Judge to Rule on Indictment of Senior Military Officials in the Maya Ixil Genocide Case

Today, Judge Miguel Ángel Galvez is scheduled to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to indict the three senior military officials charged with genocide and crimes against humanity in the Maya Ixil genocide case. This follows last week’s hearings in which the parties, including the defendants, delivered their closing arguments.

The men charged in the case are the most-senior military officials during the latter years of the government of General Romeo Lucas García (1978-1982): retired General Benedicto Lucas García, former chief of the General Staff of the Guatemalan Army (and brother of the president); 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.

Prosecutors allege that the defendants designed and implemented the military’s counter-insurgency strategy in the Ixil region, which it viewed as enemy territory, with the objective of eliminating the civilian population. The Guatemalan army’s scorched-earth policies resulted in mass killings of noncombatant civilians and in the total destruction of dozens of Mayan villages. Dozens more were the victims of selective killings, forced disappearance, torture, and sexual violence.

If Judge Galvez rules in favor of the plaintiffs, the Attorney General’s Office will have a short period, likely one to two months, to finalize its collection of evidence prior to the start of evidentiary hearings. In those hearings, the parties to the case present their evidence and the pretrial judge determines whether to send the case to trial.

This post will summarize the prosecution and civil party arguments. A subsequent post will outline the arguments presented by the defense.

Prosecution Outlines the Making of a Genocide

Last Monday, the Attorney General’s Office called upon a Guatemalan court to indict the three senior military officials for their alleged role in the genocide committed against the Maya Ixil population during 1981 and 1982. The crimes include the massacre deaths of 1,128 people, another 540 selective killings, 81 cases of forced disappearance, and 36 cases of sexual violence against women and girls. The prosecution evidence includes witness testimony, expert witness testimony, official documents, and forensic evidence.

The prosecution outlined the context in which the alleged crimes occurred. Under the influence of the United States government, and in the context of the Cold War, the Guatemalan army adopted the doctrine of national security, which established its mission to defend the country against the global threat of communism. According to this doctrine, that threat was not only external, but also internal, manifested in individuals, organizations, and groups that “attacked the established order.”

The prosecution described how this doctrine gave rise to the concept of “irregular” or “unconventional warfare,” which prioritized the role of military intelligence in identifying the “internal enemy” and in the use of unconventional tactics, including torture, forced disappearance, and mass killings, all toward the ultimate objective of eliminating subversion. The prosecution said that military documents show that the head of military intelligence, Callejas y Callejas, identified the Ixil population as supporters of the Guerilla Army of the Poor (EGP), thus categorizing the Ixil region as the “internal enemy and the target of extermination.”

The prosecution outlined the general progression of military operations in the Ixil region, including the first public massacre in Chajul in 1979 in which the brother of Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchú Tum and eight other campesino leaders were executed in the village plaza. Other massacres followed. In early 1982, massacres and selective killings against the Ixil population intensified. This was the beginning of the military’s scorched-earth operations, which would continue under the subsequent military government led by General Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-1983).

During the time period in question, the president of the Republic, Romeo Lucas García, was the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, followed in the chain of command by the Minister of Defense, and then the Chief of the General Staff of the Army, Benedicto Lucas García. The Chief of the General Staff was the operative commander of the army and, therefore, had command responsibility over the organization, training, discipline, and conduct of the troops. Beneath his command were the members of the General Staff of the first, second, third, and fourth sections; of these the most important were the second and third sections, military intelligence, led by Manuel Callejas y Callejas, and military operations, led by César Norguera Argueta. The prosecution stated that members of the General Staff were part of a single entity whose objective was to complete the mission ordered by the High Command: to direct the counter-insurgency war and eliminate the enemy.

Fulfilling this objective involved collecting intelligence in order to design the military strategy and elaborate the strategic plans to guide and orient their subordinates. The prosecution stated that Lucas García made the strategic decision to eliminate the noncombatant civilian population, which the army had determined was the social base of the EGP. He based this on a determination made by the chief of military intelligence that the Ixil population made up the guerrillas’ support base.

The prosecution noted that the General Staff issued orders requiring local commanders to send intelligence and operations reports back to the General Staff every 15 days. Every eight days they were required to send intelligence reports to the second section, so the General Staff had continual reports of operations on the ground. The prosecution said that it would present evidence, including government decrees, military manuals, general orders, and other official documents and testimonies, to demonstrate these facts.

The prosecution provided details about each of the phases in which the army developed its counter-insurgency strategy. During the prevention phase between 1978 and 1981, the General Staff ordered military operations designed to establish control over the population in the northern part of the department of Quiche, and especially in the Ixil region’s three municipalities: Santa Maria Nebaj, San Juan Cotzal, and San Gaspar Chajul. In the face of rising repression against Ixil community leaders and the forced disappearance of dozens of peasants, the Campesino Unity Committee (CUC) decided to stage a protest by occupying the Spanish Embassy. On January 31, 1980, the security forces led a siege of the embassy, and 37 people died in the resulting fire. In 2015, a police official was convicted in this case.

In December 1980, the Second Section of the General Staff (military intelligence), led by Manuel Callejas y Callejas, identified ethnic groups in four regions of northwestern Guatemala as enemies, establishing the terms for the intensification of counter-insurgency operations in 1981. He specifically determined that in the Ixil region, there is “a confluence between the ideas of the EGP and the demands of the Ixils. The majority of Ixils collaborate with the insurgency and are hostile to the security forces.” The General Staff ordered a series of military operations designed as exemplary punishments of communities that presumably supported the guerrillas. This included the massacre of 70 campesinos from the village of Cocop on April 16, 1981.

The next phase, the implementation phase, involved executing a military offensive in the Ixil Triangle, which military intelligence had declared a “red zone” (enemy territory). During this phase, Lucas García shifted the military strategy towards scorched-earth tactics, resulting in massacres in dozens of Ixil communities, including Cunén, Pulay-Vipulay, Cajixay, Jauvintau, Pexla (where there were at least three massacres), Xecax, Chisis, Quisis, Xix, Vatzulutché, Ilóm (where there were two massacres), Asich, Xolcuay and Estrella Polar. In this phase, newly formed mobile task forces were given free rein in the “red zones.”

In early 1982, the High Command named Norguera Argueta as the chief of the third section to direct and consolidate the military operations. In January that same year, the General Staff announces the second phase of the military offensive in Quiche, deploying 15,000 troops to the Ixil region, backed by the Air Force.

The prosecution then outlined the specific charges against each of the three defendants and the legal basis for those charges, based both on Guatemalan and international law, including the Geneva Conventions.

The Civil Parties: The Elements Proving Genocide

Mynor Melgar, the lawyer representing the victims, delivered his final statement, saying he supported the request by the Attorney General’s Office to authorize the indictment of the three defendants.

Melgar gave special emphasis to the question of the role of military intelligence. Even though the head of military intelligence during the Ríos Montt government was twice acquitted of genocide and crimes against humanity against the Maya Ixil, both trials concluded that the army committed genocide against the Maya Ixil.

Military intelligence is charged with identifying the enemy: who should be eliminated and how this should be carried out. “To fulfill this mission, there is a network of intelligence comprised of intelligence officials at each level of the army, as well as military commissioners and informants, known as ‘ears,'” Melgar said. “As noted in military documents, kidnapping and torture of individuals suspected of having connections with subversive groups was another means of obtaining intelligence…This is not unique to Guatemala; it is a method applied in all of Latin America, a military strategy used in the context of an irregular war.”

According to the Guatemalan army manual for the General Staff, the intelligence official was responsible for collecting and analyzing such information. Melgar noted that the intelligence official accused in this case, Callejas y Callejas, confirmed in his written statement that analysis of such information occurred in the Ixil region. This information is the basis for defining what operations will be carried out against the enemy: the task of the official in charge of military operations, Noguera Argueta.

“The question is who is the enemy and the answer is in the [military] manuals,” Melgar continued. “The internal enemy is the people who have taken up arms, but also….the entire population that provides direct or indirect support to the insurgent groups.” Therefore, in this military doctrine, derived from the U.S. doctrine of national security, “the civilian population can be considered collaborators with insurgent groups, and this explains the actions that are being prosecuted here today.”

“Even in warfare there are ethical and moral parameters, as outlined in Guatemalan and international law,” Melgar stated. But in the broader regional context—the Sandinistas Revolution had recently triumphed in Nicaragua, and the Farabundi Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) was close to victory in El Salvador—the Guatemala military determined that the most efficient way to eliminate any subversive threat was to eliminate the Ixil population.

“Why the massacres? Why kill men, women, children, and the elderly? The answer is that they were all considered to be enemies, even the children, who they believed would join subversive groups when they grew up. Why burn houses? Because they could serve as a base of support for subversion. The same with the crops and animals that were burned. This forced many people to flee to the mountains in safety. This is the first element of genocide,” he stated. “The continual persecution of those who fled—who are still considered enemies—is another element of the genocide. The majority of children die of hunger and treatable illnesses because they were forced to live in inhumane conditions.”

Melgar stated that more than 200 witnesses will identify the Guatemalan army as the entity that carried out these crimes. The 150 exhumations conducted by the different forensic anthropology teams provides evidence of bodies that were shot, mutilated, and burned.

He further noted that it is not necessary for a specific order to determine criminal responsibility in a case such as this; the crimes formed part of a strategic plan that violated Guatemalan and international law.

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.

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