Xuncax v. Gramajo – International Human Rights – CCR Docket Fall 1991

While accepting a diploma in June 1991 as distinguished scholar during commencement ceremonies at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Guatemalan ex-Defense Minister Hector Gramajo was stopped and served legal papers charging that he designed, ordered, implemented and directed a program of massacres, murders, disappearances, widespread torture, and arbitrary arrest, known throughout South America as “the Guatemala Solution.”

As chief commander of the military and political chief of seven western provinces of Guatemala in  1982, Gramajo employed sadistic tactics to eliminate independent social, political and religious activities and potential opponents of the government. In a recent interview in the journal International Review, Gramajo described the overall plan during this period: We instituted Civil  Affairs (in 1982) which  provides development  for 70 percent of the population while we kill 30 percent. Eight of the nine plaintiffs in this suit represent tens of thousands of indigenous Kanjobal Indians  in  western Guatemala, who were persecuted, often publicly, to discourage opposition movements and force support of  the military.

In July 1982 plaintiff Juan Doe witnessed a massacre by government soldiers who abducted his father and several  other men from their village of El Aguacate, one of the areas under Gramajo’s command. Doe watched as soldiers interrogated his father and beat him with rifle butts, burned him with iron rods and forced him to walk over broken glass. Making their last demands for information about government opponents, soldiers threw Doe’s father and the other prisoners into a flaming pit where they died after several minutes. His son, watching, was unable to scream or cry, for fear that he himself would be shot.

A later massacre in El Aguacate was investigated and denounced by several international human  rights groups. However, Gramajo conducted a cover-up of the massacre, meeting with survivors and instructing them to “defend the Army” and to state publicly that “guerillas” had committed the murders. Gramajo sent two of the survivors to Washington, D.C. to testify about the massacre before members of Congress, and to attribute responsibility to “guerillas.” The ninth plaintiff in this lawsuit and his father refused to acquiesce to the cover-up, and the father was “disappeared” by the army.

Plaintiffs demand a jury trial on the grounds of alien tort claims against Gramajo, following the precedent in CCR ‘s case Filartiga v. Pena-that certain violations of international Jaw, such as the torture and murder  of  a civilian, are so egregious that U.S. courts have an obligation to decide such issues. The precedent allows victims to sue their tormentors in U.S. courts for violating their human rights, even when the violations occurred abroad, so long as the court has personal jurisdiction over the defendant.

CCR brought suit in the District Court of Massachusetts, since Gramajo was living in Cambridge. There is speculation that Gramajo retired from his post as Defense Minister of the Cerezo Government in order to run for president in 1995, because the Guatemalan Constitution requires presidential contenders to have retired from army posts for a minimum of five years.

Gramajo spat on the hand of the process server, and he answered the complaint pro se but failed to provide his current address or to send a copy of his reply to plaintiffs’ attorneys. In July 1991 CCR filed a motion requesting both.

Beth Stephens, Michael Ratner, Jose Luis Morin, and David Cole, with Harvey Kaplan, Maureen O’Sullivan and Jeremiah Friedman