The chief lawyer of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt was gunned down in broad daylight last Wednesday 3 June. Francisco Palomo Tejada, 63, was driving home on a lunch break when two men on a red motorcycle pulled alongside his black Audi. According to witnesses, the men opened fire on the car for the length of a block until it finally crashed into a tree. Palomo died on the scene from at least 12 gunshot wounds to the chest and neck. Zury Ríos, the daughter of General Ríos Montt, who is standing in elections this September, was quick to announce her sense of ‘betrayal’ and loss for what she regards as ‘a man who fought for justice’.
Palomo is the 26th lawyer to be assassinated in Guatemala in recent years. His former clients include a parade of controversial characters, such as Alfonso Portillo, the former President jailed in the United States for laundering US$ 2.5 million in bribes from the Taiwanese government.
Palomo’s work for Ríos Montt spans more than a decade. In 2003, while serving as a constitutional magistrate, he voted in favour of allowing him to run for the Presidency despite a constitutional ban on coup leaders seeking office. In 2006, he defended Ríos Montt after Rigoberta Menchú filed a lawsuit in the Spanish Supreme Court – she accused him (and others) of ordering an assault on the Spanish Embassy that left her father and 36 others dead. Most notoriously, Palomo defended Ríos Montt against charges of genocide and war crimes. He attempted to stall and derail the case with a string of obstructions, but nonetheless, Ríos Montt was found guilty in 2013 and sentenced to 80 years in jail. This decision was later overturned on a technicality. In January 2015, at the reopening of his re-trial, Palomo argued for amnesty on the basis of a long-repealed law.
It is unclear how Palomo’s death will now impact proceedings. According to the National Forensic Institute, the former dictator’s health is deteriorating and his team will seek to argue that he is unfit to stand trial. Ríos Montt and his former intelligence chief, José Rodríguez, are charged with ordering 15 massacres of Ixíl Maya during Guatemala’s civil war.