The trial against former Kaibil soldier Santos López Alonzo is reaching a conclusion. López Alonzo faces charges for his role in the killing of 200 people at Dos Erres and for the cruel and degrading treatment and kidnapping of Ramiro Osorio Cristales, who was five at the time of the massacre.
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.
The Dos Erres massacre took place on December 6, 1982, when Efraín Ríos Montt was de facto president of Guatemala. 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 Case Against Santos López Alonzo
The public trial of López Alonzo began on October 1, 2018. Over the course of ten hearings, 20 survivors, including Osorio Cristales and Armando Gómez Hernández and three of his siblings, provided eyewitness accounts of the massacre. In addition, the Attorney General’s Office presented twelve expert witnesses, one qualified expert, and forensic evidence gathered from exhumations from the massacre site as well as official documents and ballistic reports.
Among the expert witnesses who have testified are Guatemalan sociologist Manolo Vela Castañeda and social psychologist Nieves Dubois. (For details of their testimony, see All of the Soldiers Participated in the Killing: The Dos Erres Massacre Trial Gets Underway.)
The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) conducted exhumations in Dos Erres in 1994 and 1995. Presenting the expert report on behalf of the EAAF was Silvana Turner, a member of the organization. She told the court that 171 human remains were recovered from the well, where the military had thrown the bodies of most of the victims, and surrounding areas. Forty percent of the bodies recovered, she noted, were children aged zero to twelve.
In the context of the exhumations, Turner said, investigators found spent Israeli Galil rifle cartridges at the site of the massacre, as well as garments, a coin, and a calendar from 1982. Ballistics experts Mariano Chicay and Víctor Palacios affirmed in their testimony that the 5.6 x 45mm cartridges found at the massacre site correspond to rifles that are used exclusively by the army. At least 20 of the victims had bullet holes in their heads, pelvis, and thorax.
José Suasnavar Bolaños of the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG) testified that his organization, together with the Attorney General’s Office, performed an ocular inspection at the massacre site in 2010. They located a sledgehammer in the cemetery, which prosecutors claim was the weapon used to kill the majority of the victims. (In previous court testimony, eyewitnesses told the court that the victims were lined up by the community well, hit on the head with a sledgehammer, and their bodies were disposed of by throwing them into the well.) FAFG also conducted DNA tests to establish the identity of the two boys, Ramiro Osorio Cristales and Oscar Alfredo Ramírez Castañeda, who were taken by the military after the massacre.
Military Expert: No Evidence Any Kaibil Tried to Stop the Killing
Former Peruvian general Rodolfo Robles provided expert testimony on military doctrine and structure. Robles affirmed that in his expert opinion, the Kaibil Special Patrol perpetrated the massacre against the non-combatant civilian population of Dos Erres, and that the villagers did not oppose or resist the army action, nor did they provoke any kind of confrontation, since they were unarmed.
The expert told the court that the Kaibil Special Patrol was a unit of soldiers trained for direct combat. The unit that entered Dos Erres in the early morning of December 6, 1982 consisted of 60 men, including officers and specialists. They acted in a planned and coordinated manner, Robles stated. According to the witness, Lieutenant Pedro Pimentel (who was convicted and sentenced in 2012 to more than 6,000 years for his role in this case) was the commanding officer, and the unit was organized into four groups—command, assault, support and security—which acted on the basis of their hierarchical position and following the chain of command.
According to Robles, the assault group raided the homes of the inhabitants and forced them to walk to the pre-determined location for execution, the town well. The command group stayed in a central position and commanded the operation, all the while maintaining constant communication with the military unit, the witness said. Robles testified that the support group acted as a reserve, waiting for orders from the command group as needed, while the security group surrounded the village and controlled access into and out of the village, and was in charge of making sure no one escaped. There is no evidence, he stated, that any of the Kaibil members opposed or tried to stop the killing.
Robles told the court that in his expert opinion, the Chief of the Military Detachment of Las Cruces, Lieutenant Carlos Carías, had knowledge of the operation in Dos Erres. Robles testified that Carías, who was convicted along with three others in the case in 2011, looted and burned down houses in the villages after the massacre, showing that he was carrying out superior orders. Robles told the court that the extraction of the children Oscar and Ramiro had no pre-established objective, nor did it correspond to a military logic.
López Alonzo’s defense lawyer questioned Robles about the chain of command. She asserted that his client was not an official and that, as a member of the security group, was merely following orders.
The Crucial Testimony of Two Ex Kaibil Soldiers
The Attorney General’s Office presented the written testimony of two ex Kaibil soldiers who participated in the massacre: instructor and specialist César Franco Ibañez and specialist Fabio Pinzón Jerez. Government prosecutor Paula Herrarte read fragments of their testimony, including the sections where Franco Ibañez recognized López Alonzo as one of the Kaibil soldiers who participated in the massacre; his affirmation that the soldiers dressed up to look like guerrilla fighters to confuse the population; and when he named the other members of the patrol who raped the girls in front of their families and described how they killed the victims by throwing them into the well.
The prosecutor then read part of Pinzón Jerez’s statement, including his affirmation that the Kaibiles were assigned the mission of recovering 21 rifles from Dos Erres, but that they did not find any weapons in the community. He affirmed that some of the victims were decapitated and most of the victims were thrown into the well, and fragmentation bombs were thrown into the well to destroy the evidence. The prosecutor quoted Pinzón Jerez, saying: “By 5:00 o’clock in the afternoon, there was no one left in Las Dos Erres.”
The lawyer representing the victims of Las Dos Erres, Francisco Vivar, read fragments of a U.S. declassified document written by staff of the U.S. embassy in Guatemala to the Secretary of State with the subject line: “alleged massacre in Las Dos Erres Petén of 200 inhabitants by the Guatemalan army, December 1982.” The document revealed that representatives of the U.S. and Canadian embassies inspected the area a few days after the massacre took place. They concluded that the army was responsible. (For more details on U.S. declassified documents in this case, see the National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book 316).
On November 19, the defense presented two witnesses, including the defendant’s daughter, Nora Sucelly López García, and his friends, Geronimo Herrera Toyún and Vidal Pérez Romero. Each witness affirmed that López Alonzo cared for Ramiro, and provided him with food, clothing, a home, and an education. López Alonzo also testified, affirming that he was indeed present at the site of the massacre, but said that he did not participate in the killing or in any of the other crimes that took place.
The court then heard the concluding arguments of the Attorney General’s Office and the civil parties. Prosecutor Paula Herrarte recounted the events that led to the massacre and affirmed that the evidence clearly demonstrated that the Kaibil unit carried out a massacre of some 200 people in Dos Erres. She argued that the evidence clearly establishes that the defendant was a member of the Kaibil Special Patrol and was present during the military operation at Dos Erres, and that he was the person who extracted Ramiro Osorio Cristales, who was five at the time, from Dos Erres after the massacre, registered him illegally as his son, and treated him cruelly and inhumanely.
Herrarte called upon the court to find the defendant guilty of at least 199 deaths and asked for a sentence of 30 years for each count of homicide, for a total of 5,970, and an additional sentence of 30 years for crimes against humanity committed in the context of the massacre. The prosecutor further called on the court to impose a sentence of 30 years for the cruel and inhumane treatment of Osorio Cristales, and an additional eight years for the illegal suppression and alteration of Osorio Cristales’ civil status. Franscico Vivar reiterated the petition of Attorney General’s Office, stating that the sentence of 5,970 years would help dignity the memory of each of the victims of the Dos Erres massacre.
The defendant’s attorney, Juan Luis Monterroso Luna, argued that the missions such as this one were carefully planned by the military high command, and that the defendant was not a member of the military high command. He was merely the baker at the Kaibil school, he said. According to his lawyer, López Alonzo was not a Kaibil specialist, nor did he have any control over the military operation. Monterroso Luna argued further that plaintiffs have not provided any evidence that the defendant participated in the killings or rapes that took place at Dos Erres.
The defense attorney questioned the credibility of the witnesses who claimed to have seen the defendant at the site of the massacre, including the two former Kaibils and two survivors, Armando Salomé Gómez and Ramiro Osorio Cristales. In any case, he stated, López Alonzo did not have the command authority to stop the operation. Monterroso Luna also questioned the fact that the Attorney General’s Office has not pursued criminal prosecution against these two ex Kaibiles, who also participated in the massacre. He noted that one of these witnesses was the cook of the Kaibil school, while her client was the baker.
Since there is no evidence of her client’s direct participation in the crimes, Monterroso Luna called on the court to find him not guilty of the murder of 199 people and for the crimes against humanity committed at Dos Erres. He also called on the court find the accused not guilty of the cruel and inhumane treatment of Osorio Cristales, based on lack of evidence. On the question of suppression and alteration of Osorio Cristales’ civil status, the defense attorney asked the court for a sentence corresponding to the civil code in force at the time of the events, one year in prison.
At the end of the concluding arguments, the presiding judge asked the public if any survivors of the massacre were present in the room. Five individuals raised their hand. The judge invited each of them to address the court. They each asked for justice for the victims of Dos Erres, and for a conviction in the present case. They also asked the court to restore the land that they lost after the massacre.
One of the survivors, Timotea Alicia Pérez López, told the court, “My loved ones were good people, they were hard workers. The soldiers came to [Dos Erres] to kill and to take people away from us. We ask the court for justice.”