There are suspicions that a member of Guatemala’s Congress, whose immunity has just been lifted in relation to a case of enforced disappearances, may have fled the country. This Wednesday, March 15, the Supreme Court of Justice ruled to impeach Congressman Edgar Justino Ovalle. This came a day after Judge Benicia Contreras Calderon, charged with investigating the Attorney General’s charges against him, issued her opinion in favor of impeachment and a year after the Attorney General’s Office first filed its request with the Supreme Court.
With this decision, the Attorney General’s Office can formally initiate judicial proceedings against Ovalle in the CREOMPAZ case, which Attorney General Thelma Aldana has described as one of the largest cases of enforced disappearance in Latin America. However, Ovalle, who is the head of the ruling National Convergence Front (FCN) and the deputy chief of its congressional bloc, has not been seen publicly since February 20, giving rise to suspicions that he has fled the country in anticipation of the outcome of the impeachment proceedings.*
CREOMPAZ is a training site for UN peacekeeping operations located in Cobán, Alta Verapaz. During Guatemala’s internal armed conflict, the site was a military base, Military Zone No. 21 (MZ21). Since 2012, investigators have exhumed 565 bodies from MZ21, 142 of which have been identified using DNA as victims of the internal armed conflict. The Attorney General’s Office seeks to charge Ovalle in relation to several crimes that occurred in 1983, when Ovalle was an intelligence and operations official at MZ21, including the enforced disappearance of six individuals exhumed from MZ21 who have been positively identified using DNA.
Judge Claudette Domínguez, who is presiding over pre-trial matters in the CREOMPAZ case, imposed a travel ban on Ovalle in December, but revoked it again in January after Ovalle filed an appeal. A letter dated March 13, 2017, signed by Ovalle and addressed to the president of the Congress, requested leave with pay between March 13 and 31, 2017. Now the organizations that represent the victims in the CREOMPAZ case, including the Human Rights Law Firm (Bufete Jurídico de Derechos Humanos) and the Mutual Support Group, have expressed concern through a series of tweets that Ovalle may have been tipped off about the impending Supreme Court decision and fled the country. In response to Wednesday’s Supreme Court decision, the Human Rights Prosecutor’s Office successfully petitioned the court to impose a new travel ban on Congressman Ovalle.
The Center for Independent Media (CMI) has raised questions about Judge Domínguez’s impartiality in the case, noting that her sister is a major in the army reserve. In addition, while Judge Domínguez ruled in June 2016 that there was sufficient evidence to send eight of 11 defendants to trial, she also excluded facts related to 80 percent of the victims listed in the original CREOMPAZ indictment. The plaintiffs challenged her decision, saying she failed to provide any explanation for the exclusion of these facts. On December 14, 2016, the Constitutional Court granted a provisional protective measure (amparo) to the plaintiffs. If the measure is upheld, the excluded evidence would be reincorporated into the indictment.
On March 16, Ovalle’s lawyer, Mario Antonio Guerra León, filed a protective measure before the Constitutional Court, alleging that the impeachment proceedings were illegal, because Ovalle was not properly advised about the ruling of the judge investigating the charges against him.
Who is Edgar Justino Ovalle?
Edgar Justino Ovalle is a retired military official who is considered to be part of the “old guard” of military officers connected to the counterinsurgency operations of the 1970s and 1980s. During this period, according to the Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification, 200,000 people were killed, 93 percent at the hands of the military.
Ovalle, who graduated with the class of 1971 from the Polytechnic School and studied at the School of the Americas, is a founding member of the Guatemalan Association of Military Veterans (AVEMILGUA), an organization that denies military involvement in human rights violations. The group has also actively rejected efforts to hold military officials accountable for such abuses. In September of last year, Ovalle was elected to Congress with the FCN, of which he is co-founder. Ovalle also served as the general secretary of FCN until this past Tuesday, when he was removed from that position during an emergency meeting.
FCN is also the party that brought president Jimmy Morales to power in elections last year. Ovalle is reported to be one of the president’s closest advisors. He is the person who reportedly invited Morales, a TV comedian with no previous political experience, to stand for president as the FCN candidate in 2015.
*At the time of publishing this article, we learned that the Attorney General issued an arrest warrant for Ovalle in connection with the CREOMPAZ case.
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.