Ex-Special Forces Soldier Sentenced to 5,160 Years for Role in Las Dos Erres Massacre

Santos López Alonzo, a former member of the Guatemalan military, was found guilty for the assassination of 171 men, women, and children in the village of Dos Erres on December 6 and 7, 1982. The court sentenced the soldier, a member of the Kaibil special counterinsurgency unit, to 5,130 years in prison, 30 years for each of the victims. He was sentenced to an additional 30 years for crimes against humanity committed in the context of the massacre.

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. Five other military officials have been tried, convicted, and sentenced for their participation in the Dos Erres massacre, while two are serving time for immigration fraud in the United States.

The court acknowledged the abuses suffered by Ramiro Osorio Cristales, who was five at the time of the massacre and who was illegally registered as the child of the accused, but said that these did not rise to crimes against humanity and acquitted López Alonzo of these charges. In addition, the court dismissed the charges against López Alonzo for the crime of the suppression and alteration of the civil status of Osorio Cristales, due to the ten-year statute of limitations for this crime.

On November 23, the court ordered a series of reparations best characterized as “integral.” The court ordered measures to protect the survivor-witnesses; ordered psychological assistance for survivors; and ordered a series of commemorative acts for the survivors and families of the victims of the massacre. It also ordered authorities to make every effort to apprehend the other military officials accused in the case but who remain at large, and ordered Congress to enact legal reforms to prevent cases such as this from suffering undue delays that interfere with victims’ right to access justice.

The Verdict

The verdict was handed down by High Risk Tribunal “C,” with judges Eva Marina Recinos, Berta Yesenia Argueta, and Elvis Hernández (presiding). The court found that the military high command ordered the attack on the village of Las Dos Erres, believing that some of its inhabitants were guerrillas of the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR), who had ambushed a military convey near the Las Cruces military base and made off with an estimated 20 rifles. However, the court, noting that the Special Kaibil Patrol did not locate weapons or guerrilla combatants in the village, determined that the people living in Las Dos Erres were not guerrillas, but were rather non-combatant civilians.

The court found that the Kaibil soldiers killed the villagers in a planned manner, and that each Kaibil soldier had a specific function in the planning of the massacre to ensure that all of the inhabitants of Las Dos Erres were killed. The court found that soldiers killed the men, women, and children by hitting them in head with a sledgehammer and in some cases firearms that were exclusively used by the army, and that soldiers committed sexual violence against women and girls prior to killing them. The court determined that the operation was committed with “treachery, premeditation, cruelty and brutality,” and concluded that the conduct of the Special Kaibil Patrol constituted “inhumane acts.”

The court found that the accused, Santos López Alonso, was present at Las Dos Erres on the day of the massacre and that he collaborated in the killing of 171 people. Specifically, the court said that López Alonzo prevented women and children from fleeing the town prior to their execution. The court determined that the military high command ordered the massacre, but that without López Alonzo’s participation, the mission’s military objective would not have been achieved. The court therefore unanimously found López Alonzo responsible of the crime of assassination of 171 people, and imposed a sentence of 30 years for each victim, for a total of 5,130 years. The court imposed an additional 30-year sentence for crimes against humanity against the inhabitants of Dos Erres and Ramiro Osorio Cristales, who was five years old at the time of the massacre and who was abducted by members of the Kaibil unit after the massacre, for a total and incommutable sentence of 5,160 years in prison.

Regarding the charges directly related to Ramiro Osorio Cristales, the court acknowledged Osorio Cristales’s testimony of abuse, but determined that the defendant’s acts did not constitute crimes against humanity in the form of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and acquitted him of those charges. While the court found that the defendant had illegally suppressed and altered the identity of Osorio Cristales, it dismissed the charges due to the ten-year statute of limitations for this crime.

The court concluded its presentation of the verdict and convened a reparations hearing on November 23.

Reactions: “A just verdict”

Sandra Gómez Hernández, a survivor of the Dos Erres massacre who lost 14 family members, told IJ Monitor: “Our father told us that nothing would happen to us because the military base at Las Cruces was close by, and the soldiers would protect us. But it turns out that the soldiers dressed up like guerrillas and came to Las Dos Erres to kill people…. We feel sad not only because they killed our family members but also because the army betrayed us.”

She said she thought it was “just” that López Alonzo and the other Kaibil soldiers and officials convicted previously “pay for what they did, for all the innocent people who lost their lives. They killed innocent children, youths, and elderly people. The people who lived in Las Dos Erres were humble and hard-working people.”

Human rights lawyer Edgar Pérez, who represented the victims, told IJ Monitor that while he was satisfied with the sentence, he questioned the court’s decision to apply the statute of limitations for the crime of the suppression and alteration of Osorio Cristales’ civil status. “The court could have adopted a broader interpretation of the crime as a grave human rights violation because of the long-term consequences this has had and continues to have on Ramiro.”

José Flores of Families of the Disappeared of Guatemala (FAMDEGUA) made a similar observation. “Ramiro was just a child and he did not understand that he had been kidnapped, and that for most of his life it was impossible for him to file a complaint,” he said.

Both Pérez and Flores said that after reviewing the sentence they will determine whether they will file an appeal.

López Alonzo’s defense lawyer, who is a public defender, told IJ Monitor that after studying the sentence his office would determine whether it would appeal the ruling.

Integral Reparations

At the November 23 reparations hearing, the court acknowledged the victims’ efforts to obtain justice and to be present in the courtroom, and noted that it is the state’s responsibility to ensure access to justice for all citizens. The court noted that Guatemalan law establishes that when government officials are found guilty of criminal acts, the state is responsible for providing reparations.

The court ordered the Attorney General’s Office to apprehend several military officials who are charged in this case but who remain at large. It ordered the Ministry of the Interior to provide security measures to the surviving victims, and it directed the Ministry of Health, in collaboration with the Psychology Departments of the public universities, to provide psychological care to the survivors of the Dos Erres massacre in the place of their residence.

The court did not order economic reparations for emotional and material damages and losses, stating that it could not do so since the Prosecutor General’s Office (PGN) was not sued as a third civil party in these proceedings. At the same time, the court ordered the PGN (a separate entity from the Attorney General’s Office) to fully comply with the ruling issued by the Inter-American Court for Human Rights in 2009. That ruling included compensation for non-pecuniary damages for the denial of justice, which the court reasoned has “affected the mental and moral integrity of the 155 victims, two of them survivors.”

The court ordered a series of measures to commemorate the victims of the Dos Erres massacre. It ordered the Executive to declare December 7 as the National Day of Memory of the Victims of the Las Dos Erres Massacre, and ordered the municipality of Las Cruces, Petén, to perform an act of Commemoration of the Victims of the Massacre on December 7. The court also ordered publication of part the sentence in the official Central American Daily and in its entirety on the website of the Guatemalan Judicial Branch. The court did not order the state to make a video about the massacre, which had been previously ordered by the Inter-American Court.

Regarding Ramiro Osorio Cristales, the court ordered the National Registry of Persons to nullify the false birth certificate in which the convict López Alonzo registered him as his son.

Finally, the court ordered Congress to reform the law on the appeal for legal protection (known in Guatemala as the Law of Amparo) to ensure that it is not misused in an effort to delay or obstruct the legal process.

The court stated that it will deliver the written verdict on November 28.