Last month, Guatemala’s leading newspaper unveiled that the nation’s Attorney General possesses secret military documents which connect former president Efraìn Rìos Montt to army-led massacres perpetrated in the early 1980’s. Nonetheless, he has refused to initiate legal proceedings to investigate charges of genocide and war crimes filed against him in 2001.
In the three-page cover story, which ran in Prensa Libre’s Mar. 18 Sunday edition, reporter Lorena Seijo exposes that last August the Attorney General’s office received a copy of Plan Sofia, documents outlining military operations largely carried out in the Quichè province from 1982 to 1983, which links the then Army high command and their commander-in-chief, Rios Montt, to massacres committed in numerous villages during that period.
However, Delia Davila, head of the prosecutor’s department of human rights within the Attorney General’s office, defends their decision to not interrogate Rìos Montt. She insists that the authenticity of the documents has not been verified.
In January, in order to ascertain whether the Plan Sofia documents are genuine, the presiding judge in the genocide case, Roberto Peñate, ordered that the Minster of Defense, Ronaldo Cecilio Leiva, present the original Plan Sofia documents and other known military records from the same era before an open court.
In response, Leiva mailed a letter to the judge on Feb. 8 arguing that the judicial resolution "violates Article 30 of the constitution, which protects the confidentiality of military affairs." Leiva stated that since military affairs are issues of national security they must remain classified and, furthermore, that Plan Sofia does not exist.
To prevent the secret documents from becoming public, Leiva presented an appeal which claimed that these records, among others, are off-limits to the public.
Judge Peñate rejected the appeal and reminded the Minister of Defense that the accusation is not against him. Peñate summoned Leiva, to share with the court the entirety of any original military documents relevant to the case, for Mar. 26 – some three days after the twenty-fifth anniversary of the military coup which brought Rìos Montt to power.
Leiva appealed and, to date, the decision on whether the military must release their secret documents from the counterinsurgency campaigns rests in the Constitutional Court.
Genocide Case and Elections Pending for Rìos Montt
In June 2001, members of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), a group whose membership is comprised of survivors of 23 separate massacres committed between 1978 and 1983, submitted charges of genocide in Guatemala courts for the high military commands who ruled during that period.
Antonio Caba, president of the AJR, lives in a village called Ilom, one of several communities mapped out within Plan Sofia as reported in the Prensa Libre exposè. "This map is the military’s plans," Caba told Upside Down World. "Beyond a doubt, they created a plan for how to exterminate us as the indigenous population."
Ilom lies within the Quichè province, which in 1982 suffered at least 59 documented massacres by the military. According to an official military letter dated July 14, 1982, Plan Sofia concentrated its army campaigns in northern Quichè and was initiated in July 1982, four months after Rios Montt came to power by coup d’etat.
The letter is signed by then-infantry colonel Francisco Angel Castellanos Gongora, commander of Puerto San Jose Esquintla military base, and addressed to the commander of the Gumarkaj Task Force within Quichè. The text of the missive explains that Plan Sofia was elaborated "by this command, in fulfillment of orders by the headquarters of the Estado Mayor General of the Army."
The head of the Estado Mayor of the Army at this time was Hector Lopez Fuentes who in February 2002 declared before the Attorney General’s office that he had received orders directly from then-president Rios Montt, and from the vice-minister of defense, Humberto Mejia Victores.
Interestingly, Castellanos Gongora, whose signature seems to provide the critical link between the Quichè massacres and Rìos Montt and his military command, was mysteriously shot to death by masked individuals seven months ago while in a laundromat in zone 19 of the capital.
Rìos Montt is widely expected to register as a candidate for this year`s congressional elections in early May. His successful registration and likely election would provide him parliamentary immunity from prosecution, thereby feasibly signalling another four years of impunity for the 80-year-old ex-dictator.
However, if the Attorney General decides to take an initial statement from Rìos Montt, in effect formally initating judicial proceedings to determine whether he is in fact guilty of genocide as the AJR alleges, Rìos Montt would become ineligible for candidacy.
Juan Velasco Perez, a coordinator with the Center for Legal Action in Human Rights, the organization serving as the AJR’s legal advisors in the genocide case, explained that despite international support, Guatemalan authorities are doing nothing to address the genocide. "People see that there is no justice so they have already lost confidence in the Attorney General and the justice system," he said.
For many, the discovery that the Attorney General has a copy of Plan Sofia but still has not acted makes the impunity enjoyed by those responsible for genocide all the more glaring and outrageous.
"The documents detailing Plan Sofia clearly illustrate an explicit chain of command, with Rios Montt at its head, through which orders of mass extermination were communicated at the height of the conflict" said Catherine Norris, an organizer with the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA) in Washington D.C.
"Since the demands for justice from survivors have yet to compel the Guatemalan judicial system to prosecute those responsible for genocide, we hope such brazen documentation of planning and responsibility for atrocities will prove impossible to ignore and bolster the survivors’ case," Norris told Upside Down World.
In the last weeks, at least 101 national and international organizations have mailed Guatemalan president Oscar Berger a letter calling on him to ensure that the genocide case proceedings begin before Rìos Montt is able to register as a candidate.
Caba, AJR’s president, added that, "We cannot shut up nor take a single step backward. We have to continue forward until we achieve our proposal of justice here in our country."