On Tuesday, a national court in Guatemala handed down the first convictions for a notorious massacre. It was 1982 when Guatemalan soldiers attacked the village of Las Dos Erres and killed more than 200 people — many of them women, children and the elderly — who were assaulted and beaten before they were shot or bludgeoned to death and then thrown down a well. Now a Guatemalan judge has sentenced four of the soldiers who carried out the Dos Erres attack to 6,060 years of prison each, 30 years per person they killed. The court also found the soldiers guilty of crimes against human rights, adding another 30 years to their sentences. It is the latest step in a process to end impunity for those involved in the deaths or disappearances of more than 200,000 people in the 1980s and 1990s. However, human rights groups allege General Otto Pérez Molina, now a leading presidential candidate in Guatemala, was directly involved in the systematic use of torture and acts of genocide in the 1980s and could block pending cases if he is elected. We speak with Annie Bird, co-director of Rights Action, and with Ramón Cadena, the ad hoc judge who heard the Dos Erres massacre case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. [includes rush transcript]
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AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, a national court in Guatemala handed down the first convictions for a notorious massacre. It was 1982 when Guatemalan soldiers attacked the village of Las Dos Erres and killed more than 200 people—many of them women, children and the elderly—who were assaulted and beaten before they were shot or bludgeoned to death and then thrown down a well.
Now a Guatemalan judge has sentenced four of the soldiers who carried out the Dos Erres attack to 6,060 years of prison each. That’s 30 years per person they killed. The court also found the soldiers guilty of crimes against human rights, adding another 30 years to their sentences.
After the sentencing, a relative of one of the victims celebrated the landmark verdict.
SILVIA ESCOBAR: [translated] We all feel happy. Everyone from Dos Erres feels happy because we got what we wanted, so there will be justice for these people who did not have compassion for all those people—children, elderly, innocent people, hard-working—who they killed.
AMY GOODMAN: In related news, another soldier suspected of involvement in the Las Dos Erres massacre, Pedro Pimentel Rios, was deported from the United States earlier this month and could face similar charges. It’s the latest step in a process to end impunity for those involved in the deaths or disappearances of at least 200,000 people during the time of Guatemala’s military and paramilitaries that were killing the people.
For more, we’re joined now from Washington, D.C., by Annie Bird, co-director of Rights Action, worked extensively with civilian survivors in Guatemala, including one in this case. And we go to Guatemala City, where Ramón Cadena joins us on the phone. He was the ad hoc judge who heard the Las Dos Erres massacre case for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. As director of the International Commission of Jurists, he also helped oversee the selection of the new attorney general in Guatemala who allowed this case, and other pending cases, to move forward.
I would like to start in Guatemala and go to Ramón Cadena. Explain what happened in 1982 in Guatemala.
RAMÓN CADENA: Yes, thank you. Good morning.
What happened in Guatemala is, first of all, in the context of war during the '80s, and the military doctrine of security considered all the civilians and all those who opposed to the military regime as communists and as enemies of the army. So, there was a settlement called the Dos Erres, because it had the first letter of the two founders of the settlement. They begin with an "R," so that is why that it's named it.
AMY GOODMAN: Ramón Cadena, we’re going to try to—we’re going to try to clear up your phone line. So we’re going to go to Annie Bird for now to pick up where Ramón Cadena left off. It’s just a bad phone line to Guatemala City. Annie Bird, talking about Dos Erres in 1982, even where it is in Guatemala.
ANNIE BIRD: Yes. Dos Erres is a town in the northern department of the Petén, a jungle region. The people in the region in that time were settling in the jungle in really hard conditions, working really hard to clear the forest, plant fields. And the army came through in a series of massacres, so it was part of—that were part of a campaign of genocide between 1981 and 1982 in which they massacred over 660 villages of civilian populations. In the case of Dos Erres, the massacre took place in December 1982 during the—when Efraín Ríos Montt was the military dictator. And he is actually part of—there’s a genocide case also being taken against him nationally and his highest-ranking military officers. And earlier this year in June, one of the highest-ranking military officers, General López, was arrested and charged with the crime of genocide, which is historic. And so, he would have been a higher-up commanding officer that coordinated the campaign that the massacre of Dos Erres was a part of. The massacre in Dos Erres took place over three days. Over 250 men, women and children were massacred in the most brutal of ways. They were—most of the women were raped before they were killed.
And, you know, the survivors have been on a long, long search for justice. The case was first presented to the courts in 1994. Arrest warrants were issued in 1999. And a case was taken—you know, because the arrest warrants were never acted upon, it was taken before the Inter-American Commission. The Inter-American Court ruled that the state was violating human rights in the case and not providing justice. And then, finally, this year, some of the material perpetrators, and now even also one of the high-up intellectual authors, are being arrested. It’s very important for Guatemala also because it’s part of a series of cases that are advancing through the justice system today for the crimes of the past, of the 1980s, of the genocide in which more than 200,000, mostly Mayan, people were killed by the Guatemalan army, with strong support from the United States in training and funding.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the issue—let’s talk about that issue of the United States. Annie Bird, human rights groups, including yours, Rights Watch, allege that General Otto Pérez Molina, now a leading presidential candidate in Guatemala, was directly involved in the systematic use of torture and acts of genocide during these years. For our television and online viewers, we want to warn you we’re playing graphic footage taken while Molina was in command of the Ixil Triangle in 1982, where there was a village massacre campaign. The video shows then-Major Pérez Molina being interviewed by journalist Allan Nairn, while the battered bodies of several prisoners lie nearby on the ground. Although Pérez Molina was using a different name, he seems identifiable by his voice and by his features. Annie Bird, can you talk about this?
ANNIE BIRD: Yes. Pérez Molina is the leading presidential candidate for the elections scheduled to be held September 11th. Very little is known in Guatemala about his past in the army. There’s been very little discussion in the press. Of course, he runs as a general, as a former general, and is known to have been, of course, in the war. But the reality is that he is very well known in the Ixil area, very much identified by people there as having been a commanding officer in the region. In Quiché, in that area, almost half of the massacres during the genocide occurred in that area, over 300 massacres.
And in the video footage, this man, that identified himself as Tito Arias, but that’s known to be the nom de guerre of Otto Pérez Molina, is seen over the dead bodies of four prisoners, that the soldiers under his command told the journalists that they had captured alive and brought in and were interrogated and killed, which was standard practice. There were virtually no—there were no official prisoners of war during the war in Guatemala.
AMY GOODMAN: And the role of the United States at this time—this was during the years of President Reagan—in supporting the Guatemalan military and training the G2, those that were killing the civilians?
ANNIE BIRD: Right. There was strong, you know, really unquestioned support of the Guatemalan military by the United States, consistently, you know, since the military—since the U.S.-backed coup in 1954 and through the series of military dictators that ruled the country, you know, since then and throughout the war, that enjoyed strong backing of the United States.
And actually, you know, and President Bill Clinton, when he visited Guatemala when he was president, apologized for the U.S. role in supporting the military during the genocide in Guatemala, which we find actually very concerning, given that Hillary Clinton again visited Guatemala—she had been along on that trip earlier this year in June—and a situation—and in support of the CARSI initiative and a big growth of U.S. investment in security initiatives in the region and military—support of the military and the police at a time when there’s growing abuses, particularly in Honduras. And during her trip to Guatemala, she promised $40 million in security assistance to Honduras, in a government implicated in gross human rights violations. So it’s concerning that the U.S. policy in Central America doesn’t seem to be changing.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me try Ramón Cadena again in Guatemala City. We’ll see if your phone line is improved. If Molina were to become the president—we this man who was standing over the dead bodies back in the early 1980s—what would it mean for these trials?
RAMÓN CADENA: Well, I think that, definitely, if he gets into the executive branch as president, he will, and also other ministers will, be blocking or trying to block some of the cases. As a matter of fact, right now there is a case, the Bámaca case. It’s a guerrilla man that was detained and then disappeared and probably killed. And everything comes out as Molina—as Pérez Molina as one of the executors. And the case has been blocked by the constitutional court right now, because there is a ruling of the—of the—
AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about the death of Bámaca—of Bámaca, who was the husband of the American lawyer, Jennifer Harbury.
RAMÓN CADENA: Yes, exactly, exactly. She has been fighting for this case against the impunity, but it has been impossible. And the constitutional court is right now blocking this case. So I think if he gets into power, definitely the case is going to be affected. And we have heard that he wants to change the attorney general that is right now appointed, so it will be very negative for justice.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Ramón Cadena, these are trials of soldiers, and they are getting many years in prison, thousands of years in prison. What about the United States?
RAMÓN CADENA: Just I want to explain that the judges, first of all, they said that they wanted to give all of these years for each person that was killed, but the years that they will be legally in jail are 50 years. So this is just a symbolic ruling.
Now, yes, the United States, I think there should be an investigation regarding the involvement of the United States in these enormous massacres. And we hope that once the case of genocide advances, there will be a possibility of pointing out that other actors, such as the case of the United States, who was involved, deeply involved in this case.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to one last clip, and this was of a soldier. After the four soldiers were sentenced Tuesday, one of the convicted officers said he felt no regret for what he had done.
CARLOS CARIAS: [translated] I don’t regret anything, because due to the noble institution I belong to, and continue to belong to, because it’s in my veins. The Guatemalan army, I don’t mind taking the blame for you. I don’t care, because I know there will always be a soldier at the four cardinal points looking after Guatemalans, as I did myself. All my colleagues who have died during the war, who were there to defend Guatemala, so that Guatemala is what it is now, I think if this is the payment I need to make, I accept it kindly.
AMY GOODMAN: He is making an important point here, Annie Bird. He says he was part of the Guatemalan army, and he did it for that. In fact, that is true, isn’t that right?
ANNIE BIRD: That is exactly true. And he also made another good point, in that he played an important role, and the Guatemalan army played an important role, in making Guatemala what it is today. And Guatemala has one of the highest murder rates in the world. The levels of violence have increased. They’re at higher levels of violence than—of killing than during many of the years of the armed conflict. And that’s, you know, because of organized crime, drug trafficking, the war against drug. And the fact of the matter is that many of the military networks during the war were involved in organized crime activities, as death squads, as—you know, involved in drug-trafficking and car-thieving networks and whatnot. And those networks continue to operate today in Guatemala, and they place people within the justice system. You know, these networks control courts, control sections of the attorney general’s office. And so, people in Guatemala have been in a really difficult struggle over, you know, 25—over 20 years to try to bring the Guatemalan justice system to a point where it can undertake these trials, because the networks of organized crime that have influence within the justice system use that influence to illegally block justice. And so, last year, for example, there was—
AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.
ANNIE BIRD: —an attorney general named, with strong ties to organized crime, and after six months of really important struggle, they finally had a very good attorney general named, who has moved on cases like these. And those are important advances and are necessary not just for trying crimes of the past, but for ending the violence that today Guatemalans suffer.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Annie Bird, co-director of Rights Action, and Ramón Cadena, joining us from Guatemala City in Guatemala, the ad hoc judge who heard the Las Dos Erres massacre case for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.