A Perfect Storm: Guatemalan Judge Dismisses War Crimes Charges Against Feared Military Commissioner

A judge has dismissed war crimes charges against Juan Alecio Samayoa Cabrera, 69, a former chief military commissioner in the municipality of Chinique, department of El Quiché, and ordered his immediate release.

In the first declaration hearing held on January 16, the judge said prosecutors had not presented evidence linking Samayoa to the alleged crimes. She then ordered Samayoa’s immediate release, even though he had been a figutive of justice for 25 years and was only brought to trial after a lengthy deportation proceeding in the United States, and ordered prosecutors to continue investigating the crimes.

Samayoa had resided illegally in the United States since 1992. Immigration authorities in the U.S. arrested him in 2017 after a Guatemalan woman residing in Providence, Rhode Island identified him as the man responsible for her father’s forced disappearance in 1982. A U.S. court later convicted Samayoa of immigration fraud, and in November 2018, he was deported to Guatemala where local authorities immediately arrested him.

Jorge Morales Toj, who represents two of the victims in the case, expressed his indignation over the decision and said he will appeal the judge’s ruling. Meanwhile, several victims, including an indigenous woman who claimed Samayoa was directly responsible for killing her husband in 1982, yelled “Assassin! Asassin!” at him as local police escorted him out of the courtroom.

The Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office accused Samayoa of a series of crimes, including murder, crimes against humanity, illegal detentions, and aggravated sexual assault. They accuse him of targeting residents of Tululché, located in Chiche in the department of El Quiché, in 1982 and 1983, when he was a chief military commissioner. State sponsored terror reached a peak during that period of Guatemala’s 36-year conflict, which Guatemalan and international courts have recognized as a genocide.

During the proceedings, Samayoa denied having been a chief military commissioner at the time of the alleged crimes, saying he was only “an assistant.” However, during his immigration proceedings in the U.S., he admitted to have commanded a paramilitary unit of 500 men in the municipality of Chinique in El Quiché. The military created these units, known as civil defense patrols (PACs), to combat guerrilla organizations and to exercise control over the local population. The PACs have been implicated in scores of extrajudicial killings, massacres, rapes, and torture.

Patricia Foxen, an anthropologist who has interviewed Samayoa’s alleged victims in Guatemala and the United States, told International Justice (IJ) Monitor: “Juan Samayoa is known to have led some of the most vicious civil patrols in El Quiché department, if not the country, during the armed conflict. The fact that his victims on both sides of the border continue to live in deep fear of him speaks volumes.”

The swift dismissal of the charges against Samayoa raises new questions about beleagured justice efforts in Guatemala.

A Perfect Storm

A number of factors contributed to the outcome in this case, underscoring why reformers established special units in the Attorney General’s office and in the judiciary to adjudicate complex cases such as this one.

Judge Suzy Pérez Cabrera of the First Chamber of the First Criminal and Narco-activity Court in Santa Cruz del Quiché presided over the first declaration hearing. She said that she was dismissing the charges because the Attorney General’s Office had failed to demonstrate a clear connection between Samayoa and the alleged crimes. The judge noted that there were numerous contradictions in the witness testimonies and that the indictment did not clearly identify Samayoa as being responsible for the alleged crimes it contained.

“It could be that Samayoa committed the killings and violations that he is accused of, but you have not proved it,” Judge Pérez Cabrera said. “It is on his conscience if he is responsible.”

She ordered prosecutors to continue the investigation into the alleged crimes to identify those responsible.

The judge summarily dismissed the illegal detention charges by applying the 1973 criminal code, which establishes a statute of limitation for this crime, despite the fact that it was ineffective on December 31, 1993 and replaced with the new 1994 criminal code, which incorporates international law into the domestic law and has been used in all recent grave crimes trials. Moreover, the 1996 National Reconciliation Law clearly rejects statutes of limitations and amnesties for international crimes and crimes against humanity.

Judge Pérez Cabrera further justified the dismissal of the charges arguing that it was impossible to determine whether the alleged crimes were the result of the internal armed conflict or a conflict over land. Historians and anthropologists have long documented that land conflicts and other types of social conflicts were often woven into the dynamics of the internal armed conflict. This was evident in the Sepur Zarco trial, in which landowners called upon the military to eliminate peasant leaders who were demanding the return of land they claimed had been illegally taken from them; after the men were killed or disappeared, the army turned the women of Sepur Zarco into their domestic and sexual slaves for several years. In 2016, a court convicted a military official and a military commissioner for these crimes, sentencing them to 120 and 240 years.

After the hearing, victims told IJ Monitor they believed that the judge was not acting impartially and had been influenced by the governor of El Quiché, who they say is Samayoa’s nephew. This allegation was unable to be confirmed, but it is the first time in many years that a judge has dismissed charges in a complex and well-documented human rights case such as this in the first declaration hearing.

A number of other problems also plagued the case. The original indictment used by the prosecutor, Felipe de Jesús Salanic, from the Santa Cruz del Quiché Attorney General’s Office, was prepared in 1992 for the criminal case against Samayoa’s associate, Candido Noriega. The indictment named Samayoa, but it was formulated for the trial against Noriega, who was prosecuted in Guatemala while Samayoa was living in the United States. (Noriega was acquitted on two separate occasions, but on appeal he was prosecuted a third time in a Guatemala City courtroom in 1999. He was convicted of several counts of first- and second- degree murder and sentenced to 220 years in prison.) Local prosecutors were duly notified of Samayoa’s arrest, trial, and impending deportation by U.S. officials. This information was also publicly known and was reported in the U.S. and Guatemalan press. However, prosecutors did not reformulate the indictment to focus specifically on Samayoa’s responsibility in the alleged crimes.

It was also evident that the Quiché-based prosecutor had little experience litigating complex human rights cases. His presentation of the case against Samayoa lasted only 20 minutes, included mention of only a few cases, and did not develop a complex argument establishing Samayoa’s responsibility for the alleged crimes. Several victims we interviewed after the hearing said their cases — which they contend are Samayoa’s direct responsibility — had not been incorporated into the indictment. It is not clear why the local prosecutor did not incorporate any of these cases.

Further, it is unclear why the case was not transferred to the Special Cases Unit for the Internal Armed Conflict, which is part of the Human Rights Prosecutor’s Office of the Attorney General’s Office based in Guatemala City. The Special Cases Unit has a team of experienced prosecutors trained to work on complex grave crimes cases and could potentially have developed a more solid indictment against Samayoa.

Another issue was that Judge Pérez Cabrera refused to admit Edgar Pérez of the Law Firm for Human Rights as a co-plaintiff in the case, arguing that his client, Rosario Triquis, was not a direct victim in the case. Pérez said that the criminal code allows Triquis, a Tululché resident who is an eyewitness to some of the crimes of which Samayoa is accused, to be a co-plaintiff in the case. The judge rejected his argument. Excluding Pérez deprived the plaintiffs of an experienced litigator who is intimately familiar with the Tululché massacre: he represented the victims in the 1999 court case against Noriega.

At the same time, it is not clear why only three victims were represented by counsel in the proceeding in a case that has dozens of victims. Fear continues to inhibit many victims from coming forward, as Patricia Foxen notes. At the same time, the grassroots work developing cases and supporting victims did not appear to be as robust in this instance, particularly compared to other cases such as the Maya Ixil genocide case or the Sepur Zarco sexual violence case that have come to trial in recent years.

Importance of the Human Rights Prosecutor’s Office and the High-Risk Courts

There are some important lessons for the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office and for the international organizations supporting accountability efforts in Guatemala. Local judicial operators remain woefully underprepared to grapple with complex human rights cases, and they also remain vulnerable to threats, intimidation, and influence-peddling by powerful local actors. The right of victims to access justice is severely undermined in such a context.

Criminal investigations into conflict-era grave crime cases were centralized in the Special Cases Unit for the Internal Armed Conflict, a section within the Human Rights Prosecutor’s Office, more than a decade ago. One of the reasons for this was to ensure that the prosecutors handling those investigations were highly specialized in international human rights and humanitarian law. Another was to provide greater guarantee for their independence as well as their safety. The special training, extra attention to protection, and experience at the Special Cases Unit were designed to counteract these problems and thus guarantee the right of victims to access justice.

Similarly, the high-risk courts were established to provide greater guarantees of judicial independence and safety for all the parties involved when complex cases of human rights violations were being adjudicated. As noted in previous posts, the high-risk courts are not perfect institutions, and some decisions have been questionable. Yet they arguably provide a better chance for access to justice in grave crimes cases than regular courts.

It is impossible to know whether a better environment for prosecuting international crimes would have prevented the charges against Samayoa from beign thrown out. However, this case provides important insights into what can go wrong when bringing war crimes charges against former military officials. One thing is clear: prosecuting international crimes in Guatemala is likely to become even more difficult in the country’s current political climate.

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.