Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Written by Lisa

Black monument with cross above it listing the names of Rancho Bejuco massacre victims.

A monument at the Rabinal cemetery honors the Rancho Bejuco massacre victims. Photo credit: Lisa Rankin

Today, the High Risk Court D’s three judge panel opened the trial for the Rancho Bejuco case in Guatemala City. The trial is for the massacre of 25 people, the majority women and children. The victims had fled their community of Xesgiuan to the hamlet of Rancho Bejuco. On July 29, 1982, the army and civil patrols rounded up the community into a house and then proceeded to bomb the building, killing everyone inside.

Currently on trial are six former civil defense patrols (ex-PAC), two military commissioners (civilians working for the Guatemalan military, tasked with organizing and overseeing the civil patrols), and lieutenant coronel Juan Ovalle Salazar. Ovalle Salazar was in charge of the civil patrols from the Military Zone 21 out of Coban, Alta Verapaz. It should be noted, Ovalle Salazar was already under arrest for his role in the Military Zone 21 or CREOMPAZ case, the largest known case of forced disappearance in Latin America. The family members of the victims have struggled for justice for more than 40 years.

Mural with faces of Rancho Bejuco massacre victims.

A mural depicts the victims of the Rancho Bejuco massacre. Photo credit: Lisa Rankin

The Public Prosecutor and Rabinal Legal Clinic argued in their opening statement that the civil patrols and military commissioners were involved in the illegal detention of the 25 victims, collaborated in the torture of one of the community members, Tiburcio Ixpata, helped to dig a hole as a mass grave for the victims and were involved in their massacre. The Rabinal Legal Clinic is also accusing Ovalle Salazar of coordinating the operation in which the massacre of Rancho Bejuco occurred, as the operation was organized from the military base in Coban, and Ovalle Salazar was responsible for the civil patrols in the region.

The defense for Ovalle Salazar claim he was not in charge of the civil patrols at the time and called into question the existence, identity and circumstances of death of the 25 victims. In reality, his defense is challenging the question of if the victims exist and the massacre actually even happened.

The defense for the military commissioner and former civil patrols really based their argument that there was not any direct evidence on the specific actions of the accused. One of the defense lawyers (there are 7 lawyers representing the accused) argued that the case really came down to organizations funded by the international community looking to make money from the internal armed conflict, and therefore bringing forward legal cases when really, everyone was a victim of the Cold War. He claimed NGOs are the reason there are huge divisions in the country.

With that, and the decision by the accused to not make a declaration at the hearing, the case adjourned until Monday, June 12.

Read the report-back for Day 2 here.