WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

WOLA/Sergio Ortiz Borbolla

6 Jan 2023 | Media Advisory

Genocide Trial Against High Level Military Officials to Begin in Guatemala

WOLA expert available for comment and analysis 

Media Advisory

Guatemala City  – On Monday January 9, 2023, the trial is set to begin of two Guatemalan high level military officials accused of responsibility in the genocide of Maya Ixil indigenous people during the government of Romero Lucas García (1978-1982). 

Retired head of the army, Benedicto Lucas García, and former head of military intelligence, Manuel Callejas y Callejas, have been charged with crimes of genocide, enforced disappearance and crimes against humanity which left at least 1,421 victims. Both men were convicted in 2018 on charges of rape, torture and enforced disappearance of political activist Emma Molina Theissen, and of the forced disappearance of her 14 year old brother, in 1981. 

The case is among several emblematic war crimes proceedings that remain active in the Guatemalan courts, with survivors and families of victims seeking accountability for grave human rights abuses that took place during the country’s 36-year-long civil war (1960-1996). This is taking place despite a campaign to remove, criminalize, or force into exile dozens of independent judges and prosecutors in Guatemala.

According to prosecutors, the accused officials are responsible for planning and carrying out the Guatemalan army’s counter-insurgency strategy in the Ixil region, after having determined that the area was “enemy territory”. Prosecutors allege that scorched-earth policies resulted in massacres and other grave crimes against the Maya Ixil population and that the army designed the policies to eliminate the civilian population. The prosecution evidence includes witness testimony, expert witness testimony, official documents, and forensic evidence.

Guatemalan courts have twice determined that the Guatemalan army carried out a state policy of genocide during the successor government to Lucas García, led by Efraín Ríos Montt. Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity against the Maya Ixil in 2013 and sentenced to 80 years. In a highly controversial ruling, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court later vacated the conviction. Ríos Montt died in April 2018 in the midst of his retrial. In a 2018 ruling, a court unanimously found that the Guatemalan army committed genocide against the Maya Ixil population but acquitted the sole defendant in that case of any wrongdoing.

WOLA Senior Fellow Jo-Marie Burt, an international expert on transitional justice and long-time observer of war crimes trials in Guatemala, will be monitoring the proceedings in the Maya Ixil genocide case, with the support of Truth and Justice in Guatemala, an organization she founded and co-directs with Guatemalan human rights defender Paulo Estrada.

Background Information

According to the report Guatemala Nunca Más of the Catholic Church, between 1978 and 1982, the military high command deployed a military counter-offensive through operations that left at least 12,400 victims in the municipalities of Santa María Nebaj, San Gaspar Chajul and San Juan Cotzal located in the department of El Quiche.  

On November 25, 2019, the Public Prosecutor’s Office charged three members of the General Staff of the Army of command responsibility for the crimes of genocide, forced disappearance and crimes against humanity committed in the context of these operations, including Lucas García, Callejas y Callejas and the head of military operations César Octavio Noguera Argueta. 

Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez, who at time, presided over High Risk Court “B,” was in charge of the pretrial phase of the case. Evidentiary phase hearings began in March 2020. In August 2021, after resolving challenges from the defense, the judge ruled that there was sufficient evidence to bring Lucas García and Callejas y Callejas to trial. 

Noguera Argueta died on November 20, 2020 and therefore the charges against him were dismissed.

After an intense campaign of intimidation and persecution, Judge Gálvez resigned on November 15, 2022, and is living in exile.

The prosecution, made up of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Justice and Reconciliation Association (AJR) and the Human Rights Office of the Archbishopric of Guatemala (ODHAG), presented as evidence 200 surviving witnesses, 148 forensic expert reports from the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala, 12 expert reports from scientific experts and more than 70 military, historical and newspaper documents that support the victims of the massacres, individual and collective acts, as well as the grave human rights violations reported.

As WOLA recently noted, over the past decade, networks made up of members of Guatemala’s political and military elite, criminal groups, and private sector have mobilized to push back against anti-impunity efforts. These groups have found common cause in the current administration of President Alejandro Giammattei, who has overseen the wholesale dismantling of institutions that were put in place to implement the Peace Accords. These actions by the Giammattei government threaten to undermine the ability of victims of grave human rights violations to access justice, truth and reparations. The trial of senior military officials who stand accused of genocide set to begin on January 9, 2023 will be a crucial test of the justice system in Guatemala.

For additional background information on the trial, please refer to the following articles:

Hope amidst the darkness: Victims continue to press for justice for wartime atrocities in Guatemala, by Jo-Marie Burt and Paulo Estrada

“No one told this to me. I saw it with my own eyes.” Survivor addresses court as evidentiary phase of Maya Ixil genocide case nears conclusion, by Jo-Marie Burt and Paulo Estrada

“Even in Wartime There are Moral Limits:” Plaintiffs Finalize Presentation of Genocide Charges against Senior Military Officials, by Jo-Marie Burt and Paulo Estrada

For more information and updates on the trial, please contact: 

Jo-Marie Burt: [email protected] or +1 (703) 946-9714

WOLA Press Office: [email protected]