Moral Low Ground


Trial over U.S.-Backed Guatemalan Massacre at Las Dos Erres Begins

Four former Guatemalan soldiers are on trial for the 1982 massacre of more than 220 men, women and children at Las Dos Erres. The four were members of an elite U.S.-trained and armed unit supported by the communist-obsessed Reagan administration. All four had found refuge in the United States.

According to the BBC, Carlos Antonio Carias, Manuel Pop, Reyes Collin and Daniel Martinez, former members of the elite Kaibiles unit, are being tried in a Guatemalan court. It is the first time military human rights abusers are being brought to justice. Human rights groups hailed the trial as “historic.”

More than 200,000 people, mostly poor, indigenous Mayans, were slaughtered during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, which traces its roots to the U.S. overthrow of  democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz. A leftist and a reformer, Arbenz set about improving the lot of Guatemala’s poor. He began expropriating land held by United Fruit Company, an American behemoth that was one of the largest landowners in the country. Life was hell for United Fruit employees, who were little more than slaves in the “Banana Republic.”

Arbenz’s reform, naturally, made him the enemy of Washington, Wall Street and the Guatemalan elite class. He was duly disposed of in a 1954 CIA coup. The CIA’s hand-picked replacement for Arbenz, Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, rolled back the sweeping social reforms that made Arbenz so popular as he re-established the country as a puppet state that served elite and foreign (read American) interests over those of the Guatemalan people. Power was concentrated in the hands of a few fabulously wealthy families while the Mayan masses languished in serf-like conditions. This led to a leftist uprising and all-out civil war by 1960.

U.S.-backed ethnic cleansing in Guatemala.

The United States sided, of course, with the Guatemalan elites as they attempted to crush the popular uprising, even though it meant backing ethnic cleansing of the country’s Mayan population. Fully 93% of the more than 200,000 killed in the civil war were slaughtered by government forces. Cold War anti-communist hysteria and commerce were the main motivators behind Washington’s support of the genocide. President Jimmy Carter, who campaigned on a human rights platform (even while his government backed the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Indonesia), suspended U.S. cooperation with the Guatemalan military in reaction to its many horrific abuses, but Ronald Reagan, his successor, resumed ties, with many Guatemalan troops and officers attending the notorious U.S. Army School of the Americas. There, they were instructed in kidnapping, torture, assassination and other repression. The School is often called the “school of assassins” and the “school of coups” because it has produced so many of both, including  Manuel Noriega, Hugo Banzer (a Bolivian dictator who sheltered Nazi fugitive Klaus Barbie), Leopoldo Galtieri (of Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’) and Guatemalan President Efrain Rios Montt.

Rios Montt was the in charge of both the Guatemalan government and military (he was an army general) at the time of the Dos Erres slaughter, one of the most notorious massacres in the country’s civil war. After leftist guerrillas ambushed an army convoy near Dos Erres in October 1982, killing 21 government soldiers, the Kaibiles were deployed to the village on December 4. Disguised as guerrillas, the elite soldiers were ordered to kill everything that moved. They were a barbaric bunch; as part of their graduation ritual, members had to fight and kill a dog with their bare hands, tear out its heart and eat it, and chop up the animal’s other organs and guzzle them down in a soup of blood.

You can imagine the horrors the Kaibiles visited upon the men, women and children of Dos Erres. Or maybe you can’t. The men were tortured. Children were thrown alive into the village well. Babies had their heads bashed against walls or trees. Girls and women were brutally raped before being shot or bludgeoned to death with sledgehammers, then thrown into the well themselves. Fetuses were torn from pregnant girls and women. Some girls were kept alive for some time after the massacre, raped repeatedly, then strangled when they were no longer “useful.” Only two people, both young boys, are known to have survived. One fled into the jungle, the other was kidnapped and adopted by one of the Kaibiles, who took him to the United States where they lived until the soldier, Santos Lopez Alonzo, was arrested in 2010 and later deported to Guatemala to stand trial for his role in the massacre.

On the very same day that the Kaibiles attacked Las Dos Erres, President Reagan met with Guatemalan President Efrain Rios Montt, who fully supported the killings. Reagan called him “a man of great personal integrity who wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice.” Reagan added that Rios Montt had gotten a “bum rap” from human rights advocates.

The United States was fully aware of the Dos Erres massacre. “Reliable embassy source relayed… information on possible GOG (government of Guatemala) army massacre of 200 villagers of Los Dos R’s,” reads a declassified State Department cable from the time. Another cable, dated December 31, 1982, tells of a US military helicopter flyover of the destroyed village. “All of the houses in this area were deserted; many had been razed or destroyed by fire. The embassy must conclude that the party most likely responsible for this incident is the Guatemalan army.”

One month later, one of the participants in the Dos Erres massacre, Pedro Pimentel Rios, was hired as an instructor at the  US Army School of the Americas, then located in Panama, where he was awarded an Army Commendation Medal for meritorious service by US Secretary of the Army John Otto Marsh. At Dos Erres, Pimentel Rios had brutally raped young girls. But to the Reaganites, he was a “freedom fighter.”

Ramiro Cristales, survivor of the slaughter at Dos Erres (Photo: Ramiro Cristales)

After Dos Erres, many of the Kaibiles found refuge in the United States, where some enjoyed prosperous lives. One, Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes, was a well-known and respected karate instructor in southern California. At Dos Erres he bashed in heads with a sledgehammer and tossed grenades into a well full of living villagers. Another, Santos Lopez Alonzo, kidnapped five-year-old survivor Ramiro Cristales and fled to the US where the boy was treated like a slave.

Cristales, now in his 30s, told the Global Post that he never forgot that Alonzo killed his real family, who he saw murdered before his very eyes. “I remember my mom,” he said. “She was a very nice-looking woman. She loved animals. She have everything — chickens, roosters, pigs, dogs. My dad, he was like a farmer. They have cows, two horses. I remember when him and my older brothers have to go to the farm and take care of the corn, the beans. We are living from whatever they are growing. From the land. And now I lost my family. I lost the land and I lost everything. I lost everything. Now I start again with my own family. It’s hard because I wish my dad and my mom were still alive, you know, because my question is: how can I explain to my daughter where is my grandma or my grandpa? Now she doesn’t know but when she’s getting old she will ask. What am I supposed to tell her?”

Alonzo told Cristales that if he was ever brought to justice for his role in the Dos Erres massacre, he should testify on his behalf. “If you have to pay something, you have to pay,” Cristales replied.

“Their big mistake was keeping me alive,” Cristales, now a key witness in a Guatemalan government case against Alonzo, told the Global Post. The former soldier was arrested and deported to Guatemala, where he will hopefully face justice for his role in the massacre. I say hopefully because the Guatemalan justice system is not exactly a model of transparency or, well, justice. But the new trial of four separate Kaibiles soldiers gives hope that things have changed in Guatemala. Ten years ago, then-President Alfonso Portillo finally acknowledged the Dos Erres massacre and the government’s responsibility for the killings. Victims’ families were awarded $1.8 million in compensation. But this is the first time anyone is facing prosecution for the tragedy, and that is a major victory for the people of Guatemala.

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  1. swaneagle harijanJuly 31, 2011 at 3:33 pmReply

    I was horrified when i first learned about the evil done to recruit young Indigenous boys to become what are the monstrous Kaibiles, trained by US Special Forces. I also learned that the United Nations hired Kaibiles as so called UN “Peacekeepers” in The Congo. I wonder if that hasn’t furthered the extremes of horrific violence that plagues the region. UN Peacekeepers have raped and brutalized those they are supposed to protect all over the world, including Haiti and Sarajevo. The current situation in Mexico and Guatemala, with cartels wreaking havoc, is a direct result of US backed death squad unculture.

    May the Mayan people who survived Dos Erres obtain the justice they deserve and remain safe afterwards.

    Sad times when such brutality seems to be spreading all over the earth.

    Thanks so much for writing this important article. It is long overdue that Kaibiles begin to begin to be accountable for their reign of terror.

    • Brett WilkinsJuly 31, 2011 at 6:42 pmReplyAuthor

      And thank you for reading.

  2. LWGarryJuly 31, 2011 at 9:45 pmReply

    As US citizens we should be outraged that our tax dollars continue to go to the School of the Americas, which still trains Latin American soldiers how to kill their own people. This training occurs on US soil. No mas!

  3. NaomiJuly 24, 2012 at 10:00 pmReply

    Our tax dollars go to such things because this is a fake democracy we live in. We live off of the blood of others.We need to overthrow our governments. We need to stop paying taxes and boycott.Most of us don’t even know the stories behind the products we buy.

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