A Guatemalan judge suspended the initial hearing scheduled for today in which the Attorney General’s Office planned to present its case against retired general Luis Enrique Mendoza García. Mendoza García faces charges of genocide and crimes against humanity against the Maya Ixil population during the time he was Chief of Operations during the de facto regime of Efraín Ríos Montt in 1982 and 1983. Mendoza García was also Minister of Defense in 1991.
The judge in charge of the case, Claudette Domínguez of High Risk Court “A,” suspended the hearing in response to a recusal motion filed against her by the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs received the notification of the suspension in writing last Friday.
The plaintiffs filed the recusal motion against the judge based on what they claim is a demonstrated record of bias and partiality favoring members of the Guatemalan military and other powerful figures. This favoritism, they allege, involves not only cases of grave human rights violations, but also cases of corruption and murder charges that had no political context.
In response, the judge suspended today’s initial hearing and stated that it would be rescheduled.
The plaintiffs have challenged this decision. They argue that according to Guatemalan law, a judge presented with a recusal motion is required to either accept or reject the motion and then elevate it to the appellate court. The appellate court then convenes a hearing, so the parties can present their arguments. As a result, this morning the plaintiffs filed a motion of procedural irregularity (actividad procesal defectuosa) against the judge.
“In her rulings, Judge Domínguez has failed to carefully analyze the evidence presented by the plaintiffs, instead using excessively formalistic arguments to benefit the accused,” said Edwin Canil, president of the Association for Truth and Reconciliation, a survivor organization that filed the charges in the genocide case in 2001. “We are convinced that she is a judge that all those accused in criminal cases want their cases to be heard before…because they know that impunity is guaranteed with her.”
There have been several claims of bias and partiality against Judge Domínguez. Most recently, she ruled to dismiss the charges against six former civil defense patrolmen accused of raping several Maya Achí women. She cited a technicality that resulted in the exclusion of the women’s direct testimonies, despite the fact that the women identify the accused as the direct perpetrators. In the CREOMPAZ case, several of the judge’s decisions have resulted in appeals that have stalled the case since June 2016. In the past week, plaintiffs in both of these graves crimes cases have also filed recusal motions against Judge Domínguez.
Judge Domínguez has been criticized for lifting the travel ban on Edgar Justino Ovalle, a former member of the Guatemalan Congress linked to the ruling FCN-Nación party who was impeached in relation to the CREOMPAZ case in 2017. This allowed Ovalle to go into hiding before the impeachment proceedings culminated. He remains a fugitive.
Guatemalan civil society organizations have also criticized Judge Domínguez for decisions that they say unduly favored former military officials as well as powerful individuals in a series of other criminal cases involving murder and corruption.
Mendoza García served as Chief of Operations (G3) of the General Staff of the Guatemalan army from April 1982 to July 1983, during the de facto regime of Efraín Ríos Montt.
Mendoza García had been a fugitive since 2011, when the Attorney General’s Office issued arrest warrants against him and other members of Ríos Montt’s military high command. He was arrested last month, when he went to cast his ballot in the Guatemalan general elections.
Last September, High Risk Court “B” issued a sentence in the Maya Ixil genocide case. While the court acquitted Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, who was the Chief of Military Intelligence (G2) of the General Staff of the Guatemalan army during the Ríos Montt government, it determined unanimously that the Guatemalan army committed genocide against the Mayan Ixil between 1982 and 1983. Mendoza García was in charge of military operations in that region during those years.
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.