Guatemala Congressman Tied to ‘White Van’ Death Squad

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InSight Crime partner Nómada has revealed documentation linking a Guatemalan congressman who is currently under investigation for corruption to a police unit responsible for murders, torture, and disappearances during the country’s 35-year civil war.   

In 1988, three years after Guatemala ended decades of military rule with a return to democracy, Ana Elizabeth Paniagua was 25 years old, two months pregnant and had a four-year-old daughter. She was head of the athletics team at San Carlos University. She wasn’t studying, but she was a member of the student community as a worker and an athlete. She also ran a household. 

This article was originally published by Nómada and was translated, edited for clarity, and republished with permission. The photographs are by Carlos Sebastián. See the original in Spanish here. 

On Tuesday, February 9, Ana woke up at 6 a.m. Before preparing breakfast, she decided to go buy milk at a store in La Palangana, a sector of the working class neighborhood Castillo Lara, in Guatemala City. 

She probably felt uneasy going out to buy milk. She knew she was being followed. She felt as though she was being watched. She had reported her stalking to a human rights organization just a few weeks before. Congresswoman Nineth Montenegro, founder of the Mutual Support Group (Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo – GAM), said Ana came to the organization with a group of university students and “they told us what was happening in their neighborhood.”

Ana Paniagua — captain of the athletics team at San Carlos University — was kidnapped the morning of February 9, 1988. Men hiding behind balaclava hoods beat her and forced her into a white van with tinted windows. Then they took her away.

“Back then, you couldn’t trust the authorities, and GAM became a type of refuge because we had the support of international brigades, although we were also the victim of attacks,” Montenegro said.

“Victim of attacks” is one way of putting it. Just 27 with a two-year-old daughter at the time, Montenegro notes that her husband was “disappeared,” picked up by security forces and never seen again. His name was Fernando García, and he was a labor union leader who worked closely with the communist Guatemalan Labor Party.

Montenegro searched for Fernando at police stations, military bases, and even managed to bring her quest to the National Palace. She wanted her husband returned, or at the very least an explanation of what happened to him. 

A disappearance can feel worse than a murder, due to the psychological pain it inflicts on family and friends. It is considered a crime against humanity.

“People say that nothing happened to me, because they didn’t hurt me physically, but they killed me too,” Nineth Montenegro recalled. “They killed my love.”

During that time — one of the most repressive eras in Guatemala — GAM members supported people who came looking for help in whatever way they could. This included press conferences and complaints before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. They would try to help those who feared for their lives leave the country. In 1985, Montenegro’s friend and GAM co-founder Rosario Cuevas de Godoy was tortured and killed along with her brother and her two-year-old baby.

Just like Rosario, Ana Paniagua — captain of the athletics team at San Carlos University — was kidnapped the morning of February 9, 1988. Men hiding their faces behind balaclava hoods beat her and forced her into a white van with tinted windows. Then they took her away. That’s what the neighbors told María Idelfonsa Morales, Ana’s mother.

Morales approached the GAM the same day her daughter was kidnapped. She thought the authorities had made an arrest. The GAM helped her navigate the process of petitioning a judge to force authorities to reveal where Ana was being held. However, no police station had any record of Ana. Two years later her body turned up bearing signs of torture and various knife wounds. 

Who had the stomach, the lack of scruples, to disappear, torture, and murder women and babies considered enemies of the state? Who were these men who rode around in the white trucks?

Documents reviewed by Nómada reveal that one of these people was Baudilio Hichos. He was a member of Congress for 25 years in Guatemala, during times of democracy and peace. 

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Baudilio Hichos in 2015. Photo c/o Nómada

The Archives Speak

In July 2005, officials from Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office stumbled upon the second biggest paper archive of its kind in the history of the planet. Only the paper archives of East Germany’s secret police are more extensive than the Guatemala National Police Archive. The documents presenting a record stretching from 1882 to 1997 now reside at the Ministry of Culture, in a historical archive financed almost exclusively by international donors and directed by former guerrilla Gustavo Meoño.

Guatemala’s police managed to create files on one third of Guatemala’s 3 million urban inhabitants. These files contain evidence that the police were responsible for kidnapping Nineth Montenegro’s husband. 

Within the archives, Nómada found documents that describe how the so-called “white van unit” operated. 

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Papers in Guatemala’s National Police Archives. Photo c/o Nómada

The white van unit was a tool of Guatemala’s Treasury police (Guardia de Hacienda). In theory, they were responsible for stopping contraband at the borders and in the national market, where they targeted the clandestine liquor produced by Guatemala’s indigenous people. But that was their role on paper. In reality, they were one of the offices responsible for capturing, disappearing, torturing, and killing suspected guerrillas. 

During Guatemala’s darkest era, any reason could be considered evidence of links to the guerrillas. Faced with a guerrilla force military intelligence estimated at more than 15,000 troops, state and paramilitary forces went on a deadly rampage that ended with 200,000 dead and another 45,000 disappeared, more than in any other modern conflict in Latin America. 

The “death vans” didn’t just “disappear” citizens at all hours of the day and night. Even after the transition to democracy in 1985, they sent a message to the rest of society. It was a form of psychological terror. In the words of one columnist at the time, Solares Jr. of El Gráfico newspaper: “It was convenient to maintain the climate of terror as a warning; as a way of saying, ‘watch out boy.’ This way, despite the recent inauguration of democracy, the darkest side of the state thought they were fighting insurgency.”

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A 1988 newspaper column that describes how the state used white vans that ‘disappeared’ people as form of psychological terror. Photo c/o Nómada

Among those who directed this counterinsurgency campaign was Baudilio Hichos, born in 1953 in western Guatemala, an area heavily populated by mestizos. He first entered the Treasury Guard on March 1, 1976. 

The archives show he spent nearly 12 years in the force, starting out on the border with Belize in Petén state before transferring to Antigua Guatemala. In 1980, he was promoted to the rank of captain in Guatemala City and in 1987 became inspector general and the treasury police’s third-in-command.

A former co-worker said that other members of the guard considered Hichos “a shadowy character who’d spent his entire life in the dark and in illegality.”

Military expert and former peace negotiator Héctor Rosada noted that the Organic Law of the Treasury Guard bestowed on the corp’s inspector general and third-in-command duties that included “exercising direct control over the team, uniforms, and other equipment.” It also gave him the role of “instructing regional cadre and other lower-ranking personnel on their obligations, duties and functions ….”

Command of the Treasury Guard’s white van unit also must have fallen under Hichos. His responsibility would have included giving orders to those who used the vehicles to conduct disappearances, torture and murder. 

Searching for Justice

The Guatemalan counterinsurgency which Hichos helped direct did not only persecute suspected guerrillas. The families of suspected insurgents were persecuted in cities and in the countryside, where entire villages were wiped off the map.

According to a report by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, several armed individuals belonging to the white van unit appeared during Ana Paniagua’s burial in Sacatepéquez. For several days, during the mourning period, members of the security forces monitored the Paniagua family home. On one occasion, they entered the house and demanded to see Ana’s brother and sister. Ana’s brother, Alberto Paniagua, said that on several occasions the family’s home was the target of grenades and gunfire. The attacks prompted some family members to flee Guatemala in 1988. The rest followed in 1993 — 23 years ago.

Ana Paniagua’s kidnapping was one of the white van unit’s last jobs. On March 10, 1988, days after having kidnapped at least nine other people and killed seven of them, the Ford 350 Econoline van known as the “death van” was seized.

National Police spotted a white truck on a highway not far from Guatemala City that matched the description of a vehicle reportedly involved in kidnappings and disappearances. Chief of Police Julio Caballeros Signé himself directed the operation in which the van was stopped and the six Treasury Guard officers found inside were arrested.

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A newspaper article reporting the arrest of the Treasury Guard’s white van unit. Photo c/o Nómada

The suspects were taken to police headquarters for interrogation, and Chief Caballeros Signé went to the Interior Ministry to report on the operation. As he delivered his report to Minister Juan José Rodil Peralta and Treasury Guard Director Óscar Díaz Urquizú, a contingent of Treasury Guards surrounded the police station in an attempt to rescue their colleagues and recuperate their van. Newspaper accounts from the time describe a tense standoff between treasury guards under the command of Hichos and the surrounded police. Hichos reportedly told police that the van had been on a mission to intercept contraband milk, and that its license plate must have just fallen off.

The press reports note that Treasury Guards took their van back before it could be taken to the Attorney General’s office for identification by kidnapping victims who had survived their ordeal. Caballeros Signé reported that when police recuperated the vehicle more than 12 hours later, it had been washed and wiped clean and everything inside had been removed, including a box of civilian clothes.

Baudilio Hichos was elected to seven consecutive terms. His ties to the white van death squad were never mentioned, until now.

This incident led to the firing of Treasury Guard Director Díaz Urquizú. The sub-director, Byron Barrientos, became minister of Interior under President Alfonso Portillo in 2000. He was later condemned to eight years in prison for embezzling approximately $11 million in government funds. He was released early but is back in prison, accused of taking part in mass killings of people in indigenous communities.

On July 26, 1988 — five months after Ana Paniagua’s kidnapping and four months after having “rescued” the white van, Hichos was also dismissed from the Treasury Guard. A year and a half later he ran for Congress in Chiquimula for the Union of the National Center party (Unión del Centro Nacional – UCN). Hichos was elected to seven consecutive terms in Congress. No one ever mentioned his role in the white van affair.

Montenegro said that Hichos denied that role when they both served on the congressional human rights committee in 2000. “I asked him once if he was the same Baudilio Hichos from the Treasury Guard, and he said, ‘No,’ and ‘I’ve got nothing to do with that,” says the former activist, who has served in Congress since 1996.

Impunity for the White Truck Crimes

In July 1988, the arrested Treasury Guards and former Director Díaz Urquizú were put on trial in Guatemala City. During the hearings Judge Julio Aníbal Trejo Duque and his assistant, Carlos Morán Amaya, were kidnapped. Morán’s lifeless body was found two days later and Trejo was set free by his captors. He immediately revoked the substitute judge’s order sending the guards to prison and ordered that they be set free.

Publicly, Judge Trejo denied his abduction had anything to do with the case and said his captors had treated him well. However he told journalist Jean Marie Simon several days later that the kidnappers told him to drop the investigation and that they knew where to find his family.

Relatives of victims of the white van unit took their case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 1991. “The ‘white truck case’ is a paradigmatic example of the gross human rights violations against the life, security, and personal security… of individuals,” the Court concluded in 1994. It demanded that the state of Guatemala investigate, identify, prosecute and punish those responsible, and that the victims be indemnified.

More lives were sacrificed before the court delivered its ruling. On September 11, 1994 one of the survivors who had testified in the 1988 case and his son were murdered. Óscar Vásquez was killed just five days before the international tribunal’s final hearing. His family had previously been the target of a series of attacks.

Although Hichos has never faced charges in connection with the unit’s kidnappings and murders, he was blocked from assuming his seat in Congress in January 2016. The Public Ministry and the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) are investigating Hichos for alleged corruption at the social security agency office in his home state of Chiquimula.

Some 28 years later, the white van case has not been officially closed. But the human rights unit in the Attorney General’s Office has made few advances. Hilda Pineda, the prosecutor in charge of the case, said that it is open and advancing. “I can’t give you many details, but I can tell you that all the witnesses we need have already testified.”

Hichos, Montenegro and Paniagua

For six months, Nómada tried all available means to get in touch with Hichos and his lawyer, Otto René Marroquín. Since the Public Ministry and the CICIG initiated the corruption investigation, Hichos has practically stopped appearing in Congress. No one in either Guatemala City or Chiquimula knows where to find him. Nor did he show up for any of the court hearings for his corruption case. 

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Former human rights activist and current Congresswoman Nineth Montenegro. Photo c/o Nómada

It isn’t easy for Montenegro to relive what she’s been through. At the beginning of our interview, she insisted that she had forgotten a great deal, not because of time, but because her mind had blocked out certain things. She only remembers moments, situations involving Ana Paniagua. She talks about their first meeting, with the other San Carlos students, and her visit to Ana’s house. She also speaks of the asylumn that GAM offered Ana, and their offer to try to get her out of the country. But she doesn’t remember why Ana turned the offer down.

“What would have happened if Ana Panigua had stayed with GAM? I have no idea. Maybe she would still be alive.”

Former activist and Congresswoman Montenegro dwells on the case, the violence of those times, and how parts of Guatemalan society judge history without really knowing it.

“It’s easier to get Guatemalans to agree on economic issues than on issues having to do with human lives,” she said. “They tend to idealize them, and they forget the value of a life. The most striking part of all of this is that Baudilio Hichos shouldn’t just be in prison for laundering money, for being corrupt, but also for being a killer.”

*This article was originally published by Nómada and was translated, edited for clarity, and republished with permission. The photographs are by Carlos Sebastián. See the original in Spanish here.

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