Guatemala: What happened at Dos Erres?

This week, a remarkable six-month investigation into a Guatemalan tragedy which took place 30 years ago was published and aired by ProPublica, Fundacion MEPI and This American Life.  Finding Oscar: Massacre, Memory and Justice in Guatemala, dealt with violence and redemption in ways most stories cannot.

In 1982, a squad of army commanders stormed the tiny north Guatemalan village of Dos Erres and brutally massacred more than 250 men, women and children. Thirty years later a family torn apart by the horrific ordeal were reunited.

My organisation, Fundacion MEPI heard about the story first. But our partnership with larger organisations such as ProPublica and This American Life radio programme ensured this dramatic story reached a huge audience and had a huge impact on the small republic of Guatemala. We chose to tell the story in collaboration because an investigation on a Guatemalan massacre, reported and written by an investigative journalism project such as ours would not have received the amount of attention it deserved. We felt that only a multi-nation journalistic endeavor would do the story justice.

We were lucky that one of the people in the story, Oscar Alfredo Ramirez Castañeda, was an undocumented immigrant living in the United States, and his dramatic story would appeal to US news outlets. We were also lucky that unlike other stories about Guatemalan atrocities, there is a happy ending. Oscar, who was abducted and raised by a soldier who took part in the massacre, has now been reunited with his real father, Tranquilino Castañeda.

A key part of the story was the emphasis how today’s organised crime networks in Guatemala grew strong during the lawless 1980s, when anti-communist military officers discovered illicit ways of making money to fund their brutality. The truth is that even the recent arrival of the vicious Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas, was probably orchestrated by retired military officers. The story of Dos Erres links the carnage of the past with the impunity of the present, as even now those involved in the events at Dos Erres are still afraid to speak out.

We could not have completed our investigation into the story without the help and advice of Jose Ruben Zamora, publisher of the Guatemalan daily El Periodico. An unabashed defender of his country, Zamora’s tough editorial columns have angered dark forces in Guatemala for the last 20 years. He has done something that many of his fellow citizens fear to do — he has spoken out. He has paid dearly for his criticism: In 2003 his home was raided by armed men tied to active duty military officers, and his children and wife were tied up and harassed for several hours. In 2008, he was kidnapped and disappeared for a few days, found abandoned with signs of torture in a remote area.

Reporting on this story included delving into the heartbreaking memories of Don Tranquilino, and the dark secrets of two former ex Guatemala special military commandos known as Kaibiles, who confessed and are now protected witnesses. It was worth it.

Listen to the podcast of This American Life’s report.

Ana Arana is the head of Fundación de Periodismo de Investigación (MEPI), which was launched to promote investigations and work with journalists in the US, Mexico and Central America


Guatemala: Legacy of civil war damages press freedom

A barely concealed battle is brewing in Guatemala over the legacy of the 38-year civil war which ended in 1996. It has affected press freedom, especially journalists who write about human rights abuses during the civil conflict. Recently, three journalists were included in a demand put before the Guatemalan Courts, which charges more than 50 people with human rights abuses, including kidnappings and murders carried out by Guatemalan guerrilla forces during the war.  At least one of those accused was a small child when the incidents occurred.

Coffee baron Theodor Plocharskie, a US citizen and resident of Guatemala, charged Marielos Monzón, a columnist with the daily Prensa Libre; Miguel Ángel Albizures, a columnist with daily El Periodico; and Iduvina Hernández, director of an NGO that promotes democratic change SEDEM; and a columnist for Plaza Pública, with participating in the murders of dozens of victims of the guerrillas during the civil war, including US Ambassador John Gordon Mein, who was killed by guerrillas on 28 August 28 1968, and was the first American ambassador killed while serving office.

It has been speculated that the charges are revenge for legal decisions that have recently gone against military officials— a number have been convicted for involvement in massacres and there has been increasing interest in charging top officials for being the intellectual masterminds of these massacres.The peace accords agreed in 1996 granted amnesty to many who participated in the civil war, but crimes against humanity were not included. A recent court decision sent four military officers to jail for 6060 years for the 1982 massacre of Dos Erres in Peten, in which than 200 villagers were murdered. Two top military officers are charged in another case of genocide, with responsibility in massacres which exterminated the residents several villages belonging to an indigenous group, the Ixil.  All of these charges have been designed to target those further up the chain of command and to charge those responsible for designing a “scorched earth” military policy.

All three journalists included in the demand have been critical of the army and are in support of legal action against those found to be intellectually responsible for the dirty war tactics, which were responsible for the killing and disappearance of 200,000 people.

Guatemala : Free press threatened by paramilitaries and vigilantes

Threats against freedom of the press in Guatemala have been highlighted by the case of freelance journalist Lucia Escobar. While government directed attacks against the press are not currently an issue, paramilitary groups could still pose a threat to journalists. Death threats forced Escobar to flee her home with her family after she denounced a vigilante group in the town of Panajachel. Escobar claimed the group’s “social cleansing” activities were promoted by local government officials.

Escobar‘s story was published in the Guatemalan daily El Periodico, it accused the town mayor, Gerardo Higueros of turning a local citizens group into a death squad with the help of an unidentified fundamentalist Christian group. The vigilante organisation is apparently cleansing the town of Panajachel of “undesirables”, including beggars and homeless people.  Within days of writing about the problems,the mayor, Higueros, who is also  director of a local television news show, dedicated a couple of hours in a television broadcast to accusing Escobar of lying about the story and trafficking drugs.

Escobar said she knows that despite a number of complaints to local police about the armed group’s activities, none of the cases have been investigated by the authorities.  Escobar left her home in Panajachel in early November, and she is still at a loss. “I had no idea it was going to turn into this,” she said in Guatemala City.  She is not planning to return to Panajachel until the situation is cleared up.  El Periodico complained about the lack of reaction from government authorities in Guatemala City to the attacks against its reporter.

In May another journalist in the provinces was killed after receiving death threats. Yensi Roberto Ordoñez Galdámez, a television reporter was found murdered in his car. His case has not been solved.