Connect to share and comment

Ramiro remembers: key witness in Guatemala massacre

Ramiro Cristales was raised by one of the soldiers who allegedly helped slaughter Cristales' entire family.

NEW YORK — Ramiro Cristales remembers the two palm trees behind his house and the watering hole where his older brother would toss him in when the rains came to their village in the Guatemalan jungle. He remembers his mother’s kindness and his father’s hard work.

And, unfortunately for the former soldiers accused of killing Cristales’ family, Cristales also remembers the massacre that took place 28 years ago in Las Dos Erres, when 251 men, women and children were murdered. He remembers how the Guatemalan soldiers held babies by their legs and smashed their heads. He remembers the moment a soldier plunged a knife into his mother’s neck before throwing her into a well that was filling up with the bodies of villagers. He remembers seeing his father and brother hanging from a tree.

And he remembers when he first saw Santos Alonzo, one of the soldiers guarding the church full of women and children before they were led to the well to be killed. Cristales recalls how Alonzo took him away from the horrors of that day and adopted him, only to treat him like a slave. For the next 15 years, Cristales was forced to address as "father" the man who had helped kill his family.

And now Ramiro is hoping to testify in a human rights case in Guatemala against these soldiers, including Alonzo, who is being held in the U.S. on an immigration violation.

(Read about Guatemala's ongoing investigation of the Las Dos Erres massacre.)

“Their big mistake was keeping me alive,” said Cristales, who is seen as a crucial witness in the case, which the human rights court of the Organization of American States ordered Guatemala to reactivate. Cristales lives in fear for his life in a country outside Guatemala, which GlobalPost is not identifying for the safety of Cristales and his family.

GlobalPost spoke with Cristales in a rare interview. Over several hours, he recounted the unimaginable barbarity he witnessed and the extraordinary cruelty of the man who raised him. But mostly he wanted to talk about the deep yearning he holds that justice will be brought against Alonzo and the other soldiers allegedly responsible for the slaughter at Las Dos Erres.

“They have to do something,” said Ramiro, referring to the U.S. and Guatemalan government officials who are now working together to prosecute the human rights case. “The only thing I ask is justice.”

And that is a distinct possibility now that Guatemala is revisiting the case against 17 members of the Guatemalan special forces. For years, four of the men named in the case have been hiding in the U.S., including Alonzo. But Alonzo was picked up in Texas on immigration charges on Feb. 22 and may face deportation back to Guatemala.

Federal agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement are also investigating three other men who live in the United States and are suspected of having taken part in the massacre. On Wednesday, agents in Florida arrested one of the three and charged him with fraudulently obtaining his American citizenship.

(Read about the U.S. investigation of these accused war criminals.)

Prosecutors in Guatemala are attempting to proceed with the case, but corruption and intimidation has created delays and many human rights activists fear the legal proceedings could once again get derailed.

Cristales has not been interviewed by American investigators but says he is more than willing to be a prosecution witness in the U.S and again in Guatemala, if needed. He first testified in Guatemala in 1999 in the stalled case, ultimately fleeing the country that same year when he learned his life was in danger. He returns to the country now and then, he said, telling few people he is coming and sometimes carrying a handgun for protection.

The details of his story match in many key ways testimony given by two of the alleged killers, who have turned state’s witness and are also living outside Guatemala, as well as the testimony of a man who may be the only other survivor. That witness was also 5 years old at the time and managed to run into the forest as he was being taken to be killed. The men accused of carrying out the massacre were part of an elite commando unit named the Kaibiles, who describe themselves as “killing machines.”