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The Guatemala Genocide Case

Before the Spanish National Court

The Guatemala Genocide Case

Before the Spanish National Court



Read the full chronology of the case, including updates from the case against General Efrain Rios Montt in Guatemala by clicking here.  CJA is lead counsel in the Guatemala Genocide Case before the Spanish National Court (SNC). The Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation and others filed the original complaint in 1999, charging former head of state General Efraín Ríos Montt and other senior Guatemalan officials with terrorism, genocide, and systematic torture.

In 2006, Judge Pedraz of the SNC issued arrest warrants for the eight defendants. At first, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court (GCC) accepted the warrants and authorized extradition proceedings. However, the GCC reversed itself in 2007 and declared that the arrest warrants and extradition requests were invalid, barring Pedraz from interviewing witnesses in Guatemala.

Instead, Pedraz invited witnesses to come to Spain.  In 2008, CJA and the legal team brought over 40 indigenous Guatemalans to Madrid to testify in three separate groups, marking the first time a national court had heard evidence from Mayan survivors on one of the largest genocides of the last century.

In April 2011,  Pedraz issued an arrest warrant and an extradition request for Jorge Sosa Orantes for his participation in the Dos Erres massacre of 1982, where more than 200 people, including women, children, and the elderly, were brutally slaughtered.  Orantes was arrested by Canadian authorities after taking up residence in Lethbridge, Alberta.


The Guatemala Genocide Case arises from a period in that country’s long civil war where violence against non-combatant, indigenous Mayans rose to the level of genocide.  Over 200,000 Guatemalans were killed or disappeared during the 1960-1996 internal conflict.  According to the UN-sponsored Commission on Historical Clarification (CEH), the Guatemalan military and paramilitaries indiscriminately targeted indigenous communities, labor leaders, students, clergy and other civilians under the theory that they formed a subversive ‘internal enemy’.

The violence peaked in 1982-1983, when counterinsurgency forces launched a systematic campaign of genocide against the Mayan people.  Drawing on an historical antipathy to the indigenous peoples of Guatemala, the State justified the extermination of an estimated 440 Mayan communities by claiming that they were part of a communist plot against the government. Working methodically across the central highlands, the army and its paramilitary teams – including “civil patrols” of forcibly conscripted local men –attacked over 600 Mayan villages.  Concentrating in the Quiché Department, the armed forces would cordon off a village, round up the inhabitants, separate men from women and then kill them sequentially.  Those who escaped would be hunted from the air by helicopters. Extreme torture, mutilation and sexual violence became commonplace, as was violence against children. This two-year period became known as the “Silent Holocaust.”  In the words of the 1999 CEH report:
"The Army's perception of Mayan communities as natural allies of the guerrillas contributed to increasing and aggravating the human rights violations perpetrated against them, demonstrating an aggressive racist component of extreme cruelty that led to extermination en masse of defenseless Mayan communities, including children, women and the elderly, through methods whose cruelty has outraged the moral conscience of the civilized world."


Rigoberta Menchú Tum, a Qu’iche Indian woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her work defending the rights of indigenous peoples, lost her entire family at the hands of the Guatemalan military and paramilitary groups acting with the consent of the government.

In December 1999, in the wake of the arrest in London of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, Ms. Menchú and a group of Spanish and Guatemalan non-governmental organizations filed a suit in the Spanish National Court (SNC) against eight senior Guatemalan government officials. The complaint charged the defendants with terrorism, genocide, and systematic torture stemming from a number of notorious incidents including Rigoberta Menchú’s personal story. Ms. Menchú’s mother and brother were tortured and killed by the army. Her father died when he was burned alive, along with 38 other people, by members of the army at the Spanish Embassy in 1980.

After the case was initiated in 1999, the Public Prosecutor filed a motion to dismiss the action claiming that the plaintiffs had not adequately exhausted their legal remedies in Guatemala. The plaintiffs argued that justice in Guatemala was effectively denied because victims and lawyers were threatened and courts refused to entertain or pursue suits.

In a temporary setback for the case, an en banc criminal chamber of the Spanish National Court ruled on December 13, 2000 in favor of the Public Prosecutor.

Appeal Before the Spanish Supreme Court and the Constitutional Tribunal

The various plaintiffs appealed to the Spanish Supreme Court in March 2001, and on February 25, 2003 the Supreme Court, in an 8-7 decision, partially overturned the National Court’s decision. The Supreme Court found that the only cases that could proceed were the ones which showed a close tie to Spain. The ruling thus allowed investigations for the torture and killing of Spanish citizens in Guatemala but threw out the claims of the Mayan plaintiffs.

In a groundbreaking decision, on September 26, 2005 the Constitutional Court reversed the Supreme Court's decision, saying that it was the legislators’ intention to make Spain a country that observes the principles of “universal jurisdiction” for certain egregious crimes. The decision stated that Spanish Courts will have jurisdiction over crimes of international importance -- crimes prosecutable in any jurisdiction as prescribed by international treaties including the Geneva Conventions -- regardless of the nationality of the victims and perpetrators. Such crimes include torture, crimes against humanity and genocide.


CJA officially joined the case in 2006. Our initial role was to investigate the wherabouts of one of the defendants who had fled Guatemala, former Minister of the Interior Donaldo Alvarez Ruiz. CJA successfully located Alvarez Ruiz in Mexico. Although a warrant was properly issued for his arrest by the Spanish authorities, Mexican officials allowed Alvarez Ruiz to escape. He subsequently fled the country, and CJA continues to investigate his current whereabouts. 

Judge Santiago Pedraz of the SNC now took over the case. As the first stage in the investigation, Judge Pedraz traveled to Guatemala to take statements from the accused. However, the defendants disputed Pedraz’s jurisdiction and filed complaints alleging a violation of their constitutional rights. Unable to take formal statements, Pedraz nonetheless returned to Spain with sufficient evidence to file official charges.

International Arrest Warrants and Extradition Requests

In July 2006, Judge Pedraz issued arrest warrants for the eight defendants named in the case, including Ríos Montt, and issued an order to freeze the defendants’ assets.  At this stage, CJA became lead counsel and began working closely with Judge Pedraz in the legal battles surrounding the arrest orders.  CJA also assembled a legal team with attorneys from Guatemala, the Netherlands, Spain and the U.S.

The arrest warrants were accepted by the Guatemala Constitutional Court (GCC) and extradition proceedings were initiated.  In March 2007, CJA filed an amended complaint on behalf of two new clients, Jesus Tecú Osorio and Juan Manuel Jeronimo – both survivors of 1982 massacres carried out by the Guatemalan army in the Baja Verapaz area.

In October 2007, the Guatemalan Courts denied the final appeal of two defendants: National Police Director Garcia Arredondo and General Guevara Rodriguez.  At that point, extradition proceedings should have moved forward to transfer the defendants to Spain.

Unexpectedly, in December 2007, the GCC reversed itself and held that the arrest warrants and extradition requests were invalid.  In response, Judge Pedraz issued an international call to invite witnesses to travel to Madrid to present evidence on the genocide.  CJA had previously received permission from the court to bring 40 individual witnesses to testify in Spain in three separate groups due to safety concerns.  After the judge's call, many more witnesses, including Rigoberta Menchú, traveled to Madrid to give evidence.

CJA, as lead counsel, organized four delegations of witnesses.  The first group testified in January 2008 and included fifteen survivors and three experts.  The presentation of the testimony was a historic moment for the Mayan survivors as it represented the first time a national court had allowed them to present evidence of the campaign of torture, rape and killing perpetrated against their communities in the early 1980’s.   While most of the witnesses’ identities were kept confidential due to security concerns, CJA clients Jesus Tecú Osorio and Juan Manuel Jeronimo testified publicly.

A second round of testimony, which included six survivors and four experts, took place in May 2008.   A third round of testimony, including six survivors and one expert, took place in Madrid in October 2008. 

In February of 2009 CJA sponsored a fourth round of testimony in Madrid. On February 17th, almost ten years after the issuance of the final report of the U.N. Truth Commission for Guatemala (also known as the CEH), the President of the CEH, Christian Tomuschat testified.  Professor Tomuschat is a human rights and international law scholar; this testimony marks the first time that Tomuschat has testified publicly about the work of the CEH and the failure of the Guatemalan government to cooperate with the investigation.  Katherine Doyle of the National Security Archive (NSA) testified the next day about evidence contained in thousands of declassified U.S. documents which relate to the civil war.  The documents came from the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense. Doyle testified in detail about the activities of the Guatemalan Armed Forces and its operations to kill thousands of Mayan civilians.  She testified about the composition of the military, the commanders,  campaigns, military plans and general operations. 

In April 2011,  Judge Santiago Pedraz issued an arrest warrant and an extradition request for Jorge Sosa Orantes for his participation in the Dos Erres massacre of 1982, where more than 200 people, including women, children, and the elderly, were brutally slaughtered.   Sosa Orantes, also known as Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes, was a member of an elite military unit known as Kaibiles that was responsible for this and many other massacres.  Sosa Orantes was arrested in Lethbridge, Canada pursuant to a warrant issued by the Central District of California, charging him with making false statements on his U.S. citizenship application.  He is currently detained in Canada.