Monday, June 12, 2023

Written by María

Photos of the victims from the massacre of Rancho Bejuco posted on the wall surrounding the cemetery in Rabinal, BV. (Photo Credits: Verdad y Justicia)

First Expert Witness Describes Military Structure, Campaigns and Chain of Command

On the second day of the trial, the Public Prosecutor presented the first expert report, entitled Expert Report on Military Techniques, by Clever Alberto Pino Benamú, a retired coronel from the Peruvian army. The report offered findings on Guatemala’s military structure. The conclusions support the systematic nature of the genocidal violence suffered by the Achi community.

Pino Benamú found that from 1975 to 1985, military and security forces committed widespread violence (torture, forced disappearance, assassinations and sexual violence) in a recurring and systemic way. Security forces sought to demonstrate their total power and humiliate their victims. The state-supported military structure gave members of the military, military commissioners and civil defense patrols (PACs) permission to commit devastating violence with impunity. The defenseless non-combatant civilian population was considered the internal enemy. Thus, the military’s objective was not only to wipe out those they considered guerrilla supporters, but also to demonstrate a complete victory over their opponents, breaking any will to struggle. The opportunity to commit violence was also considered a spoil of war.

Further, Pino Benamú found three elements of the military responsible for ordering, organizing, and executing the violence that occurred in Rancho Bejuco on July 29, 1982. One element was Military Zone 21 in Cobán which controlled the chain of command. A second was the military outpost in Rabinal, where the military commissioners and PACs reported. The third included the military base in Santa Cruz el Chol where the heads of military patrols were located.

In the context of the conflict, the Guatemalan military structure vested military commissioners and PACs with status. However, the military failed to supervise the military commissioners and PACs. They often abused their power to address personal grudges, carrying out violence of their own accord against the non-combatant population.

To understand the crimes against humanity security forces committed in Baja Verapaz from 1981-1984, including the Rancho Bejuco massacre, the report identified the importance of understanding military doctrine, such as the Plan Victoria 82 campaign. These military plans demonstrate the chain of command. That chain of command ran from Military Zone 21 in Cobán, especially the head of the military zone, to the head of the first infantry battalion at the military zone, to the head of the military outpost in Rabinal (who organized the first battalion), and finally to the heads of the patrols at the Rabinal outpost. By understanding the chain of command, courts can identify those responsible for planning and carrying out operations against civilians.

According to Pino Benamú’s testimony on the military’s structure and chain of command, the head of the Rabinal military outpost is principally and functionally responsible for the violence committed against the people of Rancho Bejuco. The military outpost head had direct command over the military and paramilitary forces in the zone. Their actions demonstrate that the outpost head, at minimum, lacked control over the troops under their command.

The commander of Military Zone 21 was responsible for fulfilling the orders in the Plan Victoria 82 campaign. The campaign called for military and paramilitary forces to protect civilians during security operations in the area under their command. In this case, because he failed to protect civilians, Ovalle Salazar can be held responsible for events that took place under his command.

Meanwhile, the head of the PACs directly commanded, guided and led military commissioners and PACs during internal security operations. They were functionally responsible for the events due to their personal, military and paramilitary involvement in military operations. They could have avoided or prevented the grave human rights violations committed against the men, women and children of Rancho Bejuco.

Second Expert Witness Discusses Exhumations and Victim Identification

Claudia Eugenia Rivera Hernández, an archeologist from the Forensic Anthropological Association of Guatemala (FAFG) presented a second expert report on the Rancho Bejuco exhumation, and the subsequent osteological identification of victims  and genetic matching carried out between victims and their surviving family members. The defense tried to exclude Rivera Hernández’s findings, questioning FAFG’s chain of custody and handling of the crime scene. The judge took note of the defense’s complaints, but indicated that those procedural objections were handled at an earlier phase of the trial.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, June 13, the court will hear two more expert reports and two witnesses from the Rancho Bejuco massacre.

Read the report-back for Day 1 here.

Read the report-back for Day 3 here.