Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez is a bookish man with a reputation for probity who wears suits and carefully coordinated ties and shirts to work. He has, in Guatemala, a perilous job: he presides over what is known as High Risk Court B—one of several courts with increased security that were first established in 2009 to conduct trials involving crimes such as human rights violations, narcotics, human trafficking, and money laundering. These trials were deemed to pose unusual dangers to judges, prosecutors, defendants, lawyers, and witnesses. In 2013 Gálvez ruled that Efraín Ríos Montt, the country’s dictator for parts of 1982 and 1983, could be tried for genocide and crimes against humanity. (He was subsequently convicted.) In 2017 he sent the president and vice-president, Otto Pérez Molina and Roxana Baldetti, to trial on charges of corruption; both were convicted.
Guatemala has a legacy of violence that stems from its thirty-six-year civil war, which began in 1960 and ended in 1996. In early May of this year Gálvez ordered a trial based on the Diario Militar, or, as it’s referred to in English, the Death Squad Dossier. The dossier first came to light in 1999. It includes neatly laid-out photographs recording the kidnapping and, in most instances, disappearance of 183 victims between 1983 and 1985. Many were members of guerrilla movements that had vowed to overthrow the state. Next to each photograph, presented in clinical detail, are the date and location of the victim’s apprehension. The dossier also provides cryptic codes: in many instances, the number 300 or the expression “Se lo llevó Pancho” (Pancho took him) appears—an indication, according to human rights workers who have studied it, that the person was executed.
The Death Squad Dossier is one of the few physical records of the mass disappearances that were a significant part of Guatemala’s civil war. The fact that it is only now, twenty-three years after it became public, resulting in the prosecution of over a dozen military and police officials reflects the country’s long struggle to come to grips with its past and transform itself into a law-abiding democracy. Among the accused are what Jo-Marie Burt, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, who has been closely monitoring the case, calls “big fish, really big fish.” These are people, she told me, who have connections not only to the disappearances of the 1980s but also to organized crime today: “The defendants include very powerful people who’ll unleash whatever is in their power to prevent the trial from going forward.”
After declaring the case ready for trial, Gálvez began to receive death threats. Unmarked cars followed him in the streets. Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, the president of a right-wing organization known as the Foundation Against Terrorism, or Fundaterror, showed up in Gálvez’s court and tweeted that the judge would pay for “the serious crimes he committed as head of his judiciary, which he prostituted before the socialist agenda. We will see him imprisoned or exiled. I pledge my word on this.”
Méndez Ruiz is part of an ongoing effort by the Guatemalan right to eviscerate the country’s judiciary, including High Risk Courts like Gálvez’s. In 2021 the US State Department, concerned about Guatemala’s drift toward criminal oligarchy, placed Méndez Ruiz on its so-called Engel List of corrupt and undemocratic figures who face sanctions and are denied visas for the United States. The State Department accused him of attempting to “delay or obstruct criminal proceedings against former military officers who had committed acts of violence, harassment, or intimidation against governmental and nongovernmental corruption investigators.” Méndez Ruiz, who is an ardent anti-Communist and a defender of the Guatemalan military, declared it a “huge honor” to be on the Engel List.
Anxious not to be outdone in a display of contempt for the State Department, Guatemala’s right-wing president, Alejandro Giammattei, announced that he would put “guardians of justice,” like Gálvez, on what he called a “vulture list.” This was a reference to both the Engel List and the Justice Vultures, a notorious death squad that operated in Guatemala during the civil war.
Guatemala is Central America’s most populous nation and one of the top sources of illegal immigration to the United States. In its 2021 annual report, the anticorruption agency Transparency International judged democracy and efforts to fight corruption in the region to be at an all-time low. Of Guatemala, it said that “the state, particularly the justice system, has been co-opted by economic and political elites, certain sectors of the business community and organised crime.” This has obvious ramifications for immigration. A United States government official told me that “two major concerns heavily impact relations with Guatemala. One is corruption and the other is irregular migration—which is caused in part by the first.”
All of this is on prominent display in the Death Squad Dossier case, which further extends the many issues that were never resolved at the conclusion of the civil war. By the time of the 1996 peace accords between the Guatemalan government and a coalition of guerrilla groups, 200,000 civilians had been killed—93 percent of them slaughtered by state or associated security forces. Eighty-three percent were Maya. Forty-two thousand are said to have simply “disappeared”—a form of state-sponsored mass-murder-by-death-squad that experts argue originated in Guatemala and from there spread to other countries in Latin America.
The disappearances, more than anything, have left their mark on the country’s subsequent political evolution. The peace accords were brokered by the United Nations and included the creation of a truth commission. The chair of the commission, appointed by the UN secretary-general, was the distinguished German law professor Christian Tomuschat. The two other commissioners were Guatemalan—one a Maya woman. The commission’s purpose was accountability: “to clarify human rights violations…and to foster tolerance and preserve memory of the victims.”
The truth commission’s 1999 report expressed the hope that once the violence ceased, victims and perpetrators would step forward to create an atmosphere of reconciliation:
There is no doubt that the truth is of benefit to everyone, both victims and transgressors. The victims, whose past has been degraded and manipulated, will be dignified; the perpetrators, through the recognition of their immoral and criminal acts, will be able to recover the dignity of which they had deprived themselves. Knowing the truth of what happened will make it easier to achieve national reconciliation.
It noted, however, that in its quest for accountability, the disappearances presented a special problem:
The purpose of these missions was to guarantee that the work remained covert, so that the intellectual and material perpetrators of the incidents could not be identified, to exonerate state agents of any responsibility and thereby to assure the ineffectiveness of any judicial or police investigation.
In other words, these 42,000 disappeared people created a problem for the truth commission’s ambitions of reconciliation. Without accountability for them, the commissioners understood, the legacy of violence would perpetuate itself.
One of the contributors to the truth commission report was a human rights worker and document specialist named Kate Doyle, who was the director of the Guatemala Project at the National Security Archive at George Washington University, a position she still holds. Doyle traveled to Guatemala City for the report’s release in 1999 and while there received a call in her hotel room from someone she didn’t know. She was passed a document that she was told had been purchased for $2,000 from a member of Guatemalan military intelligence. The bearers of the document asked her to take it back to Washington and authenticate it.
The document was the Death Squad Dossier. By matching the entries in it with declassified US documents, human rights reports, and press accounts of disappearances, Doyle came to understand that she’d been given a record of the kidnappings and in most cases disappearances of members of the Guatemalan intelligentsia and militant left, including professors, labor organizers, journalists, and activists. “You could see,” Doyle told me, “these were not just members of the crowd, but a trophy list of prominent opposition figures.” The people who gave the dossier to Doyle told her that it came from the Estado Mayor Presidencial, a unit that provided intelligence and undertook covert activity—including running death squads—within the office of the president. Beyond that, it was clear that no one was in a hurry to take responsibility for leaking it.
At a press conference on May 20, 1999, given jointly by the National Security Archive and three other Washington organizations, the dossier was released to the public. Doyle described it as “absolutely unique—a rare glimpse of organized political murder from the perspective of the perpetrators who committed it.” That day a front-page story in The New York Times stressed that the victims included not just people the government suspected of being affiliates of guerrilla groups but also “doctors and shoemakers, labor leaders and students, mechanics and economists.”
The truth commission recommended “measures for the preservation of the memory of the victims,” “measures for the compensation of the victims,” and “measures to foster a culture of mutual respect and observance of human rights.” These were, however, entirely nonbinding according to the terms of the peace accords. Neither the armed forces nor the security services proved interested in participating. Instead Guatemala continued to be dominated by the same groups, skilled in clandestine, extrajudicial behavior, that had operated the death squads. Unrepentant about their wartime activities and with little allegiance to postwar governments, many of them simply shifted from assassination to crime.
By 2002 Amnesty International was referring to Guatemala as a “corporate mafia state.” In 2003 a report from the Washington Office on Latin America characterized the clandestine criminal groups as “a secret, amorphous network” of heavily armed former members of the security and intelligence forces, carrying out organized and often violent crime against human rights workers and others, with “little fear of arrest or prosecution.” The impunity with which these criminals operated was not surprising, since in the final years of the civil war the country no longer had a functioning court system. It had effectively been superseded by a counterinsurgency strategy that created a category of “internal enemies” and dealt with them extrajudicially. The truth commission characterized this wartime state as an “intricate repressive apparatus” of police, soldiers, and paramilitary death squads, “an illegal and underground punitive system…directed by military intelligence.”
In 2007 the United Nations, concerned about a resurgence of death-squad activity and the infiltration of these criminal groups into Guatemalan state agencies, proposed a way to rebuild the judicial system. It suggested the creation of an independent, supranational anticorruption agency, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). The proposal had strong support from the United States, and, after hesitation over the loss of sovereignty, the Guatemalan congress and the government of Óscar Berger signed on. CICIG investigators were empowered to work alongside Guatemalan prosecutors and even to bring charges in court. The creation of the High Risk Courts was part of this effort.
The astonishing period that followed became known in Guatemala as Justice Spring. The CICIG captured narco-traffickers, disrupted the Guatemalan operations of the Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas, and in 2015—under the leadership of a Colombian jurist, Iván Velásquez, who once prosecuted the drug lord Pablo Escobar and is now Colombia’s defense minister—forced President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti’s resignations for their part in an enormous and lucrative customs corruption ring, then imprisoned them. In addition, the courts handed down twenty-six sentences in twenty-one cases of human rights violations from the civil war, including massacres, disappearances, and sexual violence.
The centerpiece of the effort to prosecute wartime abuses was the 2013 trial and conviction of Efraín Ríos Montt on charges of genocide. The prosecution argued that he was responsible for the decisions that in 1982 and 1983 led to fifteen massacres, the destruction of innumerable villages, and the deaths of 1,771 Ixil Maya who were only presumed to have sided with the guerrillas. Ríos Montt was sentenced to fifty years, then freed on a technicality. He died in 2018, before a retrial had been completed. Still, the genocide case greatly angered the Guatemalan military, which was convinced that the courts were trying to undo what the guerrillas had lost on the battlefield. More than anything else, “it crystallized the right,” Jo-Marie Burt explained. “It made them realize they needed to be more proactive.”
In 2017 the CICIG-backed effort to break up Guatemala’s criminal oligarchy began to unravel. Early that year, it announced the arrest of the brother and the son of the new right-wing president, Jimmy Morales, a former television comedian who had grown up in a circus family and had run as an outsider on an anticorruption ticket. That same month the CICIG announced an investigation of Morales on charges of money laundering and accepting roughly $1 million in illegal campaign contributions. Morales reacted by declaring Velásquez persona non grata and expelling him from the country. Large street demonstrations began. Morales then ignored a decision by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court challenging the legality of the expulsion.
Expelling Velásquez was a risky move on Morales’s part; the United States, from the beginning, had been paying a quarter of the expenses of the CICIG, and there had long been a bipartisan consensus that combatting Guatemala’s internal corruption was one of the most effective ways of deterring both drug trafficking and migration toward the border. But by 2017, under Donald Trump, things had changed in Washington. The Morales administration had prepared for the move against the CICIG by spending tens of thousands of dollars on lobbyists currying favor with newly emboldened Republicans. Their efforts paid off. In 2018 Senator Marco Rubio, as the chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, suspended US aid to the CICIG, labeling it as leftist and crippling the agency.
In late 2017 Guatemala became the first country to imitate Trump’s controversial relocation of the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Morales’s relationship with the Trump administration grew warm enough that, as Mary Beth Sheridan of The Washington Post reported, Guatemalan diplomats spent $5,000 on a dinner for Jared Kushner during which he exhorted other Latin American diplomats to follow the Guatemalan embassy’s lead. By January 2019, when Morales gave the rest of the CICIG twenty-four hours to leave the country, no one in Washington objected.
The CICIG had been both effective and popular. At the time it was disbanded, homicide rates had declined 32 percent, sixty criminal networks had been disrupted, and hundreds of individual criminals had been indicted or convicted. Inside Guatemala it had a 72 percent approval rating.
The leading candidate to succeed Morales as president in the 2019 elections was the outgoing attorney general, Thelma Aldana. Over the course of her tenure, however, Aldana had undertaken investigations of more than 20 percent of the legislature, and she had enemies. Morales’s appointee as the next attorney general, María Consuelo Porras, filed charges against Aldana that were widely seen as phony but nonetheless forced her to drop out of the presidential race and flee the country. Alejandro Giammattei, the current president, was subsequently elected—although in a runoff and with a turnout of only some 40 percent.
Between 2006 and 2008, Giammattei had served as the director of the nation’s corrections system. In 2010 he spent ten months in prison for his connection to a death squad known as the Riveritas, who had executed inmates in Pavón prison on the outskirts of Guatemala City and afterward taken over lucrative rackets run by the prisoners. The CICIG had made the case against Giammattei. Ultimately, he was released for lack of evidence, although a prosecutor close to the case expressed doubts to me about its outcome.
More recently the Salvadoran newspaper El Faro reported that Giammattei had received a rolled-up carpet filled with cash (referred to in the Guatemalan press as the “magic carpet”), delivered to his house by a group of Russian entrepreneurs trying to get the rights to a Guatemalan port. That case, along with others involving Giammattei—and also the allegation, which he has denied, that he had received $2.6 million in illegal campaign contributions from various construction interests—was being investigated by one of Gálvez’s fellow high-court judges, Erika Aifán, until Aifán was forced out of the country last March.
In May Giammattei reappointed Porras to a second four-year term as attorney general. Porras is an ardent conservative and Catholic. She wears a rosary around her wrist. She had a brush with scandal when it emerged that she’d plagiarized part of her doctoral thesis. She has been so relentless in her attacks on anyone who threatens her bosses—first Morales, now Giammattei—that the US State Department put her, too, on the 2021 Engel List, accusing her of “interfering with criminal investigations” and ignoring cases “based on political considerations.”
After destroying Aldana’s presidential candidacy, Porras went after Juan Francisco Sandoval, a veteran prosecutor who oversaw the anticorruption Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity. He was investigating crimes involving Giammattei when Porras accused him of insubordination and had him fired. Fearing an arrest warrant, Sandoval’s staff grabbed him away from his own press conference, handed him a gym bag stuffed with clothes, and drove him to El Salvador in the back of the Swedish ambassador’s car.
In recent months the campaign against Guatemala’s judiciary has expanded to include the country’s mainstream press. On July 29 José Rubén Zamora, the president and director of the newspaper El Periódico and a major critic of President Giammattei, was arrested and accused of money laundering. He is still in jail. El Faro revealed that the case against Zamora had been put together in just seventy hours based on the testimony of a single convicted banker who, according to Zamora’s defense, had been offered a deal in exchange for incriminating others. Fundaterror seemed to play a considerable part: the convicted banker’s attorney was Raúl Falla of the organization, and soon it emerged that Fundaterror was a joint plaintiff in the case against Zamora.
Porras has developed a pattern of working in tandem with Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, the Fundaterror leader who disrupted Judge Gálvez’s courtroom. Even though he is a private citizen, he and Fundaterror’s lawyer, Falla, have been pursuing their political enemies through Porras’s Public Ministry office.
Méndez Ruiz is the son of Colonel Ricardo Méndez Ruiz Rohrmoser, who served as Ríos Montt’s interior minister. Before that, he had been commander of an army camp in Cobán, an indigenous region in the country’s highlands. After the war, more than five hundred corpses were unearthed from unmarked graves on Colonel Méndez Ruiz’s base, many of them blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs. At first, the military—apparently in a jocular mood—attributed the deaths to earthquakes and the blindfolds to “community rituals,” but its frame of mind changed in 2015 when the corpses became the basis of criminal charges from Thelma Aldana’s attorney general’s office. The colonel, however, died before he could be included in the prosecution. Ricardo Méndez Ruiz was a cadet and a paratrooper in his youth. He denies that there was any genocide during the anti-insurgency campaign and sees himself as the defender of Guatemala’s heroic military, including his father.
Méndez Ruiz, however, may have had another reason to go after the CICIG. The investigative reporter Hector Silva Ávalos recently wrote in the Argentine news outlet Infobae that before the CICIG was thrown out of the country, Méndez Ruiz’s name had come up in connection with a drug ring involved with the Sinaloa Cartel that imported methamphetamine through Nicaragua. But now that the CICIG has been terminated and Sandoval forced out of the country, the case is no longer being investigated.
Why did the Death Squad Dossier case take more than twenty years to come to trial? There are a number of reasons: the fact that both the police and the military denied they had pertinent records (although the abandoned police archives, discovered in 2005 stacked with moldy, unsorted records—many open to the sky—eventually yielded important evidence); the great difficulty of determining who, inside the police and military, were responsible for these anonymous secret operations; and finally the sheer intimidating brutality of the operations. Many of those who had helped carry out the assassinations remain in positions of power. Efforts to intimidate witnesses were so regular that in 2016 Gálvez placed the collection of trial evidence “on reserve,” which is to say it was compiled in absolute confidence.
On May 6, 2022, Gálvez ordered nine retired military and police officials to trial on charges including forced disappearance, homicide, illegal detention, and torture. He put together his case from eight thousand pieces of evidence presented by the plaintiffs, including victim testimony, official military documents, declassified US government records, and the Death Squad Dossier itself. Over the next few weeks five others were also arraigned. The accused include a former minister of defense, a former colonel who is believed to have supervised the torture of many of the disappeared, and the former commander of the Comalapa army base, where between 2003 and 2005 a forensics team uncovered the remains of six of the disappeared in an unmarked mass grave.
Reading his decision to a hushed courtroom, Gálvez described the defendants’ alleged actions in gruesome detail. They ripped out the fingernails and tongues of their captives, he said, sexually assaulted them, electrocuted men’s genitals. “They put them in planes,” he read, “and tossed them into the ocean to get rid of evidence of torture.”
Within days Méndez Ruiz announced a suit against Gálvez, accusing him of misusing preventive detention according to guidelines set in the Guatemalan code of criminal procedures. (Preventive detention is widespread in Guatemalan courts but, as Alejandro Rodríguez, a former member of the attorney general’s office and now a lawyer with Impunity Watch, pointed out, the same standard has not been applied to other judges. “If it were,” he told me, “100 percent of Guatemalan judges would be in jail.”) Nevertheless, as a sitting judge, Gálvez is immune from prosecution, so Fundaterror filed a criminal complaint with Guatemala’s Supreme Court of Justice that would strip him of his immunity.
The pattern was disturbingly familiar. In January, when Erika Aifán of High Risk Court D was investigating criminal allegations against President Giammattei, Porras filed two petitions to the Supreme Court of Justice seeking to strip her of immunity; shortly thereafter, Fundaterror filed a third. In March, with her immunity about to be revoked and right-wing groups threatening her with physical violence, Aifán fled with a single suitcase to the US.
What may be most remarkable about the dossier case is the determination of families of the victims to know—regardless of the cost—what happened to their loved ones. Paulo Estrada was just over a year old when his father—Otto René Estrada Illescas, number 133 on the Diario Militar list—went out to get a haircut. He vanished after being grabbed by a group of armed men and forced into the back of a white van. A month later, Otto’s older brother—Julio Alberto Estrada Illescas, number 156 on the list—was seized outside a Guatemala City hospital. Julio, too, was never seen again. The Estrada Ilescas brothers had been students at San Carlos University, where Otto studied economics and Alberto political science. Their grandfather was the dean of economics. The brothers were union organizers, student activists, and eventually members of the armed wing of the Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo (the Guatemalan Communist party).
“My mom heard on the radio that there’d been a shoot-out in the area she knew my father had gone,” Paulo Estrada told me recently.
She was an accountant in the ministry of finance, and he drove her to work every day. She went to the site of the disappearance and found their family’s abandoned car. A parking attendant who knew my father gave my mom the license-plate numbers of two vans that headed him off and then the description of a white van—with no plates—he’d been thrown into.
Soon the parking attendant also disappeared.
“We didn’t know for certain that my father had been killed for fifteen years,” Estrada said,
until the Diario came out. From the Diario we learned that my dad had been held from May 15 until August 1. On the Diario manuscript, there’s a handwritten notation, “01-08-84:300,” meaning that’s when he was executed.
Estrada told me that during the fifteen years of uncertainty about his father’s fate, his mother maintained that he was dead, because, she claimed, “he had a great deal of affection and love for us and if he’d still been alive, he would have come home.” When Estrada was small, he would ask about his father. His mother would tell him, “They’ve taken him away because he was trying to make a better world for us.” “As long as I’m still alive,” Estrada said, “I feel it’s my mission to discover where my father is buried and learn who was responsible for murdering him.”
Today Estrada writes abouts Guatemalan politics with Jo-Marie Burt. He is a querellante—a “civil party”—in the Death Squad Dossier case. He has therefore taken part in the extensive research leading up to Gálvez’s decision to proceed with a trial. He told me that government prosecutors had concluded that the dossier smuggled out of the country by Kate Doyle was a copy of an original compiled by an elite military intelligence unit for presentation to the then dictator, General Óscar Humberto Mejía Víctores (who died in 2016). According to Estrada, the handwritten notes on the copy given Doyle were added by field operatives, some of them defendants in the case.
Despite the army’s insistence that it had no records concerning the war years, Estrada said, investigators on the dossier case found documents in the houses of some of the accused. In one, they discovered papers describing a previously unknown police unit commanded by military intelligence that was responsible for many disappearances. They also found training manuals going back to the US’s School of the Americas, which was used to train Latin American officers—first in Panama and then at Fort Benning, Georgia—in counterinsurgency techniques. These manuals described the US National Security Doctrine, which was the basis for Guatemala’s concept of “internal enemies,” used as a justification for the disappearances.
Not long after Gálvez’s decision to send the Death Squad Dossier case to trial, he gave an unusually reflective interview to Javier de León Villatoro of Prensa Comunitaria. He said that today in Guatemala you could become an “internal enemy” just by uttering the words “Diario Militar.” He said that he loved his country and didn’t want to leave, but that he—and judges and prosecutors like him—was facing a new form of disappearance: a kind of “civil death,” he called it, an effort to force out political enemies.
I finally reached Gálvez in early November. He was in an Internet café in Guatemala City, unshaven, clearly grappling with the imminent possibility of exile. An appeals court hearing scheduled for the following day would decide whether to strip him of his immunity. The outcome seemed a foregone conclusion. The case against him would then go—possibly on an expedited basis—to the Supreme Court. On his website, Méndez Ruiz had a checkerboard of photos with Xs through the faces of the lawyers and prosecutors he’d sent into exile or to jail. Judge Gálvez’s face already had a large X over it.
Gálvez described to me his lower-middle-class childhood, with six siblings, in Guatemala City. His father worked for the roads department, but there had always been a few law books around the house and Gálvez had become fascinated by the law.
He seemed distracted as we spoke, frequently glancing around between questions. At one point, he cut in to say that a friend had told him there was a cell with his name on it awaiting him in Mariscal Zavala prison, on an army base outside Guatemala City. If he went there, he’d be confined with Haroldo Mendoza, an accused murderer and a member of Guatemala’s largest narcotics gang whom Gálvez had sent to trial six years earlier.
It was only when I asked about the wisdom of recommending death squad members for trial that Gálvez seemed to focus. “Look,” he said. “You could be a member of the guerrillas, but if you’re in your home, the security forces aren’t entitled to just break in, arrest you, take you away, torture and kill you [and your] brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers too.” He stopped. “There are laws—international laws.”
I have since heard that Gálvez has left the country.
—November 10, 2022