Former Guatemalan Army Chief Accused of Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity, and Forced Disappearance

Last week, Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office presented its indictments against two of the three senior military officials charged in a new grave crimes case regarding the Maya Ixil genocide, which occurred during the military government of Romeo Lucas García (1978-1982). The indictments of Benedicto Lucas García, the former chief of the General Staff of the Guatemalan Army (and brother of the president), and retired General Manuel Callejas y Callejas, the former chief of military intelligence, occurred as part of a first declaration hearing that had previously been postponed. The hearings will continue this week.

Prosecutors allege that these three individuals, who were the most senior military officials during the latter years of Romeo Lucas García’s rule, designed and executed the military’s counter-insurgency strategy in the Ixil region with the objective of eliminating the civilian population, who they viewed as assisting the guerrillas. The scorched-earth policies resulted in mass killings of the noncombatant population and in the total destruction of Mayan villages deemed to be enemy territory. The army viewed the Ixil region, which is based in the department of Quiche and includes the towns of Nebaj, Chajul, and Cotzal, as guerrilla territory. The Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) documented 626 army-led massacres during the country’s 36-year civil war (1960-1996); 95 percent of these took place between 1978 and 1984. Fifty-two percent occurred in the department of Quiche.

Lucas García and Callejas y Callejas are currently serving 58-year prison sentences for crimes against humanity, aggravated sexual assault, and enforced disappearance in the Molina Theissen case. Lucas García is also awaiting trial in the CREOMPAZ case, which centers on the exhumation of 565 bodies from a former military base in Cobán. The third official accused in the case, retired Colonel César Octavio Noguera Argueta, who was chief of military operations (G3), was arrested and taken into custody last week.

The courtroom was filled with members of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), a civil party in the case that represents 22 Mayan communities in five regions that were affected by state-sponsored violence during the internal armed conflict. Among them was Antonio Caba, the current president of AJR, himself a survivor of a massacre that took the lives of 95 people from his village of Ilom, in Chajul. AJR was also a civil party in the genocide case against former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt and his chief of military intelligence, Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez. Two Guatemalan courts found unanimously that the Guatemalan army committed genocide against the Maya Ixil people during Ríos Montt’s 17-month rule.

The prosecution read out the names of dozens of victims of selective killings, massacres, sexual violence, and enforced disappearance from different villages in the Ixil region, along with details about the date, place, and circumstances of their deaths.

Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez of High Risk Court “B” is presiding over the pretrial hearings.

The Case against Benedicto Lucas García

According to the Attorney General’s Office, Lucas García was a member of the military high command and chief of the General Staff of the Guatemalan Army between August 16, 1981 and March 22, 1982. As such, he was third in the chain of command, just below the president of the republic and the minister of defense, both of whom are now deceased. It was his responsibility “to prepare, organize, direct, coordinate, plan, supervise, control, and integrate the work of the General Staff of the Guatemalan Army in its conduct of the counterinsurgency military strategy, which was established through directives and operational orders.”

Government prosecutor Lucrecia Castañeda said that in response to the growing threat of subversion, President Romeo Lucas García appointed his brother Benedicto Lucas García as chief of the General Staff of the Guatemalan Army due to his military training in irregular warfare at the School of the Americas and the French Special Military School of Saint-Cyr. Under Lucas García, the military high command consisted of the following officials: Chief of Personnel (G1) Coronel José Luis Angeles Juarez; Chief of Intelligence (G2) Coronel Manuel Antonio Callejas y Callejas; Chief of Operations (G3) Coronel Cesar Octavio Noguera Argueta; and Chief of Logistics (G4) Coronel Jorge Manuel Estrada Estevez.

The prosecutor argued that, as head of the army, Lucas García exercised control over military zones, bases, and special operations forces. He reoriented military strategy, creating special ops forces such as the Gumarcaaj Task Force, so that the troops could be more easily mobilized. Lucas García also had command responsibility over the Gregorio Solares Military Zone in the department of Huehuetenango. Troops from this military zone conducted joint operations with the Gumarcaaj Task Force in the “Ixil Triangle,” the name the military gave to the area between the Quiché towns of Santa Maria Nebaj, San Juan Cotzal, and San Gaspar Chajul. The result, Castañeda stated, was an intensification of violence against the Maya Ixil population.

The directives and operational orders issued by the high command were the basis of the operations carried out by the Gumarcaaj Task Force and troops based in Huehuetenango in areas designated as “red zones” [areas with presumed guerrilla activity] for the purpose of eliminating people and groups classified as “internal enemies.”

The prosecution stated that Lucas García issued directives identifying the Maya Ixil population as the “social base” of the guerrillas. This made him allegedly responsible for classifying the Maya Ixil as “internal enemies” and thus a military objective. Lucas García also directed the different commanders who were carrying out military operations in the “Ixil Triangle.” Those commanders in turn provided information and analysis that contributed to Lucas García ongoing design, implementation, and supervision of the army’s counter-insurgency strategy. Castañeda said that a report prepared by the chief of intelligence concluded that the Ixil Triangle had the “physical and social conditions” to be declared a “red zone.”   

The prosecutor accused Lucas García of responsibility for a military offensive in the Ixil region between 1981 and 1982 that resulted in at least 32 massacres, as documented by the Commission for Historical Clarification. According to prosecutors, Lucas García knew about the counter-insurgency operations from periodic intelligence and operational reports from his subordinates, and from the Joint Operations Center, which provided information about military operations and their results in real time. Thus, at all times, he had control over and knowledge of these military operations.

The Attorney General’s Office said that Lucas García’s intention of destroying the Maya Ixil ethnic group is evident in his approval of directives and operational orders that established the mission to detect, capture, and destroy guerrilla support bases, which included non-combatant civilians who, though they were not members of the guerrilla, represented a challenge to the established order. Lucas García approved a common plan that resulted in a “focused, massive, and generalized attack” against the non-combatant Ixil population. The result was both “selective and indiscriminate violence” against men, women, children, infants, and the elderly. Entire villages were destroyed, including homes, crops, and animals.

Lucas García was duly informed of these results, yet he continued to approve military operations of this kind. The Attorney General’s Office said that, as the person with the highest authority at the strategic and operational level, Lucas García could have halted these actions at any time but did not do so. In public interviews that will be presented as evidence, Lucas García has stated that, “All wars are awful, but God created them to decrease the world’s population, because otherwise, there would be overpopulation in the world,” and, “Since the majority of Indians in the [Ixil] area provide support to the guerrillas, it will probably be necessary to destroy a number of villages.”

The prosecutor referred to a declassified CIA document reporting on such statements, which reports, “The Guatemalan military’s plans to begin sweeps through the Ixil Triangle area, which has the largest concentration of guerrillas and sympathizers in the country, could lead not only to major clashes, but to serious abuses by the armed forces.”

People who were forcibly displaced from their homes sought refuge in the mountains.  The conditions were dire, as they lacked food, medicine, and clothing. They were also subjected to constant persecution and bombing campaigns by the army. Those who were captured or who surrendered to the army were tortured. Because of their gender, women and girls were subjected to sexual violence. The prosecution stated that this persecution, along with practices such as turning local places of worship into detention centers and military detachments into centers of torture and execution of presumed guerrillas, further illustrates the intention to destroy a substantial part of the Maya Ixil ethnic group.

The prosecutor stated that Lucas Garcia is also responsible for the militarization of the Ixil region, a strategy designed to control the population. This included civil defense patrols (PACs) created by Lucas García. All able-bodied men were forced to participate in the PACs, often engaging in attacks against members of their own communities or neighboring villages. Those who were killed were not properly buried, which had the effect of spreading terror throughout the population.

Based on these facts, the prosecution accused Lucas García of genocide, crimes against humanity, and enforced disappearance, and proceeded to present specific cases of massacres, selective killings, and sexual violence that they argue constitute sufficient evidence to indict the accused. The prosecution told the court that it would present various types of evidence to demonstrate Lucas García’s responsibility for these crimes. In addition to victim testimony, the prosecution said it will present documentary evidence, including military manuals on irregular warfare, campaign plans, and declassified U.S. government documents. It also will use expert witnesses and analysis, including reports by the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG), and reports on gender-based violence, forced displacement, and racism.

The prosecution noted it will present death certificates of victims of the army’s scorched-earth tactics. Academic research on the army’s counter-insurgency strategy and effects of military operations will also be presented, as will reports by human rights organizations such as Amnesty International. The evidence includes several media interviews with Lucas García on military operations against guerrillas, including one conducted by filmmaker Pamela Yates of Skylight Productions in January 1982. Yates’ interview of Efraín Ríos Montt was admitted as a key piece of evidence in the 2013 genocide trial.

The Victims: Massacres, Selective Killings, Sexual Violence, and Death due to Persecution

Over the course of several hours, the prosecutor presented examples of selective killings, mass killings, and sexual violence that took place between September 1981 and March 1982. The prosecutor also presented numerous cases of mostly children and elderly people who died of hunger or health complications after having been forcibly displaced from their homes and enduring inhumane conditions in the mountains.

Selective killings almost always involved male victims who were detained in their homes, tied up, and taken away by soldiers. On August 27, 1981, soldiers entered the home of Domingo Solano Aguilar in the village of Batzcruz Chacalá, in San Juan Cotzál, and detained him despite pleas by his wife and children. The following day, his wife and parents inquired about him at the military base but were denied any information. Four days later, they found his body, half naked and with his hands tied behind his back, in a clandestine grave. In October 1981, soldiers from the La Perla military detachment entered the home of Pedro Simón Gómez in the village of Jua in Chajul. They grabbed him and Domingo Bernal, tied their hands, and dragged them away. Simón’s relatives went to the military detachment to find out what happened to him, but the soldiers denied any knowledge of his whereabouts and threatened them. Three years later, neighbors told the family where his body was buried. Forensic anthropologists exhumed his remains 26 years after that, which revealed gunshot wounds to the head and body.

Sexual violence often took place in the context of selective killings. Between September 10 and 11, 1981, soldiers occupied the village of Pexlá Grande, Nebaj, and ordered villagers to gather in the Catholic church for the night. At least three women were raped nearby. The following day, soldiers executed several men, some by firearms, while others were set on fire. Miguel Velasco and seven other men were killed. In at least one case, soldiers simply took advantage of their power to rape women. Prosecutors described one case that took place in October 1981 in the village of Pulay, Nebaj. Soldiers entered the home of Ana Pérez de Brito. They dragged her husband and children out of the house, beating them. Soldiers threatened her with a firearm, and some stood guard outside the house while others raped her. Sexual violence also took place in the context of massacres.

The prosecution presented numerous massacres, including cases in which nearly all members of the village were killed, and others in which villages suffered more than one massacre, as in Pexlá Grande, which endured four different massacres between September 1981 and January 1982. On October 22, 1981, soldiers attacked the village of Xexecom, which had experience two previous massacres. They burned down homes and crops and stole the village’s animals. The villagers, primarily women and children, were killed as they fled the military assault. On January 17, 1982, an army detachment from Chiul, accompanied by PACs, arrived at the plaza of Cunén, saying they were there to “clean up” the municipality. They captured approximately 30 people, including children, and brought them to the municipal building, where they tortured and then killed them by hanging or decapitation. Other villagers were forced to dig a grave and bury the victims. On January 29, 1982, approximately 50 soldiers entered the village of Chachil, Ojo de Agua, in Cotzal. They set fire to some 20 homes with people inside of them, including women, children, and the elderly. A boy survived but died the following day. His entire family was killed except his father, who had been forced to work at the military base that day.

Prosecutors presented several cases in which villagers were forced to abandon their homes and take refuge in the mountains due to military persecution. They presented the cases of several individuals, particularly infants and the elderly, who perished due to the lack of medical attention or extreme hunger. For example, in August 1981 several families from Chejotz village in Nebaj sought refuge in the nearby mountains due to military attacks on their homes. Andrés Maton, then 65 years old, died of hunger in the mountains. In October 1981, villagers from Santa Marta, Nebaj sought refuge in the mountains after the army destroyed their homes and belongings. They were forced to move frequently to avoid continuous military persecution and bombing. At least three villagers died in the following months due to preventable illnesses.

Next: Charges against Callejas y Callejas and Noguera

On the third day of hearings last week, the prosecution began its presentation of the charges against Manuel Callejas y Callejas, which will continue into this week. After the charges against Callejas y Callejas are presented, the judge will hear the charges against Noguera. Their lawyers will then present their counter-arguments, and the defendants will also have an opportunity to address the court.

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.