Dos Erres massacre survivor Ramiro Osorio Cristales testified in the trial against former Kaibil instructor Santos López Alonzo, who faces charges for his role in the killing of 200 people at Dos Erres and for the cruel and degrading treatment and illegal appropriation of Osorio Cristales.
The massacre took place on December 6, 1982, when Efraín Ríos Montt was de facto president of Guatemala. Osorio Cristales was five.
Osorio Cristales told the court that one soldier dragged his mother away by the hair, while another, López Alonzo, told him to stay with him. His parents and siblings were killed. He later learned that several aunts, uncles, and his maternal grandmother were still alive, and recovered his true identity.
He is one of two children who survived the Dos Erres massacre. The other, Oscar Ramírez Castañeda, was three at the time, and only learned of his true identity a few years ago.
The court allowed a psychologist to accompany Osorio Cristales as he gave his testimony. During his testimony, Osorio Cristales did not look at the defendant, and referred to him only as “that man.”
“I did not understand what was happening”
Osorio Cristales began his testimony sharing memories of his early life in the small village of Las Dos Erres. He then testified about the massacre.
“I remember that one night, some men arrived at our house and knocked on the door. They began to beat down the door, which woke us up. They yelled at us to open the door or they would kick it in. When my dad opened the door, they hit him. Then they tied up his hands. They forced my mom and my brothers and me to the center of the village. They split us up. They took my dad and my older brother to the schoolhouse and they took me and my other brothers and my mom to the church. There were many people there already. Everyone was asking why they were doing this. Nobody knew. The women were crying. Some of them had been beaten. I did not understand what was happening.”
Osorio said that he began to hear people in the schoolhouse screaming. He remembers one woman told him that she could hear her husband and her son screaming.
One of the soldiers told them, “If you know how to pray, pray, because no one is going to save you from this.”
He recalled that soldiers dragged away one woman’s daughter. The woman began to cry. Osorio said he could hear the girl screaming that they were hurting her. He said he later understood that the soldiers were raping her.
Later, he said, the soldiers came towards his mother. “I was holding her tightly by the leg. A man came, grabbed her by the hair, and dragged her away. The man who separated me from her told me to stay with him.” The then pointed to the defendant, López Alonzo. “He is the man who separated me.”
He said he cried for a long time and then fell asleep from exhaustion. When he woke up there were two more children. The three of them huddled together in a corner, crying. A while later the soldiers returned and took the boys to the mountains. Two or three days passed. He then saw the defendant again. A helicopter, which he later identified as a military helicopter, came to pick them up. He and the other boys were brought to the Kaibil Training Center, where the soldiers dressed them in army uniforms and cut their hair.
“I went with him [the defendant] thinking it was a good idea. But it was a bad decision on my part,” he told the court. “He took me to his house to live. I didn’t know that later he would become my tormentor. He tried to put out the light that God left in me so I could tell what happened [at Las Dos Erres] and speak for those who are no longer here.” Referring to the fact that he lived for many years in the home of the accused, he added: “That man had the opportunity to kill me, but thank God he didn’t do it.”
“They are not my parents. My parents died at Dos Erres”
When they were at the Kaibil Training Center, Osorio said, the soldiers interrogated them about their families and about whether they knew of any weapons in the village. Later, the defendant took him by truck to the house of his in-laws in Retalhuleu. “The defendant’s mother-in-law once told me that he had told her that there were children in the Kaibil Training Center and they were giving them away, like we were animals,” Osorio said. The woman asked him to bring her one of the boys, because she did not have any male children. “So he brought me to her house. But later, when I was back at his house, he decided not to allow her to adopt me.” Instead, the defendant and his wife illegally registered Osorio as his son.
Osorio’s lawyer, Edgar Pérez, of the Human Rights Law Firm, asked the court to allow the witness to review two birth certificates. Osorio read aloud the information on the first birth certificate. The birth certificate states his name is Ramiro Antonio Osorio Cristales, born on July 8, 1977 in La Libertad, Petén. It includes the name of his mother, Petrona Cristales, and his father, Víctor Osorio.
Osorio then read aloud a second birth certificate, dated August 15, 1983. In this certificate, registered by the accused, Osorio’s name is listed as Ramiro Fernando López García, and lists López Alonzo and his wife, Lidia García Pérez, as his parents. The accused listed as his birth date June 30, 1977, which is “Army Day” in Guatemala.
“They are not my parents,” he said. “My parents died at Dos Erres.”
DNA tests later helped confirm Osorio’s true identity. He learned that some of his family members, including uncles, aunts, cousins, and his maternal grandmother, were still alive.
For many years, Osorio said, he did not use his given name, because he did not know what it was. He learned of his true identity with the help of people from the Attorney General’s Office and the Families of the Detained-Disappeared of Guatemala (FAMDEGUA), who were investigating the Dos Erres massacre. They looked for Osorio at the home of the accused in 1998, but he was enlisted in the army and was stationed at an air force base in southern Guatemala, so they did not find him. Osorio said that he learned from the defendant that people from the Attorney General’s Office were looking for him.
Osorio began to grow concerned when his superior officers denied his leave for the Christmas holiday, fearing the army had learned that he was a survivor of the Dos Erres massacre. After several days, on January 3, 1999, Osorio escaped from the air force base. He went to the Attorney General’s Office, which promised to help him. Osorio realized he was in mortal danger. “I was afraid that the army would disappear me,” he said. “That is why I began looking for a way to get out of the country.”
After he escaped from the military base, with the help of the Attorney General’s Office and FAMDEGUA, Osorio emigrated to Canada. It was difficult for him to adapt. At times, he said, he felt like his life no longer had any meaning and he contemplated suicide.
“He never mistreated his own children the way he did me”
Osorio testified about the cruel and inhuman treatment he endured at the hands of the defendant and his family. They forced him to work, and he struggled to finish his schooling. He told the court that the defendant assaulted him on several occasions, harming him physically and emotionally. “The defendant never hit or mistreated his own children the way he did me.” Osorio told the court that the defendant also forced him to do such things as robbing stores.
Osorio recalled an occasion when he arrived home to find the accused drunk. He started to beat Osorio and hit him with a rifle. He later threatened to decapitate him with a machete. Osorio showed the court the wounds on his fingers from trying to grab the machete away from the defendant. The accused then shot him, causing him to fall to the ground. A neighbor came to his aid. Osorio said that the neighbor remarked, “he finally killed him,” revealing that the mistreatment he suffered at the hands of the defendant was common knowledge. The defendant’s wife convinced Osorio to come back inside the house. There, he said, the defendant heated up lamp gas and poured it on his wounds, presumably to heal them.
Pérez asked Osorio about his correspondence with López Alonzo after he moved to Canada. He affirmed that he had written some letters. For a while, he said, he had feelings of appreciation for the defendant and his family. But over time, he came to realize that they had stripped him of his identity and that his affection for them was a betrayal of his roots and of his family, who were all killed in the massacre. “I could not continue feeling that way about them, because they did not deserve it,” he said.
Osorio concluded his testimony by saying, “What I am asking you, judges, is that justice be done. It is time…. It is time for justice for all of those who are no longer here, those who no longer exist, those whose light was snuffed out. But one light was left, and I am that light. I am asking you to send those who committed this crime into the darkness.”
The Attorney General’s Office declined to question Osorio to avoid retraumatizing him.
The public defense attorney representing López Alonzo asked Osorio only a few questions. The questions focused on the details of the massacre, and trying to ascertain whether Osorio actually witnessed López Alonzo kill anyone at Las Dos Erres. He asked when Osorio first saw López Alonzo, to which he responded, “when they took away my mother.”
He asked when he next saw him; he responded a few days later, when he and the other boys were walking with some of the soldiers in the mountains. He asked if he wrote the letters to López Alonzo that had been previously discussed, to which he responded affirmatively, and confirmed that he wrote the last one in 2003.
López Alonzo was deported to Guatemala in August 2016 from the United States, where he lived since 2001. Shortly after of his arrest, López Alonzo told the court that he saved Osorio Cristales, and denied any involvement in the killing that took place at Las Dos Erres.
Guatemalan courts have convicted five military officials for the Dos Erres massacre, four in 2011 and one in 2012, sentencing them to more than 6,000 years in prison.
The trial continues in Guatemala City.