In this final of three posts on the judgement on the Molina Theissen trial, we discuss domestic and international reactions to the judgment. A first post analyzed key aspects of the verdict. A second post scrutinized the court’s findings in response to key defense arguments, which have broader implications for future human rights trials.
The Molina Theissen trial drew national and international attention not only because of the heinous nature of the crimes, including the repeated torture and rape of a woman who was in military detention and the enforced disappearance of a 14-year-old child, but because the defendants were powerful former military officials who were previously believed to be untouchable.
The most prominent defendant was retired general Benedicto Lucas García, head of the Army Chief of Staff and brother of one of Guatemala’s most ruthless dictators, Romeo Lucas García (1978-1982). Shortly before his arrest in 2016, Lucas García bragged in an interview of the leading role he played in the 2015 election of current president Jimmy Morales. President Morales was elected into office on the ticket of the National Convergence Front (FCN), a party founded by retired military generals who have sought to retain their influence in key institutions, particularly the judiciary, to head off criminal investigations into human rights violations and corruption. Morales—himself under investigation for corruption—has sought to force the removal of the head of the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Lucas García also faces charges in the case of enforced disappearance known as the CREOMPAZ case.
Also on trial was the former head of military intelligence, Manuel Callejas y Callejas, who is believed to the be founder of the Cofradía [pdf] (The Brotherhood), an organized crime network comprised of powerful military officials that later evolved into the La Linea network, for which the former president (and retired army general) Otto Pérez Molina and dozens of other government officials now stand trial. El Periódico refers to Callejas y Callejas as the “kingpin of kingpins” and asserts that he, along with retired general Francisco Ortega Menaldo, “has been the de facto president of Guatemala since 1982.”
In its ruling, High Risk Court “C” noted that some of the military officials on trial had been implicated in contemporary acts of corruption and impunity, which “greatly affects the legitimacy of the Armed Forces” and led Congress to approve the creation of CICIG in 2006.
The Molina Theissen Family: Satisfaction and Gratitude
On May 25, two days after the verdict was handed down, the Molina Theissen family held a press conference in Guatemala City. Emma Theissen Álvarez de Molina, the mother of Marco Antonio and Emma Molina Theissen, expressed the family’s gratitude for the gestures of solidarity and support for their pursuit of truth and justice, from groups and individuals in Guatemala and from the international community.
“Nearly 37 years later, we have finally closed the chapter of our search for justice with a verdict that validates our truth: four senior military officers of the Guatemalan army are responsible for the illegal detention and captivity of Emma, and for subjecting her to torture and sexual violence; and for the enforced disappearance of our beloved Marco Antonio, who was only 14 years old.”
Theissen Álvarez de Molina expressed the family’s satisfaction with the judgment, which they said was “historical and revolutionary” because it “recognized, acknowledged, and put at the center of the judicial process the testimony of the victims of atrocious crimes and gave them proper evidentiary value.” The family stated its conviction that the verdict dignified the victims of state violence as well as their families, by acknowledging them and the crimes the endured, which the perpetrators have denied for decades.
Theissen Álvarez de Molina reaffirmed the family’s commitment to continue the search for the remains of Marco Antonio, so they can give him a dignified burial.
The International Community Response
International organizations, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, have widely hailed the Molina Theissen conviction as another milestone in Guatemala’s effort to hold perpetrators of grave violations of human rights accountable.
“This ruling is transcendental for Guatemala and for the world with regard to the investigation, prosecution and punishment of grave human rights violations committed by senior military officials during conflict,” said Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
“The verdict establishes a precedent and sends a clear message about the need to continue to advance the struggle against impunity for past human rights crimes,” he added. Al Hussein also paid homage to the Molina Theissen family, noting their persistence in their demands for justice, which spanned more than three decades.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights similarly recognized the importance of the Molina Theissen judgment, particularly its application of international human rights standards and jurisprudence. It also highlighted the importance of the public trial and the judgment for the right to truth and guarantees of non-repetition. “Society has the inalienable right to the truth, as well as the reasons and circumstances in which abhorrent crimes such as enforced disappearance occurred,” said Antonia Urrejola, commissioner of the Unit on Memory, Truth and Justice of the IACHR. “This sentence contributes simultaneously to achieving justice and truth, which is the right of the survivors, the families of the victims, and all of society.”
The Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), a non-profit organization that represented the Molina Theissen family before the Inter-American Court for Human Rights, noted that the Molina Theissen family’s long struggle for justice has helped to “rewrite the history of Guatemala.” The organization issued a press release that stated:
The court’s determination of guilt of those responsible for the grave crimes committed against Emma, Marco Antonio, and the Molina Theissen family, is the foundation for constructing historic truth…which is a critical element to guarantee that such abuses do not occur again in the future.
Pro-military sectors have sought to discredit the Molina Theissen family, their legal representatives, and the judicial operators involved in the case since the January 2016 arrests of the five accused in the case. They charged, alternatively, that the Molina Theissen family was motivated by financial gain and that they were subversives who were legitimate targets of state violence.
Supporters of the defendants charged the courts with being politically motivated and, towards the end of the public trial, sought to recuse presiding Judge Xitumul, saying that his father had been forcibly disappeared by the military and that he could not therefore be impartial in this case. They also have attacked the media, particularly independent media, covering the case, international accompaniers, and international trial monitors writing about the proceedings. This campaign against the Molina Theissen family and their allies has continued in the wake of the May 2018 judgment.
Moreover, shortly after the judgment was handed down, these sectors redoubled their efforts to advance a bill in Congress that would change the 1996 Law of National Reconciliation, so all actors who participated in the internal armed conflict would be granted blanket amnesty and all individuals who have been convicted in such cases would be retroactively freed. As reported by International Justice Monitor last year, that bill was presented by a congressman known to be close to the military old guard, Fernando Linares Beltranena. The 1996 law [pdf] allows for amnesty for political crimes but explicitly rejects amnesty for genocide, enforced disappearance, torture, and other international crimes; the proposal would eliminate this exclusion based on the argument that “to achieve true peace and reconciliation there must be a general amnesty for all the actors of the armed conflict.”
Two weeks after the Molina Theissen verdict was handed down, the Commission on Constitutional Legislation, over which Linares Beltranena presides, passed a resolution recommending that the proposal be adopted by the Congress. A month later, however, the Human Rights Commission emitted a resolution rejecting the bill, saying it was “spurious and outside the framework of the Guatemalan criminal code and international law.”
With one resolution in favor and another against, the full Congress will have the final word. The UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearance has called upon the Guatemalan Congress to reject the proposal.
Finally, a private citizen, Karen Fisher, has filed a lawsuit against the Molina Theissen family accusing them of making false charges and simulation of a crime. Fisher claims that Marco Antonio Molina Theissen is alive and attended the court hearings, despite the fact that three retired military officials were convicted by High Risk Court “C” of his enforced disappearance in 1981, and that in 2000, the Guatemalan state acknowledge its responsibility for the enforced disappearance of Marco Antonio. Fisher presented her accusation in the company of the wives and daughters of several of the military officials convicted in the case, including Nana Winter, the wife of Benedicto Lucas García.
This backlash is not unexpected. While pro-military sectors have scarcely commented on trials against lower-ranking officials and civil defense patrols, when senior military officials are on the dock, as seen with the 2013 genocide case, they have pursued distinct paths to undermine the process. Lucas García and Callejas y Callejas were not only the key architects of Guatemala’s bloody counterinsurgency strategy, but also had remained major power brokers in present-day Guatemala.
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.