Upcoming Cases in Guatemala Could Expose Links between Past and Present Criminality

 By Naomi Roht-Arriaza

President of the Board of Directors of DPLF,

Professor at Hastings College of Law University of California

Versión en español

Photo: AFP

On Wednesday, January 6, police in Guatemala arrested 17 former high-ranking military officers in relation to crimes committed during Guatemala’s 36-year armed conflict. The officers, charged with enforced disappearance, torture and crimes against humanity, are a “who’s-who” of those with greatest responsibility for designing the military strategy that led to over 200,000 deaths and 40,000 disappearances, according to a U.N.-sponsored report. Even more importantly, several of those charged played key roles in the transformation of sectors of the military into “hidden powers” who now form part of organized crime and large-scale corruption. Several of those charged are close to new President Jimmy Morales. By detaining and charging this group, the Prosecutors’ Office has taken the tiger of continuing impunity by the tail. Whether it can manage to tame it is another question.

The arrests came in two separate cases. One involves the enforced disappearance of 14-year-old Marco Antonio Molina Theissen. In 1981, authorities arrested and tortured his 16-year old sister Emma at the Quetzaltenango military base, but she managed to escape from detention. The next day, armed men entered the family home, beat her mother and kidnapped her brother, Marco Antonio, taking him away in an official vehicle. According to Guatemala’s Historical Clarification Commission, members of the intelligence section of the military, or G-2, dressed as civilians, picked up Marco Antonio in retaliation for the family’s activism and his sister’s escape. The Inter-American Court found Guatemala liable for the forced disappearance in 2004, and ordered the government to investigate and prosecute those involved.

Those charged in the case include Francisco Gordillo, who staged the March 1982 coup along with General Rios Montt and was for a time a member of the governing junta. Two other military base commanders were also charged. But the most important “big fish” is Manuel Callejas y Callejas. According to news reports, Callejas is one of the leaders of the “Cofradia,” a secret group of intelligence officers, and former head of the G-2 military intelligence service during the early 1980s. As such, he designed and headed counterinsurgency efforts in urban areas and beyond, including summary executions and forced disappearances. In 1990 he became the head of the Customs Agency, where he allegedly created a parallel structure that eventually evolved into trafficking in contraband and narcotics. According to the local press, the smuggling ring he created in the Customs Agency served as the basis and precursor for the high-level corruption ring known as “La Linea” that brought down former president Perez Molina and vice-president Roxana Baldetti in 2015. The United States revoked Callejas’ visa in 2002 due to his connections to organized crime networks. According to the newspaper El Periódico, he was known as “El Capo de Capos (the Don of Dons).”[1]   He is one of two former generals (the other is Francisco Ortega Menaldo) often cited as the real powers behind the throne.[2] He is also one of the clearest links between impunity for wartime crimes and the evolution and development of the corruption and organized crime networks that torment Guatemala today.

The second case involves charges of enforced disappearance, murder, and torture as crimes against humanity in relation to mass graves found at the former Cobán military base. The base, now known as Comando Regional de Entrenamiento de Operaciones de Mantenimiento de Paz, or CREOMPAZ, is currently a training center for peacekeeping operations. During the 1980s it was known as Military Base 21, and served as an interrogation, detention and extermination camp for the north and northeastern regions of Guatemala. The mass graves were initially discovered because survivors of a July 1982 massacre of some 268 people in the hamlet of Plan de Sánchez testified that the base had been used to detain people. In 2012, the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG) began exhumations at the site, unearthing 533 bodies, 90 of them children, from 84 clandestine graves. Those identified were from various parts of the country, and many of the bodies were blindfolded, with their hands and feet bound. So far, almost a hundred have been identified through DNA testing. The arrest warrants focused on six different incidents, including the case of Pambach hamlet, where 80 young men were rounded up, ostensibly for military service, and never seen again.

The base was used throughout the 1980s, and a number of the accused were in charge during some portion of that decade. One of those accused, Cesar Augusto Cabrera Mejia, was an intelligence official in the base between 1982-83, years of the greatest number of massacres, and went on to become the head of military intelligence from 1986-90. Before the arrests, he had been mentioned as a possible Minister of the Interior (which oversees the police) in the incoming Morales government.[3] Another, Benedicto Lucas, brother of former president Lucas Garcia, was chief of staff of the army and is widely credited with designing the scorched earth policy of the army and the PAC or civil defense patrols. These were made up of local men recruited – voluntarily or forcibly – to carry out anti-guerrilla sweeps, kill suspicious persons and act as cannon fodder for the military.

A third man, Edgar Justino Ovalle Maldonado, is a close advisor to current president Morales, as well as a Congressman representing the president’s party. Although the Prosecutors’ office asked the Supreme Court to remove his parliamentary immunity, the Court has to date refused. One of the main defendants, Ricardo Mendez Ruiz Rohrmoser, ex-commander of the Cobán base, died just days before the arrests. His son, a polarizing figure who heads the so-called Foundation Against Terrorism, was, according to new media reports, an intelligence official at the base.[4]

The area around the Cobán base includes a highly conflictive zone that in the 1970s and 80s was the subject of large-scale land grabbing by military officers and their allies. The military planned a road, the Franja Transversal del Norte, across the north of the country to the Mexican border, and the area had oil and nickel as well as rich grazing land and virgin forests. Many military officers, including the Lucas brothers, obtained large landholdings in the area. By 1983, some 60% of the land in Alta Verapaz department was owned by military officers.   Today, the area continues to be highly contested, with multiple community struggles around mining, palm oil plantations, hydroelectric dams and other infrastructure and natural resource projects. Two examples suffice: in 2011, hundreds of families were forcibly displaced from their traditional lands in the Polochic Valley by African palm and sugar cane interests. In the course of protesting, three community leaders were killed by police in 2014. And on April 2 the New York Times ran a front-page article on the struggles of Kek’chi communities in Izabal to hold accountable a Canadian mine accused of rape and negligence.[5]

Thus, just as those accused in the Molina Theissen case link the crimes of the past with the corruption and organized crime of the present, those accused in the CREOMPAZ case connect the crimes of the past with the land and natural resource-related fights of today. These links create both possibilities and dangers. The potential lies in the ability to strengthen alliances between the largely rural, indigenous groups seeking justice for crimes against humanity and genocide during the 1980s as well as their contemporaries fighting state and corporate natural resource extraction (which are sometimes but not always the same), and the largely urban anti-corruption coalitions that were instrumental in bringing down Perez Molina in 2015. The danger lies in the vulnerability of victims, forensic anthropologists, attorneys, judges and defenders to attack by still-powerful actors with ties to violent networks. While prosecutors may find these cases attractive precisely because of the accused’s links to current criminal networks, human rights groups may suffer the brunt of the reaction by these networks.

The next steps in the CREOMPAZ case will come this month or next, when the prosecution and civil complainants must present their evidence to a pre-trial judge. That judge will decide whether the evidence is enough to hold the accused over for trial, and on what charges. Pre-trial motions also continue in the Molina-Theissen case, where a local judge has so far denied the defendants’ motions to apply an amnesty law or move the trial elsewhere. Meanwhile, the accused men are being held in a military prison. By taking on defendants who are much more than simple retired military men, the Prosecutors’ office has set itself a difficult task, one for which it – and the victims’ families — will need many kinds of support.

[1] http://elperiodico.com.gt/2016/01/06/pais/cae-el-capo-de-capos-manuel-antonio-callejas/

[2] Susan C. Peacock and Adriana Beltran, Hidden Powers in Post-Conflict Guatemala (WOLA, 2003), p. 16.

[3] CMI, La línea contrainsurgente del ejército se enfrenta a su pasado, Jan. 6, 2016, at https://cmiguate.org/la-linea-contrainsurgente-del-ejercito-se-enfrenta-a-su-pasado/

[4] CMI, Los Méndez-Ruiz y su vinculación con el Caso Creompaz, 14 April 2016, at https://cmiguate.org/mendez-ruiz-y-su-vinculacion-con-el-creompaz/.

[5] Suzanne Daily, Guatemalan Women’s Claims Put Focus on Canadian Firms’ Conduct Abroad, New York Times, April 2, 2016, p. 1.


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Este es un espacio de la Fundación para el Debido Proceso (DPLF, por sus siglas en inglés) en el que también colaboran las personas y organizaciones comprometidas con la vigencia de los derechos humanos en el continente americano. Aquí encontrará información y análisis sobre los principales debates y sucesos relacionados con la promoción del Estado de Derecho, los derechos humanos, la independencia judicial y el fortalecimiento de la democracia en América Latina. Este blog refleja las opiniones personales de los autores en sus capacidades individuales. Las publicaciones no representan necesariamente a las posiciones institucionales de DPLF o los integrantes de su junta directiva. / This blog is managed by the Due Process of Law Foundation (DPLF) and contains content written by people and organizations that are committed to the protection of human rights in Latin America. This space provides information and analysis on current debates and events regarding the rule of law, human rights, judicial independence, and the strengthening of democracy in the region. The blog reflects the personal views of the individual authors, in their individual capacities. Blog posts do not necessarily represent the institutional positions of DPLF or its board.

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