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Guatemala strongman trial hears litany of horrors

Thursday - 4/4/2013, 11:49pm  ET

Guatemala's former dictator Jose Efrain Rios Montt, center wearing headphones, attends his trial on genocide charges in Guatemala City, Monday, April 1, 2013. Rios Montt, the first Latin American strongman to be tried on genocide charges in his own country, seized power in a March 23, 1982, coup, and ruled until he himself was overthrown just over a year later. Prosecutors say that while in power he was aware of, and thus responsible for, the slaughter by subordinates of at least 1,771 Ixil Mayas in San Juan Cotzal, San Gaspar Chajul and Santa Maria Nebaj, towns in the Quiche department of Guatemala's western highlands. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

Associated Press

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) -- A former soldier implicated Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina in civil war atrocities on Thursday during the trial of former U.S.-backed military strongman Efrain Rios Montt, proceedings that have heard witnesses recount a litany of horrors.

Hugo Reyes, a soldier who was a mechanic in an engineering brigade in the area where atrocities were carried out, told the court that Perez Molina, then an army major, ordered soldiers to burn and pillage during Guatemala's dirty war with leftist guerrillas in the 1980s.

"The soldiers, on orders from Major 'Tito Arias,' better known as Otto Perez Molina ... coordinated the burning and looting, in order to later execute people," Reyes told the court by video link.

Perez Molina, who retired as a general, was elected president for the conservative Patriotic Party and assumed office on Jan. 14, 2012.

The secretary general of the presidency, Gustavo Martinez, called the testimony "poorly intentioned declarations and in bad faith." He said the presidency reserves the right to take action against Reyes.

In line with the gruesome testimony that has marked the trial of Rios Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, Reyes described what happened in one massacre in the early 1980s.

"The people who were to be executed arrived at the camp beaten, tortured, their tongues cut out, their fingernails pulled out," he said.

Rios Montt is on trial along with his former head of intelligence in connection with the deaths of 1,771 Mayan Indians during the military dictatorship he led from March 23, 1982 to Aug. 8, 1983, during which he led a U.S.-backed counterinsurgency against guerrillas.

The court also heard testimony from the victims of massacres. Some told the judges about the shelling of villages, beheadings and body parts kicked around like soccer balls.

"I saw them kill an old woman and officers cut off her head," said Julio Velasco Raymundo, 40, who witnessed one massacre as a child. "Those officers played with the old woman's head like it was a soccer ball."

He said he saw soldiers dig trenches with earth-movers, then send children to collect trash, which the troops threw onto the bodies, soaked in gasoline and set afire.

He also told the court he saw the Guatemalan army shelling villages full of civilians.

Velasco said his life was saved by a soldier who carried him away from a massacre even though a higher-ranking officer wanted to kill him.

"I remember a specialist (soldier), a man who, in spite of the war and all the things they did, there were good people," Velasco recalled. "One day the specialist put me in a tractor tire and rolled me away, and that saved my life."

A forensic expert, Mario David Garcia, said the bodies of pregnant women were found among the victims of massacres who were disinterred years later.

The former dictator has remained almost completely silent during the years of proceedings against him, but his lawyers have said there is no clear evidence of his responsibility for the crimes committed by Guatemalan troops.

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