Another Senior Military Official Indicted on Genocide Charges in Guatemala

Last week, a Guatemalan court indicted another senior military official accused of genocide and crimes against humanity against the Maya Ixil population. The official, retired army general Luis Enrique Mendoza García, was the third in command of the Guatemalan army during the government of dictator Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-1983).

Mendoza García is the fourth top military official indicted in recent weeks. In November, a pretrial court indicted Benedicto Lucas Garcia, Manuel Callejas y Callejas, and Cesar Noguera Argueta in a separate case of genocide, also against the Maya Ixil. Those charges relate to events during the government prior to that of Ríos Montt, led by General Fernando Romeo Lucas García (1978-1982).

Originally accused in 2011 along with Ríos Montt and other members of the High Command, Mendoza García eluded arrest and was a fugitive until June of this year.  He was arrested when he went to cast his vote during Guatemala’s general elections. Two courts have found that the Guatemalan army committed genocide during the Ríos Montt government. However, the 2013 conviction of Ríos Montt was vacated [pdf] by the Constitutional Court, and he died in 2018 in the midst of a retrial. His chief of military intelligence, Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, was acquitted in 2013 and 2018 of all charges.

A Genocidal Assault on Indigenous Populations

Over the course of two days on November 27 and 28, lead prosecutor Erick de León laid out the case against Mendoza García. De León stated that Mendoza García was Chief of Operations (G3) of the General Staff of the Guatemalan Army from April 16, 1982 to July 31, 1983, during which time he oversaw counterinsurgency military operations nation-wide. The prosecution alleges that he is responsible for the authorization and implementation of Plan Victoria 82, which outlined a strategy to intensify the army’s scorched-earth operations against civilian populations in order to destroy the guerrilla units and their putative bases of social support. Victoria 82 ordered the destruction of homes, local crops, and animals, which was seen as essential to break the ties between indigenous communities and guerrilla groups. Those who fled their homes and went to the mountains were also targeted with search and destroy missions and bombing campaigns. 

According to De León, the Victoria 82 campaign became the basis for the development of Operation Sofia, also the responsibility of Mendoza García. Operation Sofia, approved in July 1982, authorized counterinsurgency sweeps through the Ixil region aimed at killing guerrilla combatants and destroying their civilian support bases. The result was the massacre of thousands of noncombatant civilians. The prosecution alleged that Mendoza García had knowledge of these operations and their results, including 32 massacres in the Ixil region between 1982 and 1983 that were later documented by the Commission for Historical Clarification. According to National Security Archive researcher Kate Doyle, the Operation Sofía documents “record the military’s genocidal assault against indigenous populations in Guatemala.”

The prosecution claims that its evidence shows that the government intended to partially destroy the Maya Ixil population. Military operations had as specific objectives the killing of civilians, including children, girls, women, men, and the elderly; forced disappearances; individual and collective sexual violence; torture; the burning and destruction of villages and the resulting forced displacement of the population; persecution of those forcibly displaced; scorched-earth operations; and coercing women and men into conditions of slavery designed to bring about their destruction as a group.

De León read the names of the villages, all located in the municipalities of Nebaj, Chajul, and Cotzal, where these crimes occurred while Mendoza García was chief of military operations. He also read the names of the victims of these crimes, noting 82 direct victims would present their testimony in court. The prosecution said that it would also present as evidence 408 death certificates of individuals killed as a result of these military actions in Nebaj, Chajul, and Cotzal, as well as forensic evidence of the massacres and official military documents. De León also noted that numerous survivors of sexual violence will testify in court.

Mendoza García stated he was innocent of any crime. “I was not the one who ruled,” he told the court by video conference. He claimed that he had no means to plan or carry out such an operation. In addition, he stated that there was no document that places him in the Ixil region in 1982 and 1983.

Judge Grants Mendoza García House Arrest

On the third day of hearings, Judge Rodolfo Bremer indicted Mendoza García and ordered the Attorney General’s Office to present its final investigation on March 30, 2020. This will be followed by a hearing on April 14, 2020.

Judge Bremer was named as the pretrial judge in the case just days before the preliminary hearings were set to begin on November 27. The plaintiffs complained that they had not been notified of this last-minute change. Judge Silvia de León had been named to oversee the case after the plaintiffs succeeded in recusing the judge who had originally been name to the case, Claudette Domínguez. They accused Judge Domínguez of partiality.

Despite the fact that Mendoza García had been a fugitive for the past eight years, Judge Bremer approved the defense motion to grant the defendant conditional liberty during the remainder of the judicial process with no police oversight. Mendoza García’s lawyer sustained his request saying that the retired general was 74 years of age and suffers from health issues. He also noted that he had already been imprisoned for the past six months. Mendoza García is required to register at the Attorney General’s Office once a month, is prohibited from leaving the department of Guatemala, and is required to attend all hearings, or will face a fine of 30,000 quetzales.

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.