“All of the Soldiers Participated in the Killing”: The Dos Erres Massacre Trial Gets Underway

“The village of Las Dos Erres was wiped off the map. Today, Las Dos Erres no longer exists because in 1982, an elite unit of the Guatemalan army eliminated the village of Las Dos Erres. The accused, Santos López Alonzo, was a member of that elite unit.”

With these words, human rights lawyer Edgar Pérez began his opening remarks in the trial of López Alonzo, a former Kaibil soldier who stands accused of crimes against humanity for his role in the 1982 Dos Erres massacre, in which more than 200 people were killed. This is one of hundreds of massacres that occurred in Guatemala during the government of José Efraín Ríos Montt, who was indicted as the intellectual author of the massacre but who died, at the age of 91, before the trial began.

López Alonzo also stands accused for the abusive and degrading treatment and the illegal appropriation of the identity of Ramiro Osorio Cristales, who was five at the time of the massacre. Osorio Cristales’ entire family was killed in the massacre.

López Alonzo is the sixth military official to face charges in the Dos Erres massacre in Guatemala. In 2011 and 2012, courts convicted five officials for their role in the massacre and sentenced them to more than 6,000 years in prison. U.S. courts have convicted three others accused in the case for violations of immigration law; when they complete their sentences, the U.S. will deport them to Guatemala, where they may face further charges. The U.S. deported López Alonzo to Guatemala in August 2016.

The Trial: Opening Statements

The case is being heard by High Risk Court “C,” with judges Elvis David Hernández (presiding), Eva Marina Recinos, and Berta Yessenia Argueta. The Attorney General’s Office is represented by prosecutors Erick de León, Jennifer Chacón, and Oscar Adolfo Miranda Morales. Aura Elena Farfán, a founding member of the Association of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared of Guatemala (FAMDEGUA) who played a fundamental role in the investigation of the Dos Erres massacre, is a civil party to the trial. Lawyers Edgar Pérez and Francisco Vivar of the Human Rights Law Firm represent the victims. Public defenders Jeannette García Rafael and Juan Luis Monterroso Luna are representing the defendant, López Alonzo.

Government prosecutor Erick de León presented the formal accusation against López Alonzo at the opening hearing on October 1, 2018. According to De León, López Alonzo participated in massacres in the southwestern region of Guatemala as a member of the Kaibil special counterinsurgency unit. He stated that the Kaibils dressed up like guerrilla fighters to conceal their true identities.

De León noted that the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR), a guerrilla organization, was active in the Petén region, where the community of Las Dos Erres was located. On October 11, 1982, at Las Cruces, not far from Las Dos Erres, FAR guerrillas ambushed a military convoy, killing several soldiers and stealing 22 rifles. A convoy of elite Kaibil instructors arrived by helicopter to the Santa Elena airbase in Petén on December 4 and were ordered to dress up like guerrillas, deploy to Las Dos Erres, and kill the inhabitants, who were suspected guerrilla sympathizers. In the early morning of December 6, the soldiers entered the village. They violently entered the homes of the sleeping villagers, forcing the men into the schoolhouse and the women and children into the church. Soldiers raped many of the girls and women, then forced them to cook for the troops.

De León said the soldiers then forced the villagers to march to the outskirts of the village, near the community well. Soldiers interrogated them about the FAR and about the stolen rifles. The villagers denied knowledge of either, and then the soldiers killed them all. They first threw the bodies of infants and children directly into a well. Then, using a sledgehammer, one by one, the soldiers struck the women and men in the head, throwing their bodies into the well. Afterwards the soldiers fired shots and tossed grenades into the well, presumably to destroy the evidence. De León said that witness testimony and forensic evidence will provide incontrovertible proof of these atrocities.

De León further remarked that before retreating from the village, the army unit captured two children who had survived the massacre, Ramiro Osorio Cristales and Oscar Ramírez Castañeda. López Alonso took Ramiro Osorio Cristales and, several months later, falsified his identity and registered him as his son. De León said that the evidence will show that the accused participated as a material author in the killing of at least 199 people at Las Dos Erres, and that he is also guilty of the illegal appropriation of Osorio Cristales, and of treating him in a cruel, humiliating, and degrading manner, including forced labor, physical beatings, and attempts against his life.

In his opening remarks, Edgar Pérez presented a brief history of the community of Las Dos Erres, located in the municipality of La Libertad, Petén, which was founded as a part of a government land grant in the early 1970s. Pérez represented the survivors and families of the victims of the massacre before the Inter-American Court for Human Rights, which ruled in 2009 that Guatemala was responsible for the massacre and ordered it to investigate, prosecute, and punish those responsible. He also represented victims in the two previous trials in 2011 and 2012. Pérez noted that the military high command is responsible for the design and implementation of the military plan that resulted in the massacre at Las Dos Erres, and reiterated that the evidence will show that the accused is one of the material authors of the massacre.

The defense lawyer spoke briefly, stating that he would guarantee the due process of the accused and ensure that the evidence presented meets legal standards. The court invited the accused to speak, but he limited himself to confirming his personal information and saying that he understood the charges of which he stands accused.

Experts Testify

Following the opening remarks, Guatemalan sociologist Manolo Vela presented an expert report about the origins of Las Dos Erres. He noted that the community had tense relations with the military base at Las Cruces, because the residents of Las Dos Erres refused to participate in the civil defense patrols. Vela also noted that small military units would dress up like guerrilla fighters and travel through the region to test the loyalty of the rural communities. At the same time, the villagers often felt obligated to collaborate with the guerrillas, which led the army to conclude that they were guerrilla sympathizers. Vela also mentioned that a leader of Las Dos Erres, named Federico Aquino Ruano, wrote his initials “FAR” on his sacks of corn, which further led the army to believe the community was supportive of the guerrillas. According to Vela, the massacre was a military operation designed to punish the FAR for the October ambush, but he also noted that the guerrilla presence in the Petén region was not militarily significant.

At the October 10 hearing, psychologist Nieves Gómez Dupuis presented her expert report about the psychological harm suffered by Ramiro Osorio Cristales as a result of the loss of his family and his illegal appropriation and alleged mistreatment by the accused. She noted that the uncertainty about the two children taken from Las Dos Erres after the massacre generated terror and extreme sadness among the massacre survivors. She noted further that Osorio Cristales suffers serious psychological harm because he was so young at the time of the massacre, and because he was reduced to a status of semi-servitude in the home of López Alonzo and was mistreated by López Alonzo’s wife and their children. He lives in a perpetual state of fear, anger, sadness, and defenselessness. It was only after Aura Elena Farfán of FAMDEGUA contacted Osorio Cristales that he began to understand his memories of the massacre and the rape of the women and girls. At this point, she testified, he began to receive death threats, which led him to leave Guatemala in search of safe haven.

“I Know this Man”: Massacre Survivors Identify the Defendant

Next, the court called on four survivors of the massacre, all siblings of the Gómez Hernández family, to testify. They did not live in Las Dos Erres, but their uncle did, and they had a small plot of land there. Salomé Armando Gómez Hernández, who was 11, was in Las Cruces with his younger brother Ramiro. When they arrived at Las Dos Erres, soldiers forced them at gunpoint into the kitchen of their uncle’s home. From there, he saw the soldiers force the women and children into the church and the men into the school, where they were tortured. Then he saw the soldiers forcing the villagers to walk towards the well. Soon he too was being directed toward the well by soldiers, but he managed to flee. The soldiers shot at him, but he managed to hide behind some bushes. From there, he heard the soldiers killing everyone. Among the dead were his brother Ramiro and his uncle. He later ran to his father’s house to tell him what had happened.

Goméz Hernández identified López Alonzo as one of the soldiers who participated in the killing. “I know this man,” he said, referring to the defendant. “I saw him,” he said. “All [of the soldiers] participated in the killing,” he told the court.

Sandra, María, and Raul Gómez Hernández, the sisters and brother of the previous witness, testified next. They recounted that soldiers came to their home to interrogate their father about the stolen rifles. In previous proceedings, the witnesses identified Reyes Collin Gualip and Pedro Pimentel as the Kaibil soldiers who interrogated their father (both were found guilty for their role in the massacre in 2011). They took him away and they thought he was going to be killed. Sandra recalled the moment when her brother Salomé came to the house yelling, “They killed Ramiro! They killed everyone at Las Dos Erres!”

“Those military officials came to Las Dos Erres on the order of Ríos Montt, who was never prosecuted because of the impunity of the justice system,” Raúl Gómez Hernández told the court.

Further hearings are scheduled for October 17 and 18.