Dos Erres Massacre Trial Postponed from August 2018 to May 2021

The trial of former Kaibil solder Santos López Alonzo, who stands accused for his role in the 1982 Dos Erres massacre, was scheduled to start his week. Instead, it has been postponed for nearly three years, to May 2021.

López Alonzo is charged with crimes against humanity for his role in the Dos Erres massacre, in which more than 200 people were killed. He is also accused of falsifying the identity of and abusing Ramiro Osorio Cristales, who was five years old at the time his family was killed in the massacre and who was forced to live with López Alonzo until he turned 18.

The López Alonzo Trial

In August 2016 López Alonzo was deported from the United States to Guatemala, where he was immediately arrested for his alleged role in the 1982 Dos Erres massacre.

Claudette Domínguez of High Risk Court “A” presided over the evidentiary phase of the trial, which started in August 2016 and ended in June 2017. In Guatemala, the parties to criminal proceedings present their evidence in pre-trial hearings, and a judge determines if that evidence is sufficient to merit sending the case to trial.

During the pre-trial proceedings in the López Alonzo case, the Attorney General’s Office presented 418 types of evidence, including 20 experts, 27 witnesses, and 361 documents. The court accepted as evidence the prior testimony of three witnesses due to credible fears for their lives. One is that of Osorio Cristales himself. The other two are the testimonies of former Kaibil soldiers, Corporal Fabio Pinzón Jerez and Corporal Specialist Cesar Franco Ibañez, who gave eyewitness accounts of the events that took place at Las Dos Erres in December 1982. Osorio Cristales is expected to testify at López Alonzo’s trial to provide information about his treatment during the time he lived with the former elite soldier.

The defense for López Alonzo presented 13 witnesses, including Eduardo Arévalo Lacs, who was chief of the Kaibil Training and Special Operations Center at the time of the events. The defense also presented a series of documents, including family photos, diplomas, and letters sent by Osorio Cristales from Canada to the family of the accused. López Alonzo’s lawyer, Víctor Manuel Zavala Solares, maintains that his client rescued Osorio Cristales, who he renamed Ramiro Fernando López García, from certain death.

Judge Domínguez ruled in April 2017 that there was sufficient evidence to move the case to trial. The trial start date was set for August 20, 2018.

Trial Postponed to 2021

The trial court for the case against López Alonzo was initially High Risk Court “B.” However, that tribunal had previously presided over the Dos Erres massacre case involving other defendants, leading the case to be reassigned to High Risk Court “C.” But the president of that tribunal, Judge Pablo Xitumul, sat on High Risk Court “B” when that chamber heard proceedings in the previous Dos Erres massacre case, leading him to recuse himself from the López Alonzo case. The Supreme Court appointed a substitute judge to participate in the proceedings, but that judge also recused herself from the proceedings, stating that she had been transferred to a permanent judgeship on the Seventh Court of Labor and Social Welfare of Guatemala City in January 2018, and was no longer a substitute judge.

With the trial start date approaching, and no new substitute judge yet named, High Risk Court “C” announced that the trial had to be postponed, and set a new date of May 2021. It is unclear why the Supreme Court has failed to act in appointing a new judge. The president of the Supreme Court, José Antonio Pineda Barales, who was appointed to his post in 2017, is reportedly a close ally of what is known in Guatemala as the “pact of corruption” involving business elites and retired senior military officials who have long sought to stop criminal trials for corruption and human rights violations.

This new delay generates uncertainty for the surviving victims, and especially for Osorio Cristales, who have been demanding justice for the massacre for years.

In the meantime, however, High Risk Court “C” has scheduled a hearing on September 5, 2018 to hear the testimonies of several elderly family members of victims of the Dos Erres massacre. The Court will determine whether to accept their testimony as evidence in the proceedings against López Alonzo.

Odyssey for Justice in Las Dos Erres

Over the course of three days in early December 1982, Guatemalan Kaibil soldiers raped women and girls and killed over 200 men, women, and children in the Dos Erres community, located in Petén. Osorio Cristales is one of two known survivors of the Dos Erres massacre; the other is Oscar Ramírez Castañeda, who was three at the time of the massacre and was also kidnapped by one of the commanding officers of the Kaibil unit.

Justice for the victims of the Dos Erres massacre has been long in coming. Accountability efforts began in 1994, when the human rights organization, Families of the Disappeared of Guatemala (FAMDEGUA), first filed a criminal complaint in Guatemala against military personnel thought to be responsible for the massacre. However, after years of inaction by the Guatemalan courts, FAMDEGUA brought the Dos Erres massacre case to the Inter-American System of Human Rights. In 2009, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled on the case, finding the state of Guatemala responsible for the massacre of more than 200 people in Las Dos Erres, and ordered the state to investigate, prosecute, and punish those responsible.

Under the leadership of former Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz (2010-2014), efforts to prosecute grave crimes cases from the internal armed conflict took on new life. Cases like the Dos Erres massacre that had received a sentence from the Inter-American Court were a clear priority. To date there have been two trials with five former soldiers convicted in the Dos Erres massacre case. In 2011, a Guatemalan court sentenced a lieutenant to 6,066 years in prison and three Kaibil instructors to 6,060 years each as material authors (e.g., direct perpetrators) of the killing of 201 people in the 1982 Dos Erres massacre. In 2012, a court convicted another Kaibil instructor as a material author and sentenced him to 6,060 years in prison. In addition, three retired military officials accused in the case have been convicted in U.S. courts for violations of immigration law; when they complete their sentences, they will be sent to Guatemala, where they may face further charges.

The intellectual authors of the Dos Erres massacre have escaped punishment, however. While a court ruled in March 2017 that there was sufficient evidence to proceed with a trial against Ríos Montt in the Dos Erres massacre case, with his death in April, the case against him has been closed. Two other senior military officials died without facing justice for the Dos Erres massacre: Ríos Montt’s Minister of Defense, Oscar Humberto Mejía Víctores, and chief of the General Staff of the Guatemalan Army at the time, Héctor Mauricio López Fuentes.

Another ten military officials charged in the case have not been apprehended by Guatemalan authorities and remain at large.

Jo-Marie Burt is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Latin American Studies at George Mason University. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Paulo Estrada is a human rights activist, archaeology student at San Carlos University, and civil party in the Military Diary case.