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Justice for The Dos Erres Massacre

Overcoming impunity in Guatemala

Justice for The Dos Erres Massacre

Overcoming impunity in Guatemala

On December 6, 1982, Guatemalan special forces surrounded the village of Dos Erres and launched one of the most horrific massacres of civilians during the bloody Mayan genocide.  The troops separated the men from the women and children and then systematically killed the villagers, slaughtering the children and forcibly raping many of the women and girls before killing them.

As part of the Guatemala Genocide Case, CJA obtained a Spanish arrest warrant and extradition request for one of the military leaders responsible for the atrocity: Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes, a Guatemalan national who holds U.S. and Canadian citizenship.  Read more about the prosecution here.

The Dos Erres Massacre

In the early 1980s, the Guatemalan army responded to a guerilla offensive with “Operación Ceniza” (“Operation Ashes”). [1]  Adopting a strategy called “draining the sea the fish swim in,” the dictator Efraín Ríos Montt ordered armed forces to raze entire villages and slaughter indigenous peasants suspected of guerilla sympathies. [2]  These anti-civilian operations were spearheaded by the Kaibils, special forces units known for their shocking cruelty. [3]

The Dos Erres Massacre, while infamous, was just one of hundreds of atrocities committed in this time. It started in October 1982, when guerrillas ambushed an army convoy near the tiny village of Dos Erres, killing 21 soldiers and taking 19 rifles.  The Army retaliated on December 6, 1982, flying in 58 Kaibil soldiers to wipe out the inhabitants of Dos Erres, considered to be guerrilla sympathizers. [4]

Disguised as guerrillas, the Kaibils descended on the village and herded the men into the school building and the women into two churches.   After searching, in vain, for communist propaganda and contraband, the soldiers began the slaughter.  They threw a three-month old baby, alive, into an empty water well, then proceeded to smash the heads of infants against walls and trees.  The skulls of older children were crushed with a sledgehammer. [5]

The villagers were then interrogated, then shot and dumped into the well. Women and girls were raped, then mutilated with machetes.  The Kaibils shoveled dirt into the well; the survivors’ cries still audible through the earthen seal. An estimated 350 civilians were massacred at Dos Erres. [6]

After the Massacre

The Argentinian Forensic Anthropology Team (Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense). Conducted exhumations in Dos Erres in 1994 and 1995.  Identifying the remains was complicated by the charring from fire, degradation over time, and extreme fragmentation of bones.  Nonetheless, relatives of the killed were able to identify some of the bodies.  All of the remains were laid to rest in a cemetery in the neighboring town of Las Cruces.  [7]

Accountability Efforts

In 1994, a local NGO, Families of the Detained and Disappeared of Guatemala (FAMDEGUA) filed a criminal complaint against military personnel believed responsible for the massacre. [8] But after receiving death threats, the Public Prosecutor refused to pursue the case. [9] With justice delayed and seemingly denied in the Guatemalan courts, the families petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (Case No. 11,420). [10]

(Photo credit: dimensionmazmorra.wordpress.com
Image of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, with the words of poet Pablo Neruda:
"For the one who gave the order of agony, I demand punishment." )

In 2000, Guatemala admitted responsibility for the massacre before the Commission and the parties reached a settlement agreement in which Guatemala pledged inter alia to provide reparations, and to prosecute the case. [11] But the reparations were only partially paid and sustained intimidation of the judges kept the case of the courts for years. Ultimately, in 2004, the defendants asserted, and the Constitutional Court agreed, that they were granted amnesty by the Law of National Reconciliation in 1996. [12]

With Guatemala’s judicial system unable or unwilling to assure citizens their rights, the families returned with a new complaint to the Inter-American Commission, arguing that Guatemala had defaulted on its obligations under the settlement and that the State’s failure to prosecute in good faith, coupled with the rampant corruption, judicial intimidation, and operation of the amnesty law amounted to a denial of justice. [13]

In 2008, the Commission referred the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) [14], which returned a landmark judgment in 2009, holding that Guatemala had violated the rights to a fair trial and judicial protection under the American Convention on Human Rights by failing to fully investigate the massacre. [15]

In 2010, the Guatemalan Supreme Court ordered a lower court to execute the IACtHR's decision by enforcing long-outstanding arrest warrants and by re-opening the criminal proceedings. [16]  Guatemala issued warrants for the arrest of 17 ex-Kaibils, some of whom like Sosa Orantes, are still at large overseas. [17] CJA and other human rights organizations are coordinating efforts to bring these suspects to justice.


[1] Guatemala: Memoria del Silencio.  Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico (CEH) 1999. Annex 1, Volume 1: Case No. 31. Available at:  http://shr.aaas.org/guatemala/ceh/mds/spanish/anexo1/vol1/no31.htm.

[2] Louisa Reynolds, Dos Erres Unearthed Again, Latin America Press, Feb. 3, 2011, http://www.lapress.org/articles.asp?art=6301.

[3] INS Resource Information Center, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Guatemala: Kaibiles and the Massacre at Las Dos Erres, Feb. 2, 2000, http://bit.ly/fw0VXR.

[4] Memorio del Silencio, supra note 1.

[5] Id.

[6] Amnesty International, Guatemala: Victims of 1982 Army Massacre at Las Dos Erres Exhumed, Oct. 1995, http://bit.ly/g7yD6p.

[7] Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA), The Case of Dos Erres, Sep. 20, 2004, http://www.nisgua.org/news_analysis/index.asp?id=2604

[8] Id.

[9] Amnesty International, supra note 6.

[10] Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), Guatemalan Supreme Court Orders to Proceed Immediately with the Investigation of the Las Dos Erres’ Massacre, Feb. 2, 2010, http://bit.ly/gadgiq.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Application to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the case of The Las Dos Erres Massacre, (Case 11.681) against The Republic Of Guatemala (Jul. 30, 2008), available at http://cja.org/downloads/IACHR_application_to_IACtHR_Dos_Erres_2008.pdf

[15] Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Case of the “Las Dos Erres” Massacre v. Guatemala, Judgment of November 24, 2009, available at    http://cja.org/downloads/IACtHR_Dos_Erres_Judgment_2009.pdf

[16] Louisa Reynolds, Dos Erres Unearthed Again, Latin America Press, Feb. 3, 2011, http://www.lapress.org/articles.asp?art=6301.

[17] Barbara Schieber, 17 ex-military wanted in the Dos Erres massacre in Guatemala, The Guatemala Times, Saturday, 13 February 2010 10:34, http://bit.ly/i8UHPg.