Court Indicts Senior Military Officials for Genocide

On Monday, Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez of High Risk Court “B” ruled to approve the indictment involving charges of genocide and crimes against humanity against three members of the military high command of General Romeo Lucas García’s government, which lasted from 1978 to 1982. The judge ordered the Attorney General’s Office to continue its investigation and scheduled the start of evidentiary hearings for March 9, 2020.

Prosecutors allege that the defendants are responsible for the design and implementation of the Guatemalan army’s counter-insurgency strategy in the Ixil region. The army determined that the Ixil region was enemy territory and that its scorched-earth policies, which resulted in massacres and other grave crimes against the Maya Ixil population, were designed to eliminate the civilian population.

The three officials facing charges in this case are retired General Benedicto Lucas García, former chief of the General Staff of the Guatemalan Army; retired General Manuel Callejas y Callejas, former chief of military intelligence (G2); and retired Colonel César Octavio Noguera Argueta, former chief of military operations (G3).

Lucas García and Callejas y Callejas are already serving 58-year sentences for crimes against humanity, aggravated sexual assault, and forced disappearance in a separate case. Lucas García, 87, and Callejas y Callejas, 82, are serving their prison terms in the Military Hospital due to their advanced ages. Judge Gálvez agreed to allow Noguera Argueta, who is 77 years old, to await the proceedings under house arrest.

Judge Gálvez also ordered the investigation of other officials who might bear criminal responsibility for alleged crimes during the Lucas García government.

“Sufficient Indications of Genocide”

Judge Gálvez delivered a detailed statement before presenting his final decision. The defendants and their attorneys have maintained that the Guatemalan army did not commit any abuses during the internal armed conflict, suggesting that massacres and other human rights violations were the responsibility of guerrilla groups.

Judge Gálvez noted the historic rise of anticommunism in Guatemala, rooted in the CIA-sponsored military coup against democratically elected president Jacobo Arbens in 1954. He discussed the criminalization of peasants, members of the Catholic Church, and intellectuals advocating social change.

Judge Gálvez stated that the Guatemalan military has acknowledged the application of the doctrine of national security in the context of its battle against insurgent groups. He cited communications between a former Minister of Defense and the UN sponsored Commission for Historical Clarification, as well as statements by the late Guatemalan General Héctor Alejandro Gramajo, who was Chief of the General Staff of the Guatemalan army under Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-1983) and Minister of Defense from 1987 to 1990. He noted that the concept of “internal enemy” was central to this doctrine. The term encompassed not only armed insurgents but anyone who challenged the established order. “That is why a peasant who fought for collective bargaining or improvements in the minimum wage was viewed as a guerrilla,” said the judge.

Referring to witness testimony and other evidence presented by the plaintiffs, the judge stated that scale of the atrocities ascribed to the defendants — the murders, massacres, forced disappearances, and forced displacements —suggested that there was sufficient indication of the existence of a systematic plan to exterminate a social group. He referred to the evidence showing that the army identified the Maya Ixil population as an enemy and military target and that it took actions to eliminate this group.

“The Ixil region was declared a ‘red zone’ [enemy territory], and this unleashed indiscriminate and generalized military operations and resulted in the displacement and persecution of the population,” the judge said. He also mentioned the plaintiffs’ evidence indicating that the members of the General Staff of the Army had knowledge “in real time” about military operations in the Ixil region and their consequences.

Judge Gálvez ordered the Attorney General’s Office to continue its investigation to determine the criminal responsibility of the defendants. To demonstrate genocide, he said, the plaintiffs had to prove that there was an intention to partially or totally destroy a social group through a common plan.

Defense Lodges Procedural Challenge to the Court Ruling

The defendants have maintained their innocence. Lucas García argued that he fulfilled his duty as commander in chief of the armed forces to prevent a guerrilla takeover. He said he supported the indigenous population and said that any killings were the work of the guerrillas.

The defense lawyers did not challenge the substance of Judge Gálvez’s ruling, but instead they filed a motion arguing that it contained procedural defects because it did not name the victims of the alleged crimes. The prosecution refuted this argument, stating that they had provided the names and circumstances of crimes against dozens of victims.

Judge Gálvez rejected the defense motion and set March 9, 2020 as the start of the evidentiary phase of the proceedings.

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.