Proceedings began this week in a new grave crimes case involving three senior military officials in Guatemala. However, the presiding judge in charge of the case granted motions filed by the defendants and the defense lawyers that resulted in postponing pretrial activities. A new hearing is scheduled for Monday, November 4.
The three highest-ranking military officials during the latter years of the government of General Fernando Romeo Lucas García, who served as president of Guatemala from 1978-1982, face charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and enforced disappearance against the Maya Ixil population. The three military officials are (retired) Colonel César Octavio Noguera Argueta, who was Chief of Military Operations, or G3, at the time; (retired) General Manuel Callejas y Callejas, who was Chief of Military Intelligence (G2); and (retired) General Benedicto Lucas García, who was Chief of the General Staff of the Guatemala Army. Prosecutors allege that these officials designed and executed military strategies in the Ixil region with the objective of eliminating the civilian population, who they viewed as assisting the guerrillas.
Noguera Argueta was arrested and taken into custody last week. 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.
At the end of Tuesday’s hearing, Lucas García approached the lawyers of the victims. In the exchange, he denied ordering bombings of indigenous villages but admitted bombing “guerrilla encampments.”
First Declaration Hearing, Interrupted
In the first hearing after an arrest in a criminal case, known as the “first declaration” hearing, the pretrial judge informs the defendants of the charges against them, and the defendants are given an opportunity to respond. The pretrial judge then sets a date for the next phase, at which the Attorney General’s Office presents a formal indictment and corresponding evidence. After this, the pretrial judge will determine whether there is sufficient evidence to move to trial.
The complaint in this case was first filed in 2000 by the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), which represents 22 Mayan communities in five regions affected by state-sponsored violence during the internal armed conflict. 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. The present case involves 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.
During the first declaration hearing on Monday, October 28, Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez ordered the prison guards to remove the defendants’ handcuffs and to allow them to sit next to their lawyers, rather in the holding cell. The judge said this was proper given the advanced ages of the defendants. Lucas García is 87, Callejas y Callejas is 82, and Noguera Argueta is 78.
Lucas García informed the judge that his lawyer and son, Jorge Lucas Cerna, had not been notified of the new charges and that he had been assigned a public defender. He asked for the proceedings to be postponed so that his trusted lawyer could be present. The judge agreed and convened a new hearing for the following day.
Before end of the hearing, Judge Gálvez resolved a handful of other motions filed by the defense lawyers. The judge granted several of these requests, including Lucas García’s request to guarantee better conditions for their transfer the Military Hospital to the courtroom, preferably by ambulance. He also agreed to the request by Noguera Argueta’s lawyer to have the National Institute of Forensic Sciences (INACIF) conduct a forensic examination of his defendant. Noguera Argueta also requested that the case remain confidential, which the judge denied, stating that once an arrest warrant is executed the case automatically becomes a matter of public record.
Before Monday’s hearing began, retired military officials present in the gallery verbally attacked members of AJR, their supporters, and members of the press, and sought to prevent them from entering the courtroom.
The second attempt on Tuesday to hold the first declaration hearing was also cut short. Judge Gálvez agreed to suspend the hearing in response to a motion filed by the defense counsel for Callejas y Callejas, José Antonio Anaya Cardona, requesting a suspension until next week due to a scheduling conflict, and by Norguera Argueta’s lawyer, asking for addition time to analyze the case file.
Judge Gálvez scheduled a new hearing for Monday, November 4, at 9:00 local time.
Lucas García: “I Never Bombed Villages, but Guerrilla Camps, Yes”
At the end of Tuesday’s hearing, Lucas García walked across the courtroom to shake hands with the petitioners. He shook hands with AJR lawyer Santiago Choc and spoke a few words to him in Kekchi, a Mayan language common in Alta Verapaz, Quiche and other highland departments. Choc told the general that he was from the Ixcan region and that he had to flee as a child because his village was razed. The general responded: “I never bombed there, I never ordered bombings, at least not of the villages; but guerrilla camps, yes.”
Choc countered, “Many villages were razed.”
“Not in my time,” Lucas García responded, “not in my time.”
Lucas García then greeted Mynor Melgar, also representing AJR. Lucas García told Melgar, a seasoned human rights lawyer, that he remembered him from the 1990s when he was investigating the Dos Erres massacre. One of 626 massacres documented by the Commission for Historical Clarification, the Dos Erres massacre took place in December 1982. The army killed an estimated 200 people, a large number of whom were women, children, and elderly.
In the 1990s, Melgar worked in the legal department of the Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala (ODHAG). In 1997, he replaced the prosecutor on the Dos Erres massacre. In an audacious move, Melgar summoned the military high command to declare in the case and later announced plans to issue indictments against Ríos Montt and other senior military officials. Shortly thereafter, he was removed from the case. An Amnesty International report [pdf] notes that this was widely viewed as a reprisal for Melgar’s attempts to bring senior military officials to trial in the case. He was forced to abandon the country due to numerous threats.
Years later, Melgar served as General Secretary under Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz (2010-2014), who prosecuted Ríos Montt in the first Maya Ixil genocide case and indicted him in the Dos Erres massacre case. In 2017, a court determined there was sufficient evidence to prosecute Ríos Montt in the Dos Erres massacre case, but he died before that trial commenced.
Guatemalan courts have convicted six military officials for the Dos Erres massacre, four in 2011, one in 2012, and one in 2018, sentencing them to more than 5,000 years in prison.
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.