During the final two hearings of the evidentiary phase hearings, defense lawyers for three senior military officials accused of genocide, crimes against humanity, and forced disappearance against Guatemala’s Maya Ixil population rejected the charges against their clients.
Last week, the Attorney General’s Office and the civil parties presented the charges against the three retired military officials. The alleged crimes occurred during the government of General Romeo Lucas García government (1978-1982), under which prosecutors allege the Guatemalan army first designed and implemented a policy of genocide.
The three officials facing charges are retired General Benedicto Lucas García, former chief of the General Staff of the Guatemalan Army (and brother of Romeo Lucas García); retired General Manuel Callejas y Callejas, former chief of military intelligence (G2); and retired Colonel César Octavio Noguera Argueta, former chief of military operations (G3).
Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez of High Risk Court “B” presides over the pre-trial phase of the proceedings, and before concluding the hearing, he invited the accused officials to address the court. Both Lucas García and Callejas y Callejas did so.
Judge Gálvez also invited Antonio Caba, a massacre survivor and president of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), which presented the complaint in this case in 2000, to address the court.
Caba told the court the victims wanted justice after many years of impunity. Caba recounted the story of how the army slaughtered 100 people from his village of Ilom, in Chajul, and said, “No one told this to me. I saw it with my own eyes.”
Before suspending proceedings, Judge Gálvez said he will make his decision on whether there is sufficient evidence to merit a trial against the three men on March 24.
Guatemalan courts have twice determined that the Guatemalan army carried out a state policy of genocide during the successor government to Romeo Lucas García, led by Efraín Ríos Montt.
Benedicto Lucas García and Callejas y Callejas are serving out their 58-year sentences for crimes against humanity, aggravated sexual assault, and forced disappearance in the Molina Theissen case in a military hospital. Lucas García is also awaiting trial in the CREOMPAZ mass disappearance case, which remains ensnared in legal challenges after more than three years. Noguera Argueta is under house arrest.
The Defense: “Where is the Plan Signed by Benedicto?”
The defense lawyers vehemently rejected the charges against their clients and called upon Judge Gálvez to dismiss them.
Their arguments centered on claims that evidence presented by the plaintiffs, which they characterized as contradictory and illegal, failed to demonstrate the individual responsibility of the accused for the alleged crimes. They said that the charges are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of command authority and of the functional responsibilities of the three accused officials. Each of the lawyers argued that the General Staff was merely a technical, advisory body and not part of the chain of command. The defense also said that former Minister of Defense, Luis Rene Mendoza Palomo was the ultimate authority.
Mendoza Palomo, who is among those named in the 2000 complaint filed by AJR, is a fugitive of justice. He was one of several military officials authorities sought to apprehend in 2016 in the CREOMPAZ mass disappearance case who evaded apprehension and remains at large.
Finally, they argued that the army acted based on political motivations—the need to eliminate the guerrilla threat—and therefore the charge of genocide, which must be based on a target group’s ethnic, cultural, or religious identity, is invalid.
Below we highlight the most substantive statements by the defense lawyers for the three accused officials.
Mario Antonio Cuevas Vidal, defense lawyer for Noguera Argueta, stated that the Ixil population were a “rebellious people,” who participated in the guerrilla war and carried out illegal acts. He argued that while it was impossible to deny that children died, this was the logical result of state policies and could not be considered the individual responsibility of his client.
Cuevas Vidal said his client acted merely in an advisory capacity, was not part of the chain of command, and therefore bears no criminal responsibility for the alleged crimes. He accused the Attorney General’s Office of lacking objectivity and of violating the presumption of innocence. He further argued that the crime of forced disappearance was not codified as a crime at the time of the events and that an international treaty is not above the Guatemalan Constitution to argue that his client cannot be accused of this crime. (Guatemala’s Constitution recognizes international treaties as part of domestic law.)
Jorge Lucas Cerna, lawyer for Benedicto Lucas García, stated that the General Staff was a technical and advisory bod. The chief of the General Staff—his client (and father)—as well as its other members, including the heads of military intelligence (G2) and military operations (G3), were subordinate to the minister of defense, who imparts orders commanders and chiefs. The chain of command is the channel by which senior officials impart orders or instructions to troops and lower-ranking officials.
“Where is the plan signed by Benedicto?” Lucas Cerna said, arguing that without such evidence, the court cannot hold his client criminally responsible for the alleged crimes. He further noted that the massacre of Ilom occurred on March 23, 1982, the day Lucas García was removed as chief of the General Staff. (On that day, Ríos Montt took power and replaced Lucas García with Héctor Mario López Fuentes as head of the army.)
Jose Antonio Anaya Cardona, counsel for Callejas y Callejas, made a similar argument, noting that Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, who was named by Ríos Montt as Chief of Military Intelligence, had already been prosecuted for the alleged massacre at Ilom. He added that there is no document proving that his client characterized the internal enemy.
Each of the defense lawyers blamed the massacres on the guerrillas. Anaya asserted that the human remains presented as forensic evidence by the plaintiffs were all guerrilla combatants who were buried haphazardly by their comrades.
Lucas Cerna, referring to one witness’s testimony, questioned the truthfulness of the claim that the armed men who slaughtered the people in his village were army troops. “The witness say 200 troops arrived at their villages, but they didn’t know who they were,” he said.
Sitting behind him, Benedicto Lucas García muttered, “They were guerrilleros.”
The Generals Speak
The two generals on trial, Benedicto Lucas García and Manuel Callejas y Callejas, briefly addressed the court.
Lucas García reiterated many of the points he made during the first declaration hearing last November. He acknowledged leading troops in combat against the guerrillas, recalling how one guerrilla fled from him in the mountains. He proudly discussed his military studies at the French Special Military School of Saint-Cyr. He boasted of his role in the formation of the Iximché Task Force. He said he did not want to accept the appointment as Chief of the General Staff for fear that some would say it was only because his brother was president, but he reluctantly agreed after the minister of defense insisted. He recalled his brother telling him: “One must obey orders, not discuss them.”
“I supervised [army operations]; I was aware of what was going on,” Lucas García said. “I am a person known throughout the world. I’m not resentful.”
Regarding his relationship with the other two defendants, Lucas García said that the chiefs of military intelligence (G2) and military operations (G3) were merely technical and advisory bodies. He said he only met with the head of the G2, Callejas y Callejas, on two occasions. One of them was in Nebaj, one of the municipal towns that comprise the Ixil region and the scene of many of the alleged crimes outlined in the genocide charges against the retired general. He said he went to Nebaj at the request of the mayor, who was concerned that priests had abandoned the churches and joined the guerrillas. He said that he and Callejas y Callejas addressed the people of Nebaj in a public gathering, warning them to maintain order and avoid problems with the army.
He also said that he visited Chajul, another of the municipal towns that comprise the Ixil regoin. “They were all grateful that the army was protecting them,” he said. “The indigenous people of Chajul controlled a military detachment we left there. We created a military detachment there that was under the control of the indigenous people of Chajul.” He added: “The only problem was San Juan Cotzal [the third municipal town of the Ixil region]. Everyone there was involved with the guerrillas.”
In reference to the accusation that he ordered and carried out systematic attacks against the Maya Ixil population who had fled into the mountains to escape military persecution, Lucas García asserted: “We did not use bombs…but we did use machine guns against the encampments. Lucas García made similar declarations after one of the first declaration hearings to one of the civil party lawyers, as reported by International Justice Monitor.
Lucas García said that if he were an assassin, he would have the courage to say so, unlike the former guerrillas who testified against him in the Molina Theissen trial and refused to reveal their faces. (He was referring to protected witnesses, who testified in that case.) He told the court, “I never harmed my indigenous race! I owe everything to them! I speak and write Q’eqchi’. I am a member of a cofrade [a typically indigenous religious society].” Lucas García ended by thanking Judge Gálvez and acknowledged his professionalism.
Callejas y Callejas briefly addressed the court next. Before he began speaking, he placed on the table the 2018 verdict in the trial against Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, the chief of military intelligence under Ríos Montt, who was acquitted of genocide and crimes against humanity. He noted that the charges against him include events that have already been prosecuted, such as the March 23, 1982 Ilom massacre. “You cannot judge the same event twice,” he said. (He did not mention that the court in that case unanimously found that the Guatemalan army committed genocide against the Maya Ixil population during the Ríos Montt government (March 1982-August 1983.)
Callejas y Callejas also asserted that Guatemala did not experience an internal armed conflict, but rather “armed aggression against the State of Guatemala.” The Peace Accords are not valid, he said, because the guerrilla commanders signed them using pseudonyms.
He concluded by making reference to the Guillermo Toriello Foundation, an NGO that according to its website “promotes development in the framework of the peace accords.”
“They managed to come up with money to pay for the publication of this book, Memory of the Fallen, which includes the names of all the subversives who participated and were killed during this problem,” Callejas y Callejas said. He asserted that the book’s cover photograph is captioned “Pablito, a young guerrillero” and that it was taken somewhere in the Ixil region.
The book, whose full title is Memory of the Fallen in the Guatemalan Revolutionary Struggle: A Registry of the National Revolutionary Unity of Guatemala (URNG) Members Fallen in Combat during the years of the Armed Conflict 1971-1996, lists more than 2,100 guerrilla fighters who were killed, captured, or disappeared during the Guatemalan conflict. (The URNG was demobilized and incorporated into political life after the 1996 Peace Accords. Hardliners in the military opposed to the peace accords created the Association of Guatemalan Military Veterans—AVEMILGUA—in 1995.) The caption of the photograph on the cover does not mention the Ixil region. It states that Pablito was a Kanjobal guerrilla fighter, who was killed in San Miguel Acatán, Huehuetenango, the home of the Maya Kanjobal ethnic group.
The Voice of the Survivors: “This Justice Can Change Our Country”
Antonio Caba of the AJR made the day’s final intervention. Portions of his statement are below.
I was 11 when the army entered my community of Ilom. I was sleeping … when the troops entered. My mother was making breakfast, my father was getting ready to work in the milpa… He told me to get up, that we had to go to a meeting. The army arrived to massacre my village. I lived this, I saw this.
As a survivor, Your Honor, I’m telling you that I saw them kill hundreds of people. No one told this to me. I saw it with my own eyes.
Thank you for this opportunity, which we have not had before. Before, there was nowhere to go to denounce what was happening at that time. I’m very grateful for this opportunity for justice to be done… Guatemala has lived in this impunity for too long.
This was not a battle between the army and guerrillas. It was the army attacking the population… In my community there was no combat. They forced the people to come together at a meeting, then they grabbed them, one by one, like chickens to be slaughtered. The people had no way to defend themselves…
We filed our complaint in this case 20 years ago. Unfortunately, in Guatemala justice has not functioned properly, it has been coopted by the rich and powerful. But today is the day to tell truth about what happened. This justice can change our country. This is not about revenge. It is about justice, it is about our right to access justice.
I am a survivor of this conflict… I lived it, I saw it, I was present. This is my experience.
Caba noted that he was saddened to hear the statements of the generals, which he characterized as lies. “They say the army destroyed ‘encampments.’ Ilom is not an encampment, it is a village. They viewed all the villages as [guerrilla] encampments. They massacred villagers then they set their homes on fire. These were simple, humble homes. We are a simple, humble people, we are simple campesinos.”
He concluded by urging Judge Gálvez to order this case to trial. “It is our right as victims to access justice,” he said. “The only thing we want is justice, so history doesn’t repeat itself, so no government can carry out similar atrocities in the future.”
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.