Translation by Richard Brown and Monica Santizo
“Who are they? Your friends?” asked Antonio Caba, an 11-year-old boy.
“Quiet, my boy! Go inside,” his dad responded.
It was 1979 when 150 soldiers first visited El Ilom, a community in San Gaspar Chajul, Quiché, 295 kilometers from Guatemala City. A smaller group of around 30 soldiers approached Antonio Caba’s home.
His dad greeted them with the few words of Spanish he knew. His native language is Ixil. The soldiers asked for food. He chopped sugar cane from the stands planted around his house, and the soldiers ate as they kept watch in all directions, as if monitoring the community’s paths, the doors of the houses, the trails in, the trails out, the mountains around them.
The boy, worried, entered his home, and asked his mom the same question:
“Who are they?”
“Quiet! Because they’re the ones who kill,” she answered.
News of massacres in other indigenous towns and villages had reached El Ilom. Death seemed to be growing closer and closer. The soldiers’ visits that started in 1979 were part of the first phase of army’s strategy to collect intelligence and identify supposed guerrillas and guerrilla sympathizers.
The area of San Gaspar Chajul, Nebaj, and San Juan Cotzal, the heart of Ixil territory, was classified by the army as a guerrilla support zone.
Romeo Lucas García was Guatemala’s president, and, according to investigations in the genocide case against Ríos Montt as well as the current investigation into Lucas García’s brother, Benedicto, he implemented the first “identification” phase of the military strategy against the guerrilla movement.
Dozens of stories told by the people of El Ilom and 22 other communities; scientific and anthropological surveys; exhumations; and declassified military documents together led one of Guatemala’s highest courts to the same questions that Antonio Caba asked forty years ago: Who were they? Why did they come?
An animal that devours people and makes you afraid
After the army’s visit, Antonio’s father, Pedro Caba, and other men from El Ilom organized themselves into groups to work their fields in secret. They made new paths through the mountains to avoid the army.
From 1979 to 1981, the army came to these communities to “visit.”
It became harder and harder to dodge military operations in the area. The soldiers’ presence intensified in 1981 when the army built its first forward operating base in La Perla, four kilometers from El Ilom.
“At that time, they just passed through, they didn’t bother us,” Pedro Caba said as a witness in the trail against Efraín Ríos Montt.
Things changed in January 1982.
“When we came back from work the entire town was silent. Not a single person was in the street. All the doors of the houses were closed. Then, up the road, my brother and I saw an Ixil hat lying on the ground. It looked new. We said, ‘Someone must have lost their hat,’ and we ran up to grab it. When we got closer, we saw that it had blood stains on it and we stopped. ‘Don’t touch it!’ my dad said. That’s when we knew the army had come to our town and killed people,” Antonio Caba told Nómada, sitting in a café in the center of Nebaj, 37 years later.
That day, 30 people from their community disappeared at the hands of the army.
A few weeks later, the soldiers returned at dawn.
Antonio and his family were awoken by the screams of women and children. That was their signal to enact their survival plan. The family rushed toward a creek and hid by bushes and rocks. The screaming continued, and Antonio’s father crept back to see what was happening, who they were. Antonio begged him to stay until he was of sight in the darkness. Then Antonio prayed that his father wouldn’t be caught.
“He followed a ditch and then climbed a tree. The moon was bright and the sky was clear, so he saw everything clearly. It was the army. When my dad saw them, he came back along the ditch and got back to us an hour and a half later.
When he came back, Pedro Caba told his family that he had seen the army tying up and beating their neighbors. Thirty more people disappeared that day.
“What was going through my mind at that moment was that there was some kind of barbarian in our town. Like if you heard an animal that devours people and makes you afraid, you only think, ‘I hope it doesn’t come this way,’” Antonio remembered.
But it did.
A single day in the city and the country
On March 23, 1982, a group of young military officers led a coup d’état that brought Efraín Ríos Montt to power. As this was happening, El Ilom’s biggest massacre was underway. At dawn, soldiers and civilian paramilitary patrols surrounded the town to prevent escape.
They burnt homes and crops, and 96 people were executed in front of the rest of their neighbors. They forced the survivors to bury their loved ones in four mass graves.
What happened at El Ilom was reconstructed through testimony and court documents before High-Risk Case Court A with Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez presiding. Between October 29 and November 25, 2019, the Public Ministry’s Human Rights Prosecution Office also detailed the massacres that occurred in 22 other communities. These massacres did not just involve the deaths of hundreds of people, but also rape, torture, disappearance, displacement, the destruction and looting of homes, livestock, and work tools, and the kidnapping of children.
One of the arguments of the defense was that the coup d’état that took place on March 23, 1982, when the massacre occurred in El Ilom, resulted in a temporary state power vacuum, and so the retired military commanders on trial could not be found guilty.
In response, the Public Ministry and the Office of Human Rights of the Guatemalan Archbishopric (called ODHAG in Spanish), which represented the victims, argued that officials whose positions were in doubt that day did not cancel the orders given before the coup d’état, and that these orders dictated the military operations that ravaged Quiché communities and took the lives of dozens of people.
The Public Ministry has accused Benedicto Lucas García, Manuel Callejas y Callejas, and César Noguera Argueta of being part of the military planning group responsible for the nature of the operations undertaken against Ixil communities.
The Public Ministry argued that the accused were part of the Romeo Lucas García administration (July 1, 1978, to March 23, 1982) when the army reacted to the guerrilla movement’s first incursions into the area, and that the accused were responsible for continuing the strategy that began with visits to the communities and ended in massacres.
According to the Public Ministry, Ríos Montt continued this strategy and its massacres, and began its third phase, called “consolidation,” in which infrastructure projects were undertaken to give the appearance of development while communities were militarized through civilian paramilitary patrols, “Model Villages,” and the “Bullets and Beans” initiative.
The elders who travel to tell their stories
Two hundred Ixil witnesses, mostly elders, will testify in this case. Many of them still live in the same poverty that they endured thirty years ago, with precarious housing and little access to food and land for cultivation.
After the massacres, the communities lived in fear. Some hid in faraway villages, and others in mountain forests. It wasn’t until a year after the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996 that they came together in their first meeting and set their primary objective: to exhume their loved ones from the mass graves.
In 2000, they created the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR). AJR brought together communities from five regions of Guatemala to seek justice for the massacres. They leveled their first legal accusations against the Romeo Lucas García administration, and then also went after Efraín Ríos Montt.
Since 2008, AJR’s legal arm has been represented by the Office of Human Rights of the Guatemalan Archbishopric (called ODHAG in Spanish).
At the beginning of 2019, people packed into Nebaj’s Catholic Church. Around 150 men and women, mostly elders, sat in plastic chairs over a floor covered with pine needles, a seasonal decoration. There was an atmosphere of hope. That day, ODHAG briefed the community on the progress in the case against Benedicto Lucas, Manuel Callejas y Callejas, and César Noguera.
Before the meeting began, the participants built a Maya altar with flowers and candles. An old man lit a ceremonial fire. The embers were so hot that they let out loud booms as the heat in the air melted the candles. Prayers in Ixil guided the ceremony.
“We have to prepare ourselves to go to court to testify in about a year or a year and a half,” the attorneys said.
After listening to their attorneys, several elders approached the stage and took the microphone. They told their stories in a mix of Ixil and Spanish. Each story was like Antonio Caba’s, but in a different town, on a different day, with different names for the dead and missing. All declared with a raised voice that the Ixil community endures, and that it wants justice.
One was Manuel, a witness who has told his story dozens of times. His energy never flags as he describes what he suffered, and he says he will tell his story again and again. Manuel has deep wrinkles, brown, sunburned skin, big eyes, and an almost perfect white smile. He was a young adult when the army came to his community in San Juan Cotzal. Soldiers abducted him and beat him so brutally that he lost every one of his teeth. To show that he is telling the truth, he removes his dentures with one hand and with the other mimes the beatings he received. Manuel continues to speak even with his teeth in his hand.
“They said I was lying, but I don’t have two hearts. I have a single heart, and that’s where I was speaking from,” he said in an interview with Nómada.
One of the women who will testify if the case goes to trial is Manuela, from Xolcoay in Chajul, Nebaj. Her community used to have a market, a church, a courthouse, and even a jail. Today, they are overtaken by forest and cornfields.
Manuela remembers the day the army destroyed her town. Her daughter was one of many victims. Days after the massacre, Manuela and fifteen others left their shelter in the mountain forests to collect the bodies of their loved ones. They buried them in a field where little yellow flowers now grow.
Nómada walked with her as she retraced her steps. She went straight to the shade of a tree that looked just like all the others around it. It was there, Manuela said, that she buried her daughter. She laments that the grave wasn’t deep enough; days later the dogs dug up the soil and ate her daughter’s remains.
28 years later, Manuela participated in the exhumations of people buried in a corner of her community. She wasn’t afraid to collect the bones, she said, as she held a photograph of that moment in her hands, now much more deeply wrinkled.
On November 25, 2019, Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez charged Benedicto Lucas García, Manuel Callejas y Callejas, and César Noguera Argueta with genocide and crimes against humanity. The case reaffirms what prosecutors and victims’ lawyers proved in the case against Efraín Ríos Montt. The case also details the chronology of the army’s strategy.
On March 25, the Public Ministry is due to present the conclusions of their investigation for Judge Gálvez to decide if there is sufficient evidence for the three retired commanders to face trial.
Antonio Caba, the boy who was afraid of the soldiers, is now an adult who sits in the courtroom’s front row. Three decades ago, he was hiding in a creek bed, asking who was slaughtering his town. Now, he’s the president of the association that represents Ixil victims, and he knows who it was.
[Read in Spanish: La masacre del 23 de marzo de 1982 y la otra pieza en la historia del genocidio en Guatemala, por Jody García]