The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For a decades-old massacre in Guatemala, justice neared. Now it’s retreating.

A bill would grant amnesty to those who ordered killings. It’s a cover-up.

Indigenous people take part in a protest against a bill that would grant amnesty to war crimes committed during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war outside the Congress, in Guatemala City. (Luis Echeverria/Reuters)

A few years ago, deep in Guatemala’s Highlands, where mist enshrouds the green hills, Francisco Caal Jalal told me about a long-ago massacre in his village, Pambach. It happened one June evening in 1982. Soldiers lined up about 70 blindfolded men and boys, face down, then beat, stabbed and hacked them with machetes. Caal Jalal was lying at the end of the line when a soldier brought a machete down on his head and his neck, again and again.

I met Caal Jalal in 2014 when justice, finally, seemed on its way to Pambach. At the request of the federal prosecutor’s office, the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG) had recently exhumed more than 560 bodies from dozens of graves at a former military base in nearby Coban. (Most of the Pambach boys and men lay in one mass grave, a tangle of bones, work boots, green and blue blindfolds, ropes around wrists.) Then in 2016, during an era of human rights progress in the country, a federal judge ruled that eight top former military leaders would stand trial for numerous massacres in the 1980s, including the one in Pambach, during the height of Guatemala’s decades-long civil war.

It was a monumental moment: The bodies discovered at Coban together constitute one of the largest cases of forced disappearance in Latin America. Those arrested weren’t just foot soldiers but high-ranking military leaders. And many Guatemalans had begun to finally feel hopeful about truth and justice.

Now, though, the curtain of impunity is descending once again. None of those arrested have been tried for the Coban killings. Conservatives in the Guatemalan Congress, including the military elite, have pushed numerous efforts to reverse human rights progress, including an amnesty bill that would free war criminals within 24 hours of being signed into law and prevent any future prosecutions of war crimes committed during the civil war. Despite an international outcry in the past several weeks, the bill could be put on the legislative agenda and voted on at any time.

Another bill attempts to create what Jo-Marie Burt, a professor of Latin American politics at George Mason University who tracks war crimes trials in Guatemala, calls a “back-door amnesty.” On the face of it, the bill seems designed to reduce a real problem of prison overcrowding. But it’s promoted by the same conservative lawmakers behind the amnesty bill, and it would free anyone who has been in detention for more than a year awaiting trial. That includes military officers involved in the Pambach case.

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Given that more than 50 former military officers and soldiers have become fugitives, Burt and other human rights experts believe that the bill is designed to allow those accused to leave prison and escape into hiding before their trials. If that’s the case, justice would never arrive for victims of the Pambach massacre.

It was around 5 a.m. on June 2, 1982, when from over a hill about 100 soldiers began marching into Pambach. Dressed in green fatigues, rifles in their hands, they went house to house in the community of about 300 people. According to several survivors I interviewed, as well as witness interviews taken by the FAFG, they herded men and older boys to fields where they told them to lie down, face first. Women and young children were locked inside a church and ordered to the floor. One woman, who had six children with her and was seven months pregnant, told me that when she said she couldn’t lie down face first, a soldier rammed the butt of his rifle into her head. As blood poured down her face, she got on the floor.

Hours passed. Children were crying from hunger, from thirst, from fear. Outside, the soldiers tied several men to a tree and beat them. The commanders may have suspected that the men were guerrillas. Or, as the Catholic Church’s sweeping Recovery of Historical Memory Project points out, the military often tortured men in public to instill terror in their villages.

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Soldiers gathered all the men in a school around 2 p.m. and began choosing those between about the ages of 15 and 40. Celso Chiquin watched as the soldiers pointed to his sons Baldomero, 15, and Pedro, 18. Francisco Caal Jalal, then 38, and dozens of others were also chosen. A Mayan interpreter with the military told the women not to worry. Their husbands and sons would return from service in about three months.

The soldiers ordered the women to stay inside the church until around 4:30 p.m. They bound the men’s hands together and then, in pairs, tied the men to each other, before beginning a march down the hill into the valley. Caal Jalal knew he wasn’t headed to service. Surrounding villages had already been wiped out by the military during a scorched earth campaign. A day earlier, soldiers took a mother and daughter who lived nearby and burned their house.

The group of men descended the hill, crossed a small bridge and headed into the woods, where soldiers stuffed rags in the men’s mouths and forced them to the ground. Blindfolded and face down, Caal Jalal could hear the muffled screams and groans, the heavy sound of metal striking bone. Then it was his turn. A soldier hit him in the head and neck, seven times, with a dull machete.

That evening, as military vehicles pulled out and the air grew quiet and cold, Caal Jalal dragged, scooted and rolled his body away from the others, deeper into the woods. By the morning, though bleeding and weak, he was far enough away that when soldiers returned and began to load victims into trucks, some still alive and moaning, no one saw him.

He managed to get to a water hole in the woods the next day, where a woman found him. He didn’t tell her what happened. He didn’t tell the nurses or doctors at the Guatemala City hospital, either, where he spent the next two months undergoing multiple surgeries. The military had “orejas,” or ears, everywhere.

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In the days and weeks after the slaughter, many of the families moved to a nearby town seeking refuge. The cattle in Pambach were stolen, the homes burned. The women went to the Coban military base, 30 miles away, asking for their husbands. They searched morgues and hospitals. When Caal Jalal returned months later, many women hoped that their husbands, their fathers, their sons had also, somehow, escaped.

Those dreams had vanished by the time I visited Pambach five years ago. Almost a dozen survivors came to meet me at a community leader’s house, including a woman whose husband had been exhumed at Coban and identified by DNA analysis. So far, the FAFG has identified 44 Pambach bodies from the exhumations and returned the bones to families for burial.

When Caal Jalal arrived to meet me that morning, he sat down wearing a straw cowboy hat, his kind, worn face marked by soft brown eyes and a downturned mouth. His voice registered barely above a whisper. His hands were rough and gnarled like a farmer’s, though he was too broken to work much any longer.

“They hit me over and over again,” he told me, speaking in his native Poqomchi’ through an interpreter. As he talked, children and adults gathered around to listen. Then, without a word, he pulled off his cowboy hat and leaned over. The gesture was both intimate and unflinching. The scars zigged and zagged across his neck and the back of his head. Some were so deep they could hold a pencil.

The bills in Congress would not only allow the men responsible for the Pambach massacre to go unpunished. “The amnesty bill, along with other attacks on the rule of law,” notes Kate Doyle, a senior analyst of U.S. policy in Latin America at the National Security Archive, “threatens to pull the country back into a dark past.”

Conservatives argue that bill would allow the country to find peace and, as reported recently by the New York Times, Congressman Fernando Linares, who introduced the bill, claims “the courts have been infiltrated with judges and prosecuting attorneys with ideological inclinations to one side, the left-wing side, which are the guerrillas.”

Caal Jalal is in his 70s now, and he is not well. Since I last saw him, he rarely leaves his house. He speaks less and less. And in the current political climate in Guatemala, justice for Caal Jalal and thousands of others is also becoming muted.

Twitter: @maggiepjones

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