Despite the recent attacks on Guatemala’s anti-corruption prosecutors and judges, the prosecution of many transitional justice cases has continued. The Rancho Bejuco case implicating eleven former Civil Defense Patrollers in the 1982 massacre continues under Judge Edwin Ramírez after Judge Erika Aífan’s recent resignation; the prosecution of Luis Enrique Mendoz García, one of the former military officials implicated in the Genocidio Ixil case, will move into the evidentiary phase in May; the intermediate hearing for former soldiers and police officers accused of forced disappearances, murder, attempted murder, and kidnappings during the Guatemalan internal armed conflict described in the Diario Militar continues; and José Manuel Castañeda Aparicio was recently sentenced to 45 years in prison for his role in the disappearance of three social leaders in 1983.
Justice for the victims and their families of the crimes committed during the Guatemalan internal armed conflict is arriving decades too late, but serves to support truth and historic memory for Guatemala. GHRC continues to demand justice for the crimes perpetrated during the conflict and stands in solidarity with the victims and their families.
The Rancho Bejuco case–originally presided over by Judge Erika Aífan in High Risk Court D– was transferred to Judge Edwin Ramírez and began its preliminary hearing on March 22. Judge Ramírez restricted press access to the hearing, claiming it would “distract” from the trial. Delegates of the Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman were present to “verify respect for human rights and due process,” but the Association of Guatemalan Journalists called the restrictions on journalists “a threat to the liberty of expression.” The preliminary hearing for nine former Civil Defense Patrollers, arrested between January 22 and February 2, has been delayed multiple times, for reasons including an absent defense attorney, health concerns of a defendant, and a lack of hearing aids for another defendant.
The Rancho Bejuco case implicates eleven former Civil Defense Patrollers, two of which remain at-large, in participating in the massacre on July 29, 1982 in Rancho Bejuco, Santa Cruz el Chol, in the department of Baja Verapaz. As a paramilitary group established during the internal armed conflict, the Civil Defense Patrollers were used by the military to control the civilian population. Patrollers have been implicated in human rights violations, five of which were convicted for crimes against humanity in the Achi Women case earlier this year. The massacre killed 25 people, 17 of which were children. The preliminary hearing will continue on April 18.
The case against Luis Enrique Mendoza García, the former director of military operations under Ríos Montt during the Guatemalan internal armed conflict, is set to continue. He faces charges of genocide and crimes against humanity for his approval of military counterinsurgency operations against non-combatant Ixil populations during 1982. On February 15, Judge Silvia de León ruled that there was sufficient evidence against Mendoza García and sent the case to trial. The case against Mendoza García will continue in High Risk Court A, under Judge Yassmín Barrios, the 2015 recipient of the Civil Courage Prize for her work in prosecuting high-profile cases of corruption and crimes against human rights. The evidentiary hearing was set for March 14, but was delayed to May 3 & 4 due to an absent defense attorney. In response to the delays, Antonio Caba Caba, spokesman for The Association of Justice and Reconciliation, an organization that has supported the prosecution of this case, stated, “It’s unfortunate that justice is like this, we know that they only play with us to buy time.”
The Genocidio Ixil case has evidence of over 1,000 death certificates, military documents, and forensic reports corroborating 31 massacres, 23 devastated villages, and numerous cases of sexual violence and forced disapparences. Former head of General Staff of the Army, Benedicto Lucas García, and former head of the Intelligence section of the General Staff of the Army, Manuel Antonio Callejas, who are also implicated in the systematic violence carried out against the Ixil people between 1981-1983, had the evidentiary phase of their trial during the end of 2021.
On March 22, Lucas García and Callejas filed a complaint against the prosecutor, Hilda Pineda, for investigating their purported crimes against humanity. Peneda has received numerous complaints from those she is investigating for crimes against humanity and was a prosecutor that helped lead to convictions for both the Sepur Zarco and Ríos Montt cases. In October of 2021, Attorney General Consuelo Porras transferred Pineda from her position as head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office on Human Rights to the Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes Against Tourists. Impunity Watch stated her transfer “put at risk the investigation of emblematic cases of serious human rights violations.” The actions against Pineda emphasize the ongoing trend of attacking and persecuting human rights prosecutors and judges.
Death Squad Dossier
The intermediate hearing for eleven former soldiers and police officers in the Diario Militar was held on March 28 and 29. International observers, including GHRC, were originally denied access to the courtroom by court security, but were later allowed to enter.
Diario Militar is a case based upon a 74-page notebook, or “death squad dossier” discovered in 1999 detailing forced disappearances, torture and inhumane treatment, as well as extrajudicial executions of 183 purported enemies of the Guatemalan government between 1983-1985. The accused former soldiers face charges including forced disappearance, crimes against humanity, murder, attempted murder, and extrajudicial execution. During the intermediate hearing, the Public Ministry presented charges and evidence against the defendants for Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez to rule if each defendant will be sent to a sentencing tribunal for a public trial.
Two defense attorneys attempted to delay the judicial process by resigning from the case after the hearing began on the 28th. Judge Gálvez delayed the hearings of the two defendants without attorneys and will report the attorneys to the Court of Honor of the College of Lawyers and Notaries of Guatemala for defense abandonment.
Alix Leonel Barillas Soto, former first sergeant and intelligence specialist in the Guatemalan Army from 1973-1989–also implicated in the Diario Militar case–had his preliminary hearing on March 2 and 3. Charges against Barillas Soto include crimes against the duties of humanity, as well as the forced disappearance of Rubén Amílcar Farfán in 1984. Judge Gálvez ruled that Barillas Soto will remain in pretrial detention until the intermediate hearing in four months.
The continued investigation into and prosecution of the crimes detailed in the “death squad dossier” is an important step in justice and reconciliation for the families of victims. “We’re not seeking vengeance, we’re seeking justice,” stated the wife of a victim prior to the start of the trial last year.
On February 24, former second chief of military commissioners in the Tactic municipality, José Manuel Casteñeda Aparicio, was sentenced to 45 years in prison for his role in the kidnapping and forced disappearance of Jacobo López, Francisco Guerrero López, and Rodolfo López Quej from Tampo Village, Tactic, Alta Verapaz in 1983, in the case known as Caso Tactic. The three victims were “social leaders that worked to improve living conditions.” Aparicio was part of the Civil Defense Patrollers under former General Ríos Montt’s de facto government and worked closely with the Guatemalan Army during the internal armed conflict, providing civilian surveillance and carrying out the persecution, torture, and extrajudicial executions of alleged enemies of the state.
This is the second trial against Aparicio, after his acquittal for the forced disappearance of the three leaders in 2014. The discovery of the skeletal remains of Jacobo López Ac, along with at least 500 other peoples’ remains, in 2016 in the former Military Zone 21, Cobán Alta Verapaz, also known as CREOMPAZ, overturned his previous acquittal. This trial has been closely followed by Mutual Support Group, who called the conviction “satisfactory” but noted it arrived after 40 years of demanding justice. The court also ordered The Ministry of the Interior to provide a reward for anyone who can present information on others involved in the case. The sentencing will be translated into Achi and Poqomchi languages for dissemination.