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When the military hunted those “accused of genocide”

When the military hunted those “accused of genocide”

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After the fall of Jacobo Árbenz, in 1954, the military regime of Carlos Castillo Armas carried out arrests, initiated trials, and executed civil servants from the previous government accusing them of commiting genocide by assassinating between 9 and 16 “anticommunist Catholics” in Antigua,Guatemala. Traces of that story –although blurry– can still be found in deteriorated archives.
More than half a century after these events, the only way to get the file number… is to find it in the file. Guatemalan court documents are therefore inaccessible to anyone who wishes to undertake a historical investigation.
“When prisoner Pineda Garcíacame back—the article continues— he addressed the reporters. ‘I am not guilty. I received verbal and telegraphic instructions from Cruz Wer, in which he ordered me to deliver the political prisoners to Manuel Monroy and other communist leaders. A subordinate cannot disobey orders from above.”

Translated by Rodrigo Fuentes

I. The first person accused of genocide, a manual for assassins, and other declassified documents

On July 4, 1954, a week after the fall of Árbenz, three American counter-intelligence agents were in Guatemala City with instructions of sequestering official documents from the overthrown regime that would allow them to trace Guatemalan connections with the Soviet Union. The first thing they discovered was that the police command office, the union offices, and the headquarters of the Guatemalan Labor Party (PGT) had been systematically ransacked by members of the army and, then, without method, by thieves and street kids.

In the government’s offices, which weren’t guarded and had broken doors and windows, they found many official papers lying on the floor. One of the agents bought secret police documents from a child (“a small boy” –the CIA report reads: Operation PBSUCCESS, The United States and Guatemala, 1952-1954). With the help of the Guatemalan army and the Castillo Armas junta –the report continues– the agents collected around 150 thousand pages, almost all of them of “exclusively local interest.” Ronald M. Schneider, who examined those documents, reported to the Agency that he “didn’t find indication of Soviet control, but did find substantial proof that Guatemalan communists acted in an independent manner, without help or instructions from abroad.”

As with this report, there are thousands of other papers regarding the undercover operations of the Central Intelligence Agency in Guatemala which were declassified in 1997 and published, almost in their entirety, by the National Security Archive. Among them is an eloquent “Manual for assassins.”

These documents tell the secret story of the program of destabilization for Guatemala which led to the coup and Árbenz’ resignation on June 27, 1954. Unfortunately for history, with the exception of a few cases, almost all names of national and foreign actors involved are missing, as they have been carefullycrossed out by the Agency before divulging the documents.

The titles of these documents are eloquent: "CIA and Guatemala assassination proposals” ―CIA History Staff Analysis―which contains a list of names dating back to 1952 which have been crossed out. These are the names of individuals that must be eliminated immediately if a successful anti-communist coup d’état against Árbenzwere to take place. There is also the "Selection of individuals for disposal by junta group,” dated March 31, 1954. Many of the annotated observations are acute and surprising because of their critical spirit, like this one by Nicholas Cullather, currently a historian of the foreign relations of the United States and professor at Indiana University: “Operation PSUCCESS –the first of its kind in Latin America– implemented an intense paramilitary and psychological campaign that substituted a democratically elected government with a political nullity,” that is: with Castillo Armas.

Today, among the thousands of papers declassified by the Agency, there are two or three which are especially relevant for the purposes of this article, as they refer to an officer of the Árbenz government accused and persecuted for the crime of genocide during the government of Castillo Armas. He is Rogelio Cruz Wer, chief of the Civil Guard, the police force of the two governments of the Revolution, one whose name was probably crossed out from the list of “CIA and Guatemala assassination proposals.”

Dated March 24, 1954 –and ‘freed’ by the Agency in 2003– one of these documents is a piece of air mail entitled: "Asesinato de la reputación de (“Character Assassination of” ) Rogelio Cruz Wer". In it is suggested a defamation campaign against Cruz in which, among other things, a press release was to accuse him of conspiring against Árbenz himself. “After enrolling in the PGT [Cruz Wer] was named chief of the Civil Guard. His activity in that position is characterized by a quick intensification of police brutality and the increase of torture methods encouraged by the Soviet Union,” the package reads. The assassination of Cruz Wer’s reputation was carried out. In a magazine of the Academy of Geography and History of Guatemala –whose bibliographic card reads: no date, no author, no publishing house and no cover, and which reminds one of the publications of the Fundación contra el Terrorismo, recently created to deny the acts of genocide committed against the Mayan people– there is a page entitled: “Men? No! They’re hyenas”; his photograph can be found among a series of photographs of members of the Guatemalan left. A the bottom can be read: “Cruz Wer, softy homosexual face, from his position as Director of the Civil Guard, was the evil genius at the service of perversity carried out by his hybrid instincts to the highest degrees.” In other publications of the time, and some more recent ones, he is called, also, a “Jew and a mason.”

If we are to believe the newspaper El Imparcial on December 30, 1954, on June 25th of that year –two days before the resignation of Árbenz– a massacre ordered by Cruz Wer was carried out, and this crime was deemed “genocide”by the press and the anticommunist propaganda: Eleven anticommunists, among them a writer of that paper, Hugo MármolSamayoa, were executed in Antigua, Guatemala. It’s striking that in editions of the days following June 25th there was no news about the Antigua “genocide” nor about MármolSamayoa. The headlines of the first page of El Imparcial on June 25th read: “Total Victory is the objective. [Árbenz] Air Force goes into action”. And in PrensaLibre: “The National Army is already preparing to strike the final blow against the (liberationist) invaders.” And it was explained that the invaders were now fleeing to the mountainous areas of Chiquimula.

Five days later, however, CastillosArmas was already celebrated by all Guatemalan newspapers as the “liberator of the nation,” while, much to the contrary, the media of countries like England, France, and Germany condemned the coup, and in Santiago (Chile), Havana, Mexico, and Buenos Aires multitudes gathered to burn flags of the United States and photographs of Eisenhower and Dulles, the masterminds behindthe coup. In any case, many ex-members of the Civil Guard would be arrested for the Antigua crimes –although a note on PrensaLibreinsisted that Mármol had been assassinated in Santa María de Jesús–, and a legal process for genocide was initiated against Cruz Wer and other officers of the overthrown government, who had been exiled to Mexico.

Time magazine of October 18, 1954, read: “To Colonels Rogelio Cruz Wer and Jaime Rosenberg fell the duty of directing the final, senseless reign of terror when the anti-Communist revolution last June was toppling their boss, President JacoboÁrbenz. Upon Árbenz' fall, Cruz Wer and Rosenberg escaped in a station wagon to Mexico, the first of the regime's big shots to run for safety.”

Six months later, on December 21, 1954, El Imparcialpublished this news: “Genocide process confirmed against Cruz Wer and Rosenberg (ex-chief of the secret police). The First Appeals Court confirmed yesterday that the legal proceedings for genocide against former members of the civil guard who tortured and killed individuals opposing the Árbenz regime during the month of June this year are still in effect (…) The crime of genocide is recognized in our country by Congressional decree number 704, approved by Árbenz’ very own government,” the note ends.

After all, the hasty escape of the head of the Civil Guard which, like so many other followers of Árbenz whose names were likely on the lists of the CIA, crossed the SuchiateRiver, seems understandable. Their reputations had already been assassinated: why were they to allow their physical assassination too? Apart from his description as torturer and hyena, we’ve lost track of him: we’ve found nothing else about thisformer director of the Árbenz Civil Guard–nothing else, except a quote from a letter written by him, in PieroGleijeses’ book Broken Hope (Princeton University Press, 1991), which shows something quite different from a “human hyena.”

At the beginning of 1953, Cruz Wer had received complaints from several campesinos against the police. In February, while acting as director of the National Police, he sent out this newsletter to all the command posts of the republic:

“Put an end to such abuses immediately. It’s of the utmost importance to avoid friction between policemen and campesinos; on the contrary, the latter will think of the police with the same disgust they felt for it during the last dictatorships of Ubico and Ponce (…) Therefore, I insist that, if you wish to hold on to my confidence, don’t dismiss this order without first making sure your subordinates understand they must avoid by any means insulting or abusingcampesinos.”

Cruz Wer was not the only ex-civil servant of the Árbenz regime to be accused of genocide. Others, those who did not leave the country, had it worse.

II. Execution by firing squad of two “prisoners due to genocide”

On August 5, 1955, at 9:49, in the area known as El Triángulo and located in the central penitentiary, where the Torre de Tribunales is now located, the “prisoners for crimes of genocide” Juan Francisco Pineda García and MargaritoTecúnCuque were executed by firing squad. That concluded the first of the “trials for genocide” carried out during the year following the coup against JacoboÁrbenz.

Pineda and Tecún were sentenced to death on December 30, 1954 by the second court of war, under the order of Bernardo Vides Menéndez,the lieutenant colonel in charge of military justice. After being found guilty of the murder of journalist Hugo Mármol and between 9 and 16 inhabitants of Antigua (the number varies according to newspapers and notes), colonel Castillo Armas denied them a presidential pardon. Juan Francisco Pineda was the chief of the Guardia Civil [Civil Guard] of Antigua, and MargaritoTecúnCuque was one of the men under his command.

The August 5thedition of El Imparcial dedicates two long articles, written with noteworthy talent,to the execution by firing squad. The first, entitled “Marriage and Scythe in the Penitentiary,” narrates the last hours of the sentenced men. Fifteen minutes before being shot, following confession and absolution by a priest, Juan Francisco Pineda was married to Lucinda Rodríguez, his partner, with whom he’d had five children. The marriage received “the nuptial blessing by Father José Vicente Santizo and the communion by Father Pellecer.”

These details have an aspect of tragic irony given that the prisoners were accused of committing genocide against “Catholic groups which opposed the advancement of Sovietism,” in the words of the military judge who sentenced them.

The journalist notes the “almost religious calm” which reigned with the prisoners and their companions before being led to the firing squad. While describing the clothing of both prisoners, he tells this anecdote: “Prisoner Pineda García wore a white and dirty sweater, and when he noticed the presence of reporters he addressed the chief of the firing squad who led him. ‘I have clean clothes inside. As I assume they’re going to take pictures, I’d like to ask for permission to change.’” It is also mentioned that the prisoner “carried under his coat a scapular of the Virgen del Carmen hanging around his neck.”

“When prisoner Pineda Garcíacame back—the article continues— he addressed the reporters. ‘I am not guilty. I received verbal and telegraphic instructions from Cruz Wer, in which he ordered me to deliver the political prisoners to Manuel Monroy and other communist leaders. A subordinate cannot disobey orders from above.”

They ordered the prisoners to sit on two small three-legged stools in front of a firing squad made up of 14 men. Pineda refused to be blindfolded. “A loud shooting sound was heard and the prisoners fell down on their faces. TecúnCuque screamed, Pineda wriggled on the floor without screaming, but grimacing, he seemed to be looking at all of us.”

Further along, the article draws attention to both prisoners’ courage in front of the firing squad. “MargaritoTecúnCuque seemed indifferent, as if not realizing what was about to happen. Juan Francisco Pineda García had the expression of a man who is not afraid of dying, and he kissed the ground after the shots were fired with a cigarette in his hand.”

In the same edition of El Imparcial, there is another piece that refers to the execution. Because of the design, the typography, and the violent tone of the text, it is evident that it is a sponsored text, although this is not stated clearly. It is illustrated by pictures which no Guatemalan paper today would agree to publish: naked corpses, mutilated, with signs of torture and choking, lying in an empty field. They are, according to the piece, the victims of TecúnCuque and Pineda. “These crimes could not go unpunished,” the headline reads.

The article celebrates that both prisoners where “executed by shooting,” and deplores that at that very time “the masterminds calmly live in Mexico and other countries, spending the money they stole from the Guatemalan people,” clearly alluding to JacoboÁrbenz, Rogelio Cruz Wer, and Jaime Rosenberg.

With no fear of exaggerating, the pamphlet states: “Judiciary authorities of the country could in no way dismiss the people’s cry which asked for punishment for those responsible of the greatest genocide in our history.”

These publications reveal that in 1955 the concept of genocide was very present in public opinion. However, it is unclear whether TecúnCuque and Juan Francisco Pineda were sentenced to death for “multiple murders” or for “genocide.” The description of the crime varies from one article to the next. On the same page of the same newspaper (PrensaLibre, August 5, 1955), both options seem interchangeable, as if “genocide” and “multiple murders” were synonyms the writer could use without distinction. It may be that a certain confusion still existed regarding the crime of genocide, a concept which had less than ten years of judiciary existence. It is also possible that the intense anticommunist propaganda of the time favored made such confusion desirable.

The resolution signed by Castillo Armas and reproduced by PrensaLibre on August 5, 1955, in which the presidential pardon for the sentenced individuals is refused, does not speak of genocide, but of multiple murders. In 1955, the crime of genocide had still not been incorporated into the Código Penal, which, according to jurists at that time, made its application impossible.

We tried to gain access to Pineda and Tecún’s records to find out their exact sentence, so we went to the Archivo General de Tribunales. In order to request access to the document, we had the names of the prisoners, the months in which the sentences were issued by the first and second-instance courts (December 1954 and March 1955), and the court which confirmed the death sentence (Second Court of Appeals). This information was not even enough for the archivists to process the request.

—The thing is, without the file number we can’t find it, because everything is classified by that number—several archivists explained.

More than half a century after these events, the only way to get the file number… is to find it in the file. Guatemalan court documents are therefore inaccessible to anyone who wishes to undertake a historical investigation.

In any case, the term “genocide” was certainly used in the courts during those years. On August 23, 1955, two weeks after the execution, the same military judge who sentenced Pineda and Tecún filed an indictment in another military tribunal against the alleged mastermind of the killing. In it, he said: “I come to formally file a complaint, before the Honorable Military Tribunal, to accuse Bernardo Alvarado Monzón and other partners for masterminding the genocide committed during the months of June and July of last year.”

Bernardo Alvarado Monzón was the general secretary of the PartidoGuatemalteco del Trabajo[Guatemalan Labor Party] (PGT), and Hugo Barrios Klee was among his partners accused of genocide. None of them were part of the chain of command of the Guardia Civil [Civil Guard]. In the end, one month later, the judge in charge of the accusation dropped all charges with the goal of “achieving peace and harmony for the Guatemalan people.”

On September 26, 1972, during the government of Carlos Manuel Arana Osorrio, in a house in Zone 7, Bernardo Alvarado Monzón, Hugo Barrios Klee, along with four members of the central committee of the PGT, the activist Fantina Rodríguez Padilla and Natividad Franco Santos, a woman who helped with domestic chores, were kidnapped by the State security forces, taken to the Policía Judicial headquarters and subsequently murdered. Their bodies have not been found up to this day.

III. Genocide as a penal category becomes part of the legal history of Guatemala

Guatemala was the seventh country to ratify, on November 30, 1949, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide issued by the United Nations. Shortly after, it went into effect as a national law, much earlier than it was signed by the superpowers which had promoted it. Followers of Árbenz probably never imagined that a historic decision would turn on them a few years later.

This new legal concept was the object of much academic research during the 50s. An article by the Revista de la Facultad de Ciencias Jurídicas y Sociales de Guatemala published in the first semester of 1950, written by Adolfo Molina, makes an acute critical analysis of the Convention. The jurist considers that legislation against genocide represents great progress for humanity and, nevertheless, notes some weaknesses which make its application difficult or impossible.


His arguments are so current that they seem to have been formulated in 2013 in relation to the Ríos Montt trial. For example, he laments that political groups have been excluded as possible victims of genocide. An omission, he claims, which is intentional and the product of a deliberate agreement among the nations which signed. As a consequence of this: “a government would only need to invoke political motives in order to act with impunity against groups of citizens which opposed it.”

Adolfo Molina explains that for the penal concept of “genocide” to leave the “philosophical terrain,” it must be incorporated into the Código Penal [Penal Code] and accompanied by a sanction. This would have the goal of “preventing said crime and its multiple manifestations, such as persecutions for reasons of political tendencies, social class, or economic sector, etc.”

It wasn’t until 1973 that Guatemala added the crime of genocide to the Código Penal.

Another study from the same publication, this one from September 1955 and entitled “Extradition between Guatemala and Mexico for the crime of genocide,” written by Alberto LazoMendizábal, inquires into the possibility of extraditing, without naming them, civil servants from the government of Árbenz who took shelter in the neighboring country, such as Rogelio Cruz Wer and Jaime Rosenberg. He concludes that it is not possible because neither Guatemala nor Mexico have incorporated the legal concept of genocide to their penal codes. Furthermore, he asserts that the accused could easily demonstrate it was a matter of politics. The author therefore recommends asking for the extradition of the Árbenz civil servants for “common crimes.”

The author ends his study with a pessimistic phrase: “If we were to give it a detective novel title, genocide ends up being a “Crime without sanction and a criminal without a judge.”

These documents—the escape of Cruz Wer, the execution of Juan Francisco Pineda and MargaritoTecúnCuque, the case of Alvarado Monzón and colleagues—demonstrate that genocide is not a legal concept that whimsically came up in Guatemalan legal history with the trials against Ríos Montt and José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez. This word has a history in Guatemalan tribunals, a history that is gradually erased with the deterioration of the archives and the scant interest in exploring them, digitalizing them, and facilitating access to their contents.