The court buildings where hearings are taking place. Photo credit: Lenora

June 15, 2023

Written by Lenora

A Pattern of Genocidal Violence

Four witnesses shared recorded testimonies today. While the sound was not very good and it is preferable to have the witness present, it was crucial to hear their stories, however possible.

The similarities in the Rancho Bejuco witnesses’ testimonies reveals the systemic terror and violence that state forces perpetrated against them. They detailed many accounts with horrific details including torture, mass murder, and desecration of the dead. Their testimonies figure in with many other accounts of violence across Guatemala, making clear the government’s genocidal plans.

The Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) report refers to the Rancho Bejuco massacre, using it as one example of systematic persecution aimed at the total elimination of the Maya Achí communities.

Felipe Ixtapa Rodríguez Shares His Story of Loss

During the first two testimonies of the day, witnesses recounted how military and paramilitary forces entered their homes, injuring or killing members of their family, leaving destruction in their wake. One witness, Felipe Ixtapa Rodríguez, now 78, shared:

One morning at 8:30 the military and PACs entered my home. We were all very frightened.  I was looking after my wife. They tore her away from me, broke her feet. Then killed her.

Ixtapa Rodríguez went on to name several of those involved, specifically naming the members of the civil defense patrol (PACs) on trial. He also identified retired Lt. Colonel Juan Ovalle Salazar as being responsible for the massacre.

After describing his wife’s murder, he stated that most of the massacre victims, including his four children, died when the military and the PACs bombed the house. He said that the military and paramilitary forces went on to kill anyone who hadn’t died in the bombing.

Civilian Recruitment into Government Violence

The CEH report shares information to help explain the role of paramilitary forces during the Internal Armed Conflict.

The civilian population participated in counterinsurgency activities through two paramilitary structures: Military commissioners were civilians, most of whom had previous ties to the military, who collaborated with the army and helped identify potential new army recruits. PACs were created at the end of 1981 and came into full legal force in 1982 under the Ríos Montt military dictatorship.

The military recruited patrolmen from the population. Many were forcibly conscripted, with the military threatening to kill them and their families for non-participation. By organizing the rural civilian populations into PACs, the Ríos Montt dictatorship could monitor and control rural areas, indoctrinate the population, and force community members to participate in counterinsurgency efforts, oftentimes pitting them against others in their own or neighboring communities. By 1982-83, there were around 900,000 civil defense patrolmen, representing about 80% of the Indigenous, rural, male population.

The PACs received their orders, training, and weapons from the armed forces, with special favors given to those considered most loyal. Some tried to avoid death for disloyalty, while doing as little damage as possible. Others reveled in brutality or used their delegated access to violence and total impunity to exert power or settle old scores against fellow community members.  The Guatemala Historical Memory Recuperation Report (REMHI), produced by the Catholic Church in the wake of the conflict, implicated PACs and military commissioners in about 25% of the massacres committed during the conflict. They also participated in torture, sexual violence, the destruction of crops and communities and other human rights violations.

Understanding the role of these irregular forces helps us understand the following testimonies.

Former Military Commissioners Testify

The final two testimonies of the day came from two local, former military commissioners. Both of the commissioners knew the people involved in the Rancho Bejuco massacre, particularly the accused PACs. In their testimonies, they named names.

The first witness, Juan Lopez Cortez, was a commissioner from 1970 to 1980. He started by saying that there were PACs in every town in the area. He knew most of the patrolmen; they were friends. However, the PACs killed his brother, causing Cortez and his family to flee to the mountains in fear for their lives. They stayed in the mountains for more than a year. Cortez not only knew the PACs and military commissioners involved in the massacre; he also knew most of those killed at Rancho Bejuco. He stated that the PACs buried the victims of Rancho Bejuco in a mass grave dug.

The second witness, another former military commissioner, named various people that he knew were responsible for the Rancho Bejuco massacre. He mentioned several of the defendants, as well as others who have thus far escaped capture.

The witness said the PACs arrived before dawn, gathered the townspeople together, and questioned them. After, they threw a bomb in the house with the community members inside; he affirmed that those who survived the bombing were killed afterward. The witness confirmed that 25 people died, including 17 children.

The interviewer asked the witness whether he knew that all of this was wrong. He replied that he would have been killed if he had not participated.

Read the report-back for Day 4 here.