A Day of Reckoning for Guatemalan Genocide?


Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez ended a four-hour hearing today Monday in the genocide trial of former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt by accepting all of the witnesses, experts and documents submitted as evidence by the prosecution. The defense, by contrast, failed in its bid to incorporate experts and documentary evidence on behalf of their client, although the judge approved several defense witnesses.

The ruling signifies that the case will now advance to the Sentencing Tribunal for a decision on when to open the final, oral phase of the groundbreaking trial against the retired general and his intelligence chief, José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez. Both men are accused as the masterminds behind a “scorched earth” military campaign against rebel forces during 1982-83 that massacred hundreds of Mayan civilians living in the northwestern Ixil region of the country.

The hearing took place on the 14th floor of the Tribunals Tower in Guatemala City before an audience of human rights defenders, Mayan activists, journalists and other observers. Ríos Montt sat behind his three attorneys, listening to the proceeding and taking notes, while prosecutor Orlando López and four representatives of the victims shared a long table opposite him.

Although the afternoon was dominated by the judge as he read aloud the names of the hundreds of witnesses proposed by the Public Ministry – many of them survivors of the massacres – his rejection of much of the defense team’s evidence sparked a heated response from Ríos Montt’s lawyers. Attorneys Francisco Palomo, Danilo Rodríguez, and Marco Cornejo railed against the ruling, calling the proceeding a “lynching” and protesting that the court was “violating our client’s right to a defense.” “We can’t enter into a trial without experts,” complained Palomo, “especially when the prosecution has 64 of them.”

Gálvez pointed out that they had submitted the names of experts (such as retired general José Luis Quilo Ayuso) without providing their analysis or expert reports, rendering them invalid. The judge also explained that rather than enter documents into evidence, Ríos Montt’s attorneys had submitted last-minute requests for Ministry of Defense records, which they hoped to obtain through a court order.

In effect, the judge was pointing out the failure of the defense team to do the work that the case required. When Palomo complained that they had not had enough time to prepare, the judge shot back that the genocide case against Ríos Montt and his senior officers was originally filed in 2001. [For excellent background on the case in Spanish, see the summary posted by the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (Centro para la Acción Legal en Derechos Humanos—CALDH), one of the organizations representing victims of the genocide.)

Judge Gálvez also rejected the defense team’s objections to the admissibility of army plans and records connected to Operation Sofía, a violent military assault in the Ixil Triangle in July and August of 1982 that resulted in the destruction of Mayan settlements and the killing of civilians. In justifying his decision, he pointed out that the Inter-American Court had ruled repeatedly that Guatemala could not withhold evidence from criminal human rights trials on the basis of “state secrets.” Among the cases cited by Gálvez was the court’s ruling in the 1990 assassination of Myrna Mack, “Caso Myrna Mack Chang v. Guatemala (a sentence rendered on November 25, 2003), in which the court wrote:

…in the case of human rights violations, the state authorities cannot resort to mechanisms such as State secrets or the confidentiality of the information, or by virtue of public interest or national security, in order to avoid submitting information required by the judicial or administrative authorities charged with a pending investigation or process. [See paragraph 180]

The Operation Sofía documents and military plans admitted as evidence by Gálvez today are likely to play a central role in the prosecution’s effort to prove the accusations against Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez.

The genocide case now moves to the sentencing court, “Tribunal Primero A de Mayor Riesgo,” presided by Judge Jazmín Barrios. In the coming days, the tribunal will determine when the oral phase of the trial will begin – probably sometime in the next three to four months.

Judge Barrios has presided over some of the most important human rights trials in Guatemala, including the trials of military officers in the cases of the 1990 assassination of Myrna Mack, the murder of Bishop Juan José Gerardi in 1998, and the massacre cases Dos Erres and Plan de Sánchez.

Breakthrough for justice

Guatemala achieved a breakthrough for justice on January 31, with the opening of the landmark criminal trial of Ríos Montt, former military dictator, for genocide and crimes against humanity. Ríos Montt, along with his chief of army intelligence José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, is charged with ordering and overseeing a bloody counterinsurgency campaign during his 1982-83 regime that sought to wipe out guerrilla forces and anyone who supported them. The indictment accuses the two retired generals of responsibility for fifteen massacres in the Ixil region of the country’s northwestern Quiché department, resulting in the deaths of 1,771 unarmed men, women and children.

The prosecution proposes some 142 witnesses – among them, relatives of victims and survivors of the massacres – and 64 experts, including military analysts, forensic scientists, anthropologists, scholars, investigators and psychologists. Documents will include military records, counterinsurgency campaign plans, field reports sent from the killing zones to the high command, and the findings of the UN-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission, which in 1999 concluded that 200,000 civilians died or disappeared in the 36-year conflict. The truth commission also found that Guatemalan army, police, and paramilitary forces were responsible for 93 percent of human rights violations committed during the war.

Ríos Montt was indicted for genocide in January 2012, but a flood of appeals, amnesty requests, and other delay tactics by the defense prevented the case from advancing. When Judge Gálvez ruled on Monday that the trial begin, he rejected 13 appeals that were still pending. Francisco Palomo, one of Ríos Montt’s defense lawyers, told reporters yesterday that the legal team is now preparing an appeal of the judge’s decision to open the trial, which he called a “political lynching.”

“There is no document or testimony that can prove that my client participated in the crimes of which he is accused by the Public Ministry,” declared Palomo. He claimed that the ministry’s motives in the case stemmed from the fact that it is “full of ex-guerrillas” – an implicit reference to the Attorney General, Claudia Paz y Paz, whose family members are alleged by the military to have been members of the insurgency

The defense appears to be relying on its ability to separate Ríos Montt’s role as former chief of state from the human rights crimes committed by his soldiers operating in the field. The tactic ignores the famously strict military hierarchy that operated during the height of the armed conflict, with orders flowing from the commander-in-chief down to his officers in the military zones, who in turn sent their after-action reports back up the chain of command.

One of the key pieces of evidence that will be introduced by the prosecution is a set of army records associated with Operation Sofía, a violent counterinsurgency sweep through the Ixil region in July and August, 1982. The Sofía documents – which were obtained by the National Security Archive from a confidential source in 2009 and subsequently authenticated and provided to the lawyers in the genocide case – demonstrate the extent to which the brutal tactics used by troops sweeping through Mayan settlements in search of the enemy were controlled by the Guatemalan high command. The reports contain multiple references to the murder of unarmed civilians, razing of villages, slaughter of animals, burning of crops, and indiscriminate bombardment of refugees fleeing the violence.

Survivors of the scorched earth operations have fought for recognition and justice for thirty years, with tireless assistance from the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (Centro de Acción Legal para los Derechos Humanos—CALDH), the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (Asociación de Justicia y Reconciliación—AJR), and other local and international organizations. The National Security Archive’s role began in 1994 as peace negotiations were underway, when the Archive launched a documentation project to obtain declassified U.S. records that would expose new information about the hidden history of the Guatemalan conflict, the mechanisms of state repression, and the role of the United States in backing the army’s counterinsurgency campaign.

Following the signing of the 1996 peace accord, the Historical Clarification Commission – drawing on the U.S. and Guatemalan records as well as thousands of testimonies, exhumation results, and human rights reports – opened the door to international legal action in 1999 by declaring that “acts of genocide” had taken place in Mayan areas of the country during 1981 and 1982, including the Ixil Triangle. The conclusion convinced Guatemala’s leading Mayan activist, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú, to file a genocide case in the National Court of Spain, which the Archive supported with expert testimony and documents.

Kate Doyle is Director of the Mexico Project. Her updates on the trial can be found on the National Security Archive blog.

November 30, 2015
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