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The Generals Hand at Justice

The Generals Hand at Justice

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Retired Generals Efrain Rios Montt and Jose Rodriguez Sanchez were charged in January 2012 for genocide and crimes against humanity. Prosecutors accuse them of the slaughter by subordinates of at least 1,771 Mayan Ixils. Guatemala’s young judicial system has guaranteed their constitutional rights and due process with access to council and a transparency. Back in 1983, the heyday of Rios Montt’s de facto government, special charter courts were put in place to prosecute and execute those deemed subversive by the state. There were no trials and no cross-examination. The names of the presiding judges are still unknown. Today, Rios Montt and Sanchez face trial under conditions they would have never given those executed by special charter courts.
“I am the lawmaker. I guarantee the people a just use of force. Instead of dead bodies on the street, I promise to execute those who commit crimes.”
But these courts did not only sentence perpetrators to the death penalty. According to their law, they could double jail terms. Many were arbitrarily condemned while others disappeared. After months their names would appear on the special charter court’s list. Investigators agree the selection criteria for prosecution on these lists was arbitrary and in many ways still a mystery today.

Adapted by Romina Ruiz-Goiriena


Six men were to be executed at dawn on February 2, 1983. Since before daybreak they had been waiting inside the premises of Guatemala City’s general cemetery facing a wall composed of piled sandbags. Two army convoys, a forensic medic and members of the national police were present.  Agents loaded rifles as their index fingers caressed the trigger.

Hector Adolfo Morales, and the Marroquin brothers; Walter,  and Sergio, had been sentenced to capital punishment. Beside them stood Carlos Subuyuj Cuc, Pedro Raxon Tepet and Marco Antonio Gonzalez, all accused of carrying terrorist acts against the sovereignty of the nation. All of them, without exception were condemned. Their execution was scheduled for six o’clock that morning. Outside of the cemetery’s perimeter, firemen, journalists and gravediggers awaited to hear the sound of rapid fire.

Morales and the others; belonged to the second round of convicts sentenced to death by Rios-Montt’s special charter courts. Created in July 1982, the special charter courts (Tribunales de Fuero Especial) were created as a parallel judicial structure presided by unnamed secret officials to prosecute those “who attempted to defy the judicial, political, economic and social institutions of Guatemala.” That was the law, and the law was clear.

In less than a year the charter courts prosecuted more than 500 people and convicted them of subversive acts. Although it sparked international attention, the charter courts solidified the ideology that would remain as part of a brutal, decades-long 1960-1996 civil war against a leftist uprising that brought massacres in the Mayan heartland where the guerrillas were based.

Rios Montt, seized power in a March 23, 1982, coup, and ruled until he himself was overthrown just over a year later. The 86-year-old general, who left the country’s Congress in January 2012, was ordered to trial when a judge found sufficient evidence linking him to counter-insurgency plans designed to annihilate swathes of the population. For decades, Rios Montt avoided prosecution protected by a law that grants immunity to public officials.

During Rios Montt’s rule 15 people were executed at the hand of the special charter courts. Were they all guilty? There wasn’t a chance to prove the contrary. They were all executed in less than a month’s time after their arrests. After being captured, they would be brought to silent tribunals and sentenced to death by invisible judges who signed no documents and erased all proof from memory. In addition, another 582 were also judged but escaped a similar fate.

“Before, dead bodies would appear on the side of the street. People had also been executed. Anybody just killed whoever they wanted to kill,” Rios Montt said in a speech before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). “The courts were not doing their part to uphold justice so each man took justice upon themselves. When I took office, I undertook the responsibility of trials. All of this is to set a judicial precedent”, he added that morning in 1982 months before being forced to step down.

He went on, “I am the lawmaker. I guarantee the people a just use of force. Instead of dead bodies on the street, I promise to execute those who commit crimes.”

Back in the cemetery the six men were ready to face their fate. Perhaps their hands were cold and clammy. Perhaps sweat drops ran down their neck. Did they pray to God? Or did they not believe in one? Were they leaving families behind? Had they been able to kiss their girlfriends good-bye? Or simply, did no one know where they were.

But as they faced the loaded barrels, just 15 minutes before death, the execution was interrupted. The Supreme Court of Justice (SCJ) had notified the officers that they six men had been granted a temporary pardon so that they could review their defense. That same morning, they all returned to the national police’s precinct two alive. But, for how long?

Like them, there would be many others. The special charter courts would forever leave a mark in Guatemala’s justice system. “It is a judicial aberration,” said Arturo Archila in 1984 when he presided the country’s bar association. Today Archila is a Supreme Court justice.

Defense was always futile

Conrado Alonso was assigned as Marco Antonio Gonzalez’s defense attorney. Just a few years after that iconic morning, he decided to author a memoir titled “Fifteen executed at Dawn.” The book is filled with pictures of the special tribunals without judges, of the executed and of police officers that guarded the cemetery gates. In it, he wrote about how he considered his attempt at defending Gonzalez’s life useless. He described his crusade against the charter courts “futile.”

“We stood before these special charter courts and we looked into the face of anonymity. For any defense attorney it is a perilous situation not to mention unjust…No one truly understands the desperation of such a condition unless you suffer it personally,” he wrote.

Alonso’s memoir is one of the few elements that can shed light on what happened that February morning. Defense attorneys had all drafted temporary pardon documents, filed them to the highest court, waited for a ruling. “At 4:05 a.m. we still had not been notified,” indicated Alonso. By 5:45 a.m. officials were ordered to put down their weapons.

It was the defense’s work that had interrupted the murders of these six men. Four others (Julio Cesar Vasquez Juarez, Julio Hernandez Perdomo, Marcelino Marroquin and Jaime de la Rosa Rodríguez) had not been so lucky. They were a part of the first round executed on September 18, 1982.

Alonso described the agony in trying to navigate the charter court’s bureaucratic and bizarre system. He was surprised to find that these courts were part of the ministry of Defense. What’s more, he wrote, never to have wholly understood what the charges brought against his client. He had only received an incomplete accusation, file number 01506 remitted by the ministry of Defense on February 3, 1983 signed by Defense Minister Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores.

Under Rios Montt’s post-coup government, the special charter courts were inaugurated under law 46-82. The same law established that no legal recourse could overturn said court’s verdicts. “The resolutions hereby taken by the Special Charter Courts are not subject nor have grounds for appeal,” as stated.

That was until December 1982 when Rios Montt hosted an IACHR delegation.

Juan Pablo Munoz, researcher at the Institute of Comparative Legal Sciences (ICLS), explained that the IACHR delegation was key to halting all pending executions. “At the time, the reasoning given was that the government would take into review international human rights recommendations”, Munoz said.

After the commission’s visit, the legal decree was amended to include a review process. The new law,  Decree 111-82, was published.

But it would be a short-lived victory for public defenders. They understood that while the lives of their clients had been temporarily pardoned, it was only a matter of time before they faced the same loaded guns.

“We were euphoric with the news,” Alonso wrote, “it didn’t dawn on is that the executions had been delayed but not derailed.” As former Interior Minister under Rios Montt, Ricardo Mendez Ruiz said, “the defense had only prolonged the agony for the accused had already been sentenced to death.”

Military law was about a mission

Luis Rodolfo Ramirez researcher for the Historical Clarification Commission, Guatemala’s truth and reconciliation commission ordered by the 1994 Oslo Accords, explained the merging of judicial and executive powers was a strategy to unify and consolidate all branches of power in the military. “Justice just donned on military garb. Prior to this, the judicial system was controlled by previous regimes. But now, it was a new vehicle for repression,” Ramirez said.

Munoz added, that to truly understand the mission of these special charter courts the larger historical context needed to be taken into account. For Munoz, the creation of the courts was intrinsically connected to the fact that he had risen to power in a coup and had declared martial law into effect to track those who sought to overturn him. Within this logic, the charter courts were a necessary.

“The communist comrades are your enemies. Listen to me, Guatemalan people, we will combat these counterinsurgents any way they want to, but we will have open trials that will be just and transparent. We have created these special charter courts for this purpose and we declare that those who kidnap, set houses alight, or vandalize ministry of defense buildings will face the death penalty. As of tomorrow July 1, we declare martial state in order that will last for a month. We will mobilized troops and they will begin the final battle,” Rios Montt declared in a speech.

Martial law was in effect for eight consecutive months in which, according to Munoz, 60 percent of troops were mobilized to the northwestern region of Guatemala. Troops also began forcefully enlisting men between the ages of 18 and 60.

Based on the Guatemalan Police Historical Archive, the special charter courts reviewed a total of 598 cases. Of those, roughly 20 percent were accused of having partaken in subversive acts.

But as Munoz explained, law was seen as a military directive. “They believed they were above the law. We create this so that you follow it. We are only subject to those laws we see fit.”

You kill because that was the sentence

Between February 22 and March 4, 1983 the six men made headlines. It hadn’t been easy for Alonso and the rest of the attorneys working the case but they had requested a public hearing. “We wanted a day in the limelight and not in the shadows. We wanted people to hear what the accused had to say,” Alonso wrote.

The ministry of Defense was against it but it was not able to block the Supreme Court magistrate’s decision to have a public hearing. As each one of the men waited to testify they recounted the horror, the torture, the beatings to which they had been subjected. The courtroom was filled with faces. Periodicals state the men’s voices would break as they spoke.

It would be up to the chief justices to decide their fate, but the ministry of Defense forced the justices hands.

Archival photos show how justices Mejia Victores forced the judges to examine the files at the National Palace, headquarters of the charter courts. Every single one of the magistrates entered and exited the building. In the end they ruled consistently with the court, “there were no anomalies, just minor clerical errors.”

The morning of March 3, 1983 the national radio announced the six men would be executed. Ten hours later Hector Adolfo Morales, Walter Vinicio and Sergio Roberto Marroquin, Carlos Subuyuj Cuc, Pedro Raxon Tepet and Marco Antonio Gonzalez arrived for a second time to the gates of the cemetery.

The forensic medic, members of the military and all unassuming players were present for the cruel opus of déjà vu. El Grafico newspaper described how neighbors stood on their porches. “Two meters away there were eight casings, seven belonging to an M-1 rifle and one to a 38 caliber revolver.” It was the coup de grace.

To many Guatemalans, the executions of these six men belong to forgotten history despite having been executed at the reign of these charter courts without much rhyme or reason. They were killed at the behest of the president, despite the Commission’s intervention and foiled attempts by the defense lawyers. Perhaps there is a distant memory of those executed a week before late John Paul II’s visit to Guatemala.

Rios Montt was succinct and unequivocal in the statement he made to the press, “everything enacted by the special charter courts is in accordance to the law and the Supreme Court.” The same reasoning was expounded to embassies, the IAHCR, international organizations and the Vatican.

Alonso wrote, “during the first few weeks, the world criticized Guatemala.” What he didn’t say was that was soon eagerly forgotten.

There were other sentences too

By March 23, 1983 Rios Montt ordered to suspend the martial law state to celebrate his first year in power calling it a “day of national dignity.” By then, the charter courts had completed their final five executions.

Jesus Enrique Velasquez Gutierrez, Julio Cesar Herrera Cardona, Mario Ramiro Martinez Gonzalez, Rony Alfredo Martinez González and Otto Virula Ayala were the last to be executed. The too were killed before dawn, facing a mural of sandbags in the general cemetery. According to government documents, they had confessed to a double kidnapping and murder, and aggravated robbery.

Munoz described the sentiment of the charter courts. For its creators the courts were a symbol of national pride and proscribed to a certain kind of morality.

“Rios Montt’s speeches on morality were a response, a need to quash social outcry in the name of citizen security,” explained Ana Mendez Dardon, ICLS researcher. “Anything from common crime to the insurgent plight was seen as a deviation from the moral principles of the evangelical church. Principally, Rios Montt rebuked certain attitudes in order to justify his repressive policies,” she added.

But these courts did not only sentence perpetrators to the death penalty. According to their law, they could double jail terms. Many were arbitrarily condemned while others disappeared. After months their names would appear on the special charter court’s list.

Investigators agree the selection criteria for prosecution on these lists was arbitrary and in many ways still a mystery today. According to Dardon, national police officers would work with the intelligence department and military officials that would act as judges in the charter court transforming the nature of the prosecution as political.

“This kind of justice was political completely foreign to anything judicial,” said Munoz.

Pressure, another coup and pardon

The special charter court continued to be a contentious issue in Guatemala. In the country’s tenth annual congress for jurists, the existence of this court was heavily contested. In the final recommendations, this legal body recommended they be shut down. As Ramirez explained, “the law that gave way to the charter court was anti-technical, unlawful and threatening. Moreover, it was the government propped who qualified who is extremist, which was a political rather than legal action,"

Mejia Victores, however, rebutted the recommendation saying “the executions must continue because you cannot combat criminals with prayer.”

By April 30, 1983, the government reassured the people 80 percent of 112 prosecuted had been released. By June, the national police arrested an additional 200 people.

On August 8, 1983 Mejia Victores overthrew Rios-Montt in a coup. Immediately, he cited respecting the institutionalism of the state as his primary motivation for taking the government.

Victores who had championed the necessity of the charter court had backpedaled and no longer considered them fitting.

A day after defeating Rios Montt, he is quoted in a Prensa Libre newspaper interview defending his new stance. “At the time is was my job to follow the law. Now that I can change the law, I no longer believe the charter court to be necessary,” Victores affirmed.

Legal decree 93-83 is passed on August 12, 1983 and abolishes the special charter court. But as Alonso points out, it created a legal limbo. After all, more than a dozen had been executed and there were hundreds sitting in jail while others awaited their fate.  Months later, the decree is amended to annul sentences prior to August 8.

But the sentences were to a large extent still upheld.

In June 1984 some 50 convicted prisoners Pavon reported death threats and extortion. They accused the court’s judges to having been behind these acts. Inmates reported that they had sufficient evidence to initiate a criminal case against these judges, who belonged to the upper eschalons of public office in Victores’ de facto government.  

A year later, Victores declared an complete pardon for those convicted under law 74-84.

But the aftermath was and has always been present in Guatemala. After the general pardon, there was fear and silence. Today, Rios Montt continues to uphold the silence as he stands trial for genocide saying “it can be used against me.” His defense attorneys have also said they know nothing about this court. Even today, Guatemala keeps secrets.

*The original article in Spanish was published on March 7, 2013.