In Still-Violent Guatemala, a Brave Search for Justice


When the survivors of the Rio Negro massacre buried their dead, it was 12 years after the fact.

The cracked bones of the 144 Mayan women and children slaughtered by an army patrol had remained hidden in a common grave until a team of forensic anthropologists excavated the site as part of an effort to unearth Guatemala’s dark, brutal past.

The Rio Negro survivors, whose ancestors populated these highlands 2,000 years ago, gave their relatives funerals in the public cemetery of Rabinal. And days later, “unknown hands” rampaged over the graves in the middle of the night and destroyed the tombstones.

Convinced that the vandals were the same people responsible for the murders, the Rio Negro Indians are now rebuilding the tombstones, this time with more sturdy cement and stone.


“We will never know how many people died in the violence,” Antonia Osorio Sanchez--whose mother, little brother, nephews and nieces were killed at Rio Negro--said as she watched over the construction.

Around her, Indian men and women hoed wet cement and hammered a wooden frame to encase one of the plots. A mound of soft, tan dirt stretching nearly 200 feet along the edge of the cemetery marked the resting place of Osorio’s relatives and neighbors.

Even as Guatemala suffers through a new wave of political violence, still-fearful victims of the past are braving the dangers and hoping to find justice. During the government’s anti-insurgency campaigns of the 1980s, an estimated 100,000 people--mostly civilian Mayan peasants--were killed, human rights groups say. An additional 40,000 “disappeared” and are presumed dead.

With the nation struggling to end its decades-old civil war and construct a democracy, expectations have been raised that the time has come to confront and clarify the past. More encouragement came with the November arrival of U.N. human rights monitors and the ongoing exhumation of numerous mass graves.


But in a country where anti-Indian racism is strong and the powerful are above the law, where judges are threatened and investigators killed, the prospects of justice are bleak. A high level of violence continues, ranging from kidnapings and land disputes to political assassinations, and some Guatemalans and foreign diplomats warn of a wider social explosion if concrete steps toward reconciliation are not taken soon.

And there are other discouraging signs: Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, the military strongman who ran Guatemala during the height of the last decade’s slaughter, has been elected president of Congress and is openly campaigning for the presidency, up for a vote in 1995.

Many Guatemalans who support the retired general prefer to promote a fiction about their country: that the massacres of Indians never really happened, that the “necessary” killing that occurred in the war has been exaggerated by foreign activists.

“The terror (of the anti-insurgency campaign) was so complete, it not only killed lots of people, it erased acknowledgment of the massacres,” said Gabriel Aguilera, a Guatemalan political scientist. “There are Guatemalans who say they don’t know it happened, or they don’t want to believe it happened. Because the victims were primarily Mayan peasants, these Guatemalans do not feel directly affected. This is a bad foundation on which to build peace.”


Most of Central America, a Cold War battleground in the 1980s, is passing through the painful process of recovery and grappling with--ignoring, in some cases--its torturous past of atrocity and destruction.

But in Guatemala, where that past is perhaps darkest, the war between government forces and a leftist insurgency still simmers and efforts at nation-building lag miserably. State institutions, from the Congress to police to the judiciary, are seen as corrupt and weak; the army is seen as overly influential. And political and criminal violence surges.

It is in the airing of incidents such as Rio Negro that the tragedy of the past and the fears of the present merge.

Rio Negro was a small, remote village north of Rabinal, in an area frequented by guerrillas. In March, 1982, according to survivors, members of an army-controlled Civilian Self-Defense Patrol swept into town and rounded up the women and children. The men, for the most part, were away, working in the distant cornfields.


The patrol, dominated by Indians from a rival community, played tapes of marimba music and forced the women to dance, townspeople say. Many were raped before being beaten to death and dumped into a common grave, according to villagers and the evidence recovered by the anthropologists who exhumed the remains earlier this year.

Of 144 victims recovered, “there were only seven gunshot wounds and a few machete cuts,” said German archeologist Stefan Schmitt, a member of the forensic team. “The great majority appeared to have died from blunt-force trauma. It was a brutal death.”

Most of the women’s pelvises were broken, he said.

Human rights groups and anthropologists estimate 7,000 to 10,000 people were killed in Baja Verapaz province surrounding Rabinal in the early 1980s, or about a quarter of the population. As part of Rios Montt’s “scorched earth” policy, entire villages were obliterated in areas thought to support rebels.


The state-sponsored violence often built upon ancient rivalries over land, tensions among Indian communities and hatred between Indians and the ladinos, Guatemalans of Indian or mixed Indian and European heritage who have “assimilated” and abandoned Mayan culture.

Another massacre site excavated this year was at Plan de Sanchez, a hamlet on a mountain ridge covered with towering oak and cypress trees about five miles above Rabinal. On July 18, 1982, soldiers called together villagers who were returning from Sunday marketing and church services down in Rabinal, according to survivor Juan Manuel Jeronimo, who gave this account:

The village had been denounced as a guerrilla training camp by a ladino neighbor who wanted the Indians’ land. The soldiers shot the cowering peasants and then added a couple of grenades. Finally the bodies were stacked in shacks and set afire. The young girls were raped and their bodies tossed down a ravine.

Among the nearly 200 people killed were Jeronimo’s mother, grandfather, wife and three children, ages 6 months, 4 years and 7 years. “This is where our whole family was buried,” he said, pointing to what is now a gaping hole at the top of the ridge, where he led two reporters. Four wooden crosses in a wooden lean-to used as a chapel pay homage to the dead.


Jeronimo and about 20 other villagers who escaped death because they were not at home when the soldiers arrived immediately went into hiding in the woods, where they remained for three years until returning to Plan de Sanchez under the auspices of the church.

The village has undergone a kind of renaissance, Jeronimo said, and now about 80 families live there. The exhumations, he said, are intended to set the record straight about what happened.

“Their idea is that this was an armed confrontation with guerrillas and 200 died,” Jeronimo said of the official version of events, speaking in a Spanish accented with his native Achi language. “We want the truth to come to light about how our families died. How can you have an armed confrontation with a nursing baby? With a 4-year-old child? These were poor innocents.”

Father Fernando Suazo, a Roman Catholic priest who has worked out of the Rabinal parish for the last eight years, said the excavations of what had been considered clandestine cemeteries in the Guatemalan highlands represent an important turning point.


Most of the Indian communities are still so riven with fear that they do not have much hope that justice will follow, he said. But in a society where the atrocities of the past are kept silent, the exhumations have provided a catharsis.

“At last people could come together and cry--something that they were never allowed to do,” Suazo said. “They could come together, remember, cry, pray, utter (the victims’) names aloud, relive the whole thing. It was the beginning of a therapeutic process. But it has not gone beyond that, and now everything is paralyzed.”

Guatemalan judicial authorities, who must issue a permit for the exhumations, have refused to allow the anthropologists to finish their work at Plan de Sanchez, members of the forensic team said. Army officers summoned community leaders to a meeting at the Rabinal soccer field a couple of months ago and warned that the people in charge of the exhumations were “guerrillas” who should be resisted.

And most ominously, an army specialist suspected of having directed the Plan de Sanchez massacre turned up dead a few weeks ago, with more than a dozen bullets in his body, area priests said. The speculation is that he was silenced to keep him from revealing who ordered the killings.


The forensic anthropologists, who say they have also received death threats, got their start in Guatemala under the direction of noted U.S. scientist Clyde Snow. The six-member team, which includes Guatemalans, Americans and Europeans, wants to use the exhumations to provide scientific evidence that will allow the relatives of massacre victims to take their cases to court.

“Our prime objective is to make the judicial system (work)--that there be no whitewash of the historical record,” Schmitt said. “Here’s the proof. Now it’s up to the government.”

The government’s track record for investigating even the most notorious human rights cases is not encouraging, and some Guatemalans worry that as Rios Montt gains power, there will be even less willingness to probe.

The murders of high-profile victims, such as prominent politician Jorge Carpio, a cousin of President Ramiro de Leon Carpio, have gone unresolved. In no case has an “intellectual author"--the person suspected of giving the orders--ever been prosecuted, human rights activists say.


“Impunity in Guatemala is historic, institutional, almost structural,” said Leonardo Franco, head of the U.N. human rights monitoring mission that began work in November as part of peace talks. “Those who have power--economic power, military power--have unlimited power. There is no way to bring them to justice.”

In a report issued in June, the organization Human Rights Watch/Americas blasted the government of De Leon--himself a former human rights ombudsman--for allowing continued torture, killings and kidnapings.

And since then, Guatemala has passed through some of the worst violence seen here in years. The church human rights office, for example, reported 180 killings--35 of them political--in the month of August, and a transport strike in November turned into widespread rioting after police killed a protesting student.

Peasants have grabbed land in parts of the countryside and staged demonstrations to demand better working conditions; some of the actions have been broken up by police or private security forces hired by landowners. In one incident in August, police killed three peasants demanding the minimum wage of $2 a day. A fourth peasant who participated turned up dead days later and miles away.


Diplomats and church officials also point to what seems to be a disturbing trend of “social cleansing"--vigilante killings of common criminals and street people by those fed up with violence. It appears to be tolerated by the government and signals another failing of the Guatemalan judicial system.

The possibility of peace was further complicated in December when negotiations between the government and the guerrillas became bogged down over indigenous rights.

With few other channels available, many Guatemalans are pinning their hopes on the U.N. mission. Guatemala is under mounting international pressure to join the rest of Central America in ending its war, and the powerful business elite is eager to expand its share of regional trade.

Yet some wonder if the overextended United Nations will maintain Guatemala as a priority, and how well the mission will be accepted by Guatemala’s thin-skinned powerbrokers.


“If there is a silver lining, it’s the presence of the United Nations,” a European diplomat said. “They are the eyes and ears of the international community, and now more than ever the government of Guatemala has to think about its international image. But there is a strong fear (the mission) will be brushed under the carpet.”