“I thought —naively— that because he was a child, they’d have to release him,” María Eugenia Molina Theissen told the court, referring to her 14-year-old brother, Marco Antonio, who was kidnapped from the family home on October 6, 1981, allegedly by members of the Guatemalan military. She testified that the family believes that the disappearance of Marco Antonio was “an act of reprisal” by the military after her sister Emma escaped from the military base where she was being detained incommunicado. She added that because of the family’s history of opposition to military rule and their militancy in political organizations, the military considered “enemies of the state.”
María Eugenia, followed by her sister Ana Lucrecia, testified in the third day of hearings of the Molina Theissen trial, in which five senior Guatemalan military officials face charges of crimes against humanity and aggravated sexual violation against their sister Emma and enforced disappearance of their brother Marco Antonio. Their testimony paralleled the narrative of the events presented by their mother, Emma Theissen Álvarez de Molina, during the previous session and provided additional details.
The sisters spoke about how the torture and sexual violence Emma endured affected her, and how the forced disappearance of Marco Antonio and the uncertainty surrounding his fate has affected the family.
“Marco Antonio was a happy, studious, playful kid,” María Eugenia told the court. “His disappearance was devastating and very painful for the family. The abuses suffered by Emma, and the forced disappearance of Marco Antonio, marked a before and an after in our lives.”
The sisters also testified about the long path for truth and justice the family began the very day Marco Antonio was forcibly disappeared 37 years ago.
In the afternoon, Carlos Martin Beristain gave his expert testimony on the impact of the forced disappearance of Marco Antonio Molina Theissen on the family. Dr. Beristain is an international expert on the psychosocial effects of state violence on victims and their families, as well as their communities and the broader society.
At the time of the events in question, María Eugenia lived with her husband and daughter in her parent’s family home in Guatemala City. She said that she learned that her sister had been captured and taken to Military Zone No. 17 (MZ17) in Quetzaltenango on September 28, the day after she was captured. She learned of Emma’s capture from her husband, Héctor Alvarado, who was a member of the Guatemalan Workers’ Party (PGT). Emma was a member of Patriot Worker Youth (JPT), the youth section of the PGT.
Days later, another party member told Alvarado that he had seen Emma being driven around Quetzaltenango in an army vehicle with several armed men. Alvarado conveyed this information to María Eugenia, but she said she did not tell her parents for several days that Emma was in military custody because she did not want to alarm them.
Ana Lucrecia lived with Emma in Quetzaltenango. In her testimony, she stated that she learned from Emma’s boyfriend that she had not come home on the night of September 27. Fearing that she had been captured, she immediately set out to find her. She heard that the corpses of five women had been found near the La Verbena cemetery, so she went there to see if Emma was among the dead. Shortly thereafter she learned from a member of the PGT that Emma was in military custody.
Enemies of the State
The political activism of the Molina Theissen family was evidence in the testimony of the two sisters. María Eugenia told the court that the military government viewed her entire family as enemies of the state because of their political activities. The military twice detained her father, Carlos Molina, in the years following the 1954 CIA-sponsored coup for his opposition to the military regime. Emma was arrested in 1976, when she was a student leader, and her boyfriend, Julio César del Valle Cóbar, also a student leader, was the victim of extrajudicial execution in 1980. This prompted Emma to relocate to Quetzaltenango for safety. She also began using a fake identity card to avoid detection.
Both sisters testified that they left Guatemala in 1984, after María Eugenia’s husband was extrajudicially executed. With the help of members of the PGT, María Eugneia sought protection for herself and her daughter at the Embassy of Ecuador, where they lived in exile for years until she was able to move to Costa Rica to reunite with the rest of her family. Ana Lucrecia went to live in exile in Mexico and later moved to Costa Rica.
Emma’s Detention and Escape
Years later, María Eugenia said, Emma told her what had happened to her. The bus to Quetzaltenango on September 27 stopped at a military checkpoint. According to Ana Lucrecia, Emma had a leadership role in the JPT and for this reason traveled to Guatemala City frequently. When the soldiers found that she was carrying documents related to the JPT and the PGT, she was held nearby for several hours and was later taken to MZ17.
At that point, the military registered her as María Margarita Chapetón, the name on the false identity document she was carrying. A few days later, the military determined that she was actually Emma Molina Theissen.
In court, both María Eugenia and Ana Lucrecia were asked to review a copy of the identity card Emma was carrying the day she was captured, which was registered under the name María Margarita Chapetón Rosales. Both confirmed that the picture was their sister, Emma Molina Theissen. They also recognized the signature on the identity card as Emma’s.
Both sisters testified that Emma suffered severe torture and sexual violence during and outside of interrogation sessions while she was held incommunicado at MZ17. Ana Lucrecia testified that Emma told her that the men who interrogated her repeatedly asked about other members of the JPT and the PGT, as well as about collaborators and safe houses. They showed Emma a folder containing information about her, including photographs of her and of her boyfriend, del Valle Cóbar, who had been assassinated the previous year. Emma’s captors also forced her to drive around Quetzaltenango in a military vehicle and tried to coerce into identifying members of the party and the location of safe houses, but Emma refused.
Ana Lucrecia provided additional details about how Emma was able to escape from MZ17. After being driven around town, Emma was brought back to her cell at the military base, where she was left alone for some time. She had received no food and little water during the time she was detained. As a result she lost more than 20 pounds and was able to slip out of the shackles around her ankles. When she realized that the window of her cell had no glass pane, she escaped through the window, walked out of the military base, and took a taxi to a relative’s house. She was later brought to the southern coast for safety.
“When I heard that Emma had escaped,” Ana Lucrecia said, “it was like touching the sky with my hands.”
However, Emma’s emotional state was extremely delicate in the aftermath of torture and sexual violation. Ana Lucrecia testified that she suffered panic attacks and at night would wake up screaming. In January 1982, Emma left Guatemala for Mexico, where she lived in exile for several years, until she was able to move to Costa Rica.
The Enforced Disappearance of Marco Antonio
On October 5, 1981, María Eugenia and Ana Lucrecia told their parents and Marco Antonio that Emma had been captured by the military. That evening, they all decided to abandon the house and stay at the homes of different relatives.
On the morning of October 6, Ana Lucrecia said that she learned that Emma had managed to escape the military base and went to her parent’s house to inform the family. Her mother and Marco Antonio were at the house, picking up some items they needed, and she urged them to gather their things quickly and leave. Shortly after Ana Lucrecia left, two military officials came to the house, forced Marco Antonio to open the gate, and proceeded to tie him up. They searched the house using Doña Emma as a human shield.
“We never imagined that the military would engage in an operation like this in broad daylight,” said Ana Lucrecia.
Ana Lucrecia provided additional details about the forced disappearance of Marco Antonio that her mother had told her at the time of the events. The officials who entered the house repeatedly asked where the weapons were being stored, and asked questions about the guerrillas.
“They found no weapons,” she stated. “We only had books in the house.”
Ana Lucrecia further testified that her mother told her that while the military operation was going on, Marco Antonio kept asking her, “‘What should we do, mom? What should we do?’ When I heard this phrase, it broke my heart,” she said. “What could a child do in a situation like this?”
The sisters testified that their family never stopped searching for Marco Antonio, starting with the very day of his disappearance. They filed numerous petitions of habeas corpus, visited military barracks, police stations, and hospitals. They sought meetings with senior military officials to try to get information about Marco Antonio, one time even meeting with the commander of MZ17, Gordillo Martínez, who is one of the accused in this case.
During questioning by the defense, Ana Lucrecia mentioned that they even tried appealing to the religious convictions of Efraín Ríos Montt, who came to power in a March 1982 military coup, to help them locate Marco Antonio. “All to no avail,” she said. “We never heard from Marco Antonio again.”
Shortly after the events, police artists prepared facial composites of the men who raided the family home and kidnapped Marco Antonio based on description provided by Emma Theissen Álvarez de Molina. It was only after the January 6, 2016 arrest of the accused in this case that Doña Emma saw Hugo Zaldaña Rojas in person. She immediately identified him as one of the men who kidnapped her son.
The Long Path to Justice
Ana Lucrecia told the court that at the time of the events, the legal system lacked the capacity to respond to the family’s demands to know the truth about Marco Antonio. Judges were unwilling to take action even in response to their writs of habeas corpus. Eventually, the family decided to file a complaint with the Ombudsman’s Office and later before the Inter-American System of Human Rights.
In 2004, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) issued a judgement finding Guatemala responsible for the disappearance of Marco Antonio and ordered both symbolic and economic reparations. The IACtHR also ordered the state to locate and return the remains of Marco Antonio and create a national DNA database to help search for victims of enforced disappearance, but this has not happened.
When asked what she hoped to get from these proceedings, María Eugenia said first that talking about these terrible events made her feel sad but that she also felt glad that she has been able to finally give her testimony before a court of law in Guatemala.
“I want justice for my sister and for my brother,” María Eugenia said. “I want them to return the remains of my brother. I want the truth. We want to know what happened to Marco Antonio. We want to know who killed him, where his body is, because we want to give him a proper burial.”
Defense lawyers focused their questions on the ideological make up of the JTP and the PGT and on whether the Molina Theissen family received economic reparations from the state. María Eugenia answered that the PGT was Marxist and represented a justified attempt at social change.
A representative of the Prosecutor General’s Office (a third party independent from the Attorney General’s Office) asked both witnesses if they were seeking economic reparations. They responded that they had received economic reparations from the State as a result of the judgment of the IACtHR and affirmed that they were not seeking additional economic reparations.
They were also asked why the case before the IACtHR focused only on forced disappearance and not allegations of sexual violence. Ana Lucrecia responded by saying that Emma felt guilty about what happened to her brother and did not want the case to focus on her. Also, she was still severely traumatized by the abuses she suffered at the hands of the military.
High Risk Court “C” in Guatemala City is conducting the trial, which opened on March 1. The next session is scheduled for Tuesday, March 13, 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.