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The two burials and the funeral of Martina Rojas

The two burials and the funeral of Martina Rojas

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A cardboard box travels from the warehouses of the Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala [Foundation for Forensic Anthropology of Guatemala] to the settlement of Pacux, some kilometers away from Rabinal, Baja Varapaz. The box contains human remains which were hidden in a clandestine burial site at the military base of Cobán—along with those of 63 other people, mostly women and children—who were kidnapped by the army in 1982, when Colonel Ricardo Méndez Ruiz Rohrmoser led the military operations in Alta and Baja Verapaz.
Additionally, it must offer compensation to the survivors for an amount between 15 and 65 thousand dollars, depending on whether they had relatives who were victims of forced disappearances, were subjected to acts of slavery and servitude or sexual violations.

                                                                                                                                  Translated by Rodrigo Fuentes

The box that reads “FAFG 1433-XV-40 Creompaz Cobán” also involves a mystery related to one of the cruelest and saddest chapters in recent Guatemalan history: the massacre at Río Negro.

Martina Rojas’ relatives, survivors of the massacre, receive her remains. The wake can begin and the funeral will be held the next day, along with a demonstration for the rights of the civilian victims of the armed conflict.

A massacre with industrial motives?

According to the Guatemalan report Memoria del Silencio[Memory of Silence], of the Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico [Commission for Historical Clarification] (CEH), the Río Negro village, located in Rabinal, Baja Verapaz, was, during the 70s and 80s, a prosperous community, well-organized,based at the shore of the Chixoy River. In 1975, the Instituto Nacional de Electrificación National Institute of Electrification (INDE) chose that zone for the construction of what at that time would be the largestdam in Central America, one which would involve the flooding of nearly 50 kilometers around the river. In order to carry out the construction, 3,500 people would be displaced and relocated.

The government of Romeo Lucas García decided to relocate the population to Pacux village, to houses built with financing from the World Bank. The inhabitants of Río Negro, members of the Maya-Achí ethnic group, refused to go: the new area wasn’t as fertile as that of Río Negro, the houses didn’t suit their needs and traditions and, furthermore, they had a connection to their land and ceremonial sites that went back generations. The conflict started to take shape. Both the Comité de Unidad Campesina [Committee for Farmers’ Unity, or CUC] and combatants of the Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres [Guerrilla Army of the Poor, or EGP] came to the area and began to talk with the people. They asked the population of Río Negro to take part in the armed struggle. State forces began to selectively murder Río Negro leaders in 1981.

Extrajudicial executions in the area were followed by massacres in 1982. The first took place on February 13th in Xococ, a neighboring village of Río Negro. The inhabitants of the latter were summoned there by the army, and once in Xococ they were massacred. According to the CEH report, 74 people died that day.

One month later, patrolmen and soldiers attacked the Río Negro village, where only women and children were present. The armed men forced the women to climb a hill with their children. The cruelty with which they were murdered goes beyond the most vicious imagination. 70 women and 107 children died. Additionally, 18 children were kidnapped and forced to live alongside the patrolmen, enduring abuse and mistreatment for three years.

Survivors of this massacre took refuge in the hamlet Los Encuentros, which was attacked by the army on May 14th. All the houses were set on fire. 79 people lost their lives. The army also kidnapped more that 15 adults and 40 children, transporting them north in a helicopter, itsdestination unknown. Martina Rojas was in that helicopter.

A fourth massacre, which took place on September 14th in the Agua Fría hamlet of Quiché, struck the survivors of Río Negro who had sought refuge there. 92 people died burned and riddled with bullets inside the school where they were gathered by the army.

Barely a couple of months after the massacre, with all the survivors of Río Negro scattered throughout the mountains, INDE began flooding the reservoir in order to finish what was to be called “man’s greatest work in Central America.”

According to the survivors of Río Negro, the people murdered in Los Encuentros lie today at the bottom of that artificial lake.

The mysterious XV grave of Creompaz

On February 27th, 2012, prosecutors of the Public Ministry, forensic anthropologists, and members of the association Familiares de Detenidos-Desaparecidos de Guatemala [Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared of Guatemala – Famdegua] legally raided the military base Creompaz [Regional Center for Training of Peace Operations], previously called Zona Militar 21 [Military Zone 21], located in Cobán. That same day, the first clandestine burial pits were found.

Archaeologists of the Foundation of Forensic Anthropology of Guatemala (FAF) have to date found535 skeletons in 83 pits scattered in the dense woods that cover the enormous military base. According to testimonies gathered by the FAFG, as well as to objects found with the skeletons, the time of their excavation dates from 1979 to 1992. Most of the corpses are from 1981 and 1982. Most of the skeletons appear to have been young men. Many bodies were blindfolded with their hands tied, a position which indicates executions.

One of the pits was different from the others. It was number 15. In this one 63 bodies were found, out of which 18 were women and 43 were children. The objects (beaded necklaces, evil eye bracelets) and clothing (red, light blue, and orange hair ribbons, sashes decorated with white, yellow, or light blue lining, synthetic silk blouses) found with the skeletons also surprised the investigators: They were not typical of the Cobán area. They were undoubtedlyfrom the Rabinal area of Baja Verapaz.

Fred Peccerelli, director of FAFG, explains: “On the one hand, we had this burial pit with people from the Rabinal area. On the other, we had this testimony which had circulated for 30 years, about the children and women of Río Negro that they took in helicopter. So we thought: “maybe these are thewomen and children captured in Los Encuentros.”

The signs were there, but there still needed to be definite proof, and the FAFG decided to prioritize this case. On the one hand, their social anthropologists approached relatives of the victims of Río Negro to get DNA samples, by swabbing them on the inside of the cheek. On the other, geneticists made an effort to extract DNA from some bones which were very poorly preserved. The idea was to compare the samples to determine what people had been buried there. The highly awaited results arrived in May 2013, with the identification of only one skeleton.

Martina Rojas, kidnapped on May 14, 1982 in the village Los Encuentros, transported by helicopter to an unknown destination, was among the exhumed bodies in the XV pit of the Creompaz military base of Cobán.

“The smoking gun”

The DNA match between Martina Rojas’ family members and the skeleton confirms the survivors’ testimony, Fredy Peccerelli explains. “This is very important for the relatives themselves: to show the world they are not liars. For 30 years, they’ve been accused of inventing everything that happened, of being guerrilla members, of being anything. And now, even if it is because of one person, they can prove that what they’ve been saying for 30 years is true,” affirms the director of FAFG.

“In a trial, the accused will have to explain why these people were in a clandestine pit, inside a military zone. This exhumation implicates specific individuals in certain crimes; people in the army’s chain of command. It constitutes physical evidence. In English it would be called ‘the smoking gun,’” continues Peccerelli.

Colonel Ricardo Méndez Ruiz Rohrmoser was the person in charge of the military base in Cobán on that May 14th. This military man, now 79, directed the Zona Militar 21 [Military Zone 21] from July 1, 1981 to June 9, 1982*, the day on which he became Minister of the Interior in the cabinet of Efraín Ríos Montt. Plaza Pública tried to contact him through his son, Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, president of the Fundación contra el Terrorismo [Foundation Against Terrorism], who answered that his father didn’t give statements to the press, “especially in this case which has been greatly manipulated.”

However, Colonel Méndez Ruiz, in his recently published book Crónica de una vida, edited by Artemis Edinter, dedicates a very short chapter of two and a half pages to the Río Negro massacre. In it, he asserts that the massacre which took place on March 13th happened for “grave and historical differences between two villages.” Differences which were exacerbated by the “political polarization brought about by the civil war,” given that the Xococ village was close to the army while the Río Negro village was a “troublesome place because of its relation to the guerilla.”

“I was hurt by Río Negro, like I was also hurt by Chococ (sic), which let itself be provoked,” the military member writes. Immediately after he adds: “I assume responsibility for the fact that this happened in the territorial military jurisdiction at my command.”

However, Méndez Ruiz Rohrmoser does not detail in what way he is responsible, given that he attributes the massacre exclusively to the inhabitants of Xococ and not to members of the military. Nor does he talk about the subsequent attacks against the population of Río Negro, or the transportation of women and children by helicopter, the act so emphatically described by survivors. At no point does he mention the presence of civilian prisoners in the military base that he commanded, nor of the clandestine pits found in it.

Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, the son, agreed, however, to speak about the identification of Martina Rojas. The president of the Foundation Against Terrorism belittles the work of the FAFG. “Its director, Fredy Peccerelli, is completely biased. He’s openly pronounced himself in favor of genocide and against the army of Guatemala. Besides, he sympathized with ORPA. You can’t be both judge and jury,” Méndez Ruiz affirms.

With regard to the DNA test that let to the identification, Méndez Ruiz believes: “Without having studied the procedures of the FAFG, I could assure you that the DNA corresponds to that of the lady, but what cannot be affirmed is that she was buried there.” He adds that the FAFG could have easily planted evidence, a bone for example. “What a coincidence that all this stuff in Cobán came into the public light just as I did. This is a great coincidence in a country where coincidences don’t exist,” he declared.

It’s worth mentioning that exhumations at Creompaz have been carried out, since the first day, under the strict supervision of the Public Ministry and the Famdegua association. On the ground, there is always a prosecutor present who verifies that evidence taken from the crime scene is properly sealed.

Méndez Ruiz, who claims to know this case well, denies the army transported people from Río Negro to the military base in Cobán. “It doesn’t make sense that the military transported a woman by helicopter from Río Negro to Cobán. That person you’re talking about, a mother, 50 years old, who probably didn’t speak Spanish, why would she have been transported? With what purpose would the army transport 60 children? It makes no sense!” He adds that the pits discovered in the military base were part of old cemeteries which existed before the army established its base in the area.

The idea of old cemeteries has been a common line of defense about Creompaz for retired members of the military. However, this idea fails to explain why many of the skeletons were blindfolded with their hands tied. Nor does it explain the seven identifications made by the FAFG. Apart from the skeleton of Martina Rojas, six people have been recognized, victims of forced disappearance, most of them native to San Cristóbal Verapaz. These are identifications which Méndez Ruiz also rejects: “what a coincidence that all those skeletons are from the period that my father was a commander of the base.”

General César Augusto Cabrera Mejía was also consulted for this article. In May 1982 he was an intelligence officer (S2) in the same military base, according to documents published by the National Security Archive. Today, Cabrera Mejía is the legal representative of the security company Grupo Élite which, according to the online portal Guatecompras, has received more that 36 million quetzals in contracts with the State over the past years. Asked by phone about the findings at the Creompaz base, Cabrera Mejía, evidently angered, replied he had no comment.

The son of Martina Rojas

Mario Chen Rojas, then 25 years old, was at his home, two kilometers away from Los Encuentros, when the army kidnapped his mother. When he heard the gunshots he climbed to an elevated vantage point from which he could watch, helplessly, the massacre and kidnapping.

The violence during 1982 hit Mario’s family relentlessly. “My mom died, my father, my grandparents, my uncles, my cousins. They took everything away from me,” this thin, 55-year-old man explains, now ready to bury his mother. “Times were hard; they killed 440 of our own. There were few of us left. We felt there was little they needed to do to finish us off. We decided to go into the mountains with the survivors and the orphans.”

The survivors of Río Negro spent several months running away from an accosting army, until in March 1983, the government of Efraín Ríos Montt issued a decree of amnesty that allowed the people which had sought refuge in the mountains to turn themselves in. That’s what the people of Río Negro did, and through the Catholic Church and INDE, they were transported to Pacux.

A new phase began for them at this development site prepared with funds from the World Bank. It did not make them forget their lands in Río Negro. “We began a difficult life, women peeling seeds, making objects out of wicker, and us looking for work, but here in town they wouldn’t give us any. People were afraid of us, and accused us of being members of the guerilla.”

“Life here is difficult. We buy everything here, the firewood, the ocote, the corn, because we don’t have enough land to grow maize. If we go to the mountain near Rabinal to get firewood, they treat us like thieves or guerrillas. And it’s true that the mountains belong to the people, but because of the dam what was ours was taken from us. They just left these little houses for us. During summer, we can’t live inside because they’re very low and get too hot. Each lot is only 15 by 30 meters,” Mario Chen laments.

Martina Rojas’ son complains about the lack of answers from the State, of the successive governments, to their requests. “They bought seven caballerías [one caballería is 1858 square meters] of land from us, and 22 were flooded. And the remaining 15 caballerías? That’s what we draw attention to. If they don’t want to buy them, that’s ok, but they should open the Chixoy dam, and we’ll gladly go back to our lands without asking the government for anything.”

Mario Chen is also demanding justice. He asks that the military leaders who ordered the massacre be put on trial, especially the head of the military base of Cobán, whose name he does not know.

La sentence of the International Human Rights Court

On September 4th, 2012, the Interamerican Human Rights Court condemned the Guatemalan State for the massacres of Río Negro and the “subsequent violations against survivors, including the lack of investigation of the events.”

The sentence compels the Guatemalan State to carry out several kinds of reparations for the victims: for example, providing the Pacux community with basic services and infrastructure, implementing a plan to rescue the Achí culture and language, and carrying out a public act recognizing its international responsibility.

Additionally, it must offer compensation to the survivors for an amount between 15 and 65 thousand dollars, depending on whether they had relatives who were victims of forced disappearances, were subjected to acts of slavery and servitude or sexual violations.

The Guatemalan State, the sentence adds, must contribute to the investigation to try all those responsible for the massacre. In May 2008, five patrolmen of Xococ who participated in the massacre were condemned to 780 years in prison. Previously, in 2003, investigations led to an arrest warrant against, José Antonio Solares González, the chief of Rabinal’s military base, who remains at large. “Ironically, Solares González still receives his military retirement pension every month, and therefore he must prove he’s alive every year,” says lawyer Edgardo Pérez Archila, the legal consultant of Famdegua who led the case for the massacre. None of the commanding officers of the army have been prosecuted, nor have the leaders of the Cobán military base. The case of the Creompaz exhumations is still not available to the public and there are no formal accusations. The case is currently under the supervision of Orlando Salvador López, of the human rights prosecutor’s office at the Public Ministry.

Mario Chen Rojas laments the fact that the government did not abide by what the IDH Court ordered. “For the government it’s easy to destroy, it only takes one day, but it’s very difficult for it to comply with the reparations,” he at one of the public events held before his mother’s funeral. Lawyer Tomás Alonso, of the Association for the Integral Development of the Victims of Violence in the Verapaces, Maya Achí (ADIVIMA), confirms that the State has not complied with any of the points stipulated in the sentence. Actually, he affirms, the sentence has not been published in the Diario de Centroamérica [official State newspaper], an action which would prove that the State recognizes the sentence, a necessary step in order to abide by it.

On the other hand, the National Program of Compensation supported Mario Chen Rojas with the burial of his mother, paying for the food that was given out, the funerary box, and the construction of the mausoleum where the woman was buried.

Mayan ceremony, Catholic ceremony

Next to a house in Pacux, a cardboard box has been emptied, and now a small open coffin contains the few remains of Martina Rojas’ body. A white cloth has been placed over the remains, and over the cloth is a small basket where donations can be left. There are many flowers and two large garlands, giftsfrom two social organizations, Famdega and CALDH. Tens of candles illuminate this small altar which is guarded by an older man who has taken up the role of funeral godfather. 30 or 40 neighbors have gone to pay their respects to Martina Rojas.

There’s a marimba whose notes alternate with those of a rustic violin. Martina’s granddaughters, the daughters of Mario Chen, move among the guests to offer them coffee. They also offer cigarettes to those who are older. The atmosphere is not so much sad as solemn. 

At eight at night, the godfather begins a ceremony alongside the other five community elders. He carries the incense-burner from which a thick cloud of smoke trails, and the others carry lighted candles. The ceremony is a mix of indigenous customs and Catholic rites. Each elder prays, murmuring in Achí. They kneel four times, facing each of the cardinal points. The smoke of the incense, the flickering light of the candles, the intense gaze of the older women around them, create an intense atmosphere of religious fervor.

Later a Mayan ceremony begins in which a spiritual guide reads the endless list of all the victims of the Río Negro massacre. Around the fire, Martina Rojas’ family has gathered, including her grandchildren and great grandchildren.

The next day, before the funeral procession which will take Martina Rojas’ coffin to the Rabinal cemetery, there’s an act for the “dignification of the victims” organized by the National Program of Compensation. Lucrecia Jerónimo, representative of the PNR, participates, and affirms that the act proves that the State recognizes the crimes of the past, and is doing what it can to compensate the victims. She admits that the compensation does not advance at the speed she’d like it to, and blames it on the scarce resources assigned to the organization by the Ministry of Finance.

Rutilia Reyes, representative of the Presidential Commission for the Coordination of Executive Policy on Human Rights Issues (COPREDEH) also arrives, and affirms that Antonio Arenales Forno, Secretary of Peace, shows support to the relatives of Martina Rojas.

After lunch, pinol de gallina, the mourners travel by foot to the Rabinal cathedral. Family members take turns carrying the very light coffin. Mass is held. The priest, in his homily, says that the search for victims of the conflict is a controversial issue, but that it shouldn’t be, because it’s an act of humanity. He compares it to the moment when José de Arimatea asked Pontius Pilate for Jesus’ body to give it proper burial.

Under a light rain, some fifty people take the box to the cemetery. In front of the mausoleum, next to the monument of the victims of Río Negro, Mario Chen bids farewell to his mother. The granddaughters of Martina Rojas cry for a grandmother they never met.

After the coffin is introduced in the white grave covered withflowers, Mario Chen says: “At least now I know that my dead mother is here, and I can visit her when I want to.”