A Mother’s Long Quest for Justice Shows the World How International and Domestic Law Can Work Together

Earlier this month, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) welcomed a historic decision from an unlikely place: Guatemala’s High Risk Court “C.” Issued in May 2018, the court condemned four high-ranking military officers for crimes against humanity and rape against Emma Molina Theissen and for the crime of forced disappearance of her 14-year-old brother, Marco Antonio Molina Theissen. 

In 1981, Emma was a 20-year-old member of the Patriotic Worker Youth, when the Guatemalan army detained her physically, psychologically, and sexually abused while in custody. She managed to escape after nine days. The military raided her parents’ home the day after her escape looking for her, but when they were unable to find her, they beat her mother and abducted her 14-year-old brother, Marco Antonio Molina Theissen. To this day, Marco Antonio remains missing. 

Fighting Impunity

This ruling is important for three reasons. First, the decision is historic because it is a major step forward in the fight against impunity for military officers who committed crimes during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict, finally allowing victims to obtain justice. 

Among the four convicted, there are two high-ranking officers previously thought to be untouchable. Manuel Benedicto Lucas García led the Guatemalan military during a key period of the internal armed conflict. He is believed to be the architect of the counterinsurgency plan implemented during the government of his brother, Romeo Lucas García, which continued during the Ríos Montt government. The Commission for Historical Clarification documented over 200 massacres during his period as head of the army. 

The other high-ranking former officer charged is Manuel Callejas y Callejas, who was the former head of military intelligence.  Callejas y Callejas is believed to be at the heart of the Cofradía crime syndicate, which later evolved into La Línea (“The Line”), a corruption scheme involving the customs authority that cost Guatemala millions of dollars. In 2015, investigations into La Línea led to the arrests of then president Otto Perez Molina and his vice president. 

Lucas García and Callejas y Callejas, along with another retired military officer, Hugo Ramiro Zaldaña Rojas, received a sentence of 58 years in prison. A fourth officer, Francisco Luis Gordillo Martínez, was sentenced to 33 years. A fifth officer charged in the case, former colonel Edilberto Letona Linares, was acquitted.

If the judgement withstands the expected appeals, this conviction transforms the movement for greater accountability in Guatemala. It sends a clear message that no one is above the law. It also serves as an inspiration for victims of grave violations in other countries. In such places as Kenya, Syria, and Myanmar, current political circumstances vastly limit prospects for accountability. Despite decades of delay, Guatemalan victims persisted and this case demonstrates that one day, accountability can catch up with powerful perpetrators.  

Application of International Human Rights Standards

While the family’s journey to this moment started nearly four decades years ago, a significant milestone happened in 2004. After years of relentless search for Marco Antonio, in May 2004, the Inter-American Court for Human Rights found that Guatemala had violated the American Convention on Human Rights as well as the Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons to the detriment of Marco Antonio, Emma, their parents, and sisters. The Inter-American Court ordered, among other things, that Guatemala must effectively investigate the facts in the case to identify, try, and punish the direct perpetrators and masterminds of the enforced disappearance of Marco Antonio. Although Guatemala had implemented a few of the orders over the years, until 2018, there had been no criminal prosecution or punishment of the perpetrators.

The judgment from Guatemala’s High Risk Court “C,” now becomes one of the rare instances of domestic implementation regarding a state’s duty to investigate and prosecute. It is also significant because the trial proceedings, which took place in the national justice system, were in response to, orders of an international tribunal. Furthermore, the judgement also orders Guatemala to comply with any pending reparations orders of the Inter-American Court in the case. The Court’s reparations judgment ordered that Guatemala deliver the remains of Marco Antonio, create efficient procedures to address forced disappearance and a presumption of death in the case of forced disappearance, and establish a genetic information system to enable the identification of missing children and clarify parentage.

By applying international and regional human rights standards, the ruling affirms core Inter-American jurisprudence, including “the character of continued violation of enforced disappearance, the inapplicability of amnesty in cases of serious violations of human rights, as well as the central value of the testimony of the victim in cases of rape.” In so doing, the decision endorses the Inter-American Court’s own doctrine of “conventionality control,” which obligates states parties to interpret domestic law in accordance with the American Convention on Human Rights and not to enforce laws that are inconsistent with the Court’s interpretation. In effect, the High Risk Court recognized that Guatemala is part of the international community, with all the duties and responsibilities this entails. 

Right to Truth

The ruling also advances an important precedent on the right to truth.  Emma Molina Theissen said in the trial proceedings that bringing the case to court helped her begin to heal. It afforded the family “the opportunity to tell our truth and ask for the justice we deserve.” However, it is not only victims and their families that benefit from speaking the truth; it is only with truth that society as a whole can begin to mend the social fabric broken by grave crimes. Every society has the right to learn when grave crimes are committed, without lies or denials.

Above all, this ruling is significant because after 37 years of waiting, justice has finally been served for the crimes that destroyed the Molina Theissen family.

Liliana Gamboa is an Advocacy Officer with the Open Society Justice Initiatave.