Human Rights Groups to Inter-American Court: Impunity is Alive and Well in Guatemala

President Jimmy Morales invited the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to conduct its 57th session in Guatemala City, perhaps hoping to repair the country’s tattered relationship with the international organization. However, in extending this invitation, he may not have expected the court to be reviewing Guatemala’s own record on accountability for grave crimes.

During its visit, which took place from March 20 to 25, 2017, the court held a private, closed-door session to review the implementation of 14 sentences it handed down between 1998 and 2012 against the state of Guatemala in grave human rights cases related to the internal armed conflict. The session was a follow-up to a similar hearing held in Costa Rica in 2014, when human rights organizations provided ample evidence of the persistence of impunity in Guatemala. Two years later, despite some forward movement, little has changed.

The private session came on the heels of a series of public hearings involving Brazil, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Colombia. The court held a second private session to review the status of reparations mandated by the court in the Las Dos Erres massacre case and conducted an in situ visit to Rabinal, Baja Verapaz to review the status of symbolic reparations it mandated for the victims of the Rio Negro and the Plan de Sánchez massacres.

The eight human rights and victims’ organizations that requested the private session highlighted the continued failure of the state to carry out its obligation to investigate, prosecute, and punish those responsible in the majority of the 14 cases, as well as its failure to ensure victims’ access to justice. They pointed out that there have been convictions in just four of the 14 cases under review. They also noted that only soldiers, civil patrollers, and mid-level military officials have been convicted; no intellectual authors in any of the 14 cases have been convicted.

The organizations also noted that when cases do make it to trial, the judiciary often allows malicious litigation and has in some instances issued illegal rulings that contribute to the situation of impunity. Finally, they said, the state of Guatemala has failed to fully implement the reparations ordered by the Inter-American Court in the 14 cases.

The human rights organizations denounced a series of threats and intimidation they claim seek to stigmatize them and to criminalize their demands for justice. Such actions have been especially evident in the Molina Theissen case. During the hearings, the lawyers and family members of the defendants engaged in constant insults and attacks against the victims and their lawyers. They have also attacked, verbally and in at least one case physically, the media and observers attending the proceedings.

Examples of impunity in postwar Guatemala

In many of these cases, the alleged perpetrators continue to wield a great deal of power in present-day Guatemala. One of the alleged perpetrators in the Panel Blanca case (a series of cases of illegal detention, torture, and extrajudicial execution between 1987 and 1988), is Baudilio Hichos, who was third in command of the Guardia de Hacienda. Hichos was elected to Congress in 1991 and and became a leading figure in Efraín Ríos Montt’s Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG). Years later, he joined Leader, the now defunct party of Manuel Baldizón, alleged to have close ties to organized crime. Hichos was a legislator until January 2016 when, according to Nómada, he skipped his inauguration ceremony because he was being investigated by the Attorney General’s Office for corruption in the Social Security Institute (IGSS) case. He remains at large.

There is also the case of former guerrilla commander Efraín Bámaca Velásquez, who was captured by the army in 1992 and forcibly disappeared. In 2012, amidst international outcry, Judge Carol Patricia Flores dismissed the case. Former President Otto Pérez Molina — a retired army general who was a commander in the Ixil region during the Ríos Montt government — was among those implicated in Bámaca’s disappearance. The former president is currently on trial on charges of corruption in the La Linea case. Pérez Molina’s Minister of Defense, Ulises Noé Anzueto Girón, who is currently on trial for the Cooperacha corruption case, was also implicated in the Bámaca case.

Two of the defendants in the Molina Theissen case are also extremely powerful figures in postwar Guatemala. As former head of the army, Benedicto Lucas García has significant support from retired and senior officers inside the armed institution. He is believed to be the architect of the counterinsurgency plan implemented during the government of his brother, Romeo Lucas García (1978-82) and continued during the Ríos Montt government. The Commission for Historical Clarification documented over 200 massacres during his period as head of the army.

His co-defendant in the Molina Theissen case, Manuel Callejas y Callejas, was the former head of military intelligence.  Callejas is believed to be the head of “La Cofradía,” a group of retired military officials that transformed into an organized crime syndicate. He is also reportedly involved in the Moreno Network, the predecessor of the La Linea crime syndicate. One analysis identifies Callejas as the godfather of parallel structures in postwar Guatemala, yet he has never faced criminal charges until now.

One step forward, two steps back

It is important to note that domestic judicial proceedings are underway in some of the 14 cases reviewed by the Inter-American Court. Currently, eight high-ranking military officers (out of 14 arrested in January 2016) are awaiting trial for the Plan de Sánchez massacre and several other cases of enforced disappearance in the CREOMPAZ case. Among these are former head of the high command of the Guatemalan army, Benedicto Lucas García. Five members of the military high command are also awaiting trial in the Molina Theissen case.

No trial date has yet been set in either case, however, and there have been significant delays in both proceedings. Moreover, arrest warrants are still outstanding for nine additional retired military officials who were not apprehended in the CREOMPAZ case. Some of the officials are still powerful figures in Guatemala. Two of them, retired generals Luis René Mendoza Palomo and Angel Aníbal Guevara Rodríguez, are former defense ministers. A third is Edgar Justino Ovalle, who was elected to Congress in 2015 for the ruling National Convergence Front (FCN) and is a close advisor to President Morales. Shortly before Ovalle was impeached in relation to the CREOMPAZ case, he disappeared.

The private session of the court was requested by victims’ associations, including the Association of Guatemalan Families of the Disappeared (FAMDEGUA), the Association of Victims of Violence in the Verapaces Maya Achi (ADIVIMA), Truth and Justice Association (AVEJA), and the Molina Theissen Family, as well as human rights organizations, including the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH), the Human Rights Law Firm, the Myrna Mack Foundation, and the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL).

The 14 sentences under review are: Blake (1998), Panel Blanca (Paniagua Morales et al.) (1998), Street Children (Villagrán Morales et al.) (1999), Bámaca Velásquez (2000), Myrna Mack (2003), Martiza Urrutia (2003), Molina Theissen (2004), Plan de Sánchez massacre (2004), Carpio Nicolle (2004), Tiu Tojín (2008), Las Dos Erres massacre (2009), Chitay Nech (2010), Military Diary (Gudiel Alvarez et al.) (2012), and the Río Negro massacre (2012).

Jo-Marie Burt is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Latin American Studies at George Mason University. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Paulo Estrada is a human rights activist, archaeology student at San Carlos University, and civil party in the Military Diary case.