Adriana Portillo-Bartow, a well-known human rights activist in Guatemala, testified on Tuesday, March 13, in the fourth session of the Molina Theissen trial. The case involves five senior military officers, who are facing charges for the arbitrary detention, torture, and sexual violation of Emma Molina Theissen and the enforced disappearance of her 14-year-old brother, Marco Antonio.
As a witness for the prosecution, Portillo-Bartow’s testimony focused on the enforced disappearance of six members of her family, three of whom were children between the ages of one and 10. Her testimony is one of several that will focus on the military’s practice of enforced disappearance, particularly involving children. The prosecution intends for this to establish that the Guatemalan armed forces engaged in a systematic policy of enforced disappearance during the internal armed conflict and that children were a specific target. The Commission for Historical Clarification estimated that 5,000 children were forcibly disappeared during the internal armed conflict (1960-1996).
The prosecution also called Rodolfo Robles Espinoza, a retired general of the Peruvian Army, to testify. Robles served 40 years in the Peruvian armed forces, and he was the third highest-ranked military official in 1993 when he denounced the existence of the Colina Group, a death squad comprised of Peruvian military officials. After denouncing these crimes, Robles was forced to leave Peru and was stripped of his military rank. He later testified against the former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori, who was convicted in 2009 as the intellectual author of several of the crimes attributed to the Colina Group.
Since then, Robles has served as an expert witness in several cases in Guatemala, including the Myrna Mack case and the Maya Ixil genocide case. Robles testified about the structure of the Guatemalan military, Guatemalan military doctrine, and the chain of command, as well as the role of the doctrine of national security and the concept of “internal enemy.”
“The military made our children targets in order to terrify, paralyze, and punish us”
Portillo-Bartow told the court on Tuesday that several members of her family were involved in the Revolutionary Organization of the People in Arms (ORPA), one of four armed resistance movements active in Guatemala in the 1970s and 1980s. Founded by Rodrigo Asturias, the son of Nobel laureate Miguel Ángel Asturias and known as Gaspar Ilom, ORPA later joined the other revolutionary movements in the National Guatemala Revolutionary Unity (URNG), which in 1996 signed Peace Accords with the Guatemalan government.
She stated that in 1981, Guatemala was convulsed by political violence and social inequality.
“It was in this context,” she stated, “that six members of my family were forcibly disappeared during the government of Romeo Lucas García [1978-1982].”
Portillo-Bartow explained that she and other members of her family joined ORPA to try to change the social and political situation in Guatemala. Her father, Adrian Portillo Alcantara, was a political leader of ORPA in the capital city, and three of her siblings were combatants.
“Those of us who joined the revolutionary movement to try to bring about social change knew of the risks that we were taking,” she told the court. “But we never imagined that the government would make our children targets in order to terrify, paralyze, and punish their parents.”
Portillo-Bartow then provided details of the forced disappearance of her family members. On September 11, 1981, her family was celebrating her father’s birthday at his home in Guatemala City. She sent two of her daughters along other members of her family to the party, and she was planning to arrive later. When she arrived, numerous soldiers, police, and men dressed in civilian clothes surrounded the house. Her family members, her daughters, were nowhere to be found.
“The next day, I heard a representative of the army on TV stating that they had raided an ORPA safe house, where they had found weapons, material to make bombs, indigenous clothing, and other items, but he said that the house was uninhabited, that the ‘subversive delinquents’ had probably fled when they learned that the security forces were coming for them,” she told the court.
Portillo-Bartow testified that some of her neighbors later told her that they had seen the soldiers take away her father. In all, six members of her family were disappeared that day: her father, Adrian Portillo Alcantara, 70 years; his second wife, Rosa Muñoz Latin de Portillo, 26 years; their 18-month-old daughter, Alma Argentina Portillo Muñoz; her sister-in-law, Edilsa Guadalupe Álvarez Morales; and her daughters, Rosaura and Glenda Carrillo Portillo, who were nine and 10 years old. She told the court that she has yet to learn the truth about what happened to her family members.
She left Guatemala and eventually settled in the United States, returning only after the signing of the Peace Accords in 1997. She created the organization, Dónde Están los Ninos y Las Ninas? (Where are the Children?), which is dedicated to help families find the 5,000 children who were disappeared during the armed conflict.
The defense questions were directed at discrediting the witness due to her political activity. At one point, Jorge Lucas Cerna, Benedicto Lucas García’s son and lawyer, asked her whether the guerrillas also engaged in political violence, which she responded to affirmatively.
At another moment, he interjected, “It’s evident that she has hatred for the other side,” referring to the military. Judge Xitumul warned Lucas Cerna to avoid making disparaging remarks of the witness.
Lucas Cerna later asked, “As a mother why did you decide to take these risks?”
Portillo-Bartow responded, “I became involved in the revolutionary movement to help change Guatemala.”
The Escape of Emma Molina Theissen was an Embarrassment for Military Intelligence
Retired Peruvian general Rodolfo Robles Espinoza was called to testify by the Attorney General’s Office to discuss his expert report, “Human Rights Violations against the Siblings Emma Guadalupe and Marco Antonio Molina Theissen (1981).” Robles began his presentation stating that there is sufficient evidence to conclude that there was a direct relationship between the escape of Emma Molina Theissen and the military raid on the Molina Theissen family home, in which Emma’s 14-year-old-brother, Marco Antonio, was detained and disappeared.
Robles explained that two different military structures, both involving military intelligence, played an active role in the alleged crimes against Emma and Marco Antonio Molina Theissen.
The first was the Combat Intelligence Operations (OIC), in which Emma was captured and held incommunicado for nine days at the Military Zone No. 17 (MZ17) in Quetzaltenango, during which time she was interrogated by the military intelligence official of the military base. After Emma’s escape from MZ17, military intelligence organized a Special Intelligence Operation (OEI), consisting of a raid on the Molina Theissen family home, which had as its principal objective the recapture of Emma Molina Theissen, and which, after not finding her, converted Marco Antonio Molina Theissen into a “circumstantial objective” of the military intelligence.
Robles affirmed that the kidnapping of Marco Antonio was intended to exercise psychological and emotional pressure on Emma so that she would turn herself in. According to Robles, Emma was a valuable source of military intelligence given that she was an important political leader of the Guatemalan Workers’ Party (PGT). Moreover, her family was known for their active opposition to military rule and had been identified by the military as “internal enemies,” based on the military doctrine in place at the time.
In addition, the military intelligence system also believed that Emma could be useful for their psychological operations by convincing or forcing her to state on national television that she was now collaborating with the government in the counter-insurgency effort. This type of psychological operation, which had been employed by the Guatemalan army in cases of other political detainees, was seen by the military as having a favorable impact on public opinion. Moreover, Robles added, it was highly embarrassing for the military intelligence system that a woman was able to escape from a military base. It was, moreover, a source of loss of prestige for Zaldaña Rojas as the head of military intelligence in MZ17.
Robles affirmed that Gordillo Martínez and Letona Linares, based on military norms and chain of command, sought to obtain information from suspected subversives who were captured. Zaldaña Rojas was the first to learn of the detention of Emma Molina Theissen, and he would have had to inform the head of MZ17, Gordillo Martínez. As head of military intelligence of MZ17, Zaldaña Rojas would have also been required to inform the head of military intelligence of the Army Chief of Staff, Manuel Callejas y Callejas. For his part, Gordillo was required to inform his superior, the head of the Army Chief of Staff, Benedicto Lucas García.
Robles testified that by virtue of his role as head of military intelligence of the Army Chief of Staff, Callejas y Callejas was responsible for recommending to the head of the Army Chief of Staff, Benedicto Lucas García, an immediate response upon learning of the escape of Emma Molina Theissen from MZ17. According to Robles, Lucas García accepted the recommendation of Callejas y Callejas to conduct a Special Intelligence Operation to recapture Emma Molina Theissen and was therefore responsible for the raid on the Molina Theissen family home and its results, which, by virtue of his role as head of the Army Chief of Staff, he ordered and authorized.
Robles explained the military doctrine that was in place in Guatemala in 1981, along with the chain of command. He analyzed the functional responsibility of each of the accused. He outlined the principle tenets of the Doctrine of National Security (DNS) and counter-subversive warfare, noting that this ideology was applied by militaries throughout Latin America.
He also noted that the application of the DNS in Guatemala was more extreme than in other parts of the region because communists were viewed not only as political adversaries, but also as internal enemies that had to be destroyed. As a result, he stated that in Guatemala there were no political prisoners. Rather, the Guatemalan military assassinated, forcibly disappeared, persecuted, and forced into exile those who it deemed to be communists and therefore the “internal enemy.”
Erick de León of the Attorney General’s Office asked Robles several follow-up questions. Robles affirmed that military orders could be written or verbal. This contradicts the affirmation made earlier in these proceedings by head of the Army Chief of Staff Benedicto Lucas García, who affirmed that orders had to be written.
Robles also affirmed that the head of the Army Chief of Staff has command authority over the military institution, which he defined as the actions taken to ensure obedience of subalterns. Robles affirmed that in 1981, military orders were emitted by the most senior military officials, which led him to conclude that Lucas García was responsible for continuing to implement the program of military blockades, like the one where Emma Molina Theissen was captured at in 1981, throughout the country.
De León asked the expert to review some of the official military documents that were seized from Gordillo Martínez’s home when he was arrested on January 6, 2016. One document refers to the arrest of María Margarita Chapetón Rosales, which was the name that appeared on Emma’s fake identity document at the time of her arrest. The document was sent by the head of military intelligence of MZ17—Zaldaña Rojas—and was directed to the commander of MZ17—Gordillo Martínez.
Robles further noted that military manuals are expressions of military doctrine and that the instructions therein must be carried out without question, as indicated in general procedures of the armed forces. In his testimony, head of the Army Chief of Staff stated that he never used or followed the military manuals.
De León asked Robles whether the escape of Emma Molina Theissen represented a stain on the military career of the intelligence officials at the time, particularly Zaldaña Rojas. Robles reaffirmed that her escape from MZ17 was a huge embarrassment for military intelligence and was part of the motivation of the military intelligence system for going to such lengths to recapture her.
On Twitter, Emma Molina Theissen noted that she learned that Marco Antonio had been forcibly disappeared six months after it had happened. Her family and colleagues did not tell her immediately because she was in such a state of emotional and psychological disstress because of the torture and sexual violence she had suffered that they felt she was too fragile to be told of Marco Antonio’s disappearance.
Emma is scheduled to testify in the coming weeks, via pre-recorded testimony that was accepted by the pre-trial judge in the intermediate phase of the proceedings.
Hearings in the trial continued on Wednesday, March 14.
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.