WOLA Expert to provide up-to-date background and analysis
Guatemala City—On Thursday, August 17, 2023, a Guatemalan court is scheduled to deliver a verdict in a massacre case in which 25 indigenous Mayans were killed, 17 of whom were children. The massacre took place in Rancho Bejuco, a small hamlet in the department of Baja Verapaz, in July 1982, during the government of Efraín Ríos Montt, who was convicted of genocide in 2013 but whose conviction was set aside on a technicality by a higher court.
The trial against nine defendants began on June 7, 2023. Among the accused are six men who were allegedly members of the former Civil Defense Patrols (PACs) that were created by the Guatemalan Army during the internal armed conflict as a way to control the indigenous population and which have been implicated in serious human rights violations, including massacres, forced disappearance, and sexual violence. Two men who were allegedly military commissioners coordinating between the PACs and the army, and an army lieutenant colonel who was already jailed and indicted in a mass forced disappearance case are also defendants in the case.
The case is being heard by a Guatemalan High Risk Court “D” at a time when independent judicial operators are under severe attack. Over 30 former judges and prosecutors now live in exile after having faced persecution, intimidation, and even death threats. Indeed, the judge originally presiding over the pretrial phase of this case was Erika Aifán, who was forced to flee Guatemala because of ongoing threats against her for her role in anticorruption investigations, just two months after the arraignment proceedings in the Rancho Bejuco case began. The court will hear the final statements of the nine defendants and could recess and convene for the verdict either the same day or on a later date.
It is one of several cases connected to the country’s internal armed conflict currently making their way through the Guatemalan courts. These cases have come about because survivors, families of victims, and their allies in local and international civil society have pressed for justice with persistence against great odds over the years.
For Background and Updates on the Trial contact:
WOLA Press at [email protected]
On July 19, 1982, the Guatemalan army allegedly massacred 25 people in Rancho Bejuco, a small hamlet located in the village of Pacoj in Santa Cruz El Chol, department of Baja Verapaz. Of the victims, 17 were children. The massacre occurred during the de facto government of General Efrain Rios Montt. The 17 months of his government, between March 23, 1982 and August 8, 1983, were the bloodiest period of the Guatemalan civil conflict, according to the Historical Clarification Commission (CEH).
Nine men face up to 30 years in prison for their role in the Rancho Bejuco massacre. According to prosecutors, six of the defendants were members of the Civil Defense Patrols (PACs) that were created by the Guatemalan army during the internal armed conflict to control the civilian population and two were military commissioners who coordinated between the PACs and the Army. Also on trial is retired army lieutenant colonel Juan Ovalle Salazar, who prosecutors say gave the order to massacre the people of Rancho Bejuco in reprisal for the refusal of some of the community members to join the PACs. The CEH attributes approximately one out of every five crimes committed during the internal war to the PACs.
The Rancho Bejuco massacre occurred in a context of systematic and widespread state attacks against the civilian population in Baja Verapaz that originated during the government of General Romeo Lucas García (1978-1982) and continued during Ríos Montt’s bloody rule. Prosecutors from the Special Unit for the Investigation of Human Rights Violations during the Armed Conflict have called on the court to condemn each of the defendants to 30 years in prison. High Risk Court “D” is scheduled to render its verdict on August 17, 2023.
The plaintiffs presented expert testimony to clarify the relationship between the PACs and the Guatemalan army; forensic reports of the exhumation of at the massacre site in 1999, in which the bodies of 15 victims were recovered and several identified by their families; and dozens of documents, including military plans and documents that identify Ovalle Salazar as a lieutenant colonel, connect him to the PACs, and place him in Rabinal around the time of the massacre.
Paulina Ixtapá, one of seven survivors of the Rancho Bejuco massacre who has testified in this case, is also one of the 36 Achi women who sought justice for the sexual violence they suffered during the Guatemalan civil war in Rabinal.Their collective efforts were recognized in 2022 with the WOLA Human Rights Award.
When the military attacked Rancho Bejuco on July 29, 1982, Paulina was 18 years old. She lost 15 family members that day, including six nieces and nephews, one who was just nine months old. Her sister, who was pregnant, was also killed.Paulina and her mother survived the Rancho Bejuco massacre because that morning, they had gone to the market. After learning that their family members had been killed, they fled to the town of Rabinal for safety. But the following year, Paulina was captured by patrolmen, who accused her of being a guerrilla. They took her to the Rabinal military detachment. “They raped me for 25 days,” Paulina says. “For nine months I was in the hands of the military. They forced me to make the soldiers’ tortillas”. Her testimony helped convict five former paramilitaries to 30 years in prison in January 2022 for crimes against humanity.
The court ruling on August 17th will be a crucial test of the justice system in Guatemala. As WOLA has noted, over the past decade, networks made up of members of Guatemala’s political and military elite, criminal groups, and private sector have mobilized to push back against anti-impunity efforts. These groups have found common cause in the current administration of President Alejandro Giammattei, who has overseen the wholesale dismantling of institutions that were put in place to implement the Peace Accords. These actions by the Giammattei government threaten to undermine the ability of victims of grave human rights violations to access justice, truth and reparations.
For additional background information on the trial, please refer to the following articles:
“Rancho Bejuco: No fuimos nosotros que los matamos. Fue el Ejército”, by Dr. Jo-Marie Burt and Paulo Estrada
“Hope Amidst the Darkness: Victims Continue to Press for Justice for Aartime atrocities in Guatemala”, by Dr. Jo-Marie Burt and Paulo Estrada
WOLA Senior Fellow
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