'They viewed us as if we were not people': Witness testimony continues for a fourth day in Rios Montt trial

On Friday, the fourth day of the Rios Montt trial, the court heard 11 witnesses for the prosecution, including 5 women, making 37 witnesses presenting testimony thus far. The court also briefly heard from one prosecution expert witness. This concluded the first week of the trial, and the court reconvenes on Monday for a week truncated due to Semana Santa.

Many witnesses on Friday were deeply emotionally affected by recounting their stories, with the court stalled on various occasions to give witnesses an opportunity to collect themselves. Nonetheless, the trial continued to advance at breakneck speed.

The prosecution witnesses continued to describe accounts of killings by the Guatemalan military, including of women, children, and the elderly, and their experiences in or with the civil defense patrols, during the 1982-83 period of the Rios Montt rule. Francisco Cobo Raimundo described the death of four family members by the military – his mother by a blow to the head with a rock, his brother strangled and hacked into pieces, and his father and grandfather. Magdalena de Paz Cerillo recounted when the military captured her husband and shot him to death, and on the same day, detained and killed 28 others in her community, burying them in a mass grave.

Magdalena Bernal described the military drowning her brother and two women in a river. Pedro del Barrio Caba described the military attacks on his community, emanating from the military installation at La Perla Farm—kidnapping and disappearing 8 people on January 7, 1982; and massacring 95 people in Ilom on March 23, 1982, the day of Rios Montt’s coup. He and others were later subjected to forced labor on the farm, and forced conscription into the civil militia (PACs).

Witnesses continued to describe the destruction of communities, burning of houses, often en masse, and killing or robbery of crops and animals by the Guatemalan military. More witnesses on Friday than previously recounted the devastation to their culture from the military’s actions, either directly or as a result of the actions. Juan Raymundo said that the military’s scorched earth campaign destroyed customs, rituals, and traditions passed on from their ancestors. “They ended our culture,” he said. (“Acabaron con nuestra cultura.”)

Many also continued to describe the great difficulties of their displacement into the mountains. Two women described giving birth in the mountains. One said she gave birth in the mountains, “like an animal,” to a son who died at 2 years of age (of terror, or “susto”). The same person said that many other died in the mountains, including children, the elderly and women. Her pregnant sister died in childbirth in the mountains, and her father, brother and sister also died there. Various witnesses in the first week also described family members dying from “fright” or “terror” (susto), often related to the dropping of bombs by military helicopters.

Most who had been displaced in the mountains said that they had hardly any food, eating plants and roots, and some said that they could not, or could only rarely, cook, for fear that the smoke or fire would alert the soldiers pursuing them. They often described living without shelter, protected only by trees or plants, and with little clothing and few belongings. Virtually all said that they were persecuted when displaced, fleeing from the military and often with bombs dropping from helicopters.

No witnesses on Friday explicitly described sexual abuse, but one witness was asked whether women were raped. A defense objection, on the ground that there was not a basis for the question, was sustained. However, the same witness later said the military took many women to the military base, but did not elaborate further.

Miguel Ramirez Ramon, from an Ixil community in Pexla Grande, Nebaj, described how in 1982 soldiers came to his community and burned approximately 60 houses, some with people inside, burned alive. Those burned alive in their houses included Ramirez’ pregnant sister, brother, brother’s wife, and two children of his siblings, aged 2 and 8. He also recounted that the military captured and detained 60 people in a Catholic church before selecting a group of 5 young men and executing them.

Gabriel de Paz Perez, testifying in Spanish, described the military’s occupation of his community. De Paz recounted that the military stayed for three months, living off of the animals of the community, while the community hid in the forest, with many starving to death. “They controlled our maize fields, our crops, our animals.” When the community eventually descended from the mountains after the military left, the crops had been cut, the animals eaten, and the houses burned.

Juan Raimundo Maton described the military actions in his community in 1982. In mid-October 1982, soldiers arrived and convened a large meeting, 15 days after convening a prior meeting. They identified people, capturing and interrogating those they identified before killing them. His brother-in-law was shot to death trying to escape; the soldiers smashed his uncle’s head and stabbed others to death, killing 16 people in this instance. They also killed a woman, and burned her house, after seeking her husband and disbelieving her account that he was not there. A month later, they returned and burned houses, destroyed crops, and killed or stole animals. Raimundo described feeling dehumanized: “they viewed us as if we were not people,” he said, crying.

The defense, more engaged than the prior afternoon, continued to focus the cross-examination of witness testimony primarily on questions intended to discredit the testimony, identify the witness or the witness’ community as affiliated with guerrilla activity, or identify the populations affected by the violence of the period as not exclusively Ixil, and the perpetrators as including indigenous people. The defense also asked some factual questions, and questions about whether there was leadership in the communities, either in villages or in the mountains.

The defense continued to question witnesses who mentioned that there was a “war” about who was in the war, and what it was about. One witness, when asked who was engaged in the war, answered “Rios Montt.”

In response to the questions about who the perpetrators and the persecuted were, the defense testimony was nearly universal that the military committed most of the atrocities, and when a witness knew, that the military were not Ixil (and sometimes not indigenous) but that the civil patrols were often “our people,” or generally Ixil or indigenous. Some described most of those displaced and in the mountains as largely or exclusively Ixil, while others identified that there were other indigenous groups in the mountains as well. They described their attacked communities as entirely or largely Ixil.

Virtually all said that they did not see or interact with other armed people or groups, either in the villages or in the mountains, though some recounted that they had heard that there were guerrillas around, or heard the guerrillas when they would descend from the mountains and shoot their weapons.

In swearing in the witnesses, Judge Barrios asked each whether s/he knew the accused. Many said no, but some said yes. For those who said yes, either the defense or Judge Barrios asked the witness how s/he knew the accused. The answers tended to be that the accused were government, in power at the time of the war, or the ones responsible for killing our people.

All, when asked, said that they sought “justice” from the state. Several said that they want to ensure that this does not happen to their children. Some spoke about testifying in memory or honor of a family member who was killed. Multiple witnesses insisted, repeatedly, that they were telling the truth, had no reason to lie, and wanted to make sure that their stories were believed.

The first expert witness for the prosecution, Ramiro Martinez, from the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (Fundacion de Antropologia Forense de Guatemala, or FAFG), briefly testified in the afternoon. He submitted a lengthy report, but only answered a few questions. The prosecution asked questions about the actions of the forensic team, and about particular language in the report. The defense asked no questions about the report but largely sought to discredit the witness. Judge Barrios did not permit certain questions, but Martinez answered questions from the defense about the chain of custody, when he became an expert, the legal basis for the forensic archeology work, and his training as a forensic archeologist.

The defense team also added two additional interpreters to their team, for a total of four interpreters, and the prosecution has three interpreters integrated into their team. There continued to be some interpretation challenges, primarily raised by the defense. For one witness, the defense challenged the interpretation of the word “pursued” (perseguidos), but in the end, the court was satisfied with the interpretation of the court interpreter.

There are also challenges identifying interpreters. One witness, who intended to testify on Thursday, was moved to Friday because of challenges identifying a K’iche’ interpreter. With no K’iche’ interpreter available still on Friday, and the witness needing to return to his community, he testified on Friday in Spanish with another interpreter on standby.


  1. Hi Stella – she was there the first day but has not been since then to the best of my knowledge. – Emi

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