Guatemalan General Faces Charges for Role in Genocide

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Retired General Manuel Benedicto Lucas García is on trial for his part in the massacre of Indigenous Guatemalans during the country’s decades-long civil war.

By David Agren, OSV News

MEXICO CITY (OSV News) — A retired Guatemalan military commander – considered “one of the bloodiest generals in the history of Latin America” by survivors of the repression he oversaw — has gone on trial for genocide, offering a possible last opportunity for justice for aging victims of targeted attacks on Indigenous villages during the country’s armed conflict.

Manuel Benedicto Lucas García, former head of the Guatemalan army for eight months in the early 1980s, is standing trial on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, forced disappearance and sexual violence. Lucas García’s tenure as army chief coincided with the administration of his brother, President Fernando Romeo Lucas García.

Association for Justice and Reconciliation, an organization assisted by the Archdiocese of Guatemala City’s human rights office since 2008, alleges the retired general ordered “more than 32 selective and generalized massacres,” along with “the destruction of more than 23 entire villages” in the Maya Ixil region of western Guatemala, according to a pre-trial statement.

“From his position as Operational Commander of the Guatemalan Army, he identified the Mayan peoples of the country … as enemies of the State,” the statement continued.

The massacres claimed the lives of at least 1,771 people, the organization said, including “children, the elderly, men, women, even pregnant women.” Soldiers also burned homes and crops, while carrying out persecutions, forced displacements and bombings, “as well as subjecting the population to conditions of hunger and disease that caused the death of hundreds more people, in addition to serious acts of sexual violence against women and girls,” the organization said.

The trial of Lucas García once again highlights the crimes committed during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict, which raged between 1960 and 1996, and the lingering impunity as many of the alleged perpetrators die of old age without facing justice.

Guatemala’s attempts at prosecuting the perpetrators of atrocities — often committed against Indigenous communities have been fitful. In 2013, a Guatemalan court convicted former president Efraín Ríos Montt of genocide, but the decision was overturned. The army was found by a court to have committed acts of genocide in 2018, though no soldiers were convicted.

Lucas García, 91, has followed the trial via video link from a military hospital. He has denied all charges against him.

Juan Brito López testified against the retired general. He told the court how soldiers burst into his rural home in January 1982, murdered his wife and daughters, then burned their bodies. Brito López tried to save them, but couldn’t. “Maybe I would be dead if I hadn’t escaped,” he said, according to news outlet Prensa Comunitaria Kilómetro 169.

The Guatemalan military carried out scorched-earth policies against the Maya Ixil people to eliminate the civilian population during the country’s civil war, according to the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights think tank.

The Association for Justice and Reconciliation has been pursuing the case against Lucas García since 2001, but the trial has been repeatedly impeded by witnesses passing away and the military refusing to hand over documents.

“A strategy to delay the process is that the perpetrators were of an advanced age,” Nery Rodenas, director of the Archdiocese of Guatemala City’s human rights office, told OSV News.

At least 150 witness testimonies against Lucas García have been entered into evidence, according to the Association for Justice and Reconciliation.

The trial has not captured the public imagination in Guatemala, Rodenas said — something he attributed to “indifference.”

But it was important, he explained, to “prove that in Guatemala there were crimes against humanity, that there was a racist strategy of power to destroy a sector of the population.” Rodenas continued: “It is important that a precedent is set because what we want is for people to know what happened during the war and (that) it is a human right to access justice that people have been denied for many years.”

Featured image: Ana Lopez from the Maya Ixil Indigenous people and a survivor of the internal armed conflict, attends a hearing in the Maya Ixil Genocide trial at the Supreme Court, in Guatemala City, Guatemala, March 25, 2024. (OSV News photo/Cristina Chiquin, Reuters)

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OSV News is a national and international wire service reporting on Catholic issues and issues that affect Catholics. It is a part of OSV Publishing, a division of OSV, the largest English-language Catholic publishing company in the United States. OSV, based in Huntington, Indiana, was founded in 1912.