In 2018, a special “high risk” Guatemalan court condemned four high-ranking military officials to up to 58 years in prison for their involvement in crimes against humanity and aggravated sexual assault against Emma Molina Theissen and the forced disappearance of her 14-year-old brother, Marco Antonio Molina Thiessen.
These crimes took place in 1981, at the height of the internal armed conflict that left 200,000 dead and 45,000 disappeared, including an estimated 5,000 children.
Justice was a long time coming. For the Molina Theissen family, and many other Guatemalan families who continue to search for truth in justice for civil-war-era crimes, the conviction –which followed a pursuit of justice that involved bringing the case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights— was a huge breakthrough.
It vindicated the family’s long search for justice, while it also underscored that no one is above the law and that impunity for serious crimes will not be tolerated.
However, the forces of impunity are striking back. In January, the Guatemalan Congress moved to vote on a legislative proposal that would unravel a decade of progress in efforts to prosecute those responsible for grave violations of human rights during the war.
A military intelligence unit set out to find her the next day at her parent’s home in Guatemala City. Only her mother and her brother were at home. Unable to find Emma, the military officials kidnapped Marco Antonio.
If approved, it could block all future criminal investigations into human rights violations, the four men convicted in the Molina Theissen case, and dozens of others convicted or awaiting trial, that would walk free within 24 hours. In response, the Inter-American Court has convened a hearing on March 11 and has asked the State of Guatemala to explain the amnesty proposal.
Guatemala’s long road to justice
On September 27, 1981, Emma Guadalupe Molina Theissen was detained at a military checkpoint and brought to a military base in Quetzaltenango, where she was interrogated, tortured, and gang raped.
On October 5, Emma managed to escape. A military intelligence unit set out to find her the next day at her parent’s home in Guatemala City. Only her mother and her brother were at home. Unable to find Emma, the military officials kidnapped Marco Antonio. It would be the last time she would see Marco Antonio.
Years later, after the peace accords were signed in 1996, the family filed a complaint before local prosecutors, and although the military was no longer in charge, its power was still pervasive. The case went nowhere.
As a result, the Molina Thiessen family filed a complaint with support from the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) before the Inter-American System of Human Rights in 1998. Eventually, the case was taken up by the Inter-American Court.
In a 2004 ruling, the Court found the State of Guatemala responsible for the disappearance of Marco Antonio and ordered Guatemala to identify, prosecute and punish the material and intellectual authors of the crime, among a series of other reparations.
The effort by the Guatemalan Congress to pass an amnesty law that would free the four men convicted in this case reveals that the power structures that organized and facilitated state violence in Guatemala remain as such.
Over the past decade, stimulated by Inter-American Court rulings such as this one, a once timid and ineffective Attorney General’s Office has brought several key human rights cases to trial in Guatemala, and the courts have handed down convictions in a number of cases.
The May 2018 conviction in the Molina Theissen case stands out because it found senior military officials responsible for the crimes against Emma and Marco Antonio Molina Theissen, including former Army Chief of Staff and retired general Manuel Benedicto Lucas Garcia, who is considered the architect of the Guatemalan Army’s counterinsurgency strategy.
Not one step backwards: fighting against impunity
The Molina Thiessen family expressed their satisfaction with the judgement, which they described as “historic and revolutionary”. Emma said she found the trial proceedings difficult but profoundly restorative.
This underscores that justice is key to rebuilding societies that have experienced long cycles of impunity, corruption and violence. It illustrates that domestic courts, when given the tools and conditions to do so, are fully capable of conducting war crimes trials that uphold due process rights while also offering victims an opportunity to be heard.
Public trials also provide society at large an opportunity to learn the truth about what happened during the internal armed conflict.
However, the effort by members of the Guatemalan Congress to pass an amnesty law that would free the four men convicted in this case reveals that the power structures that organized and facilitated state violence in Guatemala remain as such.
In alliance with conservative politicians and elites, they are seeking to roll back the rule of law and restore their power and privilege. Shutting down war crimes trials and guaranteeing impunity for those responsible is a key part of this campaign.
For this very reason, it is expected that Inter-American Court on March 11th will once again serve as a watchdog against human rights setbacks. Emma Molina Theissen, her mother, and her sisters will have an opportunity to tell the court why the amnesty proposal violates their rights and the rights of thousands of victims of the Guatemalan armed conflict.
They will also be able to express their concern that while last year’s verdict has been incredibly healing for them, they cannot rest until they know the full truth about what happened to Marco Antonio and until his remains are returned to them so that they can give him a proper burial.