Former Military Intelligence Officer Identified as Kidnapper of Marco Antonio Molina Theissen

Emma Theissen Álvarez de Molina stands and looks over at the holding cell where the five defendants charged in the Molina Theissen case are sitting. The judge asks her if she recognizes any of them. Doña Emma walks closer to get a better look. She stands in front of Hugo Zaldaña Rojas and points to him.

“The man who is sitting on the far left,” she says, quietly but firmly. “That is him.” She says, “His face is forever recorded in my memory” as the one of the three men who raided her home that fateful day on October 6, 1981 and kidnapped her 14-year-old son Marco Antonio Molina Theissen.

Earlier on Monday, March 5, Doña Emma had described to the court the events that occurred that October day. She was at her home around noon when three men dressed in civilian clothes came to the house looking for her daughter Emma Guadalupe Molina Theissen. She and her husband had learned the previous day that the military had detained Emma a little more than a week before and taken her to a military base in Quetzaltenango, but she had managed to escape. That night, the family slept at a relative’s house, fearing reprisals, and returned to the home on October 6 to retrieve some items.

The men entered the home and immediately grabbed Marco Antonio, put tape over his mouth, and shackled him to a chair. Doña Emma said that Zaldaña Rojas, who was in charge of the operation, grabbed her by the arm and began pushing her from room to room, looking for Emma Guadalupe, searching through the house, looking for compromising items. They took some photographs and a camera belonging to another of her daughters, María Eugenia.

“It felt like they were using me as a shield in case there was someone else in the house,” she said.

Doña Emma would learn later that the man she identified, Zaldaña Rojas, was the intelligence official at the military base where Emma had been detained.

When they finished their search of the house, she said, they grabbed Marco Antonio, put him in a sack, and carried him outside. They put him in a white pick-up truck. She ran outside only to see the truck speed away, with a man sitting on top of Marco Antonio in the back of the truck. She did get a look at the license plate: O-17675. So too did a neighbor, she said.

Doña Emma and her husband filed a writ of habeas corpus that very same day. They filed a missing person’s report with police. They searched for Marco Antonio in police stations, military barracks, and even went to the military base in Quetzaltenango where Emma had been held and spoke with the commander, Gordillo Martínez, thinking that perhaps the military had taken him there.

They were forced to leave the country, but they continued their search for Marco Antonio. Thirty-seven years later, they still do not know what happened to him or where his body is. Marco Antonio is one of an estimated 5,000 children the Commission for Historical Clarification determined were the victims of enforced disappeared by the military during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict.

Doña Emma said that she later found out that her daughter Emma Guadalupe had been tortured and sexually violated while she was being held at the military base in Quetzaltenango known as Military Zone No. 17 (MZ17).

“This experience severely affected her,” she told the tribunal. “She suffered terribly while she was in military detention. She had to endure years of therapy to deal with the trauma of what the military did to her,” Doña Emma told the court. “But we know what happened to her isn’t her fault but rather, it is the fault of the Guatemalan military.”

This was the most dramatic moment of the second day of the Molina Theissen trial, which is taking place in Guatemala City. Earlier in the morning, the court called the remaining three defendants to give their statements and submit to cross-examination. The first two, Edilberto Letona Lineras and Manuel Callejas y Callejas, both declined to give a statement and thus were not subjected to questioning by the plaintiffs.

Benedicto Lucas García, head of the Army Chief of Staff, on the contrary, gave a statement and eagerly answered questions posed to him by the government prosecutors and the civil party lawyers, as well as counsel of his co-defendants in the case.

Former Army Chief Benedicto Lucas García Takes the Stand

Lucas García began his statement by saying that he was surprised that he found himself under arrest.

“I am totally innocent of this farce that has been invented against me, not only this case but also the other one, the CREOMPAZ case… I was completely caught by surprise,” Lucas García testified.

He said that he has had an exemplary military career, listing a series of honors and awards that he had received over the years. He further stated that he was not a violator of human rights but rather had helped rescue many people detained by the Judicial Police. Moreover, he said, if he had been given an order by the Minister of Defense to sexually violate a woman, he would have refused to carry such an such an aberrant order.

“I am not a thief, I am not corrupt, I am not a rapist, nor am I a kidnapper,” he told the court. “I am a person of integrity.”

Prosecutor Erick de León, followed by the civil party lawyers and the lawyers of his co-defendants then asked Lucas García several questions. Lucas García affirmed that he was the third in the chain of command, after the president of the republic and the minister of defense.

“I did not emit orders,” he stated. “The minister of defense gave the orders, and I transferred them to the military zones. If Gordillo [Francisco Luis Gordillo Martínez, commander of MZ17 at the time of the alleged crimes] sent me any relevant information, he also sent it to the minister of defense.”

Prosecutor de León asked Lucas García to explain the chain of command and how the channel of intelligence functioned. Lucas García affirmed that he had been head of the Army Chief of Staff and that he was in charge of four sections, including the second section, known widely in Guatemala as the G2. He confirmed that he worked in intelligence and counter-intelligence. However, he said, the importance of the G2 was overrated, as was the role of the School of the Americas, where he took courses twice and where he was taught how to respect human rights.

He explained that the role of military intelligence was to collect information, analyze it, and share it with the military zones. The military used counterintelligence to deter the guerrillas’ advance. They obtained intelligence from soldiers in the field and from the military commissioners, who were usually civilians from the region recruited to surveil the local population.

Lucas García confirmed the existence of the intelligence channel, noting that the S2 intelligence official, in this case Zaldaña Rojas, was tasked with submitting, in writing, periodic intelligence reports to the G2, the head of the military intelligence, who in this case was Callejas y Callejas. The G2 informed Lucas García of any anomalies in the military zones. 

The retired general insisted that these proceedings were focused on him because his brother, Romeo Lucas García, who was de facto president at the time of the alleged crimes, is no longer alive.

“I am a political objective,” he said.

He said that he may have committed errors, but emphatically denied committing any crimes. On several occasions, he blamed the Judicial Police and paramilitary groups such as the feared Mano Blanca and the Secret Anticommunist Army (ESA) death squads, which he said were part of the National Liberation Movement (MLN), for any killings that took place during those years. At one point he compared these groups with contemporary criminal gangs in Guatemala, such as MS13.

When asked by civil party lawyer Alejandro Rodríguez about three military manuals from 1981 as well as military plans, Lucas García stated that he did not believe in the manuals used by the Guatemalan army. They were designed with the help of the U.S. Rangers, he stated, and he did not agree with them, instead emphasizing his military training in France. Lucas García stated that he never used the manuals, basing his actions on his experience in the field. He further stated that in 1981 there were no military plans.

Lucas García repeatedly stated that he never received any information about the capture of Emma Molina Theissen, insisting that the Guatemalan Army never took prisoners.

“We fought the guerrilla in combat. We never took prisoners. When a guerrilla fighter was wounded or killed, they would pick them and take them away,” explained Lucas García.

He also criticized the report of the Catholic Church-led Project for the Recuperation of Historical Memory (REHMI), saying that it presented false information about the nature of human rights violations in Guatemala during the war.

“There were no prisoners of war in Guatemala,” he insisted.

The session concluded at 4:00 p.m. The court convened the following session on Tuesday, March 6, at 8:30 a.m.

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.