No Justice for Guatemala Massacre Victims After 26 Years

On 5 December 1982, a Guatemalan army "special forces" squad entered the village of Dos Erres, La Libertad, in the northern department of Petén. When they left three days later, more than 250 men, women and children had been massacred.

The women and girls were killed after mass rapes. Many of the corpses were thrown into the village well and others left in nearby woods. The village was then razed to the ground.

Twenty six years later, those who executed and planned the massacre have never been convicted. The case has been paralysed in the domestic courts by constant appeals, and shows no signs of progress.

On Friday 5 December in Guatemala City, relatives of the victims and the Association of Families of the Detained and ‘Disappeared’ of Guatemala (FAMDEGUA), are staging a protest outside the Supreme Court of Justice and the Public Prosecutor’s Office to demand justice.

Amnesty International interviewed a witness in hiding in 1997 and obtained a copy of another’s pre-trial statement. Both stated that an army intelligence commander at the Santa Elena military base had ordered the massacre, apparently to cover up the rape of a village woman earlier that day by another officer.

The witness testimonies described the events which took place:

”As for the massacre, after the meeting at which the officers decided to kill all the people in the village, the execution was started at 2pm. It began with a child of three or four months who was thrown down a well. The execution continued doing the same with all the children.

"The adults were inside the evangelical church, we could hear them praying to God. Among the women there were girls of 12 and 13 years old which some soldiers started to rape.

"They brought people to the edge of the well and hit them with clubs. Then they threw them in the well. After the women, they killed the men and then the older men, throwing them all down the well.”

The Guatemalan government announced a "friendly settlement" with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), in April 2000. A key element of the settlement was the Guatemalan State’s agreement to carry out an investigation to bring to justice both those who carried out the massacre and those who planned and ordered it.

In July 2008, in the absence of any progress in the investigation, the Inter American Commission on Human Rights re-submitted the case to the Inter-American Court.

The Commission has requested that the State should be ordered to carry out a thorough, impartial and effective investigation into the massacre, in order to bring to justice those who carried out and those who ordered the killings. It has also asked that the State should be ordered to remove all legal obstacles which have prevented the case reaching its conclusion in the courts. The submission is currently under consideration by the Court.

The case was opened in Guatemala in 1994, and was first presented to the Inter American Commission by the Association of Families of the Detained and ‘Disappeared’ of Guatemala (FAMDEGUA) in 1996.

In a reply to the Commission in 1997, the government of then President Arzú acknowledged that it was impossible to deny what had happened at Dos Erres and that "a legal system cannot tolerate nor conceal acts which are at odds with justice, so the law should be applied without distinction to those found to be responsible."

The ”friendly settlement” agreed in April 2000 was to comprise truth, justice and reparations. ”Truth” required an apology from the state, and the state was obliged to ensure ”justice” within the terms of agreement within specified time limits. ”Reparation” meant economic and moral compensation: for Dos Erres, a monument to the dead, a video about the massacre to be presented nationally, and psychiatric help for witnesses and survivors.

In August 2002 Arzú’s successor, President Portillo, publicly accepted responsibility for the deaths at Dos Erres. He also assured the victims’ families that they would receive compensation.

A compensation agreement was announced in May 2001 but it was not until December 2001, nineteen years after the massacre, that the government paid Q14 million to the families of the people massacred by the Army at Dos Erres. Relatives welcomed the award, but continued to insist that those responsible be brought to justice.

Since the investigation into the massacre was formally opened in Guatemala in 1994, the defence has put in at least 30 appeals, as well as applying other judicial remedies on approximately 49 occasions. In effect, the investigation has now been open for almost 15 years without a single conviction having resulted.

"The fact that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has referred the case of Dos Erres back to the Inter-American Court is testimony to the evident lack of political will to bring anybody to account for the crimes against humanity committed during the years of Guatemala’s internal armed conflict," said Kerrie Howard, Deputy Programme Director for the Americas Programme of Amnesty International. "Twenty six years after the massacre, and almost 60 years since Guatemala signed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, survivors and relatives of those killed at Dos Erres have yet to see anyone brought to justice for these heinous crimes."