Xuncax v. Gramajo and Ortiz v. Gramajo Historic Case

At a Glance

Case Description 

Xuncax v. Gramajo and Ortiz v. Gramajo are two civil damages suits filed on behalf of Guatemalans, all Kanjobal Indians who were brutalized themselves, lost loved ones, and lived in highland villages demolished by Gramajo’s soldiers. They charge former Defense Minister of Guatemala Hector Gramajo with the murder, torture, and false imprisonment of Guatemalans when he was the chief military commander of seven western provinces of Guatemala in 1982.

Xuncax v. Gramajo 

In Xuncax v. Gramajo, Gramajo was charged with designing, ordering, implementing and directing a program of massacres, murders, disappearances, widespread torture, and arbitrary arrest, known throughout Latin American as “the Guatemala Solution,” when he was chief military commander. Eight of the plaintiffs in this suit represent tens of thousands of indigenous Guatemalans who have been brutally persecuted over the last two decades to discourage opposition movements and to force them to support the military. For example, in July 1982, plaintiff Juan Doe watched as government soldiers tortured and murdered his father and several other men from their village in one of the areas under Gramajo’s command.

The Center for Constituional Rights (CCR) brought this suit under the Filártiga principle in the District Court of Massachusetts while Gramajo was living in Cambridge and attending Harvard University. Gramajo answered the complaint pro se (acting as his own lawyer) but failed to comply with court rules. In August 1991, the district court judge ordered Gramajo to comply; his order was published in La Prensa, the largest circulation Guatemalan daily newspaper.

After his graduation from Harvard, Gramajo returned to Guatemala and continued his refusal to cooperate with the court. The judge thus found him in default, meaning that since Gramajo did not challenge the plaintiffs’ assertions, the court accepts them as true.

CCR then submitted extensive documentation in support of the plaintiffs’ claim for a multi-million dollar award of damages. A hearing on the legal issues was held in November 1992, and supplemental briefs were submitted in March 1993.

Gramajo appeared as a speaker at the Woodrow Wilson Center in October 1993 and was confronted by a CCR cooperating attorney in the audience who demanded that Gramajo appear for a deposition the next day. Gramajo said he would comply, but failed to appear. Instead, the Guatemalan Consulate sent a letter on his behalf stating that he was unavailable.

Ortiz v. Gramajo 

The second suit against Gramajo, Ortiz v. Gramajo, involved Sister Dianna Ortiz, an American nun who was living and teaching literacy and religion to school children in San Miguel Acatan, Guatemala. She charges Gramajo with the responsibility for her abduction, rape, and other torture by military and security personnel.

CCR filed suit on her behalf in June 1991 in the District Court of Massachusetts, seeking compensation for torture and other personal injury and also for defamation stemming from Gramajo’s false public statements that Ortiz’s abduction and torture were the result of a love affair.

Gramajo responded pro se but failed to cooperate with court requests for information. As in Xuncax v. Gramajo, the district court judge ordered Gramajo to comply, the order was published in La Prensa, and the judge found him in default. In June 1992, CCR submitted extensive documentation to support the plaintiff’s demand for a substantial money judgment.

The submissions include an affidavit from 27 international law scholars who state that rape and other sexual abuse constitute torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, and are therefore prohibited by international human rights agreements

A hearing on the legal issues was held in November 1992 and supplemental briefs were submitted in March 1993. On April 12, 1995, a federal district court judge in Massachusetts ordered Gramajo to pay $47.5 million in damages to the plaintiffs in both cases.

The federal court ruled that Gramajo “was aware of and supported widespread acts of brutality committed under his command resulting in thousands of civilian deaths.” Furthermore, the court said that Gramajo “devised” and “directed” an “indiscriminate campaign of terror against civilians.”

A week after the April 1995 judgment, CCR notified Attorney General Janet Reno of the court’s decision, and urged her to deny Gramajo any further entry to the U.S. CCR cited U.S. laws making Gramajo excludable under the Immigration and Nationality Act for engaging in genocide, terrorism, and crimes of moral turpitude. CCR followed this in May 1995 with a similar request to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

In Guatemala, Gramajo indicated he had no intention of paying his victims anything.