Tribunal Hears Testimony from Expert on Enforced Disappearances, Former Political Activist in Molina Theissen Trial

Last week, the Molina Theissen case continued before High Risk Tribunal “C” in Guatemala City. Judges heard testimony from five prosecution witnesses as well as the 2004 declarations of Emma Molina Theissen and Axel Ranferí Mejía Paz before the Inter-American Court for Human Rights.

Tuesday, April 11

On April 11, the court called a protected witness proposed by the civil parties. However, the defense objected to this witness remaining protected because his name had already been mentioned in open court.

The court ruled that the full name of the witness should be disclosed, which led to the testimony of Mario Alfonso Bravo Soto via videoconference. He stated that he met Emma Molina Theissen in 1978 at a youth festival organized by the Patriotic Worker Youth (JPT). He became further acquainted with her only in 1981, after the second JPT Congress, at which Emma was elected member of the Executive Committee of the organization and was placed in charge of the Western Regional Committee.

Bravo noted that on September 26, 1981, the Political Commission of the Guatemalan Workers Party (PGT) convened a meeting that included the Executive Committee of the JPT, which was linked to the PGT, and of which both he and Emma were members. During the meeting, the PGT transferred critical information to the JPT Executive Committee, including an internal document in which the PGT proposed that the JPT should be dissolved and its members should be incorporated into the PGT in order to strengthen the organization’s position if it entered into the armed struggle.

The Secretary of the JPT Executive Committee, whose pseudonym was “Jorge,” asked the PGT to allow them time to discuss the proposal in private. Bravo testified that the Executive Committee determined that they were not in a position to give an immediate answer to the PGT proposal and asked for some time to be able to consult with their bases.

The PGT leadership agreed and gave each member of the JPT Executive Committee precise instructions to share the document with the local, sectional, and grassroots committees of the JPT. After the meeting, Jorge asked Emma if she was traveling that same day back to Quetzaltenango. The delegates were told to be very cautious as these documents were of great importance. Emma, who was in charge of the Western Regional Committee of the JPT, was supposed to convene an emergency meeting to discuss the proposal upon her arrival to Quetzaltenango, said Bravo.

The witness testified that he first learned of Emma’s possible capture from her boyfriend on the evening of Sunday, September 27, and Jorge confirmed this news the following morning. According to Bravo, Emma’s capture activated a protocol to locate her: party members began to look for her in hospitals and morgues, while there was an immediate retreat of all those who had any relation with her in order to safeguard the locations of the homes and workplaces of other JPT members.

Bravo further testified that three or four days later, Jorge informed him that a member of the Western Regional Committee had seen Emma in custody of the army and that she was being transported in a Bronco-style vehicle, which were commonly used by the security forces at the time. It was common army practice to drive prisoners around and try to force them to identify people in the street; this had happened to other JPT members, he stated.

The witness stated that the PGT leadership grew worried that the capture of Emma would have serious repercussions for its plan to join the armed struggle, leading to the decision to create a special commando unit to rescue her, on the presumption that she would be again driven around the town to identify people. Bravo said he learned on October 5, 1981 that Emma had escaped military detention and was being moved to the southern coast. As a result, the rescue unit was deactivated.

Bravo said that he spoke with Emma 15 or 20 days after her escape. She confirmed to him that during her interrogation sessions in Military Zone No. 17, the officials showed her a folder in which there were lists of several members of the organization, including one with his name, his pseudonym, and photographs of him.

Jorge Lucas Cerna, son of and lawyer for Benedicto Lucas García, asked the witness if he harbored hatred toward the military, in reference to several articles Bravo had published in different outlets.

The witness stated his publications expressed his pain over the news of the enforced disappearance of his brother when the witness was abroad.

Lucas Cerna asked him if Iván Alfonso Bravo Soto was his brother. The witness affirmed that he was and that he had been assassinated, along with Julio Cesar del Valle, who was Emma’s boyfriend, and Marco Tulio Pereira, in 1980. He added that officials of the army and the Treasury Guard had allegedly kidnapped his other brother, Hugo Cesar Bravo Sato, in May 1981.

The next witness called was Fernando Cabrera Galindo, who testified about the patterns of enforced disappearance in Guatemala. Several of the defense lawyers objected to his testimony because he had not been proposed as an expert witness and that works for the Attorney General’s Office. The tribunal dismissed the objections.

Cabrera Galindo referred to 37 cases of enforced disappearance 1981. He also discussed the pattern of kidnapping, disappearance, torture, and transfer to military centers the armed forces had, as well as the military units responsible for these actions. Using information provided by the Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH), the witness identified 105 victims who were transferred to military zones, including six who were transferred to Military Zone No. 17, where Emma was held. He also noted that the CEH registered seven cases of torture and sexual violence in Quetzaltenango in 1981.

The witness noted the existence of declassified U.S. government documents affirming, “[T]he majority of victims of enforced disappearance have been kidnapped by security forces;” that the police were subordinate to the military; and the need to modernize the army’s interrogation methods. He further noted that the U.S. documents attribute these actions to the army high command and military intelligence.

Wednesday, April 12

The trial continued on April 12, when the court called José Alberto de Paz Tello to testify. He is the director of the Intercultural and Sports Center, which is located in the former installation of Military Zone No. 17. The witness testified that the installation was modified to suit the needs of the new center.

During his testimony, he was asked to examine photographs of the former military installation and confirmed the location and structure of the military base. He also recognized the four exits, the basement, signs and plaques, and the shooting range.

Later, the court called prosecution witness Mynor Amado Cite Delgado, a technician in criminal investigations. He showed the court a photograph album with 197 images taken in 2016. These identify the basement, a sports field, rooms, hallways, bars, exits, and administrative offices of former Military Zone No. 17.

The Attorney General’s Office next asked the court to hear the declarations of Emma Molina Theissen and Axel Ranferí Mejía Paz before the Inter-American Court for Human Rights in 2004. Emma describes her capture, transfer, and interrogation, as well as the torture, sexual violence, and hunger that she endured. She also discusses the times the military drove her around Quetzaltenango and her escape from the Military Zone No. 17.

Emma described the harm she suffered as a result of the enforced disappearance of her brother, Marco Antonio, and told the Inter-American Court:

We want at the very least for his remains to rest in peace; we want justice; and we want to know who is responsible and for them to be suitably punished, not only for ourselves but for all of Guatemala…. Taking the life of my brother took away from us the possibility of having him as a brother and as a son. Having his remains back will help us begin to heal our pain and suffering.

The session concluded with the testimony of Mejía Paiz, who discussed the search for children who were the victims of enforced disappearance during the Guatemalan armed conflict. The witness stated that 90 percent of the children disappeared between 1980 and 1984 were taken by the army.

“In each of the massacres,” he stated, “children were captured. They were later taken to military bases, some were sold into adoption, some were given to military commissioners, and a few were given to neighbors who had survived the massacres.”

The next hearing will be held on Monday, April 23.

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.