissen and the enforced disappearance of her 14-year-old brother, Marco Antonio. Lucas García was head of the High Command of the Guatemalan Army (Estado Mayor del Ejército) between August 15, 1981 and March 22, 1982, when his brother, Romeo Lucas García, served as de facto president. Benedicto Lucas García is being charged as the intellectual author of the crimes committed against the Molina Theissen siblings. He was arrested on January 6 in relation to the CREOMPAZ case, and has remained in preventive detention since then.

Lucas García responded to the charges brought against him by the Attorney General’s Office in the Molina Theissen case, speaking at length over the course of two public hearings held on August 29 and September 19. He proudly discussed his military credentials, but also stressed his roots in Alta Verapaz and the indigenous communities of highland Guatemala. He denied having any knowledge of the events surrounding the Molina Theissen case at the time. “I was not God with control over everything, even though I tried my best; there were five military zones and 35,000 troops,” he stated. “I did not have knowledge of what happened over in Quetzaltengo,” he said, noting that the commander of the military base at the time, Coronel Luis Gordillo—also one of the defendants in the case—did not inform him about these events. “If I had acted in this case, Honorable Judge, I say to you: punish me, execute me! But I did not participate,” he said.

The other four defendants were also offered an opportunity to address the court to respond to new charges they face in the case related to the sexual violation and aggravated sexual assault of Emma Molina Theissen. Only Zaldaña Rojas offered substantive comments, but they were aimed primarily at discrediting the victims and their family members and the prosecution officials who brought the charges.

In the next hearing, held October 3, Erick de León, a prosecutor for the Attorney General’s Office, summarized the charges against Lucas García as well as the new charges against the original four defendants. The next hearing in the Molina Theissen case is scheduled for October 12, 2016. Human rights observers told IJ Monitor that they are dissatisfied with the brevity of the hearings and the long lapses between them. They say that these delays undermine the efficient administration of justice and are difficult for the Molina Theissen family, which travels from Costa Rica, where they have resided since going into exile after Marco Antonio’s disappearance.

As reported in previous posts, the proceedings are taking place in a tense atmosphere. Relatives of the accused and supporters of the military continue to organize protests outside the court  building. At various points the pro-military protesters sang the Guatemalan national anthem, which could be heard from inside the room on the 12th story while the hearing was taking place. There were also renewed incidents of insults hurled at the Molina Theissen family, NGOs and observers present at the proceedings, and at  journalists reporting on the hearing.

Benedicto Lucas García: “I love Guatemala. I would never betray my homeland”

Prior to giving his first declaration, Lucas García requested that the amnesty provisions of the 1996 National Reconciliation Law be applied in his case. Judge Herrera rejected the request, stating that the crimes under review are excluded from the amnesty provisions. Lucas García was first interrogated by public prosecutor Erick de León, then by Alejandro Rodríguez, the lawyer representing the Molina Theissen family, who are civil parties to the case.

Benedicto Lucas García spoke energetically and forcefully. He responded eagerly to questions about his early professional training, his studies abroad and his participation in the military high command. He peppered his intervention with references to his leadership in battles against insurgents. He also discussed his role in Guatemalan political and social life, emphasizing the many honors he has received from local governments in Alta Verapaz and Peten. He also denied any role in acts of repression in the Guatemalan highlands: “I never attacked communities because I was born in the communities and I speak the language of my homelandAlta Verapaz—and my wife is indigenous. I relate with the people, I love them, because I love Guatemala. I would never betray my homeland,” he stated.

In his first reference to the case for which he stands accused, Lucas García denied any knowledge of the crimes, affirming that he did not know who the Molina Theissen family was until now. In reference to the accusation against him presented by the Attorney General’s office, he stated that he was not the commander of the armed forces. Instead, he said, he was third in the hierarchy of the armed forces; first was the supreme commander, the president at the time—his brother Romeo Lucas García—and second was the Minister of National Defense, Luis René Mendoza Palomo. He also stated that the General High Command of the Army (Estado Mayor General del Ejercito, EMGE) is a technical advisory body, which advises the Ministry of National Defense. He said it is the Ministry that issues general orders and informs the commander of the army about the situation in the country. The Ministry also names the officials of the different brigades and military bases and zones, while the EMGE serves as a channel of communication and supervises the military commanders.

While Lucas García’s defense counsel objected to several of the questions posed by public prosecutor Erick de León, Lucas García offered to answer the questions, stating that he was innocent and had nothing to hide. He also stated that he never signed any order to kill the civilian population.

Lucas García further explained that the principle of command authority (mando) was based on the capacity of leadership and that he never commanded the army; rather, he supervised the orders handed down by the Ministry of National Defense. When he assumed his leadership role, he said, the situation in Guatemala was critical: the guerrillas had established a foothold in Tecpan and had control over the municipality of Mixco, within the city limits of the capital. By his calculus, in less than three months Guatemala City would have fallen to the guerrillas.

Lucas García asserted that he had no knowledge of what happened in Military Zone No. 17 (MZ17), since the commanders of the military zones are solely responsible for what occurs within their jurisdictions, and have autonomy to develop their operations. (Emma Molina Theissen was brought to MZ17 after being detained at a military checkpoint in Quetzaltenango, and she was tortured and sexually violated while in detention there.) According to Lucas García, this autonomy gave the commander of each military zone the freedom to act without superior orders. Commanders merely followed the general guidelines issued by the Ministry of National Defense and conveyed via the communication channel developed by the EMGE.

According to Lucas García, the EMGE was comprised of five units: G1, personnel; G2, intelligence; G3, operations; G4, logistics; and G5, civilian matters. These units received periodic reports from the officials stationed in the brigades, zones, and bases (these were S1, S2, S3, S4 and S5). Since he could not be in all the brigades, zones, and bases, he created the position of General Inspector of the Army, and assigned General Oscar Humberto Mejía Víctores to that position. (Mejía Víctores deposed José Efraín Ríos Montt in a military coup on August 8, 1983, and was the de facto president until January 14, 1986.) As General Inspector, Mejía Víctores was tasked with supervising physical areas and report any instances of anomalies or violations of the law.

Alejandro Rodríguez, the lawyer representing the Molina Theissen family, asked Lucas García about his military education. He explained that he was expelled from the polytechnic institute and left Guatemala for France, where he studied guerrilla warfare and counterinsurgency for five years. During this time, he said he met members of the French Legion who fought insurgents in Algiers. They told him that they tortured the Algerians, but he stated that he did not approve of torture, kidnapping or other forms of inhumane treatment. He said that he studied irregular warfare in France and used the knowledge gained there upon his return to Guatemala.

Lucas García reiterated his role as a leader of the troops who was always “out in front of the soldiers.” As an example he mentioned that he led troops in battle against the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) in 1972, and successfully captured its leader, Pablo Monsanto, along with invaluable documentation that was converted into military intelligence that helped defeat the guerrilla movement. Lucas García also confirmed that he had received training in military intelligence and counterintelligence at the School of the Americas in Panama (now renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation and based in Fort Benning, Georgia), but noted that he refused an offer to be an instructor there because he thought the North Americans did not understand irregular warfare. Compared to the French, he said, the U.S. military was “in diapers” in counterinsurgency doctrine. He stated that it was at the SOA that he first heard the term “internal enemy,” which was later incorporated into Guatemalan military doctrine.

In response to a question about high levels of repression when he was in charge of the army, Lucas García stated that the violence was the work of private, anti-communist organizations connected to the National Liberation Movement (MLN) that were active at the time, such as Mano Blanca (MANO), the New Anticommunist Organization (NOA), and the Guatemalan Anticommunist Council (CADEG). He also asserted that the report of the UN-sponsored truth commission, the Commission for Historical Clarification, was “a farce.”

The Guatemala news website, Plaza Pública, published an exclusive interview with Lucas García in August, just a week before he gave his first declaration in the Molina Theissen case (The interview was conducted in late 2015, prior to Lucas García’s arrest in the CREOMPAZ case). He boasted of the role he and his wife played in the election of current President Jimmy Morales. Morales became president with the support of the National Convergence Front (FCN), a political party created by retired military officers. Just a week prior to Jimmy Morales’ inauguration, Lucas García was arrested, along with 17 other high-ranking military officers, in relation to the CREOMPAZ and Molina Theissen cases, and has been held in preventive detention ever since. The Attorney General’s Office is seeking to lift the immunity of congressman Edgar Justino Ovalle, the general secretary of FCN and reported right-hand mand of President Morales, in order to charge him in the CREOMPAZ case. On June 7, 2016, a judge determined that there was sufficient cause to initiate proceedings against Lucas García and seven others in the CREOMPAZ case. As of this writing, a series of constitutional challenges (amparos) are still pending in that case, and human rights activists close to the proceedings expect that the trial will not begin until 2017.

Zaldaña Rojas : A Political Trial?

The remaining defendants were also interrogated. Coronel Francisco Gordillo, commander of Military Zone No. 17, began by saying he was a man of principles and that he was innocent and exhorted the court to guarantee that the proceedings were free of foreign influence. He also mentioned that he was a member of the National Reconciliation Commission, the entity that promoted dialogue between the state and the URNG guerrilla movement, which eventually led to the signing of a peace accord in December 1996. Gordillo’s lawyer urged him to not make any further statements about the charges against him.

Letona Edilberto Linares, who served as deputy commander of MZ17, and Manuel Antonio Callejas y Callejas, who was the Director of Intelligence (G2), refrained from expanding on their earlier public statements.

Colonel Hugo Zaldaña Rojas, who served as an intelligence officer (S2) in MZ17, told the court that he did want to speak. Rojas Zaldaña affirmed that he was an army official and graduated from the polytechnic institute’s class of 1968. He said he had retired with honors, but that he is not a “former” military official because he will be military until the day he dies.

Zaldaña Rojas then proceeded to attempt to discredit the plaintiffs as well as the proceedings. He asserted that the Molina Theissen family and the NGOs supporting them were financially motivated. He also challenged the veracity of Emma Molina Theissen’s testimony, and said that by reading the blog posts of her sister, Ana Lucrecia, it was obvious that this was a dysfunctional family.

Zaldaña Rojas went on to assert that the trial was politically motivated. He said that the public prosecutor was following the orders of former Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz. He then stated that he merely obeyed orders; orders, he said, that succeeded in preventing communism from taking over the country. He concluded by presenting a letter from the military attaché of the U.S. Embassy who he said visited the MZ17 on October 16, 1981 and congratulated the commanders and their troops on their professionalism.

In the October 3 hearing, prosecutor Erick de León summarized the charges against Lucas García as well as the new charges against the original four defendants. The court adjourned and called for the next hearing to be held on October 12, 2016. In this intermediate phase of the proceedings, the court will determine whether the five defendants will face trial in the Molina Theissen case.

On April 26, 2004, the Guatemalan state recognized its responsibility in the enforced disappearance of Marco Antonio Molina Theissen before the Inter-American Court for Human Rights. The court found the Guatemalan state culpable and ordered it to investigate, prosecute and punish those responsible, and ordered it to search for the remains of the victim. To date Marco Antonio remains missing.

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.