Guatemala: Unearthing a massacre

LAS CRUCES, Guatemala — Archeologists this month meticulously unearthed the brittle, bare bones of what are thought to be at least 162 men, women and children killed by the Guatemalan army in 1982.

Stoic old folks watched intently for signs of brothers and sisters; kids asked about the heaps of femurs and broken craniums. There were gasps as the muddy clothing was extracted and documented — a boy’s athletic jersey, a girl’s yellow dress, an infant’s blouse.

Twenty-eight years ago, survivors couldn’t risk funerals or even discuss the crime. They couldn’t return to the frontier village of Las Dos Erres, which they had hacked out of the forest, planting crops and fruit trees in a back-breaking, doomed bid to rise from the peasantry. Entire families had been buried — some alive — in a dry well, mothers raped and hurled onto their wounded children below in about 18 hours of systematic savagery.

Now, after 16 years of investigation hindered by stonewalling in the courts, prosecutors, activists and victims are mounting a reinvigorated effort to bring to justice those who carried out the murders. It would be a landmark case in a country where hundreds of wartime massacres have gone unpunished. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, a branch of the Organization of American States, in November ordered Guatemala to perform the exhumation and restart a long-stalled prosecution. Two members of the notorious Guatemalan special forces, the Kaibiles, are in jail, another is out on bail and 14 more are wanted.

Horribly representative of Guatemala's civil war, the case offers unusually precise evidence supported by eyewitnesses. Two former Kaibiles, now in hiding for their own protection, have named their comrades in the attack. And a man who was orphaned in the rampage as a small boy then abducted and adopted by one of the attackers is ready to testify. He now lives outside the country, waiting for what he hopes will be his day in court.

Luis Saul Arevalo Valles
Luis Saul Arevalo Valles, 52, stands where his family's well had been.
(Larry Kaplow/GlobalPost)

The massacre still seems painfully fresh for Luis Saul Arevalo Valles, 52. He was in a neighboring town on Dec. 7, 1982 when his parents, three brothers and sister were killed in Las Dos Erres. On the bare patch of earth where a dry well once stood on his family’s land, there’s barely a sign of habitation. Today it is a desolate cattle range. But Arevalo finds pieces of an old oven and limestone he recalls digging from the well.

“This might have belonged to your grandparents,” he tells his son when they see a rusty can. “For me, it is like this happened yesterday,” he says.

Guatemala’s 36-year civil war ended in 1996. A United Nations-backed truth commission found that 200,000 were killed and that government forces had committed 626 massacres. The massacre at Las Dos Erres fit the pattern of attacks on villages that took place at the height of the war. The death toll wasn't the highest, estimated from 162 to 251, but like nearly all the others, the perpetrators were never punished.

The United States backed the regime in those Cold War years, but Americans were largely unaware of the carnage a country away from their southern border. Victoria Sanford, who has written extensively on Guatemalan war crimes, says victims there lacked the influential lobbying groups that brought U.S. attention to atrocities in El Salvador and Nicaragua. The Catholic Church had been intimidated and U.S. aid to the regime was often covert or through proxy countries.

The war is over but today Guatemalan crime drives astronomical murder rates but few prosecutions. Many see it as a legacy of the old military “impunity” that bred a culture of scared judges and corrupt cops. Former military figures are suspected in organized crime or are still strong political powers.

It remains to be seen whether Guatemala’s institutions have the will to pursue the Las Dos Erres case.

But there is new momentum toward addressing the past. Last year an army colonel and a civilian auxiliary to the military were sentenced in separate cases to long prison terms for ordering murders during the war. In the capital, forensic anthropologists dig through a cemetery corpse pit, collecting DNA to find the “disappeared.” Archivists sort millions of pages found in 2005 in a police warehouse that hold clues to government crimes. The U.S. ambassador attends trials and exhumations.

Las Dos Erres exhumation
The remains, which sat in a well for 12 years and then were moved and buried again for 15 years, were bare and jumbled.
(Larry Kaplow/GlobalPost)

This month, the supreme court classified Las Dos Erres as a “high-impact” case, changing the venue from the weak provincial court, where it has languished, to the capital.

But the obstacles are clear. The released Kaibil paid a meager $1,500 bond. The Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, performing the exhumations, lost its budget under the current government and relies on aid from the United States and other foreign donors. The director recently received a written death threat.

Last week, nominations for the country’s attorney general were stacked with figures connected to reactionary groups. Activists worry the wrong appointee could shelve Las Dos Erres and other important cases.

There are many in Guatemala who simply want to forget the bloodshed that took place during the war. But others fear that would preserve the impunity plaguing the country and again cheat the victims, like the survivors of Las Dos Erres.

Their little hamlet was founded in the late 1970s in the northern Peten region under a program awarding land to peasants. They cleared the land and built slat houses with dirt floors and tin or palm roofs. They added the requisite features of a homestead — a Catholic church, an evangelical church, a one-room schoolhouse and a soccer field. There was no electricity and water was hauled from miles away.

The population of about 350 might have first aroused the military’s anger when some residents refused to join the government’s civil patrols. Then, in October 1982, guerrillas killed several soldiers in another part of the region. The army picked up false intelligence that the guerrillas had captured about 20 army rifles from the fallen soldiers and hid them in Las Dos Erres. Kaibiles, known for their brutal training methods, were flown in to find the weapons and kill the residents. They wore civilian clothes with the intent of blaming the guerrillas, according to the human rights court.

Those investigating the case say about 60 Kaibiles, armed with Israeli Galil rifles, showed up in the early morning of Dec. 7, 1982. Regular soldiers formed a perimeter as the Kaibiles pulled families from their homes, which were hundreds of yards apart. Prosecutors say the Kaibiles performed assigned roles and probably had committed other massacres.

Family members of the victims kept an intense eye during the two days of exhumation earlier this month.
(Larry Kaplow/GlobalPost)

Men were taken to the school and women and children to one of the churches. It’s alleged the Kaibiles raped women and girls, either to spread terror or simply as war spoils. The Inter-American Court summary conjectures that pregnant women were beaten into miscarriages.

Kaibiles tortured the men in the morning, demanding the missing weapons. After noon the executions began. According to those familiar with the two Kaibiles’ testimony, the victims were led in small groups or individually from the holding locations to Kaibiles at the well. Children were thrown in first, still alive. Women were shot or beaten to death with a sledgehammer and then thrown in. Men were then shot and dumped in the well until it was nearly filled and dirt was placed to cover the top. Some bodies were also left a few hundred yards away in some woods and a shallow water retention ditch.

One of the Kaibiles abducted the 5-year-old boy — an occasional army custom. Another boy escaped and, now grown, has also agreed to testify. They may be the only surviving witnesses.

Arevalo, the man who recently revisited the site with his son and a reporter, says he was elsewhere on civil patrol duty. Others were working or staying with relatives in other towns. They were forbidden from returning, fed the lie that the area was closed after a guerrilla attack.

But four days later, Arevelo was allowed to join a convoy of troops taking some residents to retrieve personal affects. His house was ransacked. Flies and stench hovered over the filled well. “I knew immediately my family was down there,” he says. Troops burned homes as he left.

Few believed guerrillas could have staged such an attack. The villagers weren’t allowed back to work their parcels of land and most lost them through foreclosures or confiscations.

Las Dos Erres grave
In the mid-1990s, the victims' remains were moved to a mass grave and survivors were able to adorn it with a faux well and cross.
(Larry Kaplow/GlobalPost)
Farfan, Activist
Aura Elena Farfan, of the human rights group FAMDEGUA, has been investigating the massacre of Las Dos Erres for 17 years.
(Larry Kaplow/GlobalPost)

Guatemalan activist Aura Elena Farfan, a tireless 71-year-old whose brother was disappeared in 1984, brought Argentine forensic archeologists to excavate the well in 1994. They found at least 156 bodies in the well, too tangled and decomposed to differentiate or count exactly, and body parts at the two other locations. They had the remains reburied in a marked mass grave in the Las Cruces cemetery six miles away.

Under international pressure in 2000, the Guatemalan government acknowledged its massacres and later paid varying compensation to Las Dos Erres victims, about $30,000 in some cases.

But a court prosecution languished amid defense motions mounted in part by a firm with ties to Efrain Rios Montt, strongman president in 1982 and still a political power. Nearly all the defendants stayed out of jail.

In November, the Inter-American Court ruled that Guatemala had allowed a “pattern of judicial delay” to thwart the prosecution. It ordered the case restarted, DNA tests of the remains, an investigation of the people and legal loopholes that impeded the prosecution and more compensation, since the victims have now had their rights violated yet again by the court’s failure. That prompted the exhumation of the mass grave this month at Las Cruces.

Advocates say such outside pressure has been critical and hope prosecuting the Kaibiles will foster the prosecution of others. Rios Montt and other commanders are targets in a separate genocide case.

The hopes of the people who solemnly watched their relatives unearthed this month are modest. Concepcion de Maria Pernilla Jimenez, 37, lost three siblings and now earns about $45 a month washing clothes. “The family died,” she tells her children. “If they were here we wouldn’t be suffering. We’d have some land, a place to work.”

Others just want to bury the remains in family plots. They hope for justice but aren’t expecting it. Arevalo, a reserved farmer with a 6th-grade education, says he would at least like the Kaibiles to publicly ask forgiveness.

At a ceremony April 14, relatives sang hymns and prayed over the victims’ remains, packed in cardboard, before they were taken for examination. Arevalo was given the microphone. The bones of his mother and father and four siblings were almost surely among the remains being packaged and prepared as forensic evidence. He trembled and then wept, vowing that all the dead in the boxes lined before him would not be forgotten.

Read about the U.S. investigation of those accused of participating in the massacre.

Read an interview with the one of the only survivors.