Thirty years after the worst violence of Guatemala’s armed conflict razed communities caught between state and insurgent forces, the country now finds itself closer than ever to exacting justice at the highest level. Following an historic hearing last month, a Guatemalan court stands ready to try former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt for overseeing a systematic campaign to exterminate Mayan communities during his 1982-83 de facto rule. This trial comes on the heels of the landmark decision in the Dos Erres case, which convicted four former elite kaibil soldiers of crimes against humanity, and the arrest of Hector Mario López Fuentes, army chief of staff under Ríos Montt. A judge has since suspended the trial due to López’s failing health.
But amid the current wave of emblematic cases for past state abuses is a lesser-known first: the first accusation against guerrilla leaders to be brought before the Guatemalan justice system, this one for the massacre of 22 people in the mountainside hamlet of El Aguacate by members of the Revolutionary Organization of Armed Peoples (ORPA) in November 1988.
In early February, the Mutual Support Group (GAM), a prominent Guatemalan victims’ association, presented the case to the Public Ministry, accusing three high-ranking guerrilla commanders—Pedro Palma Lau, a longtime Congressional deputy known during the conflict as “Comandante Pancho,” Luis Antonio Santacruz, known as “Comandante Santiago,” and Jaime Aurelio Tun Luch, known as “Capitán Hernán”—of ordering the killings in this tiny village in the department of Chimaltenango.
Though the 1999 UN Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) report found that guerrilla atrocities only represent three percent of conflict-era abuses (compared to 93 percent committed by the military), experts argue that the El Aguacate case is the most well documented example.
According to the CEH report, the events were triggered by the disappearance of military commissioner Carlos Humberto Guerra Callejas, believed to have lost his way while searching for missing cattle on November 22, 1988. He never returned, prompting the community—mostly comprised of family members—to take to the mountain in search of his whereabouts.
On the second day of their pursuit, nineteen of the community members, accompanied by an Evangelical minister, encountered an ORPA patrol headed by a guerrilla leader known only by his pseudonym, “Subteniente David.” After identifying two individuals from the search party as military commissioners, David decided to capture the entire group. Fearing they would inform the military of the patrol’s location if released, he ordered the hostages be strangled one by one and buried in graves they dug themselves.
During a confrontation between military and guerrilla forces on November 25, troops stumbled upon the mutilated body of Guerra Callejas, and the following day discovered four pits containing the others. After officials exhumed the bodies, they were brought by helicopter to military base 302 in the nearby town of San Andrés Itzapa where they were identified and returned to family members to be laid to rest. One unclaimed corpse was later determined to be guerrilla operative Mijangos, who was also executed on David’s suspicion that he too had become an army informant.
Few would have expected the GAM, best known for bringing cases against state agents for forced disappearances, to file accusations against ORPA leadership for the massacre. Pursuing three high-ranking commanders—whose names remain absent in the truth commission report, which treats the massacre as a rogue act—further calls into question the rationale behind its case.
But amid criticisms from former army officers and conservative sectors that the justice unfolding today is one-sided, the decision to go after the guerrilla high command can be read as a strategy to counteract opposition. Exposing the brutality of guerrilla actions in El Aguacate, alongside the recent creation of the Public Ministry’s special unit to try crimes committed by “non-state armed groups,” may be aimed primarily at affirming the impartiality of justice for past violations and lending legitimacy to judicial processes.
GAM advocates, however, deny that accusations are part of a neutralizing maneuver to quell attacks, asserting that the organization is acting on behalf of the victims of El Aguacate and is, above all, “concerned that there is justice for all.”
But in a recent visit to the massacre site with some surviving community members, it quickly emerged that these motives, and the case itself, are not so clear-cut. Despite the organization’s claims of channeling victims’ demands, the survivors I spoke with had never heard of the charges filed by the GAM, nor the UN-sponsored truth commission report that serves as the foundation of its investigation.
According to them, no one has visited the site of the massacre since human rights ombudsman and eventual president Ramiro de León Carpio made the trek to investigate the case in 1991, accompanied by a delegation from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. De León was reportedly airlifted off of the mountainside after falling ill. The case was later closed after the Commission resolved that the crimes could not have been perpetrated by the military.
Over twenty years later on our two-and-a-half hour hike to the mass graves where victims were allegedly unearthed, the surviving community members, relatives of those slaughtered, refused to assign blame with any certainty due to a mixture of skepticism and fear. “You never know who you’re talking to,” one asserted.
But as we continued to ascend and the air thinned, so did their armor of silence and suspicion. Alternate theories slowly rose to the surface.
One such account suggested that Subteniente David did, in fact, order the executions of the military commissioners in the group while leaving the others tied up. However, it was the army patrol, not the ORPA band that happened upon and “finished off” those remaining, suspecting they had been co-opted by the guerrillas.
Another version contends that those captured were not strangled on the mountainside, but brought down by helicopter to the military base, where some family members actually witnessed them alive before their corpses turned up days later.
While not validating these accounts entirely, the peculiarities of the massacre site are grounds for questioning the official story. The largest of the graves, believed to have contained fifteen bodies, is a narrow ditch seemingly incapable of holding so many people. The depth of the pit, in fact, measures just longer than the blade of the machete used by one survivor to slice bread brought along for lunch during the hike. It appeared more a trench staged to look like a burial ground than an authentic mass grave.
Another notable idiosyncrasy is that the massacre was never followed by the gruesome images and detailed accounts that often graced the front pages of Guatemalan newspapers following guerrilla atrocities in order to drum up public support for the state’s counterinsurgent campaign.
But beyond these details, the reaction of former military officials to the charges filed against ORPA leaders has also been curious. Rather than applaud the GAM’s efforts as a much-needed step toward exacting an impartial justice for the past, high-ranking officers have lambasted the case as an act of “demagoguery” intended to win the organization notoriety and financial gain. After years of insisting that perpetrators on both sides must answer for abuses, their resistance toward reopening the investigation hints they could have something to hide.
Meanwhile, the surviving members of El Aguacate live with the gnawing uncertainty of what happened to their family members and the overwhelming contempt that can only be directed at some nameless, faceless individuals. “We carry this hatred in our hearts. It doesn’t leave us,” lamented one victim while leaning against the hillside, staring off into the lush forests below.
Adding salt to their wounds is the fact that their hamlet remains abandoned, their homes and church dilapidated and hollowed out, since the military evicted the community immediately after the massacre. They dream of rebuilding and returning to the lands they still own, a reconstruction owed to them through Guatemala’s National Reparations Program (PNR), which has reportedly given modest monetary compensation to some widows though not to those family members I spoke with. Instead they live scattered through the town of San Andrés Iztapa, where Subteniente David is still seen walking the streets donning long sleeves and baggy pants to hide the weapons he carries with him.
When it comes to justice survivors’ hopes are far more tempered. They expressed the desire to see once and for all a thorough investigation that gets to the bottom of the atrocities and forces perpetrators to pay for their actions. However, there is little solace knowing that any legal punishment would be negligible compared to the brutal fate suffered by their loved ones, one survivor acknowledged. Deep down they favor justice of another kind, the kind delivered with their own hands, which is no stranger in a country where impunity reigns.
But justice aside, there is little confidence they will ever even know the truth of what happened. Despite the recent charges, as Guatemala’s surge of justice rolls on, the facts of the El Aguacate case remain as remote as those shoddy mass graves sitting atop the Chimaltenango mountainside. And the nearest certainty surviving community members have can be summed up in one oft-repeated phrase: “Eso no se puede aclarar:” This cannot be explained.
This article was originally published by Upside Down World.