WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

Photo: Verdad y Justicia en Guatemala

2 Dec 2021 | Commentary

Hope amidst the darkness: Victims continue to press for justice for wartime atrocities in Guatemala

Over the past year, powerful elites have sought to reassert their control over Guatemala’s justice system, removing and intimidating independent prosecutors and judges from their posts, while others face intimidation and unfounded efforts to criminalize them. Many have been replaced with loyalists willing to do the bidding of those elites, undoing years of progress in strengthening prosecutorial and judicial independence and combating corruption and impunity.Despite these concerning setbacks in rule of law and anti-corruption efforts, several high profile transitional justice cases are presently before the courts of Guatemala. The May 2021 arrests of 12 senior and mid-ranking military and police officials in the Military Diary case, which includes 195 victims of enforced disappearance, extrajudicial execution, torture and sexual violence between 1983 and 1985, is the most dramatic of these. A dozen other human rights cases connected to Guatemala’s internal armed conflict (1960-1996) are currently making their way through Guatemala’s courts, pressing forward against great odds in an increasingly hostile climate for justice efforts. 

This is largely due to the persistence and empowerment of survivors and families of victims, and of the professionals still working in Guatemala’s legal system who continue to do their job at great personal risk. However, ongoing efforts of retired military officials, conservative elites, and members of the oligarchy to block such trials and co-opt the justice system threaten the future of these cases.

This commentary discusses the surprising success of Guatemala’s transitional justice process, the concerted attempts by powerful elites to put a stop to human rights trials, and summarizes the cases currently before the Guatemalan courts. It concludes with brief recommendations for the U.S. government and the international community to support Guatemala’s ongoing transitional justice efforts.

Transitional Justice Success

Since the signing of the peace accords in 1996, Guatemalan courts have handed down 26 sentences in 21 cases of conflict-era human rights violations, including genocide, massacres, forced disappearance, extrajudicial executions, sexual violence, and other crimes against humanity. Nearly 70 military personnel, soldiers, police and members of the civil defense patrols (PAC) have been convicted for serious human rights violations. Among those convicted are senior military officials who designed and implemented counterinsurgency policies that resulted in serious atrocities against the non-combatant civilian population. In addition, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACoHR) has issued 14 judgments against Guatemala for wartime human rights violations.  

Convictions in wartime human rights cases in Guatemala, 1993-2021

Several of these trials represent path breaking efforts to achieve justice for wartime atrocities. The 2013 prosecution of retired army general Efraín Ríos Montt marked the first time a former head of state was put on trial in Guatemala, and the first time a domestic court prosecuted the crime of genocide. While a court vacated the Ríos Montt conviction, a second court unanimously found that the Guatemalan army committed genocide during his 17-month reign of terror. 

The 2016 conviction of two military officials in the Sepur Zarco sexual violence case was another ground-breaking moment for post-conflict justice. Fifteen Q’eqchi’ women broke the silence about one of the least discussed aspects of the Guatemalan counterinsurgency war: Guatemalan army’s practice of deploying sexual violence against women as a weapon of war. This marked the first time a Guatemalan court prosecuted wartime sexual violence, and the first time that a domestic court prosecuted the crime of sexual slavery. 

In the 2018 Molina Theissen trial, four senior military officials were convicted of crimes against humanity, aggravated sexual assault, and forced disappearance. This was the first time that members of the army High Command were prosecuted as the intellectual authors of wartime sexual violence and for the forced disappearance of a child, Marco Antonio Molina Theissen. Among those convicted were retired army general Benedicto Lucas García, the former chief of the General Staff of the Guatemalan army and the architect of the scorched-earth counterinsurgency policy that resulted in mass atrocities, and his chief of military intelligence, Manuel Callejas y Callejas.

Also in 2018, exmilitary official Santos López Alonso was convicted for his role in the 1982 Dos Erres massacre, in which the special forces unit known as the Kaibiles killed some 200 civilians, including women, children, and the elderly. López Alonso was put on trial after being deported from the United States in 2016. Ramiro Osorio Cristales, a child survivor of the Dos Erres massacre who was kidnapped and illegally adopted by López Alonso after the massacre, traveled to Guatemala from Canada to testify against the former Kaibil instructor. López Alonso is the sixth military official to be convicted in this case, with earlier convictions in 2011 and 2012.

These successful prosecutions encouraged victims of other wartime atrocities to seek justice in their cases. Under the leadership of then Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, the Human Rights Prosecutor’s Office developed protocols to investigate war-time human rights violations, including crimes that are difficult to prosecute such as wartime sexual violence. In addition to learning how to work with human rights organizations that represent victims, they also learned the importance of respecting the dignity of victims and ensuring that the process of seeking justice does not result in revictimization. Similarly, efforts to strengthen the independence of the judiciary, led by trailblazing magistrates such as César Barrientos and supported by the international community, encouraged victims to seek justice in Guatemalan courts. 

Backsliding on rule of law and judicial independence

The backlash to these efforts from powerful former military officials, conservative political elites, and members of the oligarchy has been swift and fierce. The Constitutional Court decision that suspended the Ríos Montt trial after a verdict had been handed down, effectively erasing the genocide conviction, was evidence of this, as was the early removal of Claudia Paz y Paz from her post as Attorney General in 2014 and ongoing criminal suits against judges, prosecutors, and expert witnesses involved in the case. It seemed Guatemala’s experiment in post-conflict justice was unlikely to progress further.

The months-long protests in 2015 demanding the resignation of then President Otto Pérez Molina, ultimately resulting in his arrest alongside dozens of senior government officials on corruption charges, generated new opportunities to prosecute wartime cases. Then Attorney General Thelma Aldana aggressively pursued convictions in the Sepur Zarco and Molina Theissen cases, and under her leadership the Human Rights Prosecutor’s Office continued to investigate wartime atrocity cases. Yet countervailing forces continued to press against transitional justice efforts. 

For example, controversial judicial decisions led to the stalling of critical cases. This occurred with the CREOMPAZ case, the largest mass forced disappearance case in Latin America. This case is based on the exhumation of the remains of 565 people from Military Zone No. 21 in Cobán, Alta Verapaz; to date over 160 have been identified as victims of forced disappearance. Pretrial judge Claudette Domínguez ruled that eight of the eleven senior military officials arrested in the case in 2016 should face trial on charges of crime against humanity and forced disappearance. However, her ruling excluded 80 percent of the victims and denied the civil party status of one of the associations of victims connected to the case, prompting a series of appeals that have not been resolved and ultimately leaving the case in a five-year legal limbo

The same judge dismissed the case against six former PAC members from Rabinal, who faced charges of sexual violence against 36 Maya Achi women in Rabinal in the early 1980s, resulting in their release in July 2019. The victims successfully recused Judge Domínguez in September 2019, and the case was transferred to a new pretrial judge, Miguel Ángel Gálvez. He has ruled to send five men to trial in the case, including one who was deported from the United States. Several of the accused, including some of those released in 2019, remain at large. 

The efforts by corrupt elites to coopt Guatemala’s judicial institutions is at this point quite notorious. The successful shuttering of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) by the previous administration of Jimmy Morales (2016-2020) laid the groundwork for the all-out assault against judicial independence that has ensued under the current government of Alejandro Giammattei. In April, the sitting president of the Constitutional Court, Gloria Porras, was prevented from taking her new position on the Court after having been re-elected to serve another five-year term. In June, head of the anti-corruption unit, Juan Francisco Sandoval, was abruptly removed from his post, and he continues to face efforts to criminalize him. They join other former judges and prosecutors, including former attorneys general Claudia Paz y Paz and Thelma Aldana, who were forced to leave the country for doing their jobs: fighting crime, corruption, and impunity. 

Attacks aimed at threatening the security of and undermining the work of justice operators currently in office—as has been the case with judges Erika Afian and Pablo Xitumul and Human Rights Ombudsman Jordán Rodas, among others—demonstrate that such actions are part of a calculated strategy to rid Guatemala of officials who uphold the rule of law in order to guarantee impunity for corrupt actors as well as human rights violators. Judge Xitumul, president of High Risk Court “C,” was one of the judges who convicted Ríos Montt of genocidein 2013  and four senior military officials in the Molina Theissen case in 2018. He has described the efforts to lift his immunity as the work of those he’s convicted “seeking revenge.”

These same corrupt actors have conspired to end Guatemala’s experiment in post-conflict justice. In 2019, conservative members of the Guatemalan Congress with the backing of the Association of Military Veterans of Guatemala (Avemilgua) —which arose to oppose the peace process and later the work of the CICIG and the anti-corruption and anti-impunity efforts it helped put in place— sought to pass legislative bill 5377. If this bill became law, it would have ended all current and future criminal prosecutions for war-time human rights abuses and freed all those who were facing charges or who had been convicted of such crimes. Survivors and families of the victims, along with local and international human rights organizations, opposed the bill and worked to prevent its approval. They appealed to the Inter-American Court for Human Rights, which determined that the bill violated Guatemala’s international human rights obligations and ordered the Congress to cease consideration of the proposal. The Constitutional Court later ordered Congress to shelve the bill. While the conservative proponents of the bill did not abide the Court’s ruling and continued to seek its passage into law, they ultimately failed to do so. In June 2021, however, just a week after the arrests in the Military Diary case, members of Congress belonging to Valor, the party of Zury Ríos, the daughter of Ríos Montt and aspiring presidential candidate for 2024, presented a new bill that, like failed bill 5377, seeks to grant a blanket amnesty to shield those responsible for wartime atrocities during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict from criminal prosecution.

In addition to the efforts to impose a new amnesty law, pro-impunity sectors are seeking out other ways to slow down or obstruct post-conflict justice efforts. In October 2021, the head of the Human Rights Prosecutor’s Office, Hilda Pineda, was transferred from her post to head a unit to investigate crimes against tourists. There was no explanation given for why a prosecutor with more than ten years of experience investigating and litigating cases of human rights violations, including key wartime cases such as the Maya Ixil genocide case and the Sepur Zarco sexual violence case, and who had successfully led other prosecutors under her watch to win convictions in landmark cases such as the Molina Theissen and the Dos Erres case, should be removed from her post. Her replacement, Tomás Ramírez López, a career prosecutor, has no experience in human rights cases, and it remains to be seen if he will protect or undermine the work of the Special Conflict-Era Cases Unit that investigates wartime human rights violations. 

Post-conflict justice in a hostile environment 

In the midst of this hostile counter-offensive by the oligarchy, conservative politicians, and former military officials against the rule of law, judicial independence, and anti-impunity efforts, survivors, families of the victims, and civil society organizations continue to press forward in their demands for  justice. Despite this hostile environment, 13 criminal proceedings involving 11 cases of grave human rights violations are presently active in the courts of Guatemala (see table). 

These active proceedings are at different phases of the judicial process. Five cases are at the public trial stage. In some instances, the dates for the initiation of the public trial have been set, including the Dos Erres massacre case, which is scheduled to begin on January 4, 2022. Another five cases are in the evidentiary phase, during which the pretrial judge hears the final accusation as well as the evidence and determines whether to send the defendants to trial. Two cases are awaiting arraignment proceedings. One case, in which a verdict was rendered in 2018, faces appeals from the defense.

Current Wartime Human Rights Cases Before the Courts of Guatemala, 2021

Case Accused Judicial Phase Alleged Crimes Number of Victims
Dos Erres Massacre Alfonso Bulux Vicente – Patrulla Elite “Kaibil” Arraignment proceedings Homicide and Crimes against Humanity 201 victims
Tululche Massacre Juan Alecio Samayoa (Comisionado militar – prófugo) Arraignment proceedings Crimes against Humanity +10 victims
Maya Ixil Genocide– Ríos Mont Luis Enrique Mendoza García (G3) Evidentiary phase Crimes against Humanity and Genocide 1771 victims
Maya Achi Sexual Violence Felix Tum Ramírez, Simeon Enriquez Gomez, Pedro Sánchez Cortez – ex PAC Evidentiary phase – Cassation Crimes against Humanity 36 victims
Military Diary Marco Antonio González Taracena (JAGSA-EMP); Rone René Lara, Edgar Corado Samayoa, Enrique Cifuentes de la Cruz (Especialistas AGSA); Jacobo Esdras Salán Sánchez (SubJEKaibil); Edgar Virginio de León Sigüenza y José Daniel Monterroso Villagrán (Especialistas DI); Víctor Augusto Vásquez Echeverria (Comandante ZM#302); Gustavo Adolfo Oliva Blanco (Jefe DIT); y, Juan Francisco Cifuentes Cano (Jefe BROE). Evidentiary phase Forced disappearance,Crimes against Humanity, Asesinato y tentativa de asesinato 195 victims
CREOMPAZ — ZM#21  Manuel Benedicto Lucas Garcia (JEMGE), César Augusto Cabrera Mejía, Juan Ovalle Salazar, Carlos Augusto Garavito Moran, José Antonio Vásquez García, Byron Humberto Barrientos Díaz, Raúl Dehesa Oliva y César Augusto Ruiz Morales Evidentiary phase – Cassation Crimes against Humanity and Forced disappearance 565 victims
Maya Ixil Genocide —Lucas García Benedicto Lucas García (JEMGE), Manuel Antonio Callejas y Callejas (G2)  [César Augusto Noguera Argueta (G3), died in custody 2020] Public trial Forced disappearance,Crimes against Humanity and Genocide 1110 victims
Dos Erres Massacre Gilberto Jordán y Mardoqueo Ortiz – Patrulla Elite “Kaibil” Public trial Homicide and  Crimes against Humanity 161 victims
Maya Achi Sexual Violence Francisco Cuxum Alvarado, Damian Cuxum Alvarado, Benvenuto Ruiz Aquino y Bernardo Ruiz Aquino – ex PAC Public trial Crimes against Humanity 36 victims
Maya Achi Sexual Violence Gabriel Cuxum Alvarado – ex PAC Public trial Crimes against Humanity 36 victims
Xamán Massacre Julio César Armando López Rodríguez – Soldado de pelotón Public trial Extrajudicial execution y attempted extrajudicial execution 15 victims
Aldea Tambo, Tactic, Alta Verapaz José Manuel Castañeda Aparicio – 2do. chief of military commissioners of Tactic Public trial Forced disappearance 3 victims
Molina Theissen Benedicto Lucas García (JEMGE), Manuel Antonio Callejas y Callejas (G2), Luis Francisco Gordillo Martínez (Comandante ZM#17) y Ramiro Zaldaña Rojas (S2 – ZM#17) Convicted  – Ruling under appeal Forced disappearance, crimes against humanity and aggravated sexual assault 2 victims

Source: Elaborated by the authors based on review of legal documents and our trial monitoring in the Courts of Guatemala.

These active transitional justice cases represent 3,908 people who were victims of different crimes, including genocide, forced disappearance, extrajudicial execution, attempted murder and other crimes against humanity, including sexual violence. Over 40 individuals have been charged in these cases, including senior and mid-ranking military and police officials, soldiers, military commissioners, and civil defense patrolmen. 

Each of these cases and those participating in them —from the lawyers and the plaintiffs, to the prosecutors who have investigated them, the judges who oversee the different procedural phases, and expert witnesses— face serious risk merely by virtue of their involvement. The traditional media pays little attention to these cases, so few people know that so many cases are currently active in the Guatemalan courts and the magnitude of risk for those involved. 

These transitional justice processes are the result of the persistent struggle of survivors and relatives of victims, human rights organizations, and independent prosecutors and judges who have worked to guarantee victims’ right to access justice. The support of the international community has also been key. But the forces of reaction have been pushing back, and hard. 

Summaries of wartime human rights cases before the Guatemalan Courts, 2021

Some of the post-conflict cases that are in the Guatemalan courts involve individuals who are connected to the illicit networks operating in Guatemala, revealing the deep connection between past and present crime in Guatemala. One example is former military intelligence chief and retired army general Manuel Callejas y Callejas, convicted in 2018 in the Molina Theissen case and awaiting his criminal trial in the Maya Ixil genocide case. When he was arrested in 2016 in the Molina Theissen case, El Periódico referred to him as the “kingpin of kingpins” for his alleged involvement in the Moreno Network and the Cofradía, or Brotherhood, an organized crime syndicate of former intelligence officials involved in human rights abuses, corruption, and drug trafficking. Another is retired general Marco Antonio González Taracena, the most senior of the military officers recently charged in the Military Diary case. He is a co-founder and current vice-president of the Avemilgua, which has long argued that the peace accords included an amnesty for all war-related crimes, and he actively backed the efforts to impose an amnesty law in 2019. President Giammattei has been closely associated with Avemilgua and retired military hard-liners who staunchly oppose criminal trials for wartime atrocity cases and who, in some cases, are deeply entrenched in organized crime networks, including the Cofradía. Giammetti himself was investigated by CICIG and prosecuted for the 2006 Pavón prison massacre, but was ultimately acquitted. 

Despite the laborious and dedicated work of human rights defenders, survivors and families of victims, and independent judges and prosecutors, the efforts to seek justice for wartime atrocities in Guatemala are at grave risk. The international community can play a critical role in pressuring Guatemala to fulfill its international obligations to guarantee victims access to truth and justice. This should include supporting the work of independent judges and prosecutors through public and private statements acknowledging the importance of their work on these transitional justice cases; providing financial or other support to the work of victims associations and human rights organizations and researchers who work side by side with victims in their pursuit of justice; meeting with Guatemalan justice leaders, victims and human rights defenders; and supporting the work of independent media tracking the dismantling of the rule of law in Guatemala. Through sanctions and visa restrictions for officials involved in grave human rights violations, corruption, or obstructing corruption investigations, U.S. officials can also push back against corrupt government officials and the ongoing efforts to criminalize and defame victims, human rights defenders, and professionals in the justice sector. But there is no time to waste. 

Jo-Marie Burt is a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. 

Paulo Estrada is a human rights defender. They are co-founders and co-directors of Verdad y Justicia en Guatemala, which monitors and reports on war crimes prosecutions in Guatemala.