The trial of former Kaibil soldier Santos López Alonzo for his role in the 1982 Dos Erres massacre will start today, just weeks after the announcement of an unusually long delay.
The trial was initially scheduled to start on August 20, 2018, when High Risk Court “C” notified the parties that it had yet to find a judge to replace Pablo Xitumul, the president of the tribunal. Xitumul had excused himself from the trial court because he had previously heard the case, with other perpetrators, in 2011. Delays in trial start dates are not unusual in Guatemala; what was unusual was that the new start date two and a half years later: in May 2021.
However, López Alonzo’s public defender filed a petition with the Supreme Court of Justice, asserting that the delay unduly violated his client’s right to a speedy and impartial trial. As a result, the trial start date was again changed, to October 1, 2018.
López Alonzo is charged with crimes against humanity for his role in the Dos Erres massacre, in which more than 200 people, including women, children, and the elderly, were killed. López Alonzo was a Kaibil, a special operations unit of the Guatemalan army specializing in counterinsurgency warfare and infamous for their role in gross violations of human rights during the internal armed conflict (1960-1996). 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. López Alonzo was deported from the United States to Guatemala in August 2016. (For more details on the case, see Dos Erres Massacre Trial Postponed From August 2018 to May 2021.)
The court held a hearing on September 5 to determine whether to accept as evidence the testimony of six elderly witnesses, though in the end only three actually testified due to time constraints.
Justice for the victims of the Dos Erres massacre has been long in coming. The Families of the Disappeared of Guatemala (FAMDEGUA) first filed a criminal complaint against military personnel thought to be responsible for the massacre. After years of inaction by the Guatemalan courts, FAMDEGUA brought the case to the Inter-American System of Human Rights. In 2009, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found the state of Guatemala responsible for the massacre and ordered it to investigate, prosecute, and punish those responsible.
Since then, five former soldiers have been convicted in the case. In 2011, a Guatemalan court sentenced an army lieutenant to 6,066 years in prison and three Kaibil instructors to 6,060 years each as material authors (e.g., direct perpetrators), and in 2012, a court convicted a Kaibil instructor as a material author, sentencing him to 6,060 years in prison. 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 deported to Guatemala, where they may face further charges.
To date, the intellectual authors of the Dos Erres massacre have escaped punishment. Efraín Ríos Montt, the de facto head of state at the time of the massacre and who had been indicted in the case, died before it went to trial. 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 Army Chief of Staff, 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.