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