On October 25th, 2016, Guatemala’s High Risk Tribunal formally accepted the Attorney General’s recommendation to initiate criminal proceedings against the country’s former Army Chief of Staff, Manual Benedicto Lucas García, for crimes against humanity, aggravated assault, the enforced disappearance of Marco Antonio Molina Theissen, and the sexual violence and torture of Emma Guadalupe Molina Theissen. Lucas García is the brother of former Guatemalan president Fernándo Romeo Lucas García, who ruled the country from 1978 to 1982 during the country’s thirty-six-year-long civil conflict. Commander Lucas Garcia served as Army Chief of Staff under his brother from 1978 to 1982.
Lucas García is also currently facing charges in Guetamala for genocide and the forced disappearances of hundreds of people in the 1980s. While Lucas García was Amy Chief of Staff, the Guatemalan government had a policy of actively persecuting political dissidents, which included, among other things, kidnapping dissidents and then killing them and disposing of their remains at unknown sites. This practice is commonly referred to as a “forced disappearance” because family members of dissidents rarely learn the fate of the kidnapped.
The most recent charges against Lucas Garcia concern his involvement in the disappearance of fourteen-year old Marco Antonio Molina Theissen, who was last seen by his family on October 6th, 1981. The Molina Theissen family was politically active in Guatemala at the time of Marco Antonio’s disappearance – Carlos Molina, Marco Antonio’s father, was a well-known dissident, and Emma Guadalupe Molina Theissen, Marco Antonio’s older sister, was a member of the Juventud Patriotica del Trabajo (Patriotic Worker Youth), a political group that opposed the military regime. Shortly before Marco Antonio’s disappearance, on September 27th, 1981, military authorities arrested Emma Guadalupe for the second time. The military regime illegally detained her for nine days, and she was tortured, starved, and raped by members of the armed forces. By October 5th, Emma Guadulupe had lost so much weight from her captivity that she was able to slip out of her shackles and escape military detention. The day after Emma Guadulupe escaped from captivity, three armed men entered the Molina Theissen home and forcefully kidnapped Marco Antonio. The Molina Theissen family believe Fernándo Romeo Lucas García’s military regime kidnapped Marco Antonio as revenge for Emma Guadulupe’s escape and in response to the Molina Theissen family’s political activism. The family filed charges against the State of Guatemala in 1998 in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) alleging that the State was responsible for Marco Antonio’s kidnapping and subsequent disappearance.
In 2004, the IACHR found the State of Guatemala culpable for the enforced disappearance of Marco Antonio Molina Theissan and human rights violations against other members of the Molina Theissan family in its judgment on Molina-Theissan v. Guatemala. The IACHR also ordered the State to begin a search for the victim’s remains, which as of 2016, remain missing. The State of Guatemala accepted responsibility for the enforced disappearance of Marco Antonio before the the IACHR on April 26th, 2004 and pledged to investigate and prosecute guilty parties connected to the disappearance and the rape and torture of Marco Antonio’s sister.
The original indictment only named four defendants: two former military commanders, Francisco Luis Gordillo and Edilberto Letono, and two former military intelligence agents, Hugo Ramior Zaldaña and Manuel Antonio Callejas. On October 25th, 2016, the High Risk Court judge ruled that the Attorney General provided sufficient evidence to add Lucas García to the criminal proceedings and to add a charge for the aggravated sexual assault of Emma Guadalupe. The court ruled that charges against Lucas García were appropriate under the doctrine of command responsibility. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) names command responsibility for failure to prevent, repress, or report war crimes as Rule 153 of its customary international law database. A military commander is guilty of command responsibility if “they knew, or had reason to know, that the subordinates were about to commit or were committing such [war crimes]” and the commander did not prevent the crime or punish the responsible subordinates. The Guatemalan court justified the charges in the Molina Theissen case by examining the Military High Command, which included Lucas García, and the regime’s policy of persecuting political dissidents. The judge cited precedent in other Guatemalan courts where the court held superiors in the Military High Command responsible for crimes committed by subordinates, especially when those crimes were part of a military policy of persecution.
The Guatemalan government has admitted to violating Marco Antonio’s rights under the American Convention on Human Rights, which Guatemala ratified in 1978. The State violated Article 1 of the Convention, which obligates States Parties to “undertake to respect the rights and freedoms recognized herein and to ensure to all persons subject to their jurisdiction the free and full exercise of those rights and freedoms.” The forced disappearance of Marco Antonio and the torture and rape of his sister, Emma Guadalupe, violated the siblings’ rights under Article Four of the Convention (right to life) and Article Five (right to humane treatment), respectively.
The State of Guatemala, by prosecuting Lucas García and other former military officials, is finally upholding its responsibility to the Molina Theissen family under Article Twenty-Five of the Convention. Article Twenty-Five guarantees the right to judicial protection for all people; it states that everyone has the right to “a competent court or tribunal for protection against acts that violate [their] fundamental rights,” and it aims to “ensure that the competent authorities shall enforce such remedies when granted.” Although the State waited a full thirty-five years to honor its obligation to the Molina Theissen family after armed men stole Marco Antonio from his home, the prosecutions are an important step forward for justice.
The prosecution of Manual Benedicto Lucas García and other former members of the military for both the forced disappearance of Marco Antonio Molina Theissen and the torture and rape of Emma Guadalupe Molina Theissen is significant because it holds Guatemala’s former military command individually responsible for the government’s policy of political persecution. The Molina Theissen family represents thousands of Guatemalan families that lost loved ones to forced disappearance and military detainment during the country’s civil conflict, and thus, the Molina Theissen case is incredibly important to the Guatemalan people. The State of Guatemala, by fulfilling its obligation of pursuing justice for Marco Antonio and his family, is taking a significant step towards justice for thousands of other people who were tortured or “disappeared” during the nation’s thirty-six-year-long civil conflict.