Guatemala: Five Sentenced to 780 Years for Río Negro Massacre

After three years of bureaucratic suspension and six months of hearings, five ex-civil patrollers were sentenced to 780 years in prison by the Sentencing Tribunal in the highland county of Salamá on May 28.

Inside the Tribunal in Salamá

After three years of bureaucratic suspension and six months of hearings, five ex-civil patrollers were sentenced to 780 years in prison by the Sentencing Tribunal in the highland county of Salamá on May 28.

The tribunal found insufficient evidence to convict a sixth accused. The six have been on trial for their participation in the massacre of 177 Maya-Achí women and children from the village of Río Negro in the county of Rabinal, Baja Verapaz on March 13, 1982.

The massacre of Río Negro women and children is one of 626 documented massacres perpetrated during the bloodiest of Latin America’s civil wars in which 250,000 people were killed or disappeared. Guatemala’s 36 year-long internal armed conflict developed within the international context of the cold war, lasting from 1960 to 1996. As part of Guatemala’s Peace Accords, the UN sponsored a truth commission report called the Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) which found the Guatemalan army and paramilitary forces responsible for 93% of the atrocities.

Referring to the CEH report, the Salamá tribunal situated the Río Negro case within Guatemala’s tragic history. At the height of the violence, between 1980 and 1983, the Guatemalan army designated the county of Rabinal as a strategic region in an effort to combat the threat of "international communism" posed by insurgent guerrilla combatants. The Guatemalan army assumed that the indigenous civilian population was supporting the guerrillas and thus defined them as an "internal enemy"; as such, they were targeted for elimination.

As a part of carrying out their strategy, in 1981 the army organized what they called civilian self-defense patrols (Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil—PAC). The PACs were paramilitary organizations in which mainly indigenous, civilian men between the ages of 15-65 were forced to serve. The PACs patrolled villages and the countryside for guerrilla insurgents and their civilian supporters as well as accompanied the army on missions. At the height of the violence, the Guatemalan army militarized about 1.5 million civilians in the PACs. The six Maya-Achí men on trial were PAC members from the village of Xococ, which neighbors Río Negro.


Monument honoring those massacred in Río Negro

After organizing the PACs, the army and the PACs carried out various massacres of the civilian population in what became known as a scorched-earth policy. In the early 1980s the county of Rabinal alone experienced 28 massacres in which around 5000 people were killed representing almost 20 percent of the population; according to the CEH report 99.8% of the victims were indigenous Maya-Achí. The March 13, 1982 massacre in the village of Río Negro was just one of five massacres suffered by its inhabitants; totaling at least 444 assassinations of a total population of around 800.

The five ex-PAC members condemned for the March 13 Río Negro massacre will only serve 30 of the 780 year sentence due to a 1969 law that sets the maximum penalty for the crime of assassination at 30 years. The 780 years is a symbolic act by the court which is the sum of 30 years for each of the 26 forensically identified victims from the massacre. In its closing arguments, the prosecution requested a 5310 year sentence for each of the accused—30 years for 177 total victims of the massacre.

During the actual sentencing a court spokesperson read the names of the 26 identified victims before condemning each of the five ex-civil patrollers to 780 years, finding them directly responsible for the crime of assassination. The five guilty ex-patrollers are: Macario Alvarado Toj, Pablo Ruiz Alvarado, Francisco Alvarado Lajuj, Tomás Vino Alvarado and Lucas Lajuj Alvarado. Bonifacio Cuxum López was acquitted.

Summing up witness testimony, the tribunal cited the premeditated nature of the crime and the intention of the Guatemalan army with the participation of civil patrollers to kill the people of Río Negro. The court declared the testimony of the survivors "more than believable," a powerful declaration in a country silenced by decades of fear and denial.

In addition to the 30 year sentence, the guilty will have to pay civil reparations of 100,000 Quetzales (about $13,000) to the families of each of the 26 identified victims. Recognizing the evident poverty of the condemned Maya-Achí men, the presiding judge said that it will be difficult for them to actually pay this reparation.

Although the sentencing of the ex-PAC members who participated in the Río Negro massacre may seem like a triumph for justice in Guatemala, they are actually the least of the guilty parties. The civil patrollers are the material authors of the massacre, those who carried out the orders coming from the military chain of command. In other words they pulled the trigger.

In this sense, the condemnation of the five ex-PAC members is bittersweet for the Río Negro survivors. Empathizing with the condemned, one massacre survivor said, "We are all human beings. They are just like us: poor and indigenous. Their families will suffer because of their absence." Highlighting the impunity that exists in Guatemala, a witness declared in his testimony, "In this country justice is only applied if the accused are indigenous. No one dares to prosecute the intellectual authors." The intellectual authors are the military officers who planned and ordered the massacres. In fact, not a single intellectual author of the violence—dictators, army officers, police chiefs, etc.—has been brought to trial, despite several ongoing cases against them. This same witness concluded, "If our country is really a democracy, then shouldn’t there be equal access to Justice?"

Beyond sending even more poor indigenous folks to jail, the Río Negro witnesses hoped the accused would reveal their knowledge about the military chain of command to use in court against the officers who planned the violence. Unfortunately, the ex-PAC members have maintained silence, and thus fostered continued military impunity.

In fact, a number of the Río Negro witnesses are also witnesses in several cases accusing two ex-dictators and their military high commands of genocide and crimes against humanity. The witnesses are members of a national organization of survivors from five of the hardest hit regions during the violence called the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR). The AJR is a plaintiff in 3 national and international genocide cases that have so far lingered in the initial investigative phase for seven years.

In the Río Negro case, Captain José Antonio Solares González was the ranking officer at the Rabinal military base at the time of the massacre and was responsible for this and numerous other massacres committed in the area. Solares remains a fugitive from justice despite a pending arrest warrant for his capture, which has not prevented him from collecting and cashing his military pension checks. The Salamá Tribunal reiterated the call for his capture and trial, as well as that of two other ex-PAC members from Xococ, Ambrosio Pérez Lajuj and Domingo Chen.

In closing remarks the presiding Judge acknowledged the pain and suffering of both accusers and accused caused by the judicial process. Tacitly recognizing the threats still faced by the witness from the family members of the accused, he called for a peaceful return to everyday life after the sentencing. The Judge implored that the sentence not bring more pain and violence to both affected parties, as Guatemala and Rabinal in particular have already suffered too much.

Kimberly Kohler and Josh MacLeod are international human rights accompaniers living in Guatemala. They work with the non-governmental organization the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA). They have been accompanying the Río Negro case since it recommenced December of 2007.