Editor's Note: The international human rights case charging eight Guatemalan former military and police officials with genocide, state terrorism, torture and other crimes began February 4 in Madrid. Kate Doyle, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive and director of their Guatemala Project, attended the closed hearings as part of the investigative and legal team working on the Guatemalan Genocide Case. This is the fourth installment of her five-part series on the opening days of the case, in which witnesses gave harrowing testimony on a period known in Guatemala as the “Silent Holocaust.”
Four witnesses spoke during the fourth day of the Guatemalan genocide hearing, held in the Audiencia Nacional (federal court) in Madrid, Spain. The first two, both women and protected witnesses, talked about what happened to them and their families when the Army attacked their aldeas (villages) in Rabinal, Alta Verapaz. The third and fourth witnesses were men who have testified publicly about their experiences before: Juan Manuel Jerónimo, who lost 18 family members including his wife and four children in the Plan de Sánchez massacre of July 18, 1982, and Jesús Tecu Osorio, who survived the Río Negro massacre of March 13, 1982.
Juan Manuel Jerónimo managed to escape before the Plan de Sánchez massacre began. (Photo: James Rodriguez/ www.mimundo.org)
All of the witnesses coincided in their descriptions of the use of rape by the Guatemalan soldiers and members of the civil patrol to abuse and humiliate the Mayan women of Rabinal. The first witness said that when the Army began showing up in her village, they camped out in front of her neighbor’s house for three days, and raped her in front of her children.
In 1982, the witness was at home on a Sunday, market day, while most of the aldea and surrounding communities were in the market doing their shopping. That morning she heard the sound of two bombs over Rabinal, and grew anxious. In the afternoon an enormous volley of gunfire broke out. The troops were in the plaza, where the people were shopping. The witness was able to watch what was happening from behind some small trees in front of her house.
“I saw the soldiers enter the house of my neighbor, María Modesta, who lived with her children. They were shooting them.” She took her baby and ran into the mountains with her sister-in-law, where they spent a miserable night under a tree in the cold and rain. They could hear the women and children screaming below. Later there was a huge plume of smoke from the village and a strong smell.
The witness returned to the aldea the next morning. “There were people outside their houses, crying. When we arrived in the center, I saw a huge pile of ashes and cinders, a pile of bodies, half of them still burning…. The square was full of blood, I saw bullet shells scattered everywhere. We went back to my house again to get containers of water to try and put of the fire. We tried but could not put it out. It continued to burn and the smell of the poor people burning was like burned chicken feathers.”
The witness left the plaza and on the path encountered survivors, walking slowly, their clothes torn. She saw her neighbor and asked her what had happened? “She just looked at me and did not speak, because they had cut off her lips. This poor woman had been raped. She had no skirt, so I put a skirt on her and offered her water. She was like a child.” They came upon corpses in the path, some half-eaten by dogs, and many other bodies lying face down next to the path.
The witness hid in the mountains for one year. After her return, she survived another series of Army attacks on her village, until she left Rabinal for the southern coast. She appealed to Judge Pedraz (the presiding judge) for support as she ended her testimony, saying she and her community wanted their rights as Maya Achí, so that what happened to them would never happen again. “Thank you for listening. We have kept this story in darkness – it is time to bring it to light.”
The second witness described the same massacre for the judge, but from a different vantage point. That Sunday morning, the witness was returning home from the market with her sister, when a group of about 30 soldiers caught up with them and surrounded them. The soldiers stopped others coming down the path and took everyone back to the plaza, where there was an enormous group of people gathered in front of the church. There was a helicopter overhead, and the soldiers spoke on their radios; one of them said, “We’ve arrived, don’t worry.”
Three soldiers left to take the rest of the villagers out of their houses and brought them to the plaza. Once everyone was gathered, the troops grabbed the babies from their mothers and threw them to the ground. They forced as many people as they could into one house and the remaining people (about 35) into another house, among them the witness. “They threw bombs in that other house, there were terrible sounds, screams, people begging mercy, children crying. God help us! I was praying. Don’t let them kill us! We could smell the poor people burning. My grandmother died there, my sisters and brothers. All my neighbors died.”
The witness and the others heard the soldiers meeting outside their house; one said, “Everything’s perfect. We’re carrying out the orders of the commander in Cobán. There are only a few left and we are going to kill them.” The witness saved herself by hiding under a pile of corn stalks in the corner of the room. The soldiers took the rest out and killed them with knives, and she was able to escape from the plaza by running down into a ravine. From there, she walked many miles to the house of her parents-in-law.
Memorial rural depicting the massacre. (Photo: James Rodriguez/ www.mimundo.org)
Juan Manual Jerónimo, survivor of the Plan de Sánchez massacre, was the third witness of the day. On July 18, 1982, he and his family were with his mother when someone came running to the house to warn them that the Army was coming. His mother urged him and his brother-in-law to flee and not to worry about the women or the children: “You are the ones they are looking for, not us!” They left the aldea but hid nearby and heard much of what happened as the soldiers attacked. When they returned the next day, Jerónimo found his family’s bodies in the home of one of his brothers. They were all there: his wife, four children, siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins, and mother. They were 18 of the 184 people who died in the massacre.
Jerónimo and his brother-in-law buried the bodies of their relatives and fled. He told Judge Pedraz, “We couldn’t rest anywhere for thinking about our dead. When I thought of my house, I imagined my family there. It caused me tremendous pain. The soldiers killed them. They took our animals. They cooked our chickens right there and ate them, without shame, as though they were the owners of our things. When they had stolen everything they wanted, they burned our houses, including our clothes and our land documents.” The witness remained in the mountains for the next three years, “but we never went far. We didn’t want to leave our dear ones who died in our village.”
When the witness had finished, one of the assistant lawyers asked him if in the years leading up to the massacre and after he returned in the amnesty of 1984, the military had placed any prohibitions on the Mayan way of life. Jerónimo said yes, “They prohibited everything connected to our culture. They didn’t allow us to wear our traje (traditional clothing), they prevented our religious customs. We weren’t allowed to gather, make sacrifices, and pray. Our mother language was Achí, but they no longer permitted us to talk in this dialect.”
The final witness to testify before Judge Pedraz was Jesús Tecu Osorio. Tecu was a child when the military began attacking the communities of Rabinal with increasing intensity during 1981 and into 1982. By the end of 1981, many people had moved into his village of Río Negro because of massacres in the zone. They came seeking refuge. The Army and the civil patrol (PAC) of nearby Xococ ordered the people to organize a PAC in Río Negro, and told them it was obligatory to capture and kill local men suspected of subversion – but the Rio Negro PAC never did that, Tecu said, unlike PACs in other areas. This angered the military.
In February 1982, Tecu’s parents were disappeared when they reported to the nearby base as ordered to obtain his father’s military ID card. One month later, on March 13, 1982, the Army and Xococ patrollers arrived in Río Negro. Tecu recounted how they removed the women and children from their houses and forced them to climb for several hours up the hill beyond the aldea. The men were kept in the village and killed. Tecu, who was 10 years old, went with the women and carried his two-year-old brother during the climb.
The troops hit the children during the climb, abusing them, saying that their parents were with the guerrilla. When they came to a stop, the men raped the women there. “The people of Río Negro were completely surrounded by the soldiers and patrollers,” remembered Tecu. The troops began to kill the women. They shot some of them and strangled others and threw the bodies in the ravine. Tecu tried to withdraw with his baby brother to run away, but there were too many soldiers. By that afternoon, they finished the killing. Seventeen children remained alive. One civil patroller from Xococ, Pedro González Gómez, told Tecu that he was going to Xococ because Gónzalez didn’t have children and he wanted to give Tecu to his wife. He refused to take Tecu’s brother, however, and so he took the child from Tecu’s arms and smashed him against some rocks. When the child was dead, he threw him down in the ravine with the rest of the corpses.
Tecu survived as a prisoner of González Gómez – first with the Xococ patrol, and later in his home. He was freed in 1983. Under questioning after he completed his testimony, he told the judge that Pedro González Gómez was convicted to the death penalty for his crimes in 1999. But Tecu pointed out that the December 2007 decision of Guatemala’s Constitutional Court not to extradite senior military and police officers for the same crimes shows that “the government is willing to condemn an indigenous to the death penalty, but no one dares do that to the intellectual authors of the genocide. For that reason, we came to Spain.”
Kate Doyle is a senior analyst at the National Security Archive and a member of NACLA’s Editorial Committee.
James Rodríguez is an independent photo-documentarian based in Guatemala. His work is available online here. Any comments or interest in publishing, please contact me at email@example.com