June 13, 2023

Written by Lenora

[Content warning: Survivor testimony contains graphic descriptions of the aftermath of the massacre.]

Today witnesses for the prosecution continued to provide testimony in the Rancho Bejuco case.

As a reminder, 11 men stand accused in the Rancho Bejuco massacre. On July 29, 1982, 10 soldiers, 15 civil defense patrols (PACs) and four military commissioners came to the hamlet. There, they tortured two men and captured the rest of the community. They then enclosed the victims in a house and threw explosives in, killing those inside.

This massacre followed the refusal of the community’s male residents to join the PACs, the public prosecutor said at the start of Tuesday’s session.

Expert Witness Presents Police Archival Evidence on Rancho Bejuco, El Chol

The first witness was Daniel Barcsay. The Public Prosecutor had asked him to conduct a documental investigation of Guatemalan National Police Archive files from 1981-1984, related to the Rancho Bejuco massacre. Barcsay shared that police documentation did not show direct information about Rancho Bejuco, because there was no regional police substation in the area. However, police documents did give evidence of violent acts committed by paramilitary forces in the area, based on hospital and morgue reports.

Barcsay also found information about collaboration between municipal authorities, the police, and military and paramilitary forces. The documents showed how local mayors shared information with security forces, who then carried out violent operations. For example, two police special agents went to Granados and el Chol in July to speak to municipal authorities. The police asked them to report any “sabotage by subversives.” They emphasized the importance of municipal authorities informing on the population because of the lack of local police presence. The police documentation also established that Juan Ovalle Salazar was lieutenant coronel at Military Zone 21 at the time of the massacre.

Psychological Expert Witness Presents Wide-Ranging Damaged Suffered by Victims

Expert witness, Ana Carolina Melgar, provided testimony on psychosocial effects. The psychologist discussed excerpts of conversations she had had with witnesses and family members of the deceased. The survivors described the complete loss of everything they had. That included their family and friends, homes, lands, livestock, harvests, personal effects, tools and means of making a living. Further, Melgar discussed the psychological damages left on victims following repeated experiences of violence, including massacres and sexual violence. She also mentioned long-term damage to the social fabric and the ongoing trauma experienced by victims denied justice. According to Melgar, the damages and trauma inflicted require ongoing psychological accompaniment, access to justice and reparations.

Standing witness raising her right hand, seen from behind

Survivor María Alvarado offers testimony about the loss of her family in the Rancho Bejuco massacre, Photo credit: Verdad y Guaticia

Survivor Maria Natividad Alvarado Testifies

The afternoon session saw two witnesses give their testimonies. Maria Natividad Alvarado began her testimony with a prayer. These were some of her thoughts: God knows what happened to us, what we suffered, what we still suffer.

Alvarado lived outside of Rancho Bejuco when the massacre occurred. Fifteen years old at the time, she had just given birth. Therefore, she could only return to Rancho Bejuco two weeks after the massacre, accompanied by two sisters. There, they found an open ditch filled with community members’ bodies. Dogs has dragged some of the bodies out and strewn body parts around. Alvarado and her sisters returned the bodies to the mass grave and covered it with branches. She lost most of her family members that day, including her parents, siblings, an uncle, nieces and nephews.

The experience was extremely triggering. Alvarado was overcome by her memories and required time with a psychologist before she could continue. Alarmingly, Alvarado knows most of the defendants: they were neighbours, people her father worked with, members of families she sold things to.

The judge, Edwin Ramirez, had to remind members of the defense team to show empathy for others and to avoid revictimizing witnesses.

Man in blue shirt being sworn in, depicted from behind

Eye witness Juan Osorio offers testimony, Photo credit: Verdad y Justicia

Survivor Juan Osorio Tecú Shares Testimony

The second witness was Juan Osorio Tecú who also began with a prayer. Many heads bowed as he prayed to God and Mother Earth.

Osorio Tecú had moved from Xesiguan to Rancho Bejuco just two months before the massacre. Osorio Tecú, who had left town that morning, testified to seeing soldiers and PACs coming to the community upon his return. Fearful, Osorio Tecú hid from them. He wanted to see what was happening, so he peeked out from about 100 meters away. He could hear that community members were still alive. Then he heard a bomb, followed by people’s cries. He related that those who did not die in the bombing were killed afterwards by the troops. He was able to see security forces dropping women’s bodies into the ditch. The next day, Osorio Tecú went to the site of the massacre. He found body parts and a piece of the bomb, which forensic investigators have since examined. Osorio Tecú lost his pregnant sister and several cousins in the massacre.

Questionable Security Surrounding High-Risk Defendant

In the hearing, Lieutenant Colonel Juan Ovalle Salazar was wearing a protective arm covering. That meant he was could not be handcuffed. At the end of the day’s session, Ovalle Salazar approached the elevators without the arm covering nor handcuffs. Police and officers of the court were in the same area. Ovalle Salazar walked toward the open elevator and attempted to enter. He faced little resistance until finally one guard took his arm and led him back with the other prisoners. He and the guards all had a good laugh about it.

Read the report-back for Day 2 here.

Read the report-back for Day 4 as of June 16.