Twenty eight years after the massacre of 251 indigenous farmers, I found myself silently accompanying human rights organizations scrambling to identify the remains. The request for a daily international presence from the organization of families of the disappeared in Guatemala (FAMDEGUA) was unusual for a group so experienced. Their concern surrounded their prominent role in bringing to attention the legal case of the Dos Erres massacre. This week the court ruled, sentencing four Guatemalan ex-special forces, known as Kaibiles to 6,060 years each, for the roles they played in the massacre.
The massacre at Dos Erres was undoubtedly one of the most violent in of the 36-year Guatemalan civil war and was part of U.S.-backed dictator Efrain Ríos Montt’s genocide against the indigenous Mayans. Between December 6 and 7, 1982, 251 indigenous civilians were slaughtered according to FAMDEGUA, soldiers committed mass rape, ripped foetuses out of mothers’ wombs, and threw victims against rocks in order to save ammunition.
Rodolpho Robles, a Major General from Peru, who served as an independent expert in the trial, determined that the Military High Command of Guatemala was the one who ordered the slaughter of the people in Dos Erres. This analysis supports the UN Truth Commission’s findings on the Civil War: that the orders came from the highest echelons. The implications of these findings have startling consequences for Guatemala’s presidential election next month, as frontrunner Otto Pérez Molina, trained in the School of the Americas, was a former head of the G2 (national intelligence archive) and commanded the army detachment in the Department of Quiche during the conflict, an area where over 300 massacres were carried out.
Last September, U.S. Marines spent a week carrying out military training exercises with the Kaibiles. In its growing concern with the drug war, the U.S. military apparently sees the Kaibiles as a counterweight to the continuing encroachment into Guatemala of Mexican drug cartels, especially the Zetas, despite a wide-scale civilian fear of the Kaibiles’ return.
Besides the problem that the United States is supporting a former death squad, Washington’s support of the Kaibiles is equally distressing for practical reasons. Ex-Kaibiles have been hired by the Zeta drug cartel to help maintain control of its monopoly of drug distribution in Guatemala’s Petén region. Furthermore, reports of sabotage within the army, with three reported cases of traffickers stealing weapons from the state, demonstrate corruption in Guatemalan military institutions. Military support of any kind could well prove counterproductive to the U.S. and regional interests.
As the accompaniment case for FAMDEGUA progressed, I attended the identification process of the remains of the Dos Erres victims, buried in a mass grave in Las Cruces. As I watched the exhumation team struggle to take DNA samples of all the victims’ remains, the carnage left me with a sense that the perpetrators had an utter disregard for life.
More disturbing still, was that FAMDEGUA needed international observers like myself in their hope of guaranteeing their safety in their drive for justice. I keep asking myself: Who are the people FAMDEGUA fears? And are they related to those Kaibiles being trained by U.S. Marines in the jungle base known as ‘El Infierno’ (‘the hell’)?
It is a testament to the desperation and short-sightedness of the U.S. drug policy that Washington is resorting to training Kaibiles. With the trial of these terrible crimes closing in Guatemala, the U.S. has a chance to cut its ties with the Kaibiles and their appalling human rights record. It is important to remember that the Kaibiles were trained to fight guerrillas, yet ended up massacring civilians. With Ríos Montt and Otto Pérez Molina still prominent in Guatemalan politics the cycle of violence may repeat itself and prove extremely costly to the U.S. and even more so to Guatemala.