“I Choose to Live:” Emma Molina Theissen Testifies in High-Stakes Guatemala Trial

The Molina Theissen trial continued in Guatemala City on April 2 and 3, 2018. The highly anticipated testimony of Emma Molina Theissen was heard on April 3, as well as an expert on military archives and strategy, Mario Tulio Álvarez. On April 2, psychologist Jorge de la Peña Martínez testified about the how the torture and sexual abuse endured by Emma Molina Theissen while in military detention affected her physically and psychologically. During her interrogations by the military, he said, “They physically attacked her; they deprived her of food and water; and they repeatedly raped her, all with the objective of destroying her psychologically, socially, and morally.”

Psychological expert: “The torture and sexual violence Emma experienced left a permanent mark on her personality and psyche”

The Attorney General’s Office called Jorge de la Peña Martínez, a Mexican psychologist, to testify about his expert report of the physical and psychological impact of the torture and sexual violence suffered by Emma Molina Theissen while she was in military detention in 1981. Dr. De la Peña Martínez is a professor of psychoanalysis and social psychology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and has served as an expert before the Inter-American Court for Human Rights. His report is based on the Istanbul Protocol [pdf], which addresses the investigation and documentation of torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment.

Dr. De la Peña Martínez testified that Emma is a functional person who is able to pursue normal activities in her everyday life, but the torture and sexual violence she experienced left a permanent mark on her personality and psyche. Due to the abuses she endured, the development of her personal and family life was destroyed. As a result, she presents signs of depression, sadness, and lack of motivation. The expert told the court that Emma needs continuous psychological treatment and will continue to need this for the rest of her life.

The expert also recommended that because of her fragile state, the court should not expose her to cross-examination or to a confrontation with the alleged perpetrators, as this would represent a risk to her psychological integrity.

Dr. De la Peña Martínez noted that torture is a complex form of extreme violence whose objective is not only the psychological and physical destruction of the individual, but also to produce terror and paralysis in the broader social group to which the individual belongs. This broader social and political objective of torture produces pain and anguish in the victim, who feels guilt for being the means by which others experience fear and helplessness.

He further noted that he has heard testimonies of torture from victims all over Latin America, which has led him to conclude that the forms of torture used in earlier dictatorships, such as hanging victims for long periods of time, began to evolve after Plan Condor. (Plan Condor refers to the planned coordination of intelligence-sharing and repression by the military dictatorships of South America in the 1970s.) New forms of torture included puncturing the victim with needles; cutting off the finger or hand of the victim; and applying electric shocks to the victim, particularly to the genital area. Eventually, Latin American dictatorships began using more sophisticated forms of torture, particularly psychological torture, in order to avoid leaving physical evidence.

Dr. De la Peña Martínez noted that torturers were trained to obtain information or a confession from the victim or from a third party who is forced to witness torture. Torture was also used as a form of punishment. In general, he stated, women are tortured more aggressively than men and are usually victims of sexual violence and torture.

He explained that the CIA taught the “KUBARK” method of interrogation and counterintelligence techniques in the School of the Americas (SOA), and this was widely applied in Latin America.[1] He stated that based on his evaluation of the evidence, this method was applied to Emma Molina Theissen.

Dr. De la Peña emphasized that Emma suffered a double violation because she herself was tortured and sexually violated, and her brother, Marco Antonio, was forcibly disappeared. He noted that he had to use various techniques to get Emma to talk about what happened to her. She often would break down and had great difficulty discussing the abuses she endured because she felt responsible for the disappearance of her brother. The doctor stated that he believes the military disappeared Marco Antonio to punish Emma for having escaped military control.

Jorge Lucas Cerna, son of and lawyer for Benedicto Lucas García, asked the court to allow technical consultant Karin Stella Leal Valle to cross-examine the expert witness. Leal Valle attacked the qualifications of the witness, but her questions were circuitous and did not address the substance of De la Peña Martínez’s expert report.

“I Choose to Live:” Emma Molina Theissen Testifies

In the morning session of the tenth hearing in the Molina Theissen case, Marco Tulio Álvarez, an expert on military archives, testified about the context of military repression and the military strategy of forcibly disappearing children. Tulio Álvarez testified about the military concept of “internal enemy,” which he explained as any individual or group that expressed opposition to the military government. This concept was applied indiscriminately, including against children. In particular, he said, the children of militants of opposition groups were targeted as a way of imposing terror and punishing militants. Children were also a form of “war booty,” he said, as many were given away in lucrative adoptions. He noted that the Commission of Historical Clarification estimated that 5,000 children were forcibly disappeared during the Guatemalan internal armed conflict (1960-1996), but he believes that the number is significantly higher.

During the second half of the day’s hearing, public prosecutor Erick de León presented the testimony of Emma Molina Theissen via prerecorded video. Emma’s testimony was admitted into evidence during preliminary evidentiary hearings on March 14, 2011. A similar procedure was allowed in the Sepur Zarco sexual violence and sexual and domestic slavery trial.

Emma began discussing how she became active in politics while she was a secondary school student at “Instituto Belen.” She stated that in 1976 she and her boyfriend Julio César del Valle, who were both members of the Patriotic Worker Youth (JPT), the youth wing of the Guatemalan Workers Party (PGT), were captured and imprisoned. She noted that Julio César was killed in 1980.

Emma told the court that in 1980, she was in charge of some local party cells as well as the Regional Youth Committee of the central region, but after Julio César was killed, she was transferred to Quetzaltenango. On September 26, 1981, she had a meeting in Guatemala City with the party leadership. The following day, she traveled to Quetzaltenango for another meeting, but she never arrived because she was captured that day at a military check point. She was first brought to a small house and was then transferred to Military Zone No. 17.

She testified that the military set up an operation at a safe house in Salcajá. Emma said she led the military to believe that she was going to cooperate with them by aiding in the capture of other party members, but in fact it was a ploy in order to buy time. This had terrible consequences, however; the military officials were angered that she did not turn anyone over to them, and they began to abuse her in an extremely violent way. She was sexually violated on a nightly basis.

She told the court that one day during her time in detention, an intelligence official arrived at the military base who knew her true identity, as well as her home address and that of her family. The interrogations were aimed at extracting information from her about her links with the JPT. Two or three days later, two men proposed that she should give a public statement telling Guatemalan youth not to participate in political and social organizations. They told her that she should give them the names and locations of all the people she knew who were linked to the JPT, so that no one would be left to retaliate against her.

After this, the military officials brought Emma outside the military base in an effort to force her to identify party members and safe house locations. “I did not give them any names, or any information,” she stated.

Emma’s captors denied her food and water since her capture, making her feel very weak. During the last two days she was in captivity, no one came to the room where she was being held, which led her to suspect they were planning to transfer her to Guatemala City, where escaping would be more difficult. She was able to slide out of the handcuff that was around her ankle and escaped through the window of the room in which she was being held. “I walked toward the entrance of the military base,” she said. “I told the soldier who was standing guard that the ‘bald gringo’ told her she could leave. I want to the park and took a taxi to a friend’s house. A friend took care of me, then the party helped me leave Guatemala.”

Emma testified she did not learn about the disappearance of her brother Marco Antonio until April 1982. “My brother was kidnapped hours after my escape,” she stated. “My family and I are certain that they did this in retaliation for my escape, and for my refusal to give them the information they were looking for.”

She stated that she believes that the officials who interrogated her were from the “G2.” They had short, cropped hair, wore civilian clothes, were heavily armed, and talked openly about what they did. They also manifested their open hatred towards communists. The person who led the interrogation sessions at one point showed her a folder containing photographs of her. “You are not the person you say you are,” making reference to her fake identity document. She said that this is probably because when she was arrested in 1976, they had her information on file.

After her testimony was heard in court, Emma Molina Theissen wrote on Twitter: “After the tenth hearing of this late —but profoundly healing— justice, I reaffirm, ‘I choose to live’.”

Following Emma’s testimony, the court allowed public prosecutor Erick de León to read part the testimony of Isidro Mérida. Mérida’s testimony was admitted into evidence in the evidentiary hearings, but he has since passed away. In his testimony, Mérida, who was a member of the PGT at the time of the events, confirmed that he was supposed to meet with Emma Molina Theissen in Quetzaltenango on September 27, 1981, but she never arrived. Mérida’s statement also said that he observed Emma when she was being driven around Quetzaltenango in a military vehicle, and that after Emma’s escape, there were massive military movements in Quetzaltenango, presumably to assist in her recapture.

The next hearing in the trial is taking place Monday, April 9.


[1] The Baltimore Sun obtained two CIA manuals, “Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual-1983” and “KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation-July 1963,”  under the Freedom of Information Act in 1997; the CIA released a less censored version in 2014. The KUBARK manual includes a detailed section on “The Coercive Counterintelligence Interrogation of Resistant Sources,” with concrete assessments on employing “Threats and Fear,” “Pain,” and “Debility.”


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.