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Guatemala Unearths Massacre of Civil War

Thursday, 29 April 2010 09:14 AM

LAS CRUCES, Guatemala — Archeologists this month meticulously unearthed the brittle, bare bones of what are thought to be at least 162 men, women and children killed by the Guatemalan army in 1982.

Stoic old folks watched intently for signs of brothers and sisters; kids asked about the heaps of femurs and broken craniums. There were gasps as the muddy clothing was extracted and documented — a boy’s athletic jersey, a girl’s yellow dress, an infant’s blouse.

Twenty-eight years ago, survivors couldn’t risk funerals or even discuss the crime. They couldn’t return to the frontier village of Las Dos Erres, which they had hacked out of the forest, planting crops and fruit trees in a back-breaking, doomed bid to rise from the peasantry. Entire families had been buried — some alive — in a dry well, mothers raped and hurled onto their wounded children below in about 18 hours of systematic savagery.

Now, after 16 years of investigation hindered by stonewalling in the courts, prosecutors, activists and victims are mounting a reinvigorated effort to bring to justice those who carried out the murders. It would be a landmark case in a country where hundreds of wartime massacres have gone unpunished. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, a branch of the Organization of American States, in November ordered Guatemala to perform the exhumation and restart a long-stalled prosecution. Two members of the notorious Guatemalan special forces, the Kaibiles, are in jail, another is out on bail and 14 more are wanted.

Horribly representative of Guatemala's civil war, the case offers unusually precise evidence supported by eyewitnesses. Two former Kaibiles, now in hiding for their own protection, have named their comrades in the attack. And a man who was orphaned in the rampage as a small boy then abducted and adopted by one of the attackers is ready to testify. He now lives outside the country, waiting for what he hopes will be his day in court.

The massacre still seems painfully fresh for Luis Saul Arevalo Valles, 52. He was in a neighboring town on Dec. 7, 1982 when his parents, three brothers and sister were killed in Las Dos Erres. On the bare patch of earth where a dry well once stood on his family’s land, there’s barely a sign of habitation. Today it is a desolate cattle range. But Arevalo finds pieces of an old oven and limestone he recalls digging from the well.

“This might have belonged to your grandparents,” he tells his son when they see a rusty can. “For me, it is like this happened yesterday,” he says.

Guatemala’s 36-year civil war ended in 1996. A United Nations-backed truth commission found that 200,000 were killed and that government forces had committed 626 massacres. The massacre at Las Dos Erres fit the pattern of attacks on villages that took place at the height of the war. The death toll wasn't the highest, estimated from 162 to 251, but like nearly all the others, the perpetrators were never punished.

The United States backed the regime in those Cold War years, but Americans were largely unaware of the carnage a country away from their southern border. Victoria Sanford, who has written extensively on Guatemalan war crimes, says victims there lacked the influential lobbying groups that brought U.S. attention to atrocities in El Salvador and Nicaragua. The Catholic Church had been intimidated and U.S. aid to the regime was often covert or through proxy countries.

The war is over but today Guatemalan crime drives astronomical murder rates but few prosecutions. Many see it as a legacy of the old military “impunity” that bred a culture of scared judges and corrupt cops. Former military figures are suspected in organized crime or are still strong political powers.

It remains to be seen whether Guatemala’s institutions have the will to pursue the Las Dos Erres case.

But there is new momentum toward addressing the past. Last year an army colonel and a civilian auxiliary to the military were sentenced in separate cases to long prison terms for ordering murders during the war. In the capital, forensic anthropologists dig through a cemetery corpse pit, collecting DNA to find the “disappeared.” Archivists sort millions of pages found in 2005 in a police warehouse that hold clues to government crimes. The U.S. ambassador attends trials and exhumations.
Las Dos Erres exhumation

This month, the supreme court classified Las Dos Erres as a “high-impact” case, changing the venue from the weak provincial court, where it has languished, to the capital.

But the obstacles are clear. The released Kaibil paid a meager $1,500 bond. The Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, performing the exhumations, lost its budget under the current government and relies on aid from the United States and other foreign donors. The director recently received a written death threat.

Last week, nominations for the country’s attorney general were stacked with figures connected to reactionary groups. Activists worry the wrong appointee could shelve Las Dos Erres and other important cases.

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Thursday, 29 April 2010 09:14 AM
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