One survivor of the civil war masacres represents the injustice suffered by millions
From 1960 to 1996 Guatemala was torn apart by the longest, and one of the most brutal, civil wars in the history of Latin America. To this day, the country is still trying to recover from the weighty and far-reaching effects it had on the country. During the civil war, the dictatorship-leaning government used all forms of repression and power at its disposal to remain in power.
A 1999 report by the UN-funded Historical Clarification Commission found that the government of the time had committed 93% of the human rights atrocities known to have occurred during the war, though the insurgents used just as brutal forms of terror as their policy of choice.
Guatemala is now trying to rebuild itself, and has been doing so since 1996. Democracy and respect for the pillars of such a form of governance are becoming increasing entrenched and the country’s legal machinery have dealt out harsh sentences to several figures proven guilty of directly carrying out, or giving orders for the carrying out, of some of the many atrocities committed between 1960 and 1996.
In 1999, Guatemala news media reported that Candido Noriega would be sentenced to 50 years in prison for his involvement in various massacres carried out by the Guatemalan army. In August of 2009, a non-military civilian, Felipe Cusanero, was sentenced before a panel of three judges to 150 years in prison for his involvement in supplying the military with information on a local community, which led directly to members of that community ‘disappearing’. According to Guatemala news media, he has never answered calls from victims’ families to tell them where their loved ones are buried.
The injustices committed during the war, 200,000 killed and 50,000 disappeared, are staggering. So many atrocities were brought to bear upon the population that it will take decades to get a proper understanding of what went on in the case of each massacre, each disappearance, or perhaps Guatemala will never learn the full truth.
But, for a select few survivors justice can be done, and Ramiro Cristales is set to become the latest survivor to testify against an individual accused of direct involvement in the deaths of innocent civilians. Cristales was just a child, a small boy, when he watched soldiers kill 251 people from his village, an infamous village in Guatemalan society, Las Dos Erres. It is a village that has come to represent the injustice of millions, not just victims, but survivors too, those who have had to live with the memories of murder and loss.
In 1982, at the height of the civil war and during a time when the atrocities peaked, Cristales saw his family killed, his mother stabbed in the neck and thrown in a well. He saw babies swung by their legs, their heads smashed like watermelon against walls and trees, children thrown into wells to pile on top of one another and drown. What Cristales saw is not unique, it happened in over 400 individual massacres across the country during the war.
He is unique because he is one of the few surviving witnesses to such a massacre, and he is not afraid to testify. He saw evil and now he wants justice.
“Their big mistake was keeping me alive,” he told the Global Post in an interview. Cristales survived the masacre because one of the soldiers, Santos Alonzo, took him with him from the village and ‘adopted’ him for the next 15 years, treating the boy as something akin to a slave. Cristales is now a primary witness in a human rights case against Alonzo and 16 other soldiers alleged to have taken part in the killings.
Cristales is one of a very small group of people prepared to testify publicly, as making it known that you are witness to such terrible crimes can be deadly in a country still pulling itself back together. But Cristales has a passion to see justice done and spoke in detail with the Golbal Post on what he saw.
In the interview he spoke about how he and his siblings, six of them (one older brother and five sisters) were woken in the dark of night by soldiers and taken, along with the rest of their small village, to the local church and school. The women and children were put in the church, the men and older boys in the school hall.
From between the planks of the church wall, Cristales, just a child, watched as the enormity of human evil exposed itself. He watched the soldiers beating to death or hanging the men and boys, the women raped and stabbed or shot.
“You can hear the womans crying and screaming for help,” he says, the calm in his voice is in sharp contrast to the chaos of panic and terror that must have surrounded him that night.
He desribes in detail the manner in which many of the people were killed, with machettes or, even more gruesome and lingering, the sharp edge of a shovel, which is not nearly sharp enough to bring a swift death. One can only imagine what sounds and images Cristales is haunted by in the silent hours of the night.
“When was my mom turn we …” at this point he stops, collecting himself and then relates how Alonzo singled him out and told him to stay in the church as the last of his family were taken from him. The following day, when he was taken from the church, along with four other boys and a girl, he saw his father and older brother hanging from a tree. Death was waiting for the other boys and the girl, while a childhood of enslavement awaited Cristales.
This is why he wants justice, and why he is willing to risk his life to get it.
Guatemala, in conjunction with the human rights court of the Organization of Latin American States, has for years been trying to conduct a case against the men, but progress has been slow due to a lack of evidence and difficulty in finding the men. Alonzo was recently arrested in the United States on immigration issues, and many of the other men have been found to be hiding in the states as well.
“The only thing I ask is justice,” says Critales, who lives in constant fear of his life and the safety of his family, for the men he will testify against have not yet been arrested and many of the former soldiers, with a strong interest in preventing such landmark court cases going ahead, are still roaming free.
It is ironic that the United States has joined the investigation, as the United States government had explicit knowledge of the atrocities being committed by a government they’d supported to power. In 1999, then-President of the United States, Bill Clinton, broke new ground on a visit to the country when he publicly apologized on behalf of the US government for their involvement in the atrocities, which included supplying the Guatemalan government with weapons even as they massacred civilians.
“It is important that I state clearly that support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression of the kind described in the report was wrong,” he told Guatemalan news media at a press conference.
Now, the United States has joined the investigation and the FBI are involved in hunting down the other men accused of involvement in the killing spree at Las Dos Erres. The irony is dampened by constant delays in getting the court case on track and many human rights activists in Guatemala are worried it may be derailed by corruption and a lack of evidence.
In the meantime Cristales struggles to move on with a life that was derailed by war, while thousands remain unnamed and lost in undiscovered mass graves across the country.
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