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Ramiro remembers: key witness in Guatemala massacre

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

Cristales' family had moved to Las Dos Erres to make a life as farmers. His mother’s name was Petrona; his father was Victor. They had seven children — six boys and a 9-month-old girl, whose name Cristales does not remember.

The family went to sleep on the evening of Dec. 6. Some time after midnight there was a knock on the door. The soldiers burst in and grabbed his father, he said. They took his father and oldest brother to the village school and then rounded up the six younger siblings and his mother and took them to the church.

“When we went there it was a lot of people already in the church. They were saying, 'what is going on?' We was so scared because a lot of people was praying and we saw a lot of people with guns and everything. Lots of people were saying, 'That’s it, we don’t get out from here.’”

Cristales could see out through gaps between the vertical wooden planks. “I see how they kill the womans. They tortured all the mens. They beat them up and a lot of people was hanging from the trees. You can hear the womans crying and screaming for help.”

Cristales watched more killings.

“They kill by a knife in his neck or shoot in the head and throw in the well,” he said. The soldiers also used machetes to kill people and the sharp edges of shovels. Forensic scientists have exhumed the well and much of the forensic evidence matches what Cristales witnessed, according to investigators.

“When was my mom turn we …” said Cristales, his voice trailing off.

He paused for a long time, at one point wiping tears from his eyes, and continued, ”I remember grabbing my mom from leg. And my brothers too … 

“We are hanging from my mom leg and one guy from the army say, 'Don’t go there because you will get killed. Stay inside.' Then I ran to see how what is going on with my mom and I saw how they kill. And I was crying. And then I fall asleep. On the chairs or what you call it in the church. When I get up most of the people was dead.”

During the civil wars of the 1980s in Latin America, members of the military would occasionally spare young children during massacres and abduct them. One report by a human rights group states there were at least 444 cases of these abductions in Guatemala. Sometimes soldiers trained and raised the children as soldiers, as Alonzo did for at least a while with Cristales. In other cases they were treated more kindly, as adopted children in the families of soldiers, including officers who were not able to have children. Sometimes they were absorbed into families as virtual slaves, which was ultimately the case with Cristales.

When the soldiers took Cristales from the church and past the well, he saw four men hanging by their necks from a nearby tree. One was his father. Another was his oldest brother.

Taking with them four young boys and a young teenage girl, the soldiers marched through the jungle for a few days, away from Las Dos Erres. Along the way, the soldiers repeatedly raped the girl, telling the boys that she had run off. Cristales heard shots and suspected she had been killed. When the soldiers and the boys reached a clearing in the jungle, a blue-and-white-colored helicopter came to meet them.

The helicopter took two of the soldiers and the four boys to the base of the Kaibiles, known as "El Infierno," or Hell. There, the three other boys disappeared. Cristales assumes they were murdered because they were witnesses to the massacre. Cristales said he believes Alonzo persuaded the other soldiers that Cristales had no memory of his family or the massacre and that, if he did, he could be brainwashed into forgetting.

Alonzo lived in a small town named San Sebastian, near a larger town named Retalhuleu. He took Cristales home with him. He registered him locally as his own son and gave him his last name. But he was no true son. Alonzo and his wife Lidia treated him “like a dog.” Cristales was given a small, fold-up bed. He had to wash his own clothes. They forced him to do manual labor and beat him. Cristales never let on that he remembered everything.