Will Guatemala Still Prosecute Suspected War Criminals Under New Attorney General?

International Justice Monitor followed the process for selecting Guatemala’s new attorney general because of its potential to have tremendous implications for grave crimes trials and the rule of law in Guatemala. This is the ninth and final post in the series.

On May 3, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales announced his selection of María Consuelo Porras to serve as attorney general, succeeding Thelma Aldana. Porras took office on May 16. Morales made the appointment from a list of six finalists put forward by a Nominating Commission whose membership was at least partially determined through political manipulation and whose procedures faced criticism for such things as a lack of transparency in applying decision-making criteria and a failure to vet the candidates’ finances. Morales’s decision also came as outgoing Attorney General Aldana levied new accusations of campaign finance violations against him, in addition to those she announced in August 2017.

Under Aldana and her predecessor, Claudia Paz y Paz, Guatemala has pursued domestic prosecutions for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes committed during the 36-year armed conflict that ended in 1996. The effort has made Guatemala a world leader in domestic accountability for grave crimes. Porras’ views on these trials is unknown but will have enormous implications for ongoing and future grave crimes proceedings.

Molina Theissen

The Attorney General’s Office will play an important role in the appeals stage of the Molina Theissen case, following the May 23 conviction of four former senior military officials for crimes against humanity, aggravated sexual violence, and enforced disappearance.

CREOMPAZ

Porras’ office inherits the stalled CREOMPAZ case, which her predecessor Thelma Aldana described as one of the largest cases of enforced disappearance in Latin America’s history. In June 2016, a judge ruled that there is enough evidence to proceed to trial with charges against eight former military officials. Those charged include former Army Chief of Staff Benedicto Lucas García, who was among those convicted in the Molina Theissen case.

Rodríguez Sánchez Genocide Retrial

Trial judges acquitted former military intelligence chief Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez when he was tried together with former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt on charges of genocide in 2013. A controversial Constitutional Court ruling partially suspended the proceedings against both men, effectively vacating the guilty verdict against Ríos Montt as well as the acquittal against Rodríguez Sánchez. After many false starts and delays, the retrial finally started in October 2017. While the case against Ríos Montt was closed following his death this April, the retrial of Rodríguez Sánchez is nearing completion, with a verdict expected in August. Porras’ office will have the task of handling any appeal.

Achí Sexual Violence Case

In May, six former military commissioners were arrested and charged with the crimes of sexual violence and crimes against humanity against some 30 Maya Achí women. These actions occurred in the context of military campaigns against the Maya Achí population in the municipality of Rabinal, Baja Verapaz, following local resistance to the construction of a major hydroelectric project in 1978. The UN Historical Clarification Commission found that these attacks, which killed 20 percent of the population and destroyed entire hamlets, constituted acts of genocide.

The intermediate phase of the proceedings, in which a preliminary judge reviews the evidence to determine whether the case should proceed to trial, is scheduled to commence on August 24, 2018. Four additional ex-commissioners evaded arrest and are considered fugitives. The intellectual authors of the attacks have yet to face arrest.

Dos Erres

The case relates to killings perpetrated by Army Special Forces, known as Kaibiles, in earl December 1982, at Dos Erres in Petén. According to the Historical Clarification Commission, soldiers raped women and girls and killed men, women, and children. They then killed other villagers over a three-day period leaving in total more than 200 people dead. In August 2016, Santos López Alonzo, a former Kaibil accused of participating in the massacre and illegally appropriating Ramiro Osorio Cristales, who was five years old at the time his family was killed at Dos Erres, was deported to Guatemala from the United States.  López Alonzo’s trial is scheduled to begin on August 20, 2018.

There have been several convictions in relation to this case already. In 2011, a Guatemala court sentenced four soldiers to 6,026 years for their responsibility in the Dos Erres massacre; another soldier was convicted in relation to the case in Guatemala in 2012. Two retired military officials accused in the case were convicted in U.S. courts for violations of immigration law; when they complete their ten-year sentences, they will be removed to Guatemala, where they may face further charges. In March 2017, a court ruled that there was sufficient evidence to proceed with a trial against Ríos Montt in the Dos Erres massacre case, but with his death, the case against him has been closed.

Future Cases?

In addition to these cases, there are more than 1,000 complaints before the Attorney General’s Office. Of these, at least a dozen cases have a sentence from the Inter-American Court for Human Rights, in which the Court found the State of Guatemala responsible for the crimes and ordered it to investigate, prosecute and punish those responsible. Last year, the Inter-American Court visited Guatemala to supervise 14 cases in which the State of Guatemala had failed to fulfill its international obligations. In the course of this visit, the Attorney General’s Office promised to create a special unit to investigate these cases. It will be a test of Porras’ leadership whether she pursues these and other grave crimes cases.

Concerns about Porras

Some observers, citing distortions in the nominating process, view Porras as a loyalist to President Morales. There is great anticipation for how she will handle issues of organized crime and corruption. Insight Crime described three criteria by which to judge Porras’ professionalism and independence in this regard: how she handles prominent corruption cases, especially President Morales’s alleged campaign finance violations; how she handles the relationship to the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), following Morales’s failed attempt to declare Commissioner Iván Velásquez persona non grata; and how she treats offices within the Attorney General’s Office that have played a key role in the most politically charged cases. Will Porras vigorously pursue high-level corruption cases and cooperate with CICIG in advancing new investigations and prosecutions? Will she support an extension of CICIG’s mandate, currently scheduled to end in September 2019?

When Thelma Aldana became attorney general in 2014, many observers had similar doubts about her willingness to assert prosecutorial independence in light of flaws in the nomination process. Aldana famously ended up working alongside CICIG to bring corruption charges against Otto Pérez Molina, the president who appointed her. Could Porras follow a similar path? In one early decision, she retained the experienced head of the special prosecution unit against impunity (FECI), which works closely with CICIG.

What to Watch

With regard to grave crimes cases, Porras’ intentions are not yet clear. Key indications of her intentions include the following:

  1. Will she leave the dedicated Human Rights Unit responsible for prosecuting grave crimes cases intact and ensure that it receives adequate funding?
  2. Will she leave in place the Unit’s seasoned prosecutors, including: the Unit’s current chief, Hilda Pineda, who played a leading role in the Rios Montt and Sepur Zarco cases, and prosecutor Erick de León, who also played a key role in the Rios Montt case and has served as lead prosecutor in the Molina Theissen case, the Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez retrial, and the CREOMPAZ case?
  3. Will Porras make public statements about the importance of the grave crimes trials and her intentions regarding current and potential future cases?
  4. Under Porras, will there be new indictments and arrests? Because investigations are so far advanced, her action or inaction in the Diario Militar case will provide one important test of intent.

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). Eric Witte is a Senior Policy Officer with Open Society Justice Initiative. Eric Witte is the Senior Project Manager on national trials of grave crimes for the Open Society Justice Initiative.

 

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