The Miami Herald
December 21, 1998

             Survivors of massacre still living in fear

             By EDWARD HEGSTROM
             Special to The Herald

             RABINAL, Guatemala -- The trial has ended, and the guilty verdict has come
             down against three men accused of massacring Bruna Perez Osorio's daughter,
             her mother and most of her neighbors in 1982. The human rights leaders have
             gone, declaring the verdict in the Rio Negro case a monumental first step toward
             bringing justice for the countless atrocities of the Guatemalan civil war.

             But for Perez and the other few surviving victims of the frightful massacre of Achi
             Indian women and children, the verdict hasn't changed things at all.

             They are still trapped in the same town where they live painfully close to their
             families' killers -- most of whom are still free and will never be prosecuted for the
             massacre. They still get death threats. They are still scared.

             ``I know the men who did this crime, and I see them every Sunday when they
             come to town for market,'' said Perez, who was a key witness in the trial leading
             to the Nov. 30 verdict. ``It frightens me to see them, but I have to look.''

             In Guatemala, many human rights violations of the 36-year civil war were done by
             people from within the community -- men who continue to go to the same
             churches, speak the same Maya Indian languages and share the same land as their
             surviving victims.

             Local civilians used

             The Guatemalan Army used the local civilians -- known as military commissioners
             or civilian self-defense patrol leaders -- as a way of infiltrating the Maya
             communities and preventing rebel recruiting at the height of the war in the early
             1980s. But since the war ended in 1996, the civilian killers have played a different

             All over the Guatemalan countryside, victims say they are afraid to speak up about
             what happened during the war, because the killers, torturers and rapists continue
             to live nearby. ``The victims in the Guatemalan countryside are still defenseless,''
             argues Miguel Angel Albizures, a leading local human rights organizer with the
             Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared of Guatemala. ``Although the military
             commissioners no longer have official authority, many of them remain very
             powerful. They keep the relatives of the victims down through threats.''

             As many as 200,000 people died in Guatemala's civil war, most of them unarmed
             Maya citizens killed during a ``scorched earth'' counterinsurgency campaign
             implemented by the army and its civilian accomplices during the early 1980s.

             Rabinal, which lies in a remote valley at the center of the country, was never an
             important area of rebel activity, according to recent investigations by the
             Guatemalan Forensic Anthropologists Foundation and the Catholic Church. The
             insurgents did do some political work converting the Indians to their cause, but
             there were never more than 50 active rebels in the region.

             Dispute began in 1976

             In the outlying hamlet of Rio Negro, the local Achi Indians got into a dispute with
             the government beginning in 1976, when authorities announced they would
             relocate the community to make room for a hydroelectric plant.

             As tensions rose in Rio Negro, the army began recruiting in other neighboring
             hamlets, particularly Xococ, another Achi village that lies about five miles away.
             The army gave the Xococ villagers a few old carbines and helped them to organize
             a Civilian Self Defense Patrol.

             But the work of the Xococ paramilitaries soon extended beyond self defense.

             Human rights experts allege that the Xococ patrolmen went on to kill more than
             1,000 people in the span of a few years. More than 100 men from Rio Negro
             were shot after being ordered to walk to Xococ in February of 1982, according to
             survivors. With the men gone, the Xococ patrolmen and an army battalion then
             marched into Rio Negro on March 13, 1982, where they raped the defenseless
             women before killing 177 women and children.

             Years of silence

             Silent for more than a decade, survivors of the massacre began to speak up just in
             the past few years. Forensic anthropologists arrived in 1994, exhuming the bodies
             of 143 women and children from a mass grave that lay exactly where Perez and
             others said it would be.

             The bones of three bodies were positively identified through DNA testing, and
             three Xococ leaders were put on trial for murder. All three were convicted on
             Nov. 30, receiving the death sentence.

             International human rights groups were disturbed that the three killers were given
             the death sentence, but nonetheless praised the verdict as the first conviction ever
             in a case involving Guatemalan war atrocities.

             ``That people are beginning to be held accountable in Guatemala is extremely
             important,'' said Susannah Sirkin, with the Boston-based Physicians for Human
             Rights, a group that helped local anthropologists initiate the exhumations in
             Rabinal. ``For so long, these crimes have been denied.''