The Molina Theissen Trial: Witness Illustrates the Impact of Argentine Military Training in Guatemala

The prosecution in the Molina Theissen trial has called four witnesses over the course of two hearings this week. On Monday, March 26, the prosecution called Dr. Julieta Carla Rostica, an Argentine sociologist who specializes in Central American studies and has investigated Argentine military training to Guatemala, and Ruth del Valle, a classmate of Emma Molina Theissen whose brother, Julio del Valle, was Emma’s boyfriend, and who was killed in 1980. On Tuesday, March 27, two expert witnesses from the Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG) testified about the search for individuals who were the victims of enforced disappearance during the Guatemalan civil war (1960-1996).

Rostica’s expert testimony was particularly important. Drawing on Argentine military documents and declassified U.S. government documents, she testified that the Argentine military began providing training to the Guatemalan military after the United States suspended military aid to Guatemala due to concerns over human rights violations. Both the Argentine and Guatemalan militaries operated under the framework of the Doctrine of National Security, which postulated that the world was embroiled in a “total war” between capitalism and communism, and identified “internal enemies” that needed to be eliminated in order to remove the subversive threat and guarantee national security.

Rostica outlined similarities in the use of enforced disappearance in both countries, noting the specific ways in which the Argentine military helped train their Guatemalan counterparts in methods of detaining, interrogating, and disappearing suspected subversives. Rostica also cited trainings on the need to obtain information from detainees in order to identify and arrest top leadership and thereby dismantle subversive organizations. Further, she noted that the treatment of Emma Molina Theissen after her arrest on September 27, 1981, and the later kidnapping of her brother Marco Antonio after Emma’s escape from military detention were clear examples of this modus operandi.  Emma’s escape meant the loss of potentially valuable intelligence about more senior members of the Guatemala Workers’ Party (PGT); the kidnapping of Marco Antonio was intended to convince Emma to turn herself in.

Human rights groups estimate that 30,000 individuals were forcibly disappeared during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship in Argentina, and that 45,000 individuals were forcibly disappeared in Guatemala between 1960 and 1996.

Five senior military officials face charges of crimes against humanity and aggravated sexual violation against Emma Molina Theissen; three of the officials also face charges for the enforced disappearance of Emma’s 14-year-old brother Marco Antonio in 1981. The five officials were detained on January 6, 2016, and in March 2017, the preliminary judge determined that there was sufficient evidence to send them to trial. The public trial started in Guatemala City on March 1.

The Argentine Military, Seeing Communism as a Global Threat, Provided Training to Their Guatemalan Counterparts

Monday’s hearing began with the prosecution calling Julieta Rostica to testify. Rostica presented her expert report, “The Argentine collaboration and its consequences for the counter-insurgency struggle in Guatemala, 1976-1981,” which is based on official documentation obtained from the Argentine Foreign Ministry as well as declassified military documents. She stated that her report includes lists of Guatemalan military officers who attended military intelligence courses in Argentina, as well as the names of Argentine military officers who were stationed as military attachés in Guatemala. Rostica affirmed that the military of both countries had received training in military intelligence as well as in the Doctrine of National Security.

The expert testified that Argentina’s involvement in military affairs in Guatemala began after U.S. President Jimmy Carter ceased military and other forms of assistance to countries accused of serious human rights violations. In 1979, Otto Spiegeler Noriega, the minister of defense under former Guatemalan President Romeo Lucas García (1978-1982), arrived in Argentina and a year later was appointed ambassador to that country. This provided the opportunity for the creation of a scientific-technical collaboration agreement, which was finalized when the former Guatemalan director of military intelligence, Manuel Callejas y Callejas, visited Argentina in August 1980. The agreement included scholarships for training in military intelligence.

At least 14 Guatemalan military personnel received this training, the expert testified, including retired General José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, the head of military intelligence during the government of Efraín Ríos Montt, both of whom are is currently on trial for genocide in the Ixil region, though in separate proceedings, and Byron Humberto Barrientos, who is awaiting trial on charges of enforced disappearance and crimes against humanity in the CREOMPAZ case. Of the foreign military officials trained by “Battalion 601” of the Argentine military intelligence system, 15 percent were Guatemalan.

While investigators previously believed that Honduras was the base of operations for the Argentine military in Central America, Rostica noted that declassified documents have since confirmed that the base was, in fact, Guatemala. Documents from the Historical Archive of the National Police (AHPN) reveal that several Argentine military officials from Battalion 601 lived in Guatemala under false identities. According to Rostica, the Argentine military believed that they were fighting an ideological war against communism that transcended national borders and that Central America was a hotbed of communist activity that required their, involvement. Rostica testified that Mario Sandoval Alarcón, the leader of the extreme-right party National Liberation Movement (MLN), widely believed to have organized death squads such as the Mano Blanco and the Secret Anticommunist Army (ESA), visited the leaders of the Southern Cone dictatorships on several occasions.

The expert also mentioned a declassified U.S. government document demonstrating the cooperation between Argentina and Guatemala on the subject of military intelligence. The document reports on a visit between members of U.S. embassy staff and Callejas y Callejas, in which the former express their concern about the latter’s visits to Argentina. The document reports that Callejas y Callejas told the embassy staff that only three people were receiving training in military intelligence by the Argentine Ministry of Defense.

Rostica testified that the Argentine military drew on the French school of counter-insurgency in developing their methods to combat presumed subversive organizations, and that the Guatemalan Manual of Counter-subversive Warfare was based on knowledge developed in Argentina. As an example, she cited two Argentine military documents that are included in the Guatemalan Manual of Counter-subversive Warfare: a brochure, dated 1982, titled “Communist Revolutionary Warfare,” and army regulations prepared by the Command School of the Argentine military. The repression employed during the government of Romeo Lucas García, including the capture, detention, and disappearance of suspected subversives, was identical to the modus operandi used by the Argentine military, Rostica stated. The Guatemalan military also employed interrogation methods perfected by the Argentine military, including the use of psychological pressure and clandestine detention centers, to obtain information that would lead to the capture of the leadership of subversive groups.

The Modus Operandi of Enforced Disappearance in Argentina and Guatemala

Rostica stated that her report compares the practice of enforced disappearance in Argentina and Guatemala to determine the extent to which there were similarities or differences, particularly focusing on its use in an urban context. Her findings are based on the reports on enforced disappearance prepared by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights in 1977, 1978, and 1980 in the case of Argentina, and a 1984 report in the case of Guatemala.

The objective of enforced disappearance, under the ideological framework of the Doctrine of National Security, is to eliminate the “internal enemy” and to continually obtain new information that enables the military to identify and capture others, including the top leadership of subversive organizations. In urban areas, the military defined the internal enemy not only as members of political-military organizations, but also as members of trade unions, teachers, members of student and social organizations, and others presumed to be challenging the established order.

According to the expert, Emma Molina Theissen was illegally detained and tortured because the military considered her part of the clandestine structures of subversion. While she was detained in a clandestine detention center at Military Zone No. 17 (MZ17), intelligence officials used psychological pressure to force her to collaborate with the army by providing information about the names of Patriotic Labor Youth (JPT) and PGT leaders and safe houses. However, the military’s attempts were thwarted when Emma escaped military detention. It was this, Rostica stated, that led to the military operation that resulted in the enforced disappearance of Emma’s brother, Marco Antonio, the day after her escape; they believed that this would convince Emma to turn herself in so that they could recapture a vital source of information for capturing senior leaders of the PGT.

Rostica added that in both Argentina and Guatemala, children and the elderly were used to obtain information. In several cases, children were forced to observe as their parents or relatives were tortured in order to pressure them to provide relevant information.

The defense lawyers challenged the witness’s expertise and, in protest, refused to ask her any questions.

Ruth del Valle, the Sister of Emma’s Boyfriend, Who Was Assassinated in 1980, Testifies

Next, the prosecution called on Ruth del Valle to testify. Del Valle stated that she met Emma Molina Theissen and her sister Ana Lucrecia in 1973 when they were high school students at the Belen Institute. At that time, Emma was the first president of the student association. Del Valle testified that her brother, Julio Cesar del Valle, was Emma’s boyfriend, and that they participated together in student movement activities.

She testified that security forces captured her brother and Emma in 1976 in the Niño Dormido neighborhood, where they were engaged in social work. They were both minors, she said, yet they were held in prison and were subjected to psychological torture. They were released a month later due to a lack of evidence.

In 1980, she testified, her brother Julio Cesar was assassinated, along with two other men, Marco Tulio Pereira and Ivan Alfonso Bravo. Near their bodies there was graffiti signed by the “Secret Anticommunist Army –ESA,” a death squad believed to be linked to the extreme-right party MLN.

The witness stated that she learned of Emma’s detention because Emma had not reached her destination on the night of September 27, 1981. After Emma escaped, del Valle said that she saw her several months later. “She told me what had happened to her. It was very painful for me as a woman to learn about what they had done to her. I thought, this could have happened to me and to our other colleagues who were detained and disappeared.”

Del Valle stated further that she viewed the kidnapping of Marco Antonio as a reprisal for Emma’s escape from military detention. She said the Molina Theissen family fell apart after Marco Antonio was disappeared. Though his parents wanted to stay to continue searching for him, they feared for their lives and had to leave Guatemala.

Jorge Lucas Cerna, son of and lawyer for Benedicto Lucas García, cross-examined the witness. He attacked her suitability as a witness because of her previous work as the head of the Presidential Commission for Human Rights (COPREDEH) during the government of Álvaro Colom. The relatives of the defendants, particularly those of Gordillo Martínez and Zaldaña Rojas, were making noise and mocking the witness during her testimony.

Forensic Experts Say the Guatemalan Army Should Provide Information About Military Base Locations to Facilitate the Search for the Disappeared

Two experts from the FAFG, Claudia Rivera and Mishel Marie Stephenson, testified on March 27 about the search for victims of enforced disappearance. FAFG is a non-profit organization that has engaged in such work for more than 20 years.

Rivera spoke about the process of extracting blood and saliva samples for DNA comparisons, as well as the process for ensuring the chain of custody of these samples. Stephenson is in charge of the FAFG’s DNA laboratory and supervises the process of comparing DNA samples from the families of victims with the human remains recovered during exhumations. The experts noted that to date, 1,510 human remains have been exhumed from military bases in Guatemala, and stated that it would great facilitate the search for the disappeared if the Guatemalan army would provide information about the location of former and current military bases.

With regard to the Molina Theissen case, the experts noted that FAFG has tested the remains of 777 adolescents, which constitute 15.5% of the total human remains recovered. They noted, however, that an additional 19,319 samples still need to be analyzed, but that FAFG lacks the necessary resources to complete DNA testing of those samples. They noted that the effort to identify Marco Antonio and other victims of enforced disappearance carried out by FAFG is an independent effort. They also noted that the search for the disappeared is an obligation of the Guatemalan state, as established in a judgment by the Inter-American Court for Human Rights, and that this obligation remains unfulfilled.

The defense attorneys questioned the suitability of the experts, as well as the work of FAFG.

The court suspended the hearing before lunch and scheduled the next hearing for Monday, April 2.

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.