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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 158 | Septiembre 1994



Common Graves: Unearthing the Truth

“On December 7th, 1983, there occurred one of the cruelest and saddest events...” The soldiers responsible for those horrors are still in power, enjoying impunity and thinking of awarding themselves amnesty.

Trish O' Kane

During July, the question on many Guatemalans' lips was, "Where's the United Nations?" The UN human rights verification commission has yet to show any signs of life. The immediate creation of this commission was the most important accomplishment in the limping peace process. The general human rights accord was signed by the URNG and the government in March, but now, five months later, no one knows a thing about its arrival.

A diplomatic source says that the commission's delay is due to the UN's financial problems, its sluggish bureaucracy and its preoccupation with other international commitments. Meanwhile, Guatemalans just go on waiting, and every day that passes without its presence means finding more new bodies with signs of torture dumped along the country's highways and byways.

Every day that passes also means unearthing new evidence of the even more widespread torture and death of over a decade ago, during the reign of Generals Lucas García and Ríos Montt. And if the commission waits too much longer, it might just get here after Ríos Montt, now on the campaign trail, wins a seat in Guatemala's Congress and pushes through an amnesty that will legalize the army's de facto impunity.

Spain's "New Colonizers"

In the meantime, with the arrival of the 150 member UN commission not so imminent after all, a new media campaign against foreigners has been launched, this time directed against members of Spanish solidarity organizations and against journalists. Is it mere coincidence that the verbal assault against Spaniards began just after the Spanish government invited two URNG commanders to hold talks with it in Madrid in mid July?
The "new colonizers" are being accused of promoting the takeover of big farms in the south of the country, where it is well known that owners do not pay their workers the minimum wage of 14 quetzals ($1.50) a day and working conditions are not unlike those of colonial slave times.

In that zone, various Spaniards are acting as observers of what is happening on a farm occupied by its workers after they were fired without justification. The Court of Constitutionality the country's highest legal authority ordered the farm's owner to reinstate the workers, but as of early August, he was still violating the order. The media, however, have laid all blame for the conflict on the "invaders" from Spain.

Another foreigner non grata in Guatemala is US journalist Frank Smyth. Citing US Drug Enforcement Agency sources, he dared to publish an article naming Guatemalan military officers allegedly involved in drug traffic.
At the beginning of August, General Mario Enríquez, Guatemala's Minister of Defense, declared that Smyth was "one of the dirty tongues" dedicated to defaming the army, adding that he was "fanaticized" and there was thought of filing charges against him.

Human rights: Worse

In July, the Archbishop's Human Rights Office published its first six month report of the year on human rights violations. The figures show once again that the repeated URNG government meetings in Norway and Mexico have little or nothing to do with the country's domestic situation. The violations so far in 1994 more than doubled those of the same period in the two previous years. In the first half of 1993, 70 extrajudicial executions were registered, while this year there were 166.

Analysts attribute the increased violence to the legislative elections to be held in mid August. Historically, any election in Guatemala is accompanied by a wave of violence. Minister of Government Danilo Parrinello caused ill will by commenting publicly that this upsurge of violence is only "part of Guatemalan folklore."

Hands Up!

And now that I can vote,
I'm going to vote for the General.
Hands up if you're going to vote,
raise your hands for the General.

If you want justice and wellbeing
and wish to have security
Congress is the place
where Ríos Montt should be.

These lyrics, set to the reggae music of Panamanian singer The General, form part of retired General Efraín Ríos Montt's campaign propaganda. Polls indicate that Ríos Montt will win a legislative seat in the August 14 elections. A constitutional article prohibits anyone who has led a coup as he has done from opting for the presidency. But analysts believe that his party, the Guatemalan Republican Front, will have enough clout in the new Congress to reverse this constitutional obstacle and that Ríos Montt will be a presidential candidate in 1996.

General Ríos Montt was head of state for 17 bloody months in 1982 83 and led the "scorched earth" military campaign that reduced some 400 indigenous villages to ashes and sparked the flight of thousands of Guatemalans to Mexico. At that time, the UN condemned him for promoting genocide and ethnocide in Guatemala.

In 1983, Ríos Montt was removed from power by another military coup. He returned to the political scene in recent years and is now launching his political campaign with aggressive and very costly propaganda. The general's motto, "I don't steal, lie or abuse," is attractive to many Guatemalans, tired of so much corruption and crime.

"He Kills Everybody"

"Many people say they're going to vote for him because he can put an end to crime," reflects one indigenous woman who works in the capital and comes from a zone that suffered greatly during the general's time in office. "But he doesn't just kill criminals, he kills everybody."
In July, Ríos Montt made a campaign tour that included Petén, one of the country's most forgotten and isolated departments. A team of Argentine forensic anthropologists and Guatemalan human rights activists were already in the area, beginning to excavate a gravesite where the skeletons of 43 families massacred in a small village called Las RR were assumed to have been buried.

"On December 7, 1982, one of the most savage and tragic histories that any of us can remember occurred," relates one witness to the Las RR massacre, in which at least 340 people, most of them small children, died. "It happened in a parcel called Las RR, northeast of the village of Las Cruces, in La Libertad, El Petén, Guatemala. It was an unjust and inhuman massacre of men, women and children. At least 43 families, each with 6 to 10 children, were killed, plus 40 day laborers who were simply in the same place to earn their daily bread, and thus shared the same fate...."

A Community Is Born

In the 1960s and 70s, thousands of poor peasants went to Petén in search of land. Among them were Federico Aquino Ruano ("don Lico") and Marcos Reyes, who requested some land near Las Cruces in 1978. Ruano and Reyes the two Rs founded a small community which was quickly populated by some 43 families from the eastern part of Guatemala.

When don Lico and the others arrived, the zone was still virgin forest. They cleared the land with nothing but their machetes and sweat. Their nearest neighbors were the Zaraguata monkeys, which screeched day and night, and great cats roamed the area. Water had to be brought from Las Cruces, a two hour walk away over a muddy footpath. Later don Lico dug a well to serve the whole community.

Juan Arévalo, another aging and well known inhabitant of Las RR, began to dig his own well near the center of the village. For three years he kept digging, without ever finding water, even though his well got very deep. No one knew then that don Juanito was digging the collective tomb for his community.

Tiny Children

Despite the hardships at the beginning, those who came to Las RR were happy to have land for the first time in their lives. They created a united community, without religious conflicts, even though there were both Protestants and Catholics. Nor were there any ethnic or land conflicts. "They were very good and very religious people," recalls one person who had lived in Las RR but was away the day of the massacre. "There were never rifts among us. Our community didn't have to end this way."
The great majority of the children were not yet of school age, and many of the adolescents worked with their fathers on the parcels, as is generally the case in poor peasant families. Only 35 children attended the school that opened in 1980.

In the afternoons, after work and school, many children went over to see don Juanito, because he gave them pineapples and stalks of sugar cane from his little plantation. They saw how the old man kept digging his well so deep that it seemed he would get to China before striking water.

"Everyone who lived there was killed by a group of Kaibils from the army with no chance to defend themselves," continued the first witness. "The plan had been ordered by a lieutenant named Carías, who commanded the military detachment in Las Cruces...."

Josefinos and Palestina

Although the guerrilla movement had some presence in the zone by 1982, the witnesses do not recall that any of them had ever come to Las RR. But at the beginning of that year, a group of 100 guerrillas surrounded nearby Las Cruces, where they bought provisions and staged a rally. Shortly afterward, the army set up an outpost in Las Cruces, commanded by Lt. Carlos Carías.

On March 23 of that year, General Ríos Montt took power through a military coup. He implemented his Bullets and Beans program and organized the civil defense patrols all around the country. In their small and peaceful village, the inhabitants of Las RR felt removed from the changes shaking the country. "Perhaps with this new President they'll take our lands away," Abel Granados said to his wife Hilda one night, like a premonition.

Death came to the village of Josefinos, a community near Las RR, on April 29. According to Celso Cuxil, of the Communities of Population in Resistance in Petén, the guerrillas went to Josefinos that day and killed an army informant.

The army showed up the same night, slit the throats of 24 people and burned all the houses in Josefinos. Most of the residents managed to slip away and fled to Mexico. Cuxil and others say there is a clandestine cemetery in Josefinos where all those killed that awful night are buried.

Things were also getting ugly in Palestina, another nearby community. "In 1982 my brother went to the military post to ask permission for something and never came back," says a former resident of Palestina. "That happened to many people; if they went in, they never came out. There's a clandestine cemetery there, too."

All a Big Mistake?

Harris Whitbeck, an adviser to Ríos Montt, insisted in an interview this June that the general has been unjustly accused of atrocities that really occurred earlier, during General Lucas García's administration. "They speak of scorched earth, but never mention dates," said Whitbeck. "All that was in the times before the general. The other issue is that the general entered as head of state. They pulled him out of his military school and he didn't have time to prepare. Overnight isn't enough time. Later on, when he implemented the Bullets and Beans campaign, it totally changed the army's mentality: from an occupation army to an integration army, now with very defined lines of command and very strict orders. Between June and November he totally eliminated the guerrilla movement. Anyone could see that, with him, there was a marked peace."
The peace in Las RR was marked alright. "The army came through once in June 1982, and did a house to house search to see if the people were armed", relates a witness. "Some people who lived there hunted deer and wild boar with .22 rifles. They grabbed all the old rifles they found and stored them in the military post."
In the ensuing months, Lt. Carías organized an 800 man civil defense patrol in Las Cruces and tried to do the same in Las RR. Another witness says that the people of Las RR only did their turn twice. They didn't want to go on because they had to patrol Las Cruces and it took two hours just to get there. Since Las RR was a united community, the decision not to patrol was reached collectively. "Why do we have to defend the houses of people in Las Cruces, leaving our families and homes in Las RR unprotected?"
At the beginning of November a delegation from Las RR went to the military post and told Carías that they would only defend their own houses. He answered, "Get back there, all of you, if that's how you want it."
On the night of December 5, a Sunday, many dogs in Las Cruces began to bark, and the people saw canvas covered trucks head off in the direction of Las RR. The soldiers were dressed in olive green, like the guerrillas. The disguised troops entered Las RR and asked people for food.

"When the people see armed groups, there's no choice but to do what they ask. So they killed their little animals and fed them. Then the soldiers declared that they were from the army, and could see that the people from Las RR were collaborating with the guerrilla. They began to separate the men and women."
The next day relatives and neighbors of Las RR villagers wanted to go see what was going on, but the roads were blocked by army soldiers. "Something strange is happening in Las RR," they said.

Like the Bible Says

One child who escaped the massacre recounted that the soldiers separated the people into three lines: men, women and children. According to the testimony of a neighbor from Las Cruces, one soldier who participated in the massacre confessed it to him afterward. "He told me, 'I participated in that mass killing and we raped about 14 of those bandy legged women. Afterward we gave it to the children with a club to the neck and threw them down the well.' It seems he was a bit repentant because he said he had no other choice. If he didn't obey orders they would have killed him too."
This same witness, at that time a member of the civil patrol in Las Cruces, recalls that two separate army groups went into Las RR, one made up of regular soldiers from the Las Cruces post and the other of highly trained troops from the elite force called Kaibil, famed for its cruelty. Others say they were all Kaibils.

Wednesday, December 8, was the day of "the massacre itself," says one person who remembers the date well because it was the fiesta of the Immaculate Conception. Another witness, who had relatives in Las RR and could not leave Las Cruces because of the roadblock, had begun to despair. At 8 in the morning, he went to the military post to talk to Lt. Carías.

"He grabbed me by the chin and said to me, 'What is happening is a cleanup. Now, like it says in the Bible, what comes out dirty will die and what comes out clean will live. Into the fire with what is dirty!" At 3 o'clock that same afternoon, the people in Las Cruces heard shots and then crossfire.

Lots of Dead

On Friday, December 10, 48 hours afterward, the first group succeeded in getting into Las RR. "We saw blood on the children's benches, where they sat to write. There were knotted lariats, torn clothing and stuff like placenta and umbilical cords, things of childbirth. It scared us and we got out of there."
The group headed toward the uncleared area, about a 20 minute walk from the school. There among the trees and bushes they found their neighbors. "There were many bodies with their heads cut off. The heads were beneath some tree roots, a lot of heads of our neighbors. We were frightened because the dogs were eating them. It's so painful to remember this. We couldn't count them all, there were so many."
Upon leaving, they ran into army tractors and trucks on the road to Las RR. Later the vehicles came back toward Las Cruces full of sheets of zinc roofing, furniture, chickens, pigs, calves, corn, all the belongings of the people of Las RR.
The last soldiers to leave the village set fire to all the tiny houses. Today not a trace of that community remains. Las RR only exists in the memory of the people who lost some relative and almost all their hopes there.

Witnesses do not agree on the exact date, but two or three days after the massacre a helicopter flew over the village of Las RR as if inspecting the place.

Chiseling Away at the Past

"'Look boys, they say that don Juan Arévalo's well is filled in with dirt, and if that's true, that's where they threw the people, but, to leave no doubt, let's go have a look,'" a witness recalls someone suggesting. "We got to the well and it was true, the well was filled up and even had a little border of dirt around it.... Three sombreros were thrown on top, we couldn't tell whose they were. Suddenly we were filled with immense sadness and disillusionment."
On July 4, 1994, almost 12 years later, three Argentine forensic anthropologists began to excavate don Juanito's well at the request of Guatemala's archbishop and FAMDEGUA, the organization of Relatives of Disappeared of Guatemala.

On the second day of digging, the first human remains appeared at a depth of 6.7 meters. First they encountered the t shirt of a four or five year old, then the first two cadavers and a hodgepodge of bones mixed with clothing and personal belongings: a couple pairs of glasses, a toothbrush, documents, women's aprons. Then they uncovered an old photo of a child; the snapshot was wrapped in a piece of plastic and stuck in the pocket of a shirt.

They only dug as far as eight meters, because uninterrupted rains began in the zone, which made the work much slower, and the Argentines had other commitments. The excavation is expected to continue again once another team of anthropologists can be found.

But the Argentines' labor in that last meter or so had already pulled 10 complete skeletons and 4 incomplete ones out of the ground and the past. One was an adult, another a 10 year old child, and the rest all male adolescents. A quick calculation suggests a dramatic figure: if there are some 25 meters still to dig and each one has between 10 and 15 bodies, some 250 to 375 people, most of them children and teenagers, were thrown down the well. "It is a torte of bones," declared anthropologist Patricia Bernardi, horrified.

"If the Truth Is Told"

It is hoped that the Las RR massacre will be one of the first cases investigated by the future Truth Commission. But some fear that if General Ríos Montt is elected to the legislature he will do everything in his power to push through an amnesty that would cover both him and other retired and active officers.

The army's response to the various excavations going on in Guatemala has been to blame the guerrilla movement for the massacres. Major Mario Carranza, commander of the post nearest to what was once Las RR, says that the Guatemalan army has never committed any atrocities. To show his open-mindedness, he adds that he also does not believe "all those terrible things they say about the Nazis."
"I hope that the truth will come out now," says Major Carranza, "History will judge us."
Injustice and impunity seem to have no bounds in Guatemala. But all these grief filled efforts to chisel away at the terrible truth of the past are breathing new life into those who survived so many horrors.

This is how a neighbor of Las RR, who lost several of her relatives and friends there and has kept the secret for 12 years, puts it: "I'm surprised when I see that they are excavating the well, because I always thought our lives weren't worth anything. We felt we were animals and that if we even opened our mouths they would come and kill us. Lots of people are still afraid, but now we're getting a whiff that someone remembers us. It doesn't matter anymore what might happen to me now if the truth is told."

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