Guatemala’s Congress stands poised to amend the National Reconciliation Law of 1996, which excluded amnesty for international crimes including genocide, torture, and crimes against humanity. The proposed legislation would terminate all ongoing grave crimes proceedings, free all military officials and guerrilla leaders already convicted of grave crimes, and extinguish all future investigations into such crimes. Who stands to benefit if such legislation were passed?
Between 2008 and 2018, Guatemalan courts issued 16 verdicts in grave crimes cases, convicting 33 former military officials, military commissioners, and former civil defense patrol members of a litany of grave crimes, including torture, enforced disappearance, extrajudicial execution, aggravated sexual violence, and sexual and domestic slavery. Two officials in two separate cases have been acquitted. Courts also convicted one former guerrilla leader.
Another 14 retired military officials and former military commissioners are in preventive detention awaiting trial (including one who was already convicted last year in the Molina Theissen case). Several who were on trial or were awaiting trial, including former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, whose 2013 conviction was vacated, died before their trials concluded.
Under the terms of the proposed legislation, all of these former officials would be freed within 24 hours of its promulgation.
This includes a number of senior military officials who retain significant power in present-day Guatemala and who have been linked to organized crime.
- Retired brigadier general and former Army Chief of Staff of the Guatemalan Army Benedicto Lucas García was convicted in May 2018 of crimes against humanity and aggravated rape of Emma Molina Theissen and sentenced to 33 years in prison, and to an additional 25 years for the ongoing enforced disappearance of 14-year-old Marco Antonio Molina Theissen. Lucas García is also awaiting trial in the CREOMPAZ case. Before his arrest in January 2016, Lucas García boasted about his role in the 2015 election of Jimmy Morales.
- Retired brigadier general and former chief of military intelligence Manuel Callejas y Callejas was convicted in May 2018 of crimes against humanity and aggravated rape of Emma Molina Theissen and sentenced to 33 years in prison, and to an additional 25 years for the enforced disappearance of 14-year-old Marco Antonio Molina Theissen. Callejas y Callejas is accused of being the mastermind behind the Cofradía, or “Brotherhood,” a network of intelligence officers that has long been implicated in both human rights massacres and present-day organized crime. The United States revoked Callejas y Callejas’ visa in 2002 due to allegations of his involvement in corruption, drug trafficking and money laundering.
- Former military intelligence official César Augusto Cabrera Mejía is awaiting trial on charges of enforced disappearance in the CREOMPAZ case. Cabrera Mejía, reportedly one of the military officials who co-founded the FCN-Nación, was Morales’ pick for Minister of Governance before he was arrested in January 2016. In April 2018, authorities charged his firm, Elite Private Security Company, with tax fraud. Cabrera Mejía’s son, César Augusto Cabrera Leonardo, is the company’s general manager and a member of President Morales’ inner circle of advisors. In May, Morales lifted the million-dollar fine the tax authorities had imposed on the company.
Several military officials accused in grave crimes cases who are fugitives also stand to benefit from the proposed amnesty law. Two such officials, accused in the CREOMPAZ case, have reported close ties to Jimmy Morales and his party.
- Edgar Justino Ovalle Maldonado, a retired coronel and military intelligence official who was elected to congress with FCN-Nación in 20015, went into hiding when the Supreme Court lifted his immunity in March 2017 so that he could be investigated in relation to the CREOMPAZ case. Ovalle was the intelligence official of the former military base in Cobán that is the site of the exhumations at the center of the CREOMPAZ case, and declassified documents link him with military commands that participated in massacres and enforced disappearances during the early 1980s. He was the head of the FCN-Nación and served as Morales’ principal advisor until he went into hiding.
- Retired military intelligence official Luis Felipe Miranda Trejo is accused in the CREOMPAZ enforced disappearance case. He was the deputy secretary general of the FCN-Nación.
FCN-Nación: The Party of the Old Guard Military
Retired senior military officials, many of whom are members of the Guatemalan Army Veterans Association (Avemilgua), founded FCN-Nación. Senior counterinsurgency officials and military intelligence officials linked to the Cofradía who opposed the peace negotiations founded Avemilgua in 1995. Avemilgua has actively opposed war crimes prosecutions. During the 2013 genocide trial against Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez, the association launched a political and media campaign denying the genocide and seeking to discredit judges, prosecutors, and witnesses in the trial. Avemilgua also staunchly opposed the creation of CICIG and has continued to be one of the Commission’s most vociferous critics.
The current president of Avemilgua is José Luis Quilo Ayuso, a retired brigadier general who studied at the School of the Americas (SOA). He was based in El Quiché in 1983 and was chief of the Army General Staff in 1994. According to Guatemalan press reports, Quilo Ayuso is a founding member of FCN-Nación and one of the retired military officials who financed Jimmy Morales’ 2015 electoral campaign. Though Morales repeatedly claimed that FCN-Nación no longer had ties to Avemilgua, Plaza Pública reported that nearly 40 percent of the party’s funding came from five retired military officials, including Edgar Ovalle Maldonado, Alsider Arias Rodríguez, Gregorio López González, and José Luis Quilo Ayuso.
Avemilgua vice-president, retired army general Marco Antonio González Taracena, was among those present in the gallery on January 17, 2019, cheering on Congress to vote in favor of the proposal to impose a blanket amnesty for grave crimes. Taracena is, not surprisingly, also a member of the military old guard. According to the National Security Archive, Taracena was in charge of “The Archive,” an espionage unit of the feared Presidential General Staff, and he served as Minister of Defense in 1995.
The coming days will reveal whether the military old guard has its way.
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.