Central America / Impunity

Verdict in Guatemala Expected for Massacre from Ríos Montt Years

Sergio Ortiz Borbolla
Sergio Ortiz Borbolla

Wednesday, August 16, 2023
Jo-Marie Burt and Paulo Estrada

The trial in the Rancho Bejuco massacre case, in which 25 Indigenous Mayans, including 17 children, were allegedly killed by the Guatemalan Army, is nearing its conclusion. Four of the women killed were pregnant; their unborn infants are not tallied in the official victim count. On Thursday, August 17, a Guatemalan court will hear the closing statements of the nine defendants and could recess and convene for the verdict either the same day or on a later date.

The massacre took place on July 29, 1982, in the tiny hamlet of Rancho Bejuco, in the village of Pacoj in Santa Cruz El Chol, department of Baja Verapaz, during the de facto government of General Efraín Ríos Montt. It exemplifies the genocidal scorched-earth policies implemented during his 17 months in power, between March 23, 1982 and August 8, 1983. This was the most violent period of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, according to the Historical Clarification Commission (CEH).

The surviving families of the victims filed charges in the case in 1997. The Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG) carried out exhumations in 1999 and unearthed the remains of 15 people. The remains of the other victims were not recovered, as one the FAFG experts explained in court, because some of them were so young that their bones were not fully formed and had deteriorated over the years. Others were likely ravaged by dogs or other wild animals.

Thirty-five years later, on February 2 of last year, the first arrests in the case were made. Six of those on trial are allegedly former members of the Civil Defense Patrols (PACs), created by the army during the internal armed conflict to control the civilian population. Two are allegedly military commissioners who coordinated between the PACs and the Guatemalan Army during the conflict. The CEH attributes approximately one out of every five crimes committed during the internal war to the PACs. The ninth defendant is retired army lieutenant colonel Juan Ovalle Salazar, who was already in custody. He was arrested and formally charged in the mass forced disappearance case known as Creompaz in 2016, which remains mired in a legal morass due to judicial inaction on a series of appeals and other legal motions. Prosecutors accuse Ovalle Salazar of direct responsibility in the forced disappearance of 80 men from the hamlet of Pambach, in Alta Verapaz, in June of 1982.

The public trial against the former paramilitary and military officials began on June 7. The case is being heard by one of Guatemala’s high-risk tribunals at a time when independent judicial operators are under severe attack. Over 30 former judges and prosecutors now live in exile after facing persecution, intimidation, and even death threats. The judge originally presiding over the pretrial phase of the case was Erika Aifán, who was forced to flee Guatemala because of ongoing threats against her for her role in criminal investigations into high-profile corruption cases, just two months after the pretrial proceedings began.

This is one of several cases connected to country’s internal armed conflict currently making their way through the Guatemalan courts. These cases have come about because survivors, families of victims, and their allies in local and international civil society have pressed for justice with persistence against great odds over the years. In this case, the Popular Legal Clinic of Rabinal, founded by genocide survivor Jesús Tecú and where other survivors of Guatemala’s killing fields work to obtain justice for their missing loved ones, is the force demanding justice for those killed in Rancho Bejuco.

Over the past decade, clandestine networks made up of members of Guatemala’s political and military elite, criminal groups, and private sector actors have mobilized to push back against anti-impunity efforts. These groups have found common cause in the current administration of President Alejandro Giammattei, who has overseen the wholesale dismantling of institutions that were put in place to implement the Peace Accords.

Survivor Testimony

The Rancho Bejuco massacre occurred in a context of systematic and widespread army attacks against the civilian population in Baja Verapaz that originated during the government of General Romeo Lucas García (1978-1982) and continued during Ríos Montt’s bloody rule. Thirty-two men were killed on January 8, 1982, in the village of Chichupac. A month later, army operations in Río Negro in February 1982 resulted in the deaths of some 600 people. Another 260 people were massacred in the hamlet of Plan de Sánchez in July 1982, the same month the Rancho Bejuco massacre took place.

In the early morning of July 29, 1982, an army patrol comprised of several soldiers, two military commissioners, and 15 members of the Pacoc civil defense patrol arrived at the hamlet of Rancho Bejuco. They ordered the men, women and children into a building, shot at them and detonated explosives. Later, they dug a grave where they buried the bodies. Prosecutors allege that army Lt. Col. Ovalle Salazar, commander of a nearby military detachment, coordinated and ordered the military operation. The presumed motive of the massacre is that the men of Rancho Bejuco refused to join the PACs.

Paulina Ixpatá is one of seven survivors of the Rancho Bejuco massacre who testified in court. She is also one of the 36 Achí women who sought justice for the sexual violence they suffered during the Guatemalan civil war in Rabinal.

In an interview last year, shortly after the first arrests in the case, Paulina told us that when the army came to Rancho Bejuco on July 29, 1982, she was 18 years old. She lost 15 family members that day, including six nieces and nephews. She said that one of her nieces was just nine months old. Her sister, who was pregnant, was also killed.

Paulina told us that she and her mother survived because that morning they had gone to the market. They returned home to find the door of their house wide open. No one was inside. They began to search desperately for their family members. They eventually found one of Paulina’s cousins, who told them that soldiers and patrolmen had rounded up the men, women, and children, forced them into a house and killed them all. Afterwards, she said, they dug a well and buried the bodies.

A terrified Paulina and her mother fled to the small, primarily Achí town of Rabinal in search of safety. However, a little over a year later, Paulina was captured by patrolmen, who accused her of being a guerrilla. They took her to the Rabinal military detachment. “They raped me for 25 days,” Paulina told us. “For nine months I was in the hands of the military. They forced me to make tortillas for the soldiers.”

Paulina Ixpatá is one of seven survivors of the Rancho Bejuco massacre who testified in court. Photo Sergio Luis Borbolla
Paulina Ixpatá is one of seven survivors of the Rancho Bejuco massacre who testified in court. Photo Sergio Luis Borbolla

Paulina’s testimony helped convict five former patrolmen for crimes against humanity in the Maya Achí sexual violence trial last January. In the Rancho Bejuco massacre trial, she testified about what happened to her and her family and identified some of the patrolmen, including some neighbors and one relative. This latter case highlights the way the army’s strategy of forcing men to join the PACs in their own communities created divisions and lasting harm.

Some of the survivors who testified were eyewitnesses to the massacre. Felipe Ixpatá Rodríguez testified that he left Rancho Bejuco early in the morning and, when he returned, saw the army killing the villagers. He witnessed two of the defendants enter his home and take away several of his family members. He testified that he saw several of the defendants kill Tiburcio Ixpatá.

The plaintiffs presented expert testimony to clarify the relationship between the PACs and the Guatemalan Army; forensic reports of the 1999 exhumation at the massacre site; and dozens of documents, including military plans and documents that identify Ovalle Salazar as a lieutenant coronel of the Guatemalan army, connect him to the PACs, and place him in Rabinal around the time of the massacre.

The prosecutors from the Special Unit for the Investigation of Human Rights Violations during the Armed Conflict have called on the court to condemn each of the defendants to 30 years in prison.

Lucía Xiloj is an Indigenous lawyer who represents the survivors in the case. “This is not a big case. This was a small hamlet of about five families. We are talking about a community that was completely destroyed. The only people who survived were not in Rancho Bejuco when the army came. So there were few people to denounce what had happened. Today, Rancho Bejuco no longer exists.”

“The defense alleges that the villagers were guerrillas,” she continues. “The high number of women and children killed shows how absurd that claim is.” Xiloj is convinced that the eyewitness testimony, along with the documentary and forensic evidence, is sufficient to convict the nine defendants. “We are not seeking justice for a homicide,” she says. “This was a crime against humanity. The voice of the victims must be heard.”

A guilty verdict will not restore faith in Guatemala’s deeply troubled justice system. But this trial and its outcome are hugely meaningful for the Maya Achí communities —for all the Indigenous communities— that suffered at the hands of the Guatemalan military. Eighty-three percent of the victims of the conflict were Indigenous, according to the CEH. The courts are helping them rewrite history and challenge the erasure of the genocidal violence they endured, and survived.

*Jo-Marie Burt is a professor at George Mason University, senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), and president of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA).

Paulo Estrada is a relative of victims of forced-disappearance in Guatemala who investigates wartime human rights violations and is a member of victims’ associations in several countries. They founded and co-direct Verdad y Justicia en Guatemala, which monitors and reports on war crimes trials in Guatemala.

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