Until We Find Him – Translation

Until We Find Him – Translation


[Daniel Alarcón, host]: Ambulantes who speak English and live in the United States, the research team at NPR needs your voice. They want to test how precise the algorithms that convert speech to text are, when they’re used by people with different accents and from different places. I’m talking about voice assistants like Siri or Alexa. For that experiment they’re going to ask you to record fun things, so try not to laugh. If you want to participate go to the link that we’re going to leave in the show’s description. Thanks.

Welcome to Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.

Let’s start here: October 6th, 1981, in a neighborhood called La Florida, Guatemala City. Marco Antonio Molina Theissen, a 14-year-old student, lived there. He was at home with his mom, Doña Emma. And in the afternoon…

[Doña Emma Molina Theissen]: They knocked on the door, and my son went out to open it.

[Daniel]: It was two men in civilian clothes. They entered the house by force. Both of them had guns. One of them grabbed Marco Antonio.

[Doña Emma]: And took me by the arm and wouldn’t let me go.

[Daniel]: They shouted to Marco Antonio to go find a roll of tape. And once he came back…

[Doña Emma]: They handcuffed him to a chair in the living room.

[Daniel]: And they covered his mouth with the tape. Marco Antonio looked pale, in shock.

[Doña Emma]: And they grabbed me and took me from room to room, from bedroom to bedroom in the house.

[Daniel]: They were looking for something or someone.

[Doña Emma]: They pulled out everything they could. They checked drawers. They took a camera, and they found a photo album and took out pictures of Emma.

[Daniel]: Emma was one of Marco Antonio’s three sisters. And after they took the photos…

[Doña Emma]: They hit me and shoved me. They put me in the first bedroom after the living room where they had Marco Antonio. They took Marco Antonio. And then, I managed to pull the door open, and I went out running. They had him in a pickup truck with a bag over his head. 

[Daniel]: One of the men was sitting on Marco Antonio, and the other was on the street. 

[Doña Emma]: And they just put him and the cabin and drove off. The car was already started. And even though I shouted, no…

[Daniel]: No one in the street answered her cries for help.

[Doña Emma]: I was left not knowing what to think. I didn’t know what to do. I never imagined, never, I never imagined barbarity like that.

[Daniel]: And that was the last time doña Emma saw her son. For nearly four decades, the Molina Theissen family has tried to discover Marco Antonio’s whereabouts. A painful and extenuating search. A search that represents a violent, dirty war that destroyed the lives of thousands of families in Guatemala.

Our editor Luis Fernando tells us the story.

[Luis Fernando Vargas]: We’ll get back to the search for Marco Antonio a little later. For now, I want you to understand why he was kidnapped. And the key is the pictures of Emma that the men took with him. They were looking for her. Later the family would realize that they were agents of the Guatemalan army.

In 1981, the year they kidnapped Marco Antonio, Emma had just turned 21 and she was a militant in the youth division of the Guatemalan Labor Party —or PGT— in Quetzaltenango, a city about three and a half hours from the capital. She was in charge of organizing meetings among the militants and serving as a representative of the city at important meetings for the youth of the party. 

PGT was one of the various leftist groups that were active in Guatemala during the ‘70s. They were encouraged by the Cuban Revolution, which had happened a little more than a decade prior. They felt that communism was the fairer option, a tangible option, especially because of the leftist movements that were occurring in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

And, of course, that climate attracted a lot of Guatemalan youths who were disenchanted by the rightwing military governments, the coups d’état, the great inequality that existed —that still exists— in the country.

Emma wanted to join one of these groups since she was very young. In her home, social injustices were a recurring topic of conversation. This is Emma.

[Emma]: We —my sisters and Marco Antonio and even my mom— heard my dad talk about it almost every day. He was always very worried about poor people, the poorest people, from the places where he worked.

[Luis Fernando]: Emma’s dad, who died in 1994, was an accountant and was fired from several companies because of his struggles to improve working conditions for the employees.

[Emma]: Really, he suffered thinking… and he even got insomnia thinking about what a family like that was going to do, what is some so-and-so going to do, what is some woman with the financial troubles that… that they had going to do? So, well, on one hand, that made us rather sensitive to… to the needs of the people who were most in need.

[Luis Fernando]: Emma’s older sister, Ana Lucrecia, had joined the guerilla group Rebel Armed Forces, one of the leftist groups that was in the country in 1974, and Emma did the same when she was barely in high school. 

Both told me that while they were in the guerilla group, they never participated in any violence or terrorist acts. Their militancy consisted of going to meetings, discussing the situation in the country, presenting possible solutions to problems the country was facing, and discussing actions the group could take to grow.

But Emma did confess to me that once she had a gun in her possession. It was while she was distributing fliers in a community, and she ended up arrested under the charge of “subversion.” She told me that they gave them to people in the Rebel Armed Forces for their safety, even though she never used it.

In any case, Emma and Ana Lucrecia didn’t last long in the Rebel Armed Forces. By 1977 —for years before Marco Antonio’s kidnapping— they had already left the organization and had enlisted in the Guatemalan Party of Labor, which had the same ideals about social justice.

At the time, Fernando Romeo Lucas García was the president of Guatemala. He was a right-wing military leader.

[Emma]: Who took orders from a greedy, unjust, discriminatory, racist, and terribly classist business group.

[Luis Fernando]: This is the Chief of Staff of the Army, Benedicto Lucas García, the president’s brother, in an interview he gave in 1982.


[Benedicto Lucas García]: You know that here the… the extreme right is very strong, it’s too strong. And it’s hard to compete with it to get a government that’s center-left or… or centrist, right?

[Luis Fernando]: To them, the left was trying to destabilize the country.


[Benedicto Lucas García]: We need to improve our economy, improve our agriculture. But that is precisely the core objective that the subversives have been attacking, to uh… disrupt the economy and make it seem to the outside that we’re in a chaotic situation.

[Luis Fernando]: And with that justification, they had been carrying out a very strong regimen of repression. For example, two years earlier, on July 14th, 1980…

[Emma]: There’s a brutal attack against the country’s university, the only public university in the country.

[Luis Fernando]: The University of San Carlos. Government security forces entered the campus and opened fire on students and officials who were inside the university.

[Emma]: A lot of professors died. The student leaders were either killed or disappeared.

[Luis Fernando]: That same year, Emma’s boyfriend, Julio César del Valle, was also killed. He was a leader of the leftist student movement. And well, that changed everything. In addition to being very painful for her, it scared her a lot. Before she didn’t believe that death could come. She was very young. But now it felt very close.

And to make matters worse, after Emma’s boyfriend’s death, disappearance and killings became everyday events. The PGT was aware of this, and to protect Emma, they took her out of Guatemala City and sent her to live in Quetzaltenango. There she was in charge of coordinating members of the youth division of the party in the city. The party also put in place security measures, things like…

[Emma]: Putting in colochos.

[Luis Fernando]: Colochos, or curls. To change her appearance.

[Emma]: Not walking down the same streets.

[Luis Fernando]: Emma even had a fake ID, but…

[Emma]: I was still living in the same place, doing basically the same things. So, they were very… very childish security measures.

[Luis Fernando]: Which, of course, didn’t protect them from much. Several people decided to leave the country, and PGT started losing members.

[Emma]: In other words, people started to say: “OK, they’re going to kill us, and we aren’t prepared. Besides, we’re just meeting and talking and thinking. We aren’t doing anything. And then they’re going to kill us for doing nothing.”

[Luis Fernando]: PGT was weakened considerably. Emma was trying to keep the party’s presence afloat in Quetzaltenango —getting people together, coordinating meetings, recruiting new members— when they captured her.

It was on September 27th, 1981, Emma was taking a bus from Guatemala City to Quetzaltenango. She took this trip regularly for party meetings. She always left early in the morning to avoid the military blockades that were common by then. But she slept in. And, of course, she ran into a blockade.

And that day, Emma… 

[Emma]: I was carrying a very important document, which was the base document for the discussion of whether or not the party was going to take up armed conflict.

[Luis Fernando]: Something very compromising. When they got to the blockade, soldiers stopped the bus.

[Emma]: I was wearing a… a kind of… a kind of sweater, but made of wool, and a pair of jeans, and a blouse. So I put the documents in the sweater, which was a little big on me. Then I got off and got in line. And a really strange thing, because they never did that, they checked our clothes, even the women. And when I see that, I… I st.. I start to panic, and I say, “They’re going to find it on me.”

[Luis Fernando]: They searched her, found the documents, and arrested her. The bus left with the other passengers.

[Emma]: When the bus left, I felt like my soul… like it was draining out of me and leaving my body. I mean, I said, “Now, it’s certain.”

[Luis Fernando]: At that time, as you can imagine, if you were a militant leftist, being detained by the military meant death.

The soldiers took Emma to a military base. She didn’t know where it was because she was blindfolded the whole way. As soon as they arrived, they put her in a dark room.

[Emma]: It was a three meter by four meter room, like 12 square meters. There were two bunks. The two bunks didn’t have any bedding. The rooms had been unoccupied. In other words, no… no one… no one slept there. And the room had a door with a padlock, and it had a window that had paper on the inside, newspaper, stuck to it. 

[Luis Fernando]: The soldiers interrogated Emma. They wanted her to give the names of other militants in the party. But she kept up a fake story…

[Emma]: That I was a courier, that I wasn’t really a militant, but I was just a courier. That carried documents, that they paid me for that, that I came from a poor family with an alcoholic father who left us to fend for ourselves, and so I had to do these things so they would pay me. I tried to give myself the lowest possible level and also the least political motive there was: “They pay me to deliver and bring back money. And they… they pay me to take and bring back messages.” 

[Luis Fernando]: Emma doesn’t remember exactly when it happened, but the soldiers showed her a file with her picture, her real name, and her family’s address. The military had that information because she had been arrested five years earlier when she was distributing fliers, and Emma had been carrying a weapon. 

Still, Emma stuck to her story of just being a courier, despite being subjected to torture and individual and group rapes. As days went by, she started to feel like she wouldn’t be able to take much more.

[Emma]: You know they’re going to kill you. That’s indisputable. What you try to do is protect the organization as much as you can. I thought that at some point, because of the torture, I was going to talk and what I was trying to do was hold out as long as I could.

[Luis Fernando]: On the fifth day, they offered her a deal to let her go: she was to make a public statement against the movement, to discourage the other militants and further weaken the party. But there was a catch. They told her:

[Emma]: “You have to turn over all of them, you know, because if not, they’ll retaliate against you. So, we’re doing it to protect you, understand?” And I told them yes. I accepted. Because I thought at that time: if they take me out to turn people over, someone’s going to see me.

[Luis Fernando]: The soldiers’ plan was to take her around Quetzaltenango so Emma could recognize members of the party who were walking down the street and they could capture them. Two days later, the soldiers had Emma bathe and put on clean clothes. It was the first time she had left that room in six days.

[Emma]: They put me in handcuffs and put me in a car where there were, maybe, six or eight guys, armed to the teeth, surrounding me, in a military vehicle.

[Luis Fernando]: They didn’t blindfold her, and that was when she realized that she was at the military base in Quetzaltenango. They drove downtown and started combing the streets of the city in the car.

[Emma]: On that route, we passed in front of a gas station where there was another party member who was my partner, and he sees me. And then they take me to… to a place that’s by the University Center, and another fellow member sees me.

[Luis Fernando]: Emma tried to keep a neutral expression.

[Emma]: What I did was try to make it so my face didn’t give anything away, so I saw them without seeing them because I needed them to see me, but nothing in my face let on that I knew them.

[Luis Fernando]: And also, to try to communicate to them that she wasn’t turning them over. Hours later they returned to the base. Emma told the soldiers that she didn’t recognize anyone.

[Emma]: “No, I didn’t see anything. I didn’t see anyone.” And the guys were furious.

[Luis Fernando]: They took her to a new room and put her in chains. But something changed.

[Emma]: That night they didn’t come. That night they didn’t interrogate me. They didn’t torture me. They didn’t rape me.

[Luis Fernando]: After days of being raped and tortured daily, complete silence. And then nothing the next day. Nothing.

[Emma]: And I… I… I started to worry that they weren’t coming. Because obviously a change in those circumstances could mean that they had already decided they were going to kill you or at any moment they were going to take you out and shoot you and they’re going to kill you. Or they’re going to take you to another place where they’re going to torture you more. So, any change had to be worse.

[Luis Fernando]: What she was most afraid of was being sent to Guatemala City. She thought that the torture there would be crueler, that she would suffer much more there before they killed her. Because the military center of operations was in the capital, with the real interrogators and torturers. And facing that possibility, on the ninth day… 

[Emma]: I went into a kind of state of madness. And in that state of madness, I managed to get out of my shackles.

[Luis Fernando]: She tried to go out the door, but it was still padlocked. So, she tore off the newspaper that covered the window and saw that there were no bars. She could open it. 

She went out the window into a hallway. She hadn’t eaten or had water since they captured her. She was very weak. She walked toward a room, and some of the guards saw her. But strangely, they didn’t say anything to her. Maybe because she was well dressed. Remember, the soldiers had given her clothes and permission to bathe a few days earlier.

She managed to make it to the entry gate. There was just one guard between her and the street. She took a deep breath and walked, trying to hide her pain and fear. The guard stopped her and said:

[Emma]: “Where are you going.” And I said, “Out. To the street.” “And… and who told you… who gave you permission to leave?” “The canche guy with the crew cut inside,” she said.

[Luis Fernando]: Canche, or blond. One of the men who interrogated Emma was blond.

[Emma]: That guy surely was in charge, or had some high rank. I suppose I’ve always supposed that the guy thought I was some whore that the guy had brought in or…. And he let me go. 

[Luis Fernando]: Her legs barely responded. As best she could, she walked to a nearby park and took a taxi to her boyfriend’s sister’s house.

[Emma]: She said, “Take off those clothes,” she said. She gave me other clothes to wear. She cut my hair. I took a bath, and when I got out, I looked in the mirror and said, “I’m alive. I made it out. I made it out of there.”

[Luis Fernando]: After being locked up for nine days. It was being able to breathe again, a triumph. 

To hide her, her boyfriend’s sister took her to another party member’s house. The next morning they called Emma’s sister, Ana Lucrecia.

[Ana Lucrecia Molina Theissen]: It seemed incredible. It seemed… like touching the sky with my hands 

[Luis Fernando]: Ana Lucrecia had started looking for her sister in hospitals and morgues as soon as she was captured because Emma’s boyfriend had called her when she didn’t come home nine days earlier. It was almost an instinctual reaction to take her for dead. That’s why this news was completely unexpected, almost impossible. Emma was alive and safe.

[Ana Lucrecia]: She returned from certain death. So, it was practically like conquering death itself.

[Luis Fernando]: Right after getting the news, Ana Lucrecia went to her parents’ house to tell them that Emma was OK. When she got to the house, her dad wasn’t there. It was just her mom and Marco Antonio. Their first reaction was like Lucrecia’s: relief and also amazement that she had managed to escape.

[Ana Lucrecia]: Marco Antonio was really happy and said, “Qué buza Emma.” 

[Luis Fernando]: Buza, or smart, clever.

[Ana Lucrecia]: Because she was able to escape from… from wherever she was. We didn’t know exactly where… where they had kept her at the time.

But the satisfaction and joy that the family was whole again didn’t last long.

[Luis Fernando]: Less than an hour after Ana Lucrecia left the house, after getting the good news, they knocked on the door. That was when they kidnapped Marco Antonio.

The family put the pieces together rather quickly. The men had to be from the Guatemalan military, and they were looking for Emma. And since they didn’t find her, they took her brother.

Marco Antonio Molina Theissen, the youngest of three children. His family remembers him as a normal, noble teenager, like any other.

[Ana Lucrecia]: He was a smart, restless boy who liked riding his bike with his friends. He liked to study. He liked to draw.

[Emma]: He drew monsters and superheroes and historical figures, but he drew caricatures of them.

[Luis Fernando]: He dreamt of being an architect or engineer. He was a fan of Star Wars and comics.

[Emma]: He hadn’t started puberty, all those issues, about girls… he still wasn’t in that. And very smiley, quiet, he didn’t fight, he wasn’t… he wasn’t an imposing person, he didn’t talk back, he… he didn’t sass.

[Luis Fernando]: He was spoiled.

[Ana Lucrecia]: A family of girls and all of a sudden, a baby comes, and he’s a boy, and he’s a joy for my dad, for my mom, and for us. I was 11 when he was born, so, I was a girl who had a flesh and blood doll. I helped take care of him, protect him. I gave him absolutely everything he asked me for. He was the symbol of love in my life.

[Luis Fernando]: Ana Lucrecia heard the news about Marco Antonio’s kidnapping a few hours later when she met up with her cousin, who had been helping her look for Emma. Ana Lucrecia’s dad had her cousin tell her the news because his daughter didn’t have a phone. Ana Lucrecia couldn’t believe it. Kidnappings happened at night, before dawn, not in broad daylight.

[Ana Lucrecia]: What I felt was… that I was going to die. I always think that was the moment I first died. I mean , they simply destroyed me as a human being.

[Luis Fernando]: The first thing she thought was that Marco Antonio was dead.

[Ana Lucrecia]: He wasn’t worth anything to them. He couldn’t give them any information. Uh, they weren’t negotiating. They weren’t offering any deal. It felt like retaliation, like a punishment.

[Luis Fernando]: At that time, the Molina Theissen family’s world was reduced to two options, two opposing possibilities. Either to stay silent, not doing anything and let the loss of Marco Antonio level them. Or to look for him, despite everything, no matter what could happen, no matter what they might find. 

The Molina Theissens decided to keep going. To look for Marco Antonio. But they made a difficult decision, perhaps one of the most difficult decisions of their lives: they didn’t tell Emma anything about what had happened. She was hiding in Quetzaltenango, while the party was planning her departure from the country to Mexico. She was completely disconnected from her family to protect everyone. She had no way of knowing. So the reasoning was…

[Ana Lucrecia]: If Emma found out that they detained and disappeared Marco Antonio, she would go and turn herself in so they would give him back.

[Luis Fernando]: And who guaranteed that would actually happen, that they would give him back?

[Ana Lucrecia]: I mean, you aren’t facing an honorable enemy, not at in any sense. There was no room for any agreement of any kind, and the decision was: “We have to protect her.”

[Luis Fernando]: Immediately after they kidnapped Marco Antonio, doña Emma and her husband went to the Supreme Court of Justice.

[María Eugenia Molina Theissen]: They filed two remedies for amparo, but of course, they were unsuccessful.

[Luis Fernando]: This is María Eugenia, Marco Antonio’s other sister. María Eugenia was never involved in politics, but her husband did belong to the Guatemalan Labor Party, the party her sisters served in, Ana Lucrecia and Emma, and he was close to them. She remembers that her parents…

[María Eugenia]: Went to the place where they told them there may be someone who could help them.

[Doña Emma]: We always tried to look for someone who was a direct authority in military and political affairs. Thinking they had done this and they had to answer for it.

[Luis Fernando]: They went to the director of the National Police, and he…

[María Eugenia]: Told us, completely brazenly, that surely the guerillas had taken him, that was the answer they gave.

[Doña Emma]: We even tried to speak with the president at the time. We sent a telegram for him to meet with us. Then they told us we should go to the Ministry of the Interior. And they never met with us.

[Luis Fernando]: They went to hospitals. They even went to Quetzaltenango, to the base where Emma was held.

[Doña Emma]: And they told us: “If the military has him, the military will return him to you.”

[Luis Fernando]: But despite looking and looking. Nothing. There was no news about Marco Antonio.

Fatigue and pain started to break everyone in the family, especially Marco Antonio’s parents. Doña Emma was a teacher, and she had to quit her job.

[Doña Emma]: I couldn’t handle it because there were all those little kids who knew my son. I would start to cry there.

[Luis Fernando]: Her husband had an accounting office, and with that, they were able to stay afloat, but they spend most of their time looking for their son. Even though it was just going out to the street, hoping to find him walking by or for someone to say something, as unreal as that seems. Losing Marco Antonio was too much for him.

[Doña Emma]: He… he never said anything. He never externalized his feelings, by talking. He didn’t sleep very much, and sometimes he would start… being violent, to shout.

[Luis Fernando]: That was how he got his emotions out. And even though they spent their days looking for Marco Antonio, doña Emma and her husband never talked about how they felt.

[María Eugenia]: It starts that chain of… of many years of silence between us. It was very rare for us to… to be able to talk about that.

[Luis Fernando]: And the silence started to come between them.

[María Eugenia]: My dad and my mom weren’t just full of pain, but also guilt.

[Luis Fernando]: Guilt for not having been able to do more to protect their children. An irrational feeling of guilt, of course, Emma and Ana Lucrecia were adults by then, and they could never have prevented what happened to Marco Antonio. 

And well, of course, Ana Lucrecia also felt a lot of pain when she lost Marco Antonio. For the first few days after the kidnapping…

[Ana Lucrecia]: For me, it was impossible to be awake. It’s like being stabbed with a thousand knives at once. I think that would be less painful.

[Luis Fernando]: Between April and May of 1982, the family made an important decision: they decided to make the case public. Just two months earlier, military leader, Efraín Ríos Montt had carried a coup d’état against Fernando Romeo Lucas García. 

And even though Ríos Montt was also a right-wing military leader, not very different from the former president, they decided it was worth it to try to get his attention. So they put a few ads in the newspaper to ask the government to return Marco Antonio alive.

The ads didn’t bring about any change. What could happen was that rumors about the ads could make it to Emma, who was in Mexico by that point. That’s why the family decided it was time to tell her. They asked a friend of hers, who was in Mexico, to do it.

[Emma]: I remember that a friend called me and told me he needed to tell me something and that it had something to do with my family. And I thought about Lucrecia. I said, “Something must have happened to Lucrecia.” Because that was… let’s say, the most logical consequence of our participation, right?

[Luis Fernando]: Her friend took her to a small restaurant and told her the news. And well, to say it was devastating is an understatement.

[Emma]: I kept crying and crying and crying, and I was in a state of… of… of such a tremendous state of hopelessness.

[Luis Fernando]: And not just because of what happened to her brother, but also…

[Emma]: Up to that moment, everything I had experienced had a counterweight, which was my success in escaping. It was an accomplishment. It was a victory. All of that came undone. Everything that was holding me up emotionally against the torture, against the terror, against the sexual violence was torn apart. And what had been my accomplishment became my worst mistake. 

[Daniel]: We’ll be back after the break.

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[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante, I’m Daniel Alarcón. Before the break, we heard how Emma finally learned about the disappearance of her younger brother, Marco Antonio, and the effect it had on her. Her guilt was, well, nearly unmanageable.

[Emma]: I wanted to turn myself in. I wanted to kill myself. I wanted… I had no idea what to do. So, I started thinking about how to turn myself in. I even went and stood in front of the Guatemalan Embassy in Mexico City, thinking, “What do I do? Do I turn myself in, or don’t I?” I mean, that kind of… of… of craziness took control of me. 

[Daniel]: Emma decided not to turn herself in, since it wouldn’t guarantee that they would give Marco Antonio back. What was clear to her is that politics didn’t make sense to her anymore.

[Emma]: While I wasn’t aware of what had happened to Marco Antonio, I was still planning on going back to Guatemala. In other words, I wanted to continue fighting and being part of the resistance, uh, in Guatemala. But by that point, I said, “It wasn’t worth it. It wasn’t worth it.” It’s not that what I was doing wasn’t right, wasn’t just. It was. It was, but it had such a high human cost.

[Daniel]: There were already too many lives harmed. So, she decided to distance herself, little by little, from the Guatemalan Labor Party, the organization she had dedicated almost her whole life to in recent years.

Luis Fernando continues the story.

[Luis Fernando]: The Molina Theissen family’s traumas didn’t end with Marco Antonio. They would spend two and a half years in uncertainty, pain, and anxiety until one day in February of 1984, Héctor —Maria Eugenia’s husband— left their house on foot.

It was about five in the afternoon. He told María Eugenio that he would be back that night. Around six, a neighbor came to tell María Eugenia that she had seen Héctor’s car being stolen. It was in the parking lot for the apartment building where they all lived.

[María Eugenia]: I tried to… to write off the incident saying, “It’s probably a normal crime.”

[Luis Fernando]: But seven, eight, nine, ten at night came, and Héctor didn’t show up. At three in the morning, María Eugenia started to fear that something had happened to her husband. In the morning, Ana Lucrecia arrived at her house.

[María Eugenia]: And she said, “Do you know where Héctor is?” So, I told her what had happened the day before. And she said, “A picture of the car was in the newspaper El Gráfico, you could see the plate, with a body.”

[Luis Fernando]: It was Héctor’s body. Ana Lucrecia immediately told María Eugenia…

[María Eugenia]: “We have to get out of here.” There was no grief. There was no time to grieve, no time for tears.

[Luis Fernando]: María Eugenia grabbed what she could —clothes, a few toys for her daughters— and they went to her in-laws’ house. There they had to tell them the news.

[María Eugenia]: I think that their pain… was so great that they unloaded a lot of anger on me. I felt blamed for his death. Be— because as a wife, I wasn’t against him continuing his political involvement. 

[Luis Fernando]: For protection, María Eugenia’s parents also took refuge in the in-laws’ house. But by that point…

[Ana Lucrecia]: There was already a decision from party leadership that all… everyone affiliated had to leave the region.

[Luis Fernando]: Under the Ríos Montt government, repression continued to be as violent as under Fernando Romeo Lucas García. Worse even. This is Ríos Montt on March 23rd, 1982, the day of the coup against President Romeo García.


[Efraín Ríos Montt]: Whoever bears arms against the institution of arms must be executed. Executed and not murdered.

[Ana Lucrecia]: It was a context of absolute persecution. Total isolation. They had closed all of the spaces for open political participation.

[Luis Fernando]: The justification of the Guatemalan State was always to avoid an armed revolution, like the one that had taken place in Cuba in 1959.


[Efraín Ríos Montt]: The fact of the matter is that we are at war. And in a war, what really happens is that one must impose their will on another. On the enemy.

[Ana Lucrecia]: They started to detain people and kill them in the streets, almost on a daily basis. People lived on the edge of danger, day in and day out.

[Luis Fernando]: In other words, there was no other option. They had to leave the country. But there was a problem: the people in the party…

[Ana Lucrecia]: They didn’t give you the means; they didn’t have them. They didn’t have a cent to relocate people.

[Luis Fernando]: So they came up with a plan: look for an embassy, go in —so the Guatemalan military couldn’t touch them— and ask for political asylum.

By 1984, most of the embassies were patrolled by a large number of police. This, because a labor unionist who was captured and tortured like Emma had managed to take shelter in the Belgian headquarters.

They tried at the Vatican Embassy, but it was impossible to get in because of security. One of the embassies with less protection was Ecuador’s. On top of that, it had a democratic government. It was a good option. On March 23rd, 1984, after nearly a month of hiding in a house, Héctor’s family and the Molina Theissens left for the embassy. But without Ana Lucrecia, who had already planned her departure for Mexico.

[María Eugenia]: We got to the door of the embassy. Uh, I remember so well that the embassy’s secretary op… didn’t open the door, but instead, she started out asking me through the glass what we wanted or what I want. Because I think she was only able to see me with my eldest daughter. 

[Luis Fernando]: María Eugenia told her that she wanted to know about tourist visas in Ecuador.

[María Eugenia]: So she turns around and… but since it seemed rude to her to leave me with the door closed, she comes back and takes the key to the door and goes to her desk to bring the pamphlets. And we all took the opportunity to go in, and we closed the door.

[Luis Fernando]: And when the secretary returned…

[María Eugenia]: She’s surprised to see eight people. And then… “Well, how can I help you,” she asks. Then I said, “We want asylum in Ecuador.”

[Luis Fernando]: They hid in the Ecuadorian Embassy. They didn’t leave for fear of being captured. The issue didn’t make it to the media. Everything was silent. About a week later they took a plane to their new country.

Ana Lucrecia left a few days later for Mexico. And the search for Marco Antonio was on hold for several years: they couldn’t pressure the police anymore, go out on the street to look for him or look for information about his whereabouts. All of that had to be done in Guatemala.

Emma and Ana Lucrecia started from zero in Mexico. The party got them apartments. They paid the rent. They both had normal jobs. For the first time in many years, they felt like they were living a life like any normal person.

But they didn’t talk about what had happened to Emma or about Marco Antonio’s kidnapping. It was too painful. Only once did Emma tell Ana Lucrecia what she had experienced at the military base. She told her because she was helping her apply for a scholarship that an NGO was offering to study in Costa Rica. It was a scholarship that was awarded for humanitarian reasons, to people at risk, and she had to send in her life story as justification.

[Ana Lucrecia]: Emma told me: “Write this down, and hopefully you’ll remember it because this is the only time I’m going to talk about this with you.” And dictated to me everything that had happened. Without crossing a word between us, I started writing what she was saying. She signed it, and that was the end of the matter.

[Luis Fernando]: Ana Lucrecia couldn’t even react.

[Ana Lucrecia]: There are things that… that are so big they just surround you, they don’t penetrate you because you’d die.

[Luis Fernando]: Her response was silence.

In 1985, Emma won the scholarship and went to study information science in Costa Rica. Ana Lucrecia followed her a little later and managed to get her parents to move too. The plan was that all of them would be in a country that was more like Guatemala, their home. The last one to arrive was María Eugenia, in 1990. The family was finally reunited, but their ties had been cut. This is Ana Lucrecia.

[Ana Lucrecia]: We were a family torn apart, and each of us felt a stifling pain. Suffering is the total opposite of having the ability to feel or express love. It doesn’t make you want to be near people, or celebrate, or embrace, or show care.

[Luis Fernando]: For María Eugenia…

[María Eugenia]: For many years we didn’t talk about the… the pain we each felt.

[Emma]: It feels terrible. It was obviously the… the absence of Marco Antonio. It was the moment we could see each other the least. Or rather, it hurt too much to see each other. Uh, we were together for a while at Christmas, New Year’s, but in general, at least I really avoided being with them. I felt very sad, I felt very guilty. I couldn’t even imagine what was happening with my parents, especially: one Christmas, another Christmas, another Christmas.

[Luis Fernando]: Emma’s dad died still hoping to find his son again. But, little by little, the others were coming to accept that Marco Antonio wasn’t coming back.

But accepting grief without seeking justice was something that Ana Lucrecia wasn’t ready to do. She felt like she owed it to her brother. In 1998, 17 years after Marco Antonio’s disappearance, the case hadn’t gotten anywhere in Guatemala. So Ana Lucrecia turned to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The family sued the Guatemalan State for Marco Antonio’s forced disappearance at the hands of the military, as well as for the lack of an investigation and punishment of those responsible. His mom and María Eugenia supported Ana Lucrecia, but to Emma…

[Emma]: The idea of justice for me was impossible. I couldn’t seek justice because I didn’t deserve it. Because I was the reason that Marco Antonio was disappeared and, certainly, killed. 

[Luis Fernando]: The problem was that Emma’s testimony was essential for proving that Marco Antonio was kidnapped as a form of retaliation. Without that testimony, the case lost a lot of its strength. And Emma didn’t feel ready to speak.

[Emma]: I supposed they were going to make me tell them everything that happened in full detail, and I would die of shame. I would die of… pain, terror. I… I thought I wasn’t going to survive.

[Luis Fernando]: Emma had only spoken in detail about what had happened at the military base two times: when Ana Lucrecia helped her with the scholarship and once with her psychologist. Now they were asking her to speak in front of a bunch of strangers.

But by that point, there was a ruling against the State of Honduras for forced disappearance; in other words, there was precedent that showed that it was possible to win the trial and perhaps move Marco Antonio’s case within the Guatemalan justice system.

On the other hand, it was her family that was asking her, and despite the distance between all of them, she felt like she owed it to them. So, in 2004, when the trial was finally held, Emma asked to testify in closed chambers, without her family or anyone she knew. Just her and the judges.

[Emma]: I did it against my will, out of solidarity. I did it for Marco Antonio. I didn’t do it for me. I was angry that they were going to ask me about the things that had happened to me. I was very angry. And most of all, I didn’t believe it was going… that it would come to anything. It was very painful. It was very upsetting.

[Luis Fernando]: In the end, to Emma’s surprise, the Court ruled in the family’s favor. They held the State responsible for Marco Antonio’s disappearance and ordered a series of reparations. The most important was that the State had to locate Marco Antonio’s remains and hand them over to the family. And that they had to identify and punish the people who orchestrated his forced disappearance. The trial was no small affair, because… 

[Emma]: Marco Antonio’s case becomes very emblematic and very important because of the amount of evidence they managed to gather around it.

[Luis Fernando]: Evidence like testimonies from other victims of forced disappearance, expert reports about the situation in Guatemala. But there was one key piece of evidence: Emma.

[Emma]: In other words, having the precedent that they have with me and having my testimony saying, “Yes, this happened: I escaped and a few hours later —it wasn’t even a day— hours after I escaped, they kidnapped him.” That is a clear and convincing charge against the State.

[Luis Fernando]: The case and the ruling weren’t just a great step forward in the search for Marco Antonio, but it also helped open a discussion about the fact that the military had a systematic practice of forced disappearance. And there are thousands of cases like Marco Antonio’s.

The Historical Clarification Commission of Guatemala estimates that between 1981 and 1983 there are more than 42,000 recorded cases of deaths and forced disappearances at the hands of the military. And that number is only recorded cases. A lot of families were afraid to speak. The Commission says that the real number could be more than 200,000 victims.

Now with that sentence from the Inter-American Court, the family was armed with the courage to hold the Guatemalan justice system accountable. They wanted it to be a strong case against the military. And between 2004 and 2015 they spent their time collecting evidence.

[Emma]: We presented 170 pieces of evidence. It was a… very long collection process. It was going to look for people at their homes, convincing them to testify, asking an expert to talk about this or that thing.

[Luis Fernando]: Ana Lucrecia was the most involved in the whole process.

[Ana Lucrecia]: I went to Guatemala to do what I call judicial tourism. I wasn’t going to stroll around. No. I went to the Public Ministry, the Human Rights Procurator, to talk to potential experts, to procure expert opinions. 

[Luis Fernando]: In 2015, the family brought the case before the Attorney General’s Office, and the Public Ministry became involved in the evidence collection. And finally, on January 6th, 2016 —after 10 years of investigations— the National Police arrested four people… 

[Ana Lucrecia]: General Manuel Callejas, who was the director of intelligence for the General Staff of the Army. Colonel Luis Gordillo Martínez, who was the commander of the military headquarters in Quetzaltenango where Emma was detained. 

[Luis Fernando]: The sub-commander of that base, Edilberto Letona Linares, and Colonel Hugo Ramiro Saldaña, the intelligence officer at the base in Quetzaltenango. That last one was the man who interrogated and tortured Emma, and he was one of the men who kidnapped Marco Antonio. Emma and her mom identified him after they captured him. 

Then the arrested Manuel Benedicto Lucas García. Let’s remember him.


[Benedicto Lucas García]: You know that here the… the extreme right is very strong, it’s too strong.

[Luis Fernando]: He was the brother of the president at the time and the Chief of Staff of the Army when Marco Antonio was kidnapped. He was accused of being intellectually responsible for the practice of forced disappearance by the military.

Now, there was another trial on the way,  this one inside the Guatemalan justice system, to indict the captured military officers.

Emma was at her job when she got a message from her current husband. It said that they’d captured the men who had kidnapped her and the men responsible for Marco Antonio’s disappearance. When she read the message, Emma…

[Emma]: I was filled with terror. I thought they were going to call me. I thought I would have to see them. I thought they were going to kill me, that they still had that power. 

[Luis Fernando]: The upcoming trial was going to be harder than the one they experienced at the Inter-American Court on Human Rights. Harder because they would be face to face with those four military officers. They weren’t abstract, anonymous men anymore. They were flesh and blood people. Emma felt a terror she didn’t have before the Inter-American Court.

[Emma]: Terror is an exaggeration of fear, but it’s an exaggeration that is based on the fact the people that have harmed you have extraordinary power. And terror is thinking that someone has some much power that with a glance or with a gesture they can destroy you and that the damage isn’t over. That they can still harm you and it could even be great harm. 

[Luis Fernando]: But Emma’s testimony, again, was vital. The opportunity for there to be justice for Marco Antonio depended in large part on her speaking. So, Emma, who had remained silent, decided to face her greatest fear.

Emma spent two months preparing herself: she wrote everything down and practiced countless times. She knew exactly what to say and how she wanted to say it. And on May 10th, 2018, the trial started.

[Emma]: I didn’t sleep, obviously, the night before. I was super stressed. I was very afraid. I thought… I thought I was going to panic in the courtroom. And we’re talking about a room that’s maybe the size of this room. I mean, about 18 or 25 square meters. Everything was very close.

[Luis Fernando]: The defendants were there, 37 years after those 10 days that changed the Molina Theissen family’s life.

[Emma]: And I saw them, and I started to feel very strong, and I tried to look at their faces, but they wouldn’t face me. And I started to realize they couldn’t hurt me anymore. And that was the most freeing moment of my life. Because, not only were they people just like me —they weren’t the super-powerful people I had in my head— but, they were in a jail cell. They were in a cage in handcuffs. At that moment, they were ones who were in a state of submission. And I wasn’t. I had the power to raise my voice and point at them and say: “It was them.” And that was absolutely freeing.

[Luis Fernando]: Emma gave her statement on May 21st.

[Emma]: My statement, more than words, was a roar. It was like taking everything and leaving it there in the courtroom and leaving clean. Free. Finally, I could free myself of my guilt. I could free myself of shame. Justice is healing. That’s why it’s important. Because it heals people. Because it repairs them. Because it dignifies their truth.

[Luis Fernando]: Speaking in that courtroom was reconciling with the truth. The truth that she and Marco Antonio were victims of an unjust, unjustified, violent, genocidal war. That the guilt she carried belonged to the accused and not her.

After more than 13 hours of deliberation —an extremely long time, which started to worry the Molina Theissen family— the sentence against the four soldiers was given around four in the morning on May 23rd, 2018.


[Judge]: With sufficient proof presented and analyzed, the Court finds that the accused in this case were always conscious of what they were doing. They intentionally disregarded basic guarantees…

[Luis Fernando]: Four of the five accused were found guilty. The crimes included kidnapping, torture, and the aggravated rape of Emma, and the forced disappearance of Marco Antonio. Three were sentenced to 58 years in prison and one to 33. The first defendant went free because they weren’t able to determine that he was involved in the events. 

I tried to contact these sentenced soldiers. I managed to get in contact with lawyers for three of them, but despite calls and messages, I was only able to speak with Francisco Luis Gordillo, the commander of the military base where Emma was detained.

Gordillo, who was 80 by this point and sentenced to 33 years in prison, agreed to give me a short interview. He told me the sentence…

[Francisco Luis Gordillo]: Is aberrant, illegal, unjust, politicized, ideological.

[Luis Fernando]: He also told me that Emma is lying when it comes to rape and torture. That there are no signs of physical abuse and that, as such, it can’t be proven.

[Francisco Luis Gordillo]: Rape is also a crime that needs to be proven scientifically, and there’s nothing scientific things here.

[Luis Fernando]: That Emma’s testimony on its own isn’t enough.

[Francisco Luis Gordillo]: At the end of the sentence, it says that the plaintiff’s statement is enough to condemn someone. Mother of God, how can that be? That it’s enough for a person to say something to condemn another without any greater evidence.

[Luis Fernando]: He says he’s innocent.

[Francisco Luis Gordillo]: What they accuse me of is aggravated rape, because according to that person’s version, she was raped by ten soldiers.

[Luis Fernando]: Emma thinks it was ten, but she’s not quite sure.

[Francisco Luis Gordillo]: So, since I was the commander of the area, I’m responsible. Mother of God, how am I going to allow a thing like that. And… it’s the falsest, most unreal thing.

[Luis Fernando]: He told me that the sentence has caused his family a lot of pain. That his wife’s help has gotten worse, and that his daughter has severe episodes of stress.

[Francisco Luis Gordillo]: This is a complete violation of our life, our age, our rights. So, they… human rights seem to only be used for that kind of case: for accusers who are in an international political current. And it seems that we have no rights.

[Luis Fernando]: I asked him if he supported everything the military did during the ‘80s and during his military service. He started talking to me about the Cold War, about the conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States, that the war in Guatemala was a result of the conflict between those two powers. And in the end, he said… 

[Francisco Luis Gordillo]: Some gave arms and money, and we gave the dead. At no point can I approve of the bloodshed that my country experienced as a result of the… rivalry between two powers. 

[Luis Fernando]: I’ll say it again: “Some gave arms and money,” Gordillo said, “And we gave the dead.” But according to him, it was the only way to stop communism.

The sentence against the soldiers was historic. In a country where impunity has been the norm, this ruling shows that justice is indeed possible. And not just that…

[Emma]: The sentence put forth the idea that the victims of atrocious crimes should be put at the center of justice. That their testimonies themselves are evidence.

[Luis Fernando]: In other words, if a woman is raped, her word is sufficient evidence to open an investigation. Or as in the Molina Theissen family’s case, if parents in a family report that their son was disappeared, it’s sufficient evidence to start looking for him. Which never happened with Marco Antonio.

[Emma]: This is revolutionary for the country. I mean, it’s not that penal law in which you have to show up and prove down the last detail in the materiality of what happened.

[Luis Fernando]: It was there that the Molina Theissens understood: this sentence wasn’t just for Marco Antonio’s case, but rather for other victims of state terrorism.

[Emma]: It empowers victims. So that now a person, on the basis of this sentence, can come and say, “My husband was disappeared in this year, and so on and so on.” And that counts as evidence. And now that can launch a legal process which up to now has been very difficult to build those… that evidence and that necessary proof to come to… to… to open a trial.

[Luis Fernando]: It’s an opportunity for thousands of other people to be able to try to heal the wounds left by such a violent war.

None of the men who were sentenced said where Marco Antonio is. But they’re still looking for him.

[Ana Lucrecia]: Because otherwise, it would be like abandoning our child, leaving him tossed out, like they did to him, somewhere. 

[Luis Fernando]: Looking for him is a way of showing their love, which is as strong today as it was on October 6th, 1981. The day he was taken. 

[Ana Lucrecia]: I don’t have the slightest clue about where he may be, or if he’s even out there still. This is going to take our lives, or a good part of them, just… just like justice will.

[Daniel]: The state of Guatemala still doesn’t have a concrete plan to look for Marco Antonio, despite the orders that the Inter-American Court on Human Rights gave now more than 15 years ago. 

In January of 2019, the Guatemalan congress opened discussions to modify the National Reconciliation Law. Such changes would give amnesty to those who committed crimes against humanity during the armed conflict, such as genocide, torture, and forced disappearance. If the reforms pass, the four men sentenced in the Molina Theissen case would go free.

Luis Fernando is an editor with Radio Ambulante, he lives in San José, Costa Rica. Thank you to Francisca Stuardo, Kimmy de León, and Daniel Villatoro. Thank you also to the Centro por la Justicia y el Derecho Internacional, and Prensa Comunitaria, in Guatemala. 

This episode was edited by Camila Segura and me. Sound design is by Andrés Azpiri, with music by Giancarlo Vulcano. Andrea López Cruzado did the fact-checking.

The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Lisette Arévalo, Gabriela Brenes, Jorge Caraballo, Victoria Estrada, Rémy Lozano, Miranda Mazariegos, Diana Morales, Patrick Moseley, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, Silvia Viñas, and Joseph Zárate. Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.

Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, and is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.

Every Friday, we send out an email newsletter with recommendations from our team for the weekend. Every email includes just five links for the things that inspire us: TV shows, books, other podcasts, mobile apps, online multimedia, everything. It’s a way of sharing what we like and filtering some of all the content that’s available on the internet. If you want to get it, subscribe at radioambulante.org/correo. I repeat radioambulante.org/correo.

Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.

In the next episode of Radio Ambulante, the journalist Santiago Rivas faces a law that threatened the essence of his work…

[María Paulina Baena]: He said: “Oh! I need to talk to you about a law they’re passing around that is super crooked and misleading.”

[Santiago Rivas]: We’re not enemies just because we’re critical.

[Daniel]: Until a secret recording changed everything. His story, next week.


Luis Fernando Vargas

Camila Segura and Daniel Alarcón

Andrés Azpiri

Giancarlo Vulcano

Andrea López-Cruzado

Carla Berrocal