“Even in Wartime There are Moral Limits:” Plaintiffs Finalize Presentation of Genocide Charges against Senior Military Officials

During the evidentiary phase hearing held on Wednesday, March 11, in the Maya Ixil genocide trial, the Attorney General’s Office finalized its presentation of the charges against former Chief of Military Operations, Colonel César Noguera Argueta, for the crimes of genocide and forced disappearance.

On Tuesday, prosecutors presented the charges against former Chief of the General Staff of the Guatemalan Army, General Benedicto Lucas García, and former Chief of Military Intelligence, General Manuel Callejas y Callejas for the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity against the Maya Ixil population, and dozens of cases of forced disappearance. Having concluded its presentation of the charges against the three senior military officials, the prosecution asked the judge to send them to trial.

Prosecutors claim the alleged crimes occurred during the Romeo Lucas García government (1978-1982), under which the Guatemalan army first designed and implemented a policy of genocide. Guatemalan courts have twice determined that the army carried out a state policy of genocide during the successor government to Lucas García, led by Efraín Ríos Montt.

Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez next invited the civil parties to present their arguments. Mynor Melgar, a longtime human rights lawyer at the Office of Human Rights of the Archdiocese of Guatemala (ODHAG), spoke in representation of the victims for a little over an hour.

Planning a Genocide

In order to understand the prosecution case against the three accused officials, Melgar noted that it was important to grasp the nature of the irregular war Guatemala experienced in the 1970s and 1980s. Melgar said that there were not two armies engaged in combat, but there was an irregular force (guerrillas) that sought to mobilize social support to obtain power. The Guatemalan army adopted a war strategy developed by the French and U.S. militaries, which maintained that the enemy was compromised not only those engaged in armed combat, but any and all who supported them. In this strategy, the only way to defeat these irregular forces was to destroy their social base. Torture, forced disappearance, extrajudicial execution, and mass killings were the primary methods employed toward this objective.

During the first few years of the government of Romeo Lucas García, there were isolated killings against community leaders in the Ixil region. According to Melgar, Callejas y Callejas, the Chief of Military Intelligence at the start of the Romeo Lucas García government until March 1982, was responsible for obtaining vital intelligence about the enemy in order to defeat them. Capturing, torturing, and then killing individuals believed to have useful information became commonplace under Callejas y Callejas.

Army violence intensified after a June 1980 attack on a military base in Cotzal by the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP), which resulted in the death of numerous troops. In response, the army kidnapped 70 people and took them to the military base, where they were tortured to obtain the information about the guerrillas. The army later executed a majority of them. These early mass killings were designed to create terror and force people to provide information about the guerrillas, which was central to the development of military strategy and operations. This made Callejas y Callejas responsible for these early killings, Melgar argued.

Under Callejas y Callejas’ leadership, military intelligence concluded that the EGP was seeking to turn the Ixil region into a “liberated zone.” Guerrilla movements in neighboring Nicaragua and El Salvador were trying to do the same in remote rural regions in their countries. Military intelligence also concluded that the majority of the Ixil population were guerrilla sympathizers or supporters. The army determined that this had to be stopped at all costs. In order to eradicate the guerrilla presence in Quiche, it was necessary to eradicate its presumed social base, the Maya Ixil population. The result was in steep increase in massacres of entire villages as well as military operations targeting survivors who had fled to the mountains continued.

Melgar said that despite these operations, the guerrilla threat persisted.

With the appointment of Benedicto Lucas García, brother of the de facto president, as Chief of the General Staff of the Army, on August 16, 1981, there was a clear shift in military strategy. Under Lucas García, the army began to apply a scorched-earth policy to areas identified as “red zones,” defined in military doctrine as enemy territories that must be destroyed. This resulted in a rapid intensification of army violence. “Lucas García personally directed and participated in these operations,” Melgar noted. “He is in the field of operations, he is aware of what is happening, he is directly giving orders to his commanders.

Melgar noted that army commanders met in November 1981 and determined, based on intelligence analyses, that it was necessary to accelerate the pace of army sweeps of villages in the Ixil region. He said that there is ample evidence, including Lucas García’s own words and declassified documents, that the decision was taken to respond to the continuing guerrilla presence by mounting a series of “overwhelming” attacks.

These actions resulted in the elimination of part of the population, but the guerrilla threat continued. In this context, in January 1982, Noguera Argueta was named Chief of Military Operations. During the short three months he is in this position, Melgar noted, there was a further intensification of army violence. He said that the army carried out 20 massacres in the Ixil region during this period, more than during the previous four years. Melgar referred to an intelligence report of another country, noting that if these scorched-earth operations continue at the present pace, “no villages will be left standing.” At this point, he noted, the intention to eliminate the threat of armed groups by annihilating the Maya Ixil population becomes clear.

Melgar argued that none of these massacres could have been carried out without the authorization and knowledge of these three officials. In particular, he noted, as chief of the General Staff of the Army who makes the decisions, who has command authority, and who had knowledge of what was occurring, Lucas García bears responsibility for the conduct of the war. In addition, he had to power to continue a course of action or to stop it. In this case, he did not stop illegal actions by his subordinates, despite knowing about the large number of deaths that these actions were causing. Moreover, he noted, the orders to carry out search-and-destroy operations and to use the other methods described earlier continued even after Lucas García was no longer head of the army.

According to Melgar, “These orders continued to be carried out after March [when Ríos Montt launched a coup and took power], after [Lucas García] stepped down as head of the army. This was an institutional policy.”

Even in Wartime There are Limits

“Even in wartime there are moral limits. Even in wartime there are ethical limits,” Melgar stated. “National and international law impose limits during wartime. It is unlawful to kill civilians, children, women, men, the elderly, on the mere presumption that they are involved [in the guerrilla]. It is unlawful to capture and torture people who are presumed to be involved [in the guerrilla]. The law imposes consequences for such unlawful actions.”

Melgar noted that for the victims, a trial it is critical to help them understand fully what happened and why. It is also important that justice be done, he said, to dignify the memory of the hundreds of victims who died at the hands of the army. 

He concluded by outlining the responsibility of each of the three accused as the authors of the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, and forced disappearance. Melgar said based on their functional responsibilities within the military hierarchy, he agreed with the Attorney General’s charges and called upon the judge to grant the request of the Attorney General’s Office to send the three accused to trial. Finally, he noted that the evidence presented is more than sufficient for the case to go to trial, so the accused can defend themselves and the plaintiffs may fully present their case.

The defense lawyers presented their arguments on Thursday and Friday. Each of the accused will have an opportunity to address the court before Judge Gálvez issues his ruling. 


During Wednesday’s hearing, Noguera Argueta walked out of the courtroom and into the hallway towards the office of High Risk Court “B,” where the restroom is located. He was unaccompanied by a guard or police officer.

As Noguera Argueta walked down the hallway, he passed by a male and female journalist, who collaborate with International Justice (IJ) Monitor. Both have attended the pretrial sessions, documenting the hearing and taking photographs of the parties. Noguera Argueta stopped and, directing himself to the male journalist, made a crude and inappropriate comment about the female journalist.

The journalists both said that they felt intimidated by Noguera’s behavior. Unlike Lucas García and Callejas y Callejas, who are in prison, the judge granted Noguera Argueta house arrest during the first declaration hearings. IJ Monitor observers alerted the authorities about this incident. 

On Thursday, Judge Gálvez called on all the parties in the proceedings to maintain order in the courtroom and avoid interactions or confrontations in order to finalize the pretrial proceedings without incident.

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.