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Guatemala: Unearthing a massacre

Will there finally be justice for more than 100 villagers raped and buried alive during Guatemala's civil war?

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.