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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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.''