Former Chief of Military Operations Arrested in Maya Ixil Genocide Case

Yesterday, authorities arrested retired Army Colonel César Octavio Noguera Argueta in relation to the Maya Ixil genocide case. Noguera Argueta served as Chief of Military Operations (G3) during the last months of the Romeo Lucas García government (1978-1982). He is expected to be charged on Monday.

Between January 1, 1982 and March 23, 1982, as Chief of Military Operations, Noguera Argueta was the third highest-ranking official in the Guatemalan Army; his immediate superiors were Manuel Callejas y Callejas, who was Chief of Military Intelligence (G2), and Benedicto Lucas García, who was Army Chief of Staff.

It is expected that Lucas García and Callejas will also be charged in this case. Both men were convicted last year of crimes against humanity, aggravated sexual assault, and enforced disappearance in the Molina Theissen case and are serving out 58-year sentences.

First Hearing

Noguera Argueta appeared before Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez yesterday, accompanied by his lawyers. Judge Gálvez placed the retired colonel in pretrial detention and scheduled a first declaration hearing for this coming Monday, October 28, at 9:00 a.m.. The judge said that after reviewing the indictment, he would inform the accused of the charges against him.

During the hearing, Noguera Argueta’s lawyers asked the judge to take measures to guarantee the defendant’s health, to which the judge agreed.

Judge Gálvez also informed the accused that retired generals Benedicto Lucas García and Callejas y Callejas will also be charged in the case. Callejas y Callejas is also believed to be a major figure in Guatemala’s organized crime and drug trafficking networks.

Genocide Maya Ixil Lucas

According to the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), an association of victims representing 22 Mayan communities in five regions affected by state-sponsored violence during the internal armed conflict, the case against Noguera Argueta, Callejas y Callejas, and Lucas García involves minimally: 31 massacres in which 1,128 people were killed; the destruction of 23 villages; 97 selective killings; 117 deaths due to forced displacement; 26 cases of sexual assault; and 53 cases of enforced disappearance.

The AJR was a civil party in the genocide case against former head of state Efraín Ríos Montt and his Chief of Military Intelligence, Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez.

In that case, in May 2013, a court found Ríos Montt guilty and sentenced him to 80 years in prison, but the Constitutional Court issued a controversial ruling that partly suspended the proceedings and thereby vacated the conviction. After a four-year delay, Ríos Montt and Rodríguez were ultimately prosecuted a second time in separate proceedings. Ríos Montt died before his trial finalized. Rodríguez Sánchez was acquitted in both proceedings. However, in the second ruling the court affirmed unanimously that the Guatemalan state had perpetrated genocide against the Maya Ixil people.

Who is César Octavio Noguera Argueta?

Colonel Noguera Argueta served first as Deputy Director of Military Operations, and on January 1, 1982, was named Chief of Military Operations of the General Staff of the Guatemalan Army. During this period, the army carried out dozens of massacres in the Ixil region, as documented in the reports of the Commission of Historical Clarification and the Recovery of Historical Memory Project (REHMI). He served as the Commander of Military Reserves and as Commander of Military Zone No. 21 (MZ21), currently known as CREOMPAZ, in 1990. Between 2011 and 2012, 565 bodies were exhumed from MZ21, and eight senior military officials, including Lucas García, were charged are awaiting trial in the case, which has been ensnared in legal challenges for the past three years.

Yesterday afternoon, Ricardo Méndez Ruiz tweeted an image of the arrest warrant against Noguera Argueta. As president of the Foundation Against Terrorism, Méndez Ruiz has been a leading opponent of prosecutions of retired military officials. In the tweet, he accuses the head of the Human Rights Section in the Attorney General’s Office, Hilda Pineda, and pretrial Judge Gálvez of supposedly violating Article 11 of the Law of National Reconciliation and calls for their arrest. Méndez Ruiz has been an implacable critic of judges, prosecutors, and other professionals involved in grave crimes cases and has filed numerous criminal charges against several of them over the years.

Challenging Context for a New Grave Crimes Trial

The arrest of Noguera Argueta takes place in a context of a massive backlash by retired senior military officials, economic elites, and conservative politicians against anti-corruption and anti-impunity efforts in Guatemala. Last month these elites succeeded in ending the 12-year run of the UN-sponsored International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and have attempted to impose an amnesty law to end all investigations and future prosecutions of war-time crimes and free those who have been convicted or are awaiting trial in those cases.

While some in the international community have expressed hope that the incoming government of Alejandro Giammattei will be an improvement over the openly recalcitrant and pro-military government of Jimmy Morales, press reports about his proposed cabinet have raised alarm bells. As reported by the Center for Independent Media (CMI), many of the officials named to Giammattei’s cabinet, which will take office on January 14, 2020, are “the most hard-line officials [within the Guatemalan military], including several who were involved in coup attempts in 1988 and 1989.” Among those named to the cabinet are retired Major Gustavo Adolfo Díaz López, an expert in psycho-social operations and communications, and who in 2018 advised the defense counsel for Callejas y Callejas in the Molina Theissen trial.

Yet survivors and families of victims seeking justice have persisted in this adverse context in bringing this case to trial. The gains in such accountability efforts to date, including convictions in the Spanish Embassy Massacre case, the Sepur Zarco sexual and domestic violence case, the Molina Theissen trial, and the Dos Erres massacre case, have spurred victims’ groups to continue to demand their rights despite threats, intimidation, and a hostile political establishment. “We recognize that there are difficult moments ahead,” AJR president Antonio Cava Cava told International Justice Monitor. “But we can overcome those difficulties, as we have in the past.”

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.