Guatemalan Community’s Search for Justice Continues

In July of 1982, Guatemalan government forces marched into the small community of Plan de Sánchez, forced community members into a house, and tossed a grenade in after them. They raped young women and girls, destroyed crops, and looted and burned homes with the inhabitants inside, leaving the charred remains of the victims behind.

By the time the soldiers finished wreaking destruction that day, they had killed 268 people, while those who survived fled to the nearby mountains. Human rights groups estimate that in July of 1982 alone, the government committed similar massacres in 41 other communities as part of a targeted campaign of genocide against the Maya people, which cost the lives of some 200,000 individuals over the course of the thirty-six year internal armed conflict that ended in 1996. 

More than 23 years after the massacre, in early February of 2006, over 300 survivors of the 1982 Plan de Sánchez massacre in Rabinal finally began receiving the first of three reparations payments from the Guatemalan government as ordered by an Inter-American Court of Human Rights sentence in 2004. The community has accepted a proposal from the state to make the three payments of approximately $8000 each in February 2006, December 2006 and December 2007. While the original Inter-American Court sentence mandates that the total amount of approximately $25,000 per beneficiary be paid in December 2005, the government proposed, and was granted permission to follow, the three-installment plan.

The survivors’ receipts of these payments are definitely a victory for a community that has struggled for justice over the course of the last twenty-some years, but this process MUST not be considered complete now that the first payment has been made. The sentence also requires the government to provide the community with health care, mental health services, multicultural education, water systems, roads and a dignified housing. It also requires that the intellectual and material authors be investigated, tried and convicted. This last point provides further impetus for bringing to trial the genocide cases against former dictators Lucas Garcia and Rios Montt, which have been stuck in the investigative phase within the Guatemalan Attorney General’s office (Ministerio Público) for more than five years, due in large part to a lack of political will to see the cases move forward. The Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA) has been providing human rights accompaniment to the witnesses of these cases throughout

Guatemala since the charges were first filed in 2000 and 2001. One of these NISGUA accompaniers, Ellen Moore, attests to the deceit and manipulation surrounding the government’s payments that she has witnessed first-hand in the below testimony.

A fierce mountain sun beats down on Gloria and me as we make our way up the hill to the Plan de Sánchez chapel. I look over to the 78 year-old woman and see that she is equally swept up in the excitement and anticipation of the day. Gloria is on her way to the public ceremony to commemorate the first of three payments to be issued to survivors of the Plan de Sánchez massacre by the Guatemalan State as mandated by an Inter-American Court sentence. The government has brought in clowns, jugglers and at least 40 members of its staff for the event. We sit on the ground as other members of the Plan de Sánchez community join us and wait for the ceremony to begin. Frank La Rue, the director of COPREDEH (the Presidential Commission for Human Rights) stands in front of the crowd, microphone in hand and begins to speak. His voice echoes throughout the mountains, as he exclaims that "this is a victorious day won by the truth."

As he continues his speech, the soft chatter of the crowd, which had been constant up until this point, ceases so as to produce unusual silence. The 300-plus beneficiaries of the Inter-American Court case have gathered at the chapel in Plan de Sánchez, the site of the massacre that occurred there twenty-four years ago. As the former director of CALDH (the Center for Legal Action on Human Rights), the legal organization responsible for bringing the Plan de Sánchez case before the Inter-American system, La Rue played a key role in the birth of the Plan de Sánchez case before leaving his position to work for the Guatemalan government. Despite this change in affiliation, community members know and continue to respect La Rue. He claims that he has been with the community from the start, and now he has come to finish the job. Today La Rue stands before the survivors and tells them what they have been waiting to hear. This is their victory. Today they will receive the first fruit of their 14-year battle. Unfortunately, the words that La Rue proceeds to voice reflect a strategy of deception and manipulation that has consistently characterized the work of COPREDEH regarding the Government of Guatemala’s compliance with the Inter-American Court sentence.

I scribble notes throughout La Rue’s speech. The final victory…transaction has been completed…must sign today to get out money tomorrow…he has been with them for years…must have trust. It becomes disturbingly clear that Frank La Rue has an agenda. First, he reminds the community of his previous affiliation with CALDH and his continued, personal commitment to their struggle. He then launches into an attack of the very organization that he just finished exalting, discretely but openly criticizing CALDH’s commitment to the case and to the community. Next Frank La Rue reveals the driving political force behind the completion of the first payment. He makes sure to mention at least three times that the Berger administration was not responsible for the horror that occurred on July 18, 1982, but it should be given credit for the completion of the first payment to the survivors. He assures the beneficiaries that the deposits have been completed and that the money has been distributed to the individual accounts. La Rue concludes by stating that the final step is for the beneficiaries to sign the paperwork that will allow them to withdraw their money the following day.

Because COPREDEH only notified CALDH of the ceremony less than 24 hours in advance, and in order to make a public statement about the illegitimacy of the event, the legal organization chose not to attend. Instead, two CALDH representatives went to the bank with a number of beneficiaries to see for themselves if what Frank La Rue and the director of the bank said was true. What they encountered were completely empty accounts and a growing list of lies. CALDH and the beneficiaries returned to Plan de Sánchez to relay the bad news. I watch as looks of confusion and panic sweep across the community member’s faces, as they realize that they have been deceived.

After a community member states that he is not going to sign paperwork if the money is not in the bank, the man is pulled into the chapel to face Frank La Rue. "What do you mean the money is not there?!" La Rue yells at the community member. La Rue then tells the man that if he does not complete the paperwork today, he will lose his money. The community leader does not believe him. La Rue tries another, softer tactic, explaining that folks must sign in order for the money to be deposited in their accounts, a direct contradiction to what he had stated less than an hour before. This pitch works, and La Rue convinces the community member that he has no alternative but to sign. The man later tells me that he felt bad questioning the word of La Rue and did not want to offend him by not complying. The same reluctance but eventual resignation is evident throughout the crowd, as one by one, the members of the Plan de Sánchez community sign. The survivors know that their money is not there and that they have been lied to, but with more than forty COPREDEH representatives swarming, they feel as though they have no choice. Community members succumb to the pressure and sign paperwork acknowledging receipt of payment when their bank accounts are, in fact, empty.

The following afternoon, I visit Gloria at her home. She brings me a steaming cup of coffee and sits down heavily on the bench. I ask her if she is feeling alright and she says no. Gloria had gotten up early that morning to make the hour trip in the back of a large cargo truck down the mountain to the bank in Rabinal. She waited in line for another hour to check her account balance. Gloria was informed by the bank attendant that her account was empty. Nobody explained why the money had not arrived or when it would be coming. With COPREDEH long gone and no other alternatives, Gloria returned home feeling worried, confused and helpless. By the time I arrived, she had a headache and had thrown up the small amount of tortilla that she had been able to eat for lunch.

After days of travel and worry, the money promised by COPREDEH finally began to arrive. It is not enough, however, to complete payments if the people involved are not treated with respect and if the recognition for the wrongs committed is not sincere. COPREDEH believed that it could lie to people, not just on February 2nd, but throughout the process. Because those involved are poor indigenous people, COPREDEH decided it could cut corners and do away with legal formalities. It is doubtful that such laxity would be acceptable in dealing with other high-profile ladino cases based out of Guatemala City. Would Helen Mack, for example, have been asked to sign paperwork indicating receipt of payment before she ever saw a cent of government reparations?

Frank La Rue, a supposed ally of the community, did not take the time to have his speech translated into Achi, even though he knows that Spanish is not the first language of the majority of the beneficiaries. Likewise, La Rue seemed to think it too time consuming to make sure that each beneficiary had read or had read to them the document they were to sign. Witnessing such blatant disrespect, one feels that not much has changed since the time of the conflict, as government lies are once again undermining trust and organization within the community.

The fulfilment of portions of the Inter-American Court sentence in Plan de Sánchez is a painful reminder of the work that remains to be done in the search for justice throughout Guatemala. While the survivors of one massacre have won an important victory, there are hundreds of communities that are still fighting for recognition and even hundreds more for which exhumations remain to be done. Therefore, it is vitally important that Plan de Sánchez serve as an example of what can be accomplished, as well as a reminder of the struggles that remain. The first payment has shown that, for the government, paying people is easy. What is not easy, and what the government has yet to comply with in the Plan de Sánchez sentence, is justice for the victims of genocide.

It is easily forgotten or conveniently overlooked that the sentence dictates numerous other essential steps that the government must complete, including providing the community with health care, mental health services, multicultural education, water systems, roads and dignified housing. The ruling also mandates that the intellectual and material authors of the Plan de Sánchez massacre be investigated, tried, and convicted, which would be concrete steps towards real justice.

Instead of investing resources in the above measures, the State of Guatemala is hoping that the beneficiaries of the Plan de Sánchez case will take their money and fade into the background. It hopes that the survivors will forget that Rios Montt and Lucas Garcia continue to walk free, unpunished for the crimes they committed. Fortunately, the beneficiaries of Plan de Sánchez have not forgotten. Just yesterday the community gathered once again at the chapel. The community members did something that COPREDEH has not done – they cast blame and named names. Monetary reparations may pay back that which was stolen during the war, but the community of Plan de Sánchez stands firm in its belief that money does not equal justice.

Ellen Moore is originally from Juneau, WI and has been a human rights accompanier with NISGUA since August 2005. NISGUA is committed to ongoing monitoring of this historic process in Plan de Sánchez. For more information about accompaniment work or how to become an accompanier, visit