Ramiro remembers: key witness in Guatemala massacre

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.”

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.

When he was 18, Cristales made an unexpected decision for someone whose family had been killed by the army. He joined the same army. He explained that he joined up for two reasons: to get away from Alonzo and his family, and to see if he could find out anything about the massacre at Las Dos Erres. Tentatively, he asked some officers about the massacre. No one had any information to give him. In October 1998, a senior officer told him that another part of the army had called to inquire about him.

The inquiry was prompted by the investigative work of Aura Elena Farfan, the head of a Guatemalan human rights organization named Famdegua. Farfan and a government official quickly helped him secure refugee status in the country where he now lives and worked with him to prepare his testimony.

On the morning of Feb. 23, 1999 Cristales walked into a room at the Famdegua offices. Inside were an elderly couple with graying hair. They were his mother’s parents. He had learned only days earlier that he had any living relatives. It was a tearful reunion. And they hugged him tightly in their arms. “You look like your mother and your father,” his grandmother told him. All around him were other relatives, including a half-brother through Cristales’ father.

Relatives produced the only known photographs of his mother and father, faces Cristales had not seen since they were dragged away from him. Yet Cristales knew that the next day, only hours after he had met the people who made him feel he was no longer alone in the world, he would have to leave them.

Cristales now has regular work, is a citizen of his new country and lives in a comfortable home with his wife and 3-year-old daughter. He went to see a therapist when he first arrived and took anti-depressants and pills that made him sleep. He didn’t like the effect they had on his mood so he stopped taking them and hasn’t seen a therapist since. Sometimes he dreams about the massacre. The memories are haunting, but they are also perhaps his best weapon in a struggle for justice.

“They can’t erase my memory,” he said. “I will live all my life with these memories.”

GlobalPost correspondent Larry Kaplow contributed reporting from Guatemala.

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

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