The Molina Theissen Trial: Four Protected Witnesses Tell Harrowing Stories of Torture

The Attorney General’s Office called four protected witnesses to testify in the sixth hearing of the Molina Theissen case held on Monday, March 19.  The individuals, going by pseudonyms witnesses B, C, D, and E, gave their testimony via video conference from the Attorney General’s Office in Guatemala City. These precautionary measures were taken because of the security risks they face by giving their testimony in the case.

The witnesses included a woman who cared for Emma Molina Theissen in the days after she escaped military detention, who spoke to her physical and emotional condition.  Another person testified about the forced disappearance of her father, which he witnessed, and two siblings. The third witness described the torture he endured while in military detention. The fourth and final witness of the day was a military intelligence official between 1981 and 1983 who testified about torture methods used to extract information from detainees.

Defendant Benedicto Lucas García, former head of the Army Chief of Staff, was present in Monday’s session after being absent from hearings last week. The third witness testified that Lucas García spoke to him while he was being held captive, and he identified him during the session.

Lucas García, along with four other senior military officials, face charges of crimes against humanity and aggravated sexual violation against Emma Molina Theissen and the enforced disappearance of her 14-year-old brother Marco Antonio. Lucas García also faces charges of enforced disappearance in the CREOMPAZ case.

The hearing scheduled for Tuesday, March 20, was suspended because the defendants were not able to be transferred to the courtroom from the detention center due to an unspecified security risk.

Witness B: “Emma will suffer the rest of her life because of the torture she endured”

Protected witness B testified about the physical and emotional condition of Emma Molina Theissen, as well as the psychological and medical treatment she received, in the days and weeks following her escape from Military Zone No. 17. Witness B stated that Emma was under her control and care for 10 days following her escape on October 5, 1981.

She affirmed that Emma was in an extremely fragile state: she was pale, thin, had bags under her eyes, and could barely walk. She did not speak; she only made sounds. Emma was in a lot of pain and had infections and inflammation in her pelvic area. Though she had her own bed and room, she slept on the floor in the corner of the room like a “wounded animal.” A psychiatrist who examined her determined that she was suffering a psychotic state and prescribed medication to help her overcome this condition.

Emma only drank water, refusing to eat food, during the first three days she was in the care of Witness B. However, on the fourth day, Emma began to eat, and the witness said she noted a change in her disposition. The psychiatrist attending Emma confirmed she was no longer psychotic but said she would suffer for the rest of her life because of the torture she had endured.

Jorge Lucas Cerna, son of and defense counsel for Benedicto Lucas García, asked the witness how she knew Emma Molina Theissen. The witness responded that she met Emma in October 1981. Lucas Cerna insisted that the witness reveal the name of the physician that attended to Emma while under her care. The witness responded that the person in question had passed away but that he had family and that for security reasons she did not feel comfortable revealing his name.

Witness C: Three members of my family were disappeared in September 1981

Witness C testified that her brother and sister were student activists who participated in student, religious, and neighborhood organizations. On September 19, 1981, her brother was kidnapped after leaving “El Limón” neighborhood in Guatemala City. That evening, his captors was forced him to call his family at home and tell them to meet him in downtown Guatemala City. His sister followed his instructions and was herself kidnapped. She was several months pregnant.

A few days later, on September 22, 1981, the witness and her younger brother were with their father looking for her brother and sister in downtown Guatemala City when they were intercepted by several men who kidnapped her father. She and her brother managed to escape.

The witness testified that she learned a few months later from a priest who was close to the family that her father and siblings were alive. At that point, she said, her sister was about seven months pregnant. The witness testified that she and her family searched for their disappeared relatives and brought their case to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights to no avail. She has not seen them since.

The witness said that she left Guatemala with the help of some Jesuit priests. The priests who helped her told her that priest Luis Eduardo Pellecer Faena, who was a member of the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP), had been captured, brought to the military hospital, and forced to give a televised press conference exhorting his comrades to give up the struggle. The priests also told her that the dentist who attended to Pellecer prior to the press conference and the hospital priest were killed so as to erase any evidence of Pellecer’s presence at the military hospital.

This is relevant to the case because the military were allegedly planning to force Emma Molina Theissen to similarly participate in a televised press conference to call on her comrades to give up the struggle.

Witness D: I was kidnapped and tortured; Benedicto Lucas García spoke to me while I was in military detention

Protected witness D told the court that on July 4, 1981, he was kidnapped by men dressed in civilian clothes and was brought to the National Police station in Quetzaltenango.  He was interrogated about his political activities and tortured.

The following day he was brought to Military Zone No. 17 (MZ17) in Quetzaltenango—the same military base where Emma Molina Theissen was held, tortured, and sexually violated—where he endured more intense forms of torture. His head was covered by a hood made of cloth lined with insect repellent, which caused him to feel like he was suffocating. The witness affirmed that the torture sessions were attended by a low-ranking and a senior military officer.

He was later transported in a white van to the military base in Huehuetenango. There, during a period of 10 days, the witness said he was not given any food or water, nor was he allowed to sleep. He was tortured with electric shocks on different parts of his body and given drugs so that he would provide information about his presumed comrades.

The witness testified that he was again transferred, first to to Guatemala City by plane, then to Santa Cruz, El Quiche. In September, he was returned to MZ17 by helicopter. He was held captive there with several other prisoners. On October 22, he was forced to participate in a press conference stating that he had voluntarily turned himself in to the army; they threatened to bomb the communities where he worked if he did not comply.

The witness further testified that he was with his son and his nephew at the time he was captured, and he has no information about their whereabouts.

In response to a question posed by government prosecutor Erick de León about the individuals who interrogated him, the witness testified that the person directing the interrogation sessions was referred to as ‘coronel.’ He showed the court the scars on his body that were the result of the torture he endured during his detention. He affirmed that he was under the control of the Second Section of Military Intelligence (G2) and officials of the Army Chief of Staff.

The witness also affirmed that when he was being held in a military installation in Chimaltenango, he was surprised when he saw many women and children there who had been captured by the army. It was here, he stated, that he saw Lucas García, who congratulated him for collaborating with the army. De León asked the witness if he could recognize Lucas García among the five defendants. At that moment, Lucas García stood up from the bench where he was sitting inside the holding cell and faced the witness. His lawyer advised him to refrain from speaking and to sit down. The witness then confirmed that Lucas García was the person who addressed him while he had been in military detention.

The witness testified that he managed to escape from the ‘Justo Rufino Barrios’ Military Headquarters, located in Guatemala City, on November 26, 1981.  He then went into hiding to avoid being recaptured.

He told the court that while he was in military detention, they trained him for 20 days before being forced to participate in the press conference, which was transmitted on the military TV channel. He also noted that the team that prepared him included psychologists, who were under the command of military intelligence.

De León also asked the witness to look at several images to determine whether they were MZ17. At that moment, Lucas García stated from the holding cell that the witness was misremembering the events and that he had transferred the witness from the airport to Chimaltenango. Lucas Cerna questioned the witness’s ability to properly recall events.

Witness E: We cut off an ear or a finger so that the prisoners would “spill the beans”

Protected Witness E affirmed that he knew the defendants, who were his superior officers when he was in the army, between April 1, 1981 and July 31, 1983. The witness said that because he was a member of Military Intelligence, he studied in the installations of the Tactical Group of the Air Force. He received training to find people and places. He also received training on methods to extract information from prisoners, for example, by forcing them into a barrel filled with water, placing hoods lined with insect repellent over their heads, and applying tourniquets around the neck with a stick.

The witness testified that soldiers and officials received instructions on the proper treatment of women prisoners but when women were captured, no one followed these instructions. Typically, he said, they interrogated women to obtain information from them, and then the older or most senior specialists raped them and then shot them. He noted that the military intelligence officials (S2), who usually wear civilian clothes and drove unmarked cars, worked at all hours.

Witness E testified that during the time he was in the army, military intelligence killed approximately 750 people, including men, women, children, and elderly. They used different methods to extract information from prisoners, including cutting off an ear or a finger, or pulling out toe nails, “so that they would spill the beans.”

The witness affirmed that the communities that lived in the area where the Chixoy hydroelectric dam was built were not guerrillas but unarmed civilians, but the military killed them all. (An estimated 400 people were killed in Alta Verapaz in a series of massacres, including the Rio Negro massacre, in 1981; a hydroelectric dam, with World Bank funding, was later built where the victims once lived. In 2008, five soldiers were convicted in the Rio Negro massacre. In 2012, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled (pdf) in the case, finding the state of Guatemala responsible for the crime.)

The witness also testified that he saw Benedicto Lucas García moments after the massacre of civilians in the village of Canillá, in Quiché Department. Lucas García’s lawyer, Lucas Cerna, questioned the witness about the facts of the Canillá case in an effort to demonstrate that he had no direct knowledge of the facts. The witness affirmed that the victims were shot and decapitated. He added that the victims in this case were not members of the guerrilla, but rather civilians who were fleeing army incursions.

The witness testified that he was under the command of Major Luis Felipe Miranda Trejo, who is currently wanted in relation to the CREOMPAZ enforced disappearance case and is a fugitive from justice. The witness also said that the officials and personnel of Military Intelligence had free reign; they did not have to identify themselves, and they only reported to the S2 official of the military zone where they were operating.

Everyone who was detained was tortured he told the court. At the military bases where they were held, he said, you could hear people, both men and women, screaming all night long.

The next hearing in the Molina Theissen case will be held Monday, March 26.

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.