The Future of Accountability Efforts in Guatemala in the Balance as New Hard-Line Government Takes Office

Advocates of accountability for grave crimes and corruption are deeply concerned that under Guatemala’s new presidential administration and Congress, hard-won gains in the battle against corruption and impunity will give way to new forms of criminal activity, cooptation of the state, and attacks against human rights defenders.

A President with “Connections to Guatemala’s Dark Past”

President Alejandro Giammattei, who took office on January 14, is alleged to have close ties to the old networks that formed the heart of the “hidden powers” known as Illegal Clandestine Security Apparatuses (Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad (CIACS)). He is allegedly close to the retired military officials who make up the Association of Military Veterans of Guatemala (AVEMILGUA). AVEMILGUA arose from opposition to the peace process and went on to steadfastly oppose the work of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and the anti-corruption and anti-impunity efforts it helped put in place. Giammattei is also alleged to have close ties to the Cofradía (The Brotherhood), an alliance of elite military intelligence officials who have been linked to organized crime. Given his alleged ties to these groups, there may be a renewed effort to revive an effort to provide to those accused or convicted of war crimes, genocide, or crimes against humanity.

CICIG investigated Giammattei early on in the organization’s history. Giammattei led the Guatemalan penitentiary system in September 2006, when seven inmates at the Pavón prison were massacred and was one of several individuals charged in the case. In 2010, he attempted to avoid prosecution by seeking refuge in the Embassy of Honduras. Giammattei eventually turned himself over to the authorities, and after spending 10 months in jail, a judge dismissed the case and released him for lack of evidence.

In February 2007, when Giammattei still led the prison system, four police officials jailed on accusations of killing three Salvadoran congressmen were shot dead at El Boquerón prison. The police officers were found dead after stating that they planned to divulge information about who was behind the murder of the Salvadoran officials. As noted by InSight Crime: “Giammattei’s connections to Guatemala’s dark past are concerning, given that the country is backtracking on earlier efforts to prosecute high-level corruption and impunity.”

New Congressional Leadership: A Worrying Sign

Elections for the senior leadership of Congress also took place yesterday, with the results heightening concerns about the ability of ongoing grave crimes investigations and proceedings to survive. Although Giammattei’s Vamos party only has 17 out of 160 members of Congress, through a series of alliances his party took control of the congressional leadership. Allan Estuardo Rodríguez of Vamos will serve as President of the Directorate of the National Congress. Sofia Hernández of the Union de Cambio Nacional (UCN) was elected First Vice President. Her party’s leader, Mario Estrada, pleaded guilty to drug trafficking in a U.S. district court after being arrested in the midst of his ultimately failed 2019 presidential campaign. He is also accused of conspiring to murder two presidential rivals.

Especially concerning for the future of accountability in Guatemala, Luis Alfonso Rosales of the Valor Party was named the Second Vice-President. Rosales was the defense lawyer of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt during the second Maya Ixil genocide trial. He also represented Ríos Montt’s daughter, Zury Ríos, who was disqualified on constitutional grounds from participation in the 2019 presidential race. This suggests that amnesty may be at the top of the new Congress’s legislative agenda for 2020. In a first attempt to discern the balance of forces in the new Congress, published by Nómada, the various parties of the right and center-right have 85 votes, while the center has 60, and the center-left and left-wing parties have a combined 15 votes. To pass legislation, a bill must obtain 81 votes in three separate readings. The proposed amnesty bill (bill 5377) was approved in two readings; only one additional vote would be required for the bill to be sent to the president to sign into law.

Advances and Setbacks in 2019

Last year began with a concerted effort by pro-military factions in Congress to impose a blanket amnesty law that would have freed those convicted of or charged with war crimes and prevented future prosecutions into such crimes. As we reported over the course of the year, victims’ organizations, human rights groups, and international allies successfully blocked the effort, for the time being. In the meantime, a handful of emblematic cases advanced in the courts, including two in which senior military officials face charges of genocide and crimes against humanity against the Maya Ixil people. However, other cases were dismissed by judges whom victims’ groups see as biased in favor of the military. Some, including the CREOMPAZ forced disappearance case, remain in the courts. This was particularly discouraging for victims’ groups, given the 2018 landmark conviction in the Molina Theissen case as well as the conviction later that year of a former special forces soldier in the Dos Erres massacre case.

The most significant setback was the forced departure of CICIG. CICIG was created in 2007 to help Guatemala combat corruption and organized crime networks that had coopted the state and led to dangerously high levels of violence. CICIG was widely recognized nationally and internationally for its efforts to strengthen prosecutorial and judicial autonomy in Guatemala, and its work, alongside Guatemalan judicial institutions, to combat corruption and organized crime at the highest levels. Precisely because of its successes, former President Jimmy Morales, who himself had come under criminal investigation, set his sights on abolishing CICIG. In doing so, he received the backing of powerful sectors enraged by CICIG’s leadership in criminal investigations against business elites, politicians, and retired military officials for corruption, illegal campaign contributions, and other crimes. After a protracted battle with CICIG chief Iván Velásquez, whom he barred from the country, Morales ultimately refused to renew the Commission’s mandate, and it was forced to close its doors in September 2019.

Despite these setbacks, the survivors and families of victims of the Guatemala armed conflict have maintained their determination to achieve truth and justice. As of this writing, at least five proceedings are active in the Guatemalan courts, some with hearings scheduled in the coming days and months. Other cases remain stalled.

War Crimes Cases to Watch in 2020

The first case scheduled to be heard in 2020 involves Juan Alecio Samayoa Cabrera, a former chief military commissioner in the municipality of Chinique, department of El Quiché. Samayoa lived for 25 years in the United States, effectively evading an indictment handed down by Guatemalan prosecutors against him in 1992. However, he was arrested in Providence, Rhode Island in 2017 and deported to the Guatemala last November. Authorities immediately detained him. Samayoa is accused of more than 150 human rights violations between 1982 and 1983 in the department of El Quiché. The first declaration hearing, originally scheduled for December 20, 2019, was rescheduled for January 16, in Santa Cruz, the capital of El Quiché department.

Evidentiary phase hearings against four senior military officials charged genocide and crimes against humanity against the Maya Ixil people during the governments of Romeo Lucas García (1978-1982) and Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-1983) are scheduled to commence in two separate proceedings in March and April. The plaintiffs will present their evidence in the case, and the judges will determine whether to send the cases to trial. The hearings in the Lucas García Maya Ixil case will commence on March 9. Among the accused in this case are former chief of the Army General Staff Benedicto Lucas García and former head of military intelligence Manuel Callejas y Callejas, both of whom are serving 58-year sentences in the Molina Theissen case. The third defendant, César Noguera Argueta, who was arrested in October 2019, was granted house arrest. He was head of military operations and like his co-defendants was part of the military high command. The evidentiary phase hearings in the Rios Montt Maya Ixil case will begin in April. The defendant in this case Luis Enrique Mendoza García, head of military operations during the Ríos Montt government, who was arrested in June 2019. Despite the fact that he had been fugitive since 2011, the court granted his request for house arrest.

Two cases remain stalled in the Guatemalan courts: the CREOMPAZ mass forced disappearance case and the Maya Achí sexual violence case. The pre-trial judge in both of these cases was Claudette Domínguez, whom victims’ groups have accused of holding pro-military bias.

Former Attorney General Thelma Aldana described the stalled CREOMPAZ case as one of the largest cases of enforced disappearance in Latin American history. In June 2016, Judge Domínguez ruled that there was sufficient evidence to proceed to trial with charges against eight former senior military officials, including former Army Chief of Staff Benedicto Lucas García. However, Domínguez excluded from the case around eighty percent of the victims, a decision that the plaintiffs have appealed. This, along with a handful of other appeals, has stalled the case for more than three years.

Domínguez is also the judge who lifted the travel ban that had been imposed on former member of Congress Edgar Justino Ovalle, which allowed him to flee before being impeached. He is one of several fugitives who are accused in the CREOMPAZ case but have not yet been apprehended. Victims’ groups sought to recuse Judge Domínguez from the case, but this was rejected by the courts. Victims’ group successfully sought the recusal of Judge Domínguez from the Mendoza García case, and the case was turned over to Judge Rodolfo Bremer, who ruled, as noted above, to indict the retired general.

Victims also succeeded in forcing the recusal of Judge Domínguez from the Maya Achi sexual violence case but only after she had ruled to dismiss the charges against the six former civil defense patrol members arrested and indicted in the case in 2018. The recusal decision was handed down after the six men had been released from custody. The plaintiffs have appealed Judge Domínguez’s ruling in the case, which has since been transferred to Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez.

The other novelty in the Maya Achi sexual violence case involves a U.S. court. One of the men named in the original indictment, Francisco Cuxum Alvarado, was arrested in the United States in April 2019. He pleaded guilty to illegal reentry and was sentenced in December 2019 to time served. He was then remanded to immigration authorities, and his deportation is pending. Significantly, he admitted to belonging to the civil defense patrols in Rabinal. Judge Domínguez justified the dismissal of the charges by saying that the plaintiffs had failed to prove that the accused were members of the civil defense patrols. Fransisco Cuxum Alvarado’s admission provides new evidence in the case as well as a new defendant. (Notably, one of the Cuxum Alvarado’s brothers was among the six released in August.)

In addition, three former Kaibil soldiers implicated in the Dos Erres massacre, in which some 200 people were killed in 1982, are serving time in U.S. prisons for different violations of U.S. law; two of them could potentially be deported to Guatemala sometime in 2020, where they would presumably face charges.

The first is Gilberto Jordan, who was convicted by a U.S. court in 2010 for making false statements on his naturalization forms. When U.S. officials arrested him, Jordan admitted his involvement in the Dos Erres massacre. According to the U.S. Department of Justice: “At his plea hearing, Jordan admitted that he had been a Kaibil in the Guatemalan military who participated in the massacre at Dos Erres. Jordan also admitted that the first person he killed at Dos Erres was a baby, whom Jordan murdered by throwing in the well.” He received a maximum sentence of 10 years, which will be completed in September 2020. Jordan would then presumably be deported to Guatemala, where he will likely face charges.

Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes, a military officer and member of the Kaibil Special Forces, was convicted by a U.S. district court in 2013 and given a maximum sentence of ten years for lying on immigration forms about his role in Dos Erres massacre. Sosa Orantes had been living undetected in the United States for years, but when he realized he was being investigated for unlawfully procuring citizenship, he fled to Mexico and then Canada. He was later extradited from Canada to the United States, where he was prosecuted. After serving his term, he will be returned to Guatemala.

A third man implicated in the Dos Erres massacre and detained by U.S. authorities is Jose Ortiz Morales. Morales, who lived in the United States for nearly 20 years before his arrest, admitted to being a Kaibil soldier and was prosecuted for unlawful procurement of citizenship. He was sentenced in September 2017 to nearly one year in prison. Morales is under indictment in Guatemala for his alleged participation in the Dos Erres massacre, so he would presumably be arrested after U.S. authorities return him.  

Homeland Security officials contacted by International Justice Monitor did not answer questions about the timing of Jordan’s or Morales’s return to Guatemala.

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.