After 25 Years in United States, Guatemalan Accused of Mass Atrocities to Face Charges

Last month, the United States deported Juan Alecio Samayoa Cabrera, 69, back to his native Guatemala. He had been living in the country for more than 25 years. Upon his arrival in Guatemala, authorities immediately detained Samayoa, who faces charges for his alleged role in more than 150 human rights abuses, including torture, rape, and extrajudicial killing, in the department of El Quiché in the early 1980s.

Guatemalan government prosecutors named Samayoa among several individuals in an indictment filed in 1992, which led to the conviction of one of Samayoa’s close associates. Samayoa, meanwhile, evaded arrest and was never prosecuted. Years later, the U.S. press reported that he was living in Providence, Rhode Island, where many of the victims of his alleged crimes also lived.

Authorities have told International Justice Monitor that the first declaration hearing, at which prosecutors will formally present the charges against Samayoa and he will have an opportunity to respond, will take place in El Quiché on Monday, December 16.

Background

At the height of the Guatemalan civil war in the early 1980s, Samayoa was a civil patrol leader and a military commissioner. He admitted in U.S. immigration proceedings to have commanded a paramilitary unit of 500 men in the municipality of Chinique in El Quiché, which was part of the civil defense patrols (PACs) that the Guatemalan military created to combat guerrilla organizations and to exercise control over the local population. Local and international [pdf] investigators have documented the responsibility of the PACs in scores of extrajudicial killings, massacres, rapes, and torture. (For additional analysis of the role of the PACs in the Guatemalan counterinsurgency, see our previous reports here.)  

Samayoa worked closely with another military commissioner, Candido Noriega. They are among several men accused in a complaint filed by victims in 1992 of several massacres, killings, rapes, and acts of torture in Tululché, a rural village located in Chiche*. While Noriega and Samayoa claimed that they were fighting communist guerrillas, reports suggest that Noriega was seeking to expel the village members from the community because wanted the fertile land for himself.

The 1992 complaint eventually led to one of the first criminal trials in Guatemala for war-related crimes. At the time, the justice system was fragile, and such a criminal case with unprecedented. Before authorities were able to detain Samayoa, he managed to leave Guatemala, allowing him to evade criminal charges for his alleged crimes for more than three decades. An Amnesty International report from 2002 suggests that the Guatemalan military helped him leave the country to avoid prosecution.

Meanwhile, Guatemala prosecuted Noriega in a fraught process in which earlier proceedings were nullified due to procedural irregularities, victims were subjected to harassment, and key evidence, including victim testimony, was discounted as irrelevant or not credible. Finally, after a third trial, a court convicted Noriega in 1999 for the killing of several Mayan villagers from the Tululché finca (estate) in El Quiché and sentenced him to 220 years in prison. However, of the more than 150 crimes of which Noriega was accused, he was only convicted on six counts of first-degree murder (asesinato) and two counts of second-degree murder (homicidio). After serving 15 years, Noriega was released for “good conduct.” He died in 2017.

Army officials who ordered, commanded, and permitted his patrol’s activities have not been charged in this case.

Samayoa Named in Court Documents that led Noriega Conviction

Guatemalan court documents that led to the conviction against Noriega name Samayoa alongside his former associate as responsible for 38 alleged murders and dozens of kidnappings and other crimes carried out in 1982 and 1983. This was at the height of the genocide being carried out by de facto president Efraín Ríos Montt, who was in power between March 23, 1982 and August 8, 1983. The accusations against Samayoa include burying people alive and torching their homes.

Patricia Foxen, an anthropologist who has studied K’iche’ Mayan communities in the Southern Quiche region and in Providence, Rhode Island, attended Noriega’s first trial in 1997. She told IJ Monitor that, “The list of alleged crimes committed by Juan Samayoa against the K’iche’ community in Tululche is extensive and horrific, and includes torture, mutilation, kidnapping, theft, and live burials. For over two decades it has been an open secret—and an open wound—that Samoyoa was living in plain sight, and amongst his victims, in Providence.”

According to press reports, during his immigration proceedings, Samayoa claimed he took up arms in self-defense and to support the military’s war against subversion. He claimed that guerrillas attacked him several times, on one occasion suffering a coma for three days. After that, he left Guatemala and entered the United States illegally. His request for asylum was denied, but he continued to live without incident for several years until his arrest in October 2017. An immigration judge ordered Samayoa’s removal from the U.S. in March 2018. Samayoa’s appeals were denied, and he was eventually deported in November 2019.

Currently, proceedings against members of the Guatemalan high command during the Ríos Montt government, as well as the preceding government of Romeo Lucas García (1978-1982), are in progress. In both instances, former military commanders face charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. Some of the crimes occurred in the department of El Quiché, where according to the Commission for Historical Clarification [pdf], 344 of 626 documented massacres occurred.

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.

*An earlier version of the article had Tululché located in Chinique. This has been corrected to Chiche in this version.

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