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In Guatemala, Molina Theissen case moves closer to trial after 36 years

After long battle, a renewed hope for truth, justice, and accountability

Photo by James Rodríguez

What would you do if your son was taken and you never found out what happened to him?

This unthinkable question is one that Emma Theissen Álvarez has been forced to ask herself every day for the past 36 years. On October 6, 1981, Guatemalan soldiers stormed into her home and kidnapped her 14-year-old son, Marco Antonio Molina Theissen.

The day before, Marco Antonio’s sister, Emma Guadalupe, had escaped from a military camp. Illegally detained for her participation as a student activist in the Patriotic Worker Youth, she was subjected to torture and rape over a period of nine days. The Molina Theissen family believes that Marco Antonio was taken as retribution for her escape.

He was never seen again. To this day, the family does not know what happened to him.

A Staggering Toll

Marco Antonio’s disappearance took place at the height of the Guatemalan civil war, a 36-year brutal internal conflict in which 200,000 people were executed, more than 600 indigenous villages were massacred, and over 45,000 individuals were forcibly “disappeared.” A truth commission found that state forces and paramilitary groups were responsible for the majority of the war’s abuses, yet no one was held to account.

When Domestic Courts Fail

In countries like Guatemala, with endemic corruption and impunity, securing justice in local courts can present an immense challenge. For that reason, families seek justice at the international level to pressure states to act.

This is the route taken by the Molina Theissen family. In 1998, the family joined efforts with Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo (GAM)—a Fund grantee—and the international organization Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) to present a petition before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The case was litigated before both the IACHR and the Inter-American Court, which issued a decision in 2004, finding Guatemala responsible for the forced disappearance of Marco Antonio and calling on the government to conduct a proper investigation, as well as prosecute and punish those responsible. Thirteen years later, there is a chance this obligation will finally be fulfilled.

Finally, Justice in Guatemala?

In July of this year, the preliminary phase of the Molina Theissen case in Guatemala concluded, with sufficient evidence found to pursue criminal charges against five former senior military officials for the abuses committed against both Marco Antonio and Emma Guadalupe. It is one of several high-profile transitional justice cases currently moving through the Guatemalan judicial system, the result of years of painstaking work by victims, families, and rights advocates, including Fund grantees Centro para la Acción Legal en Derechos Humanos (CALDH), Unidad De Protección a Defensoras y Defensores De Derechos Humanos (UDFEGUA), and Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y Acción Psicosocial (ECAP). These groups are providing essential legal representation, security, and psychosocial support to the Molina Theissen family.

Their efforts—aided in recent years by allies in the UN-backed Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala – CICIG) and Attorney General’s Office, along with new investigative methods, such as forensic analysis, and strategies aimed at prosecuting the intellectual authors of abuses—have brought Guatemala to a critical moment in its history.

The significance of this moment cannot be overstated, but neither can the immense challenge ahead. As the Molina Theissen family knows well, in the search for truth, justice, and accountability in Guatemala, it is often one step forward, two steps back. This time, with the trial forthcoming, the family, backed strongly by the Guatemalan and International Human Rights Communities, hopes to take a giant leap forward, for Marco Antonio, for the 45,000 victims of forced disappearance, and for the future of Guatemala.