In 1982, the Guatemalan Army attacked a tiny village in the desolate northern region of Peten, raping, torturing and killing at least 200 peasants, including pregnant women and infants, tossing their bodies in a well and wiping the village off the map.
For years, no one revealed what had occurred because they were afraid. It was only 12 years later - as Guatemala's civil war was drawing to a close - when some relatives confided in their priests, setting in motion two decades of seeking justice. Culminating with a judge's ruling this week, the massacre of Dos Erres could make Guatemala the first Latin American nation to try a dictator for genocide - a remarkable feat for a country riddled with impunity and whose military, until now, has seemed untouchable.
Thanks to a series of extraordinary events, prosecutors were able to obtain detailed information about what happened at Dos Erres, including eyewitness accounts from soldiers themselves - unprecedented, as the military refused to release practically any information about its wartime role.
After years of international pressure forced the nation's courts to act, the case last year became the first of 626 massacres allegedly committed by the military to send army soldiers to prison. On Monday, a Guatemalan judge ruled Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, the dictator overseeing the darkest wartime chapter, should also stand trial for the massacre.
"It's huge, both because it sets a precedent in the Americas but also because this was a tremendous wound on the psyche of Guatemalans," said Eric Olson, senior associate at the Mexican Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Not only has the case of Dos Erres succeeded in holding some of Guatemala's war criminals accountable, it also reveals how U.S. officials knew about the atrocities that occurred but did nothing. In fact, a month after receiving reports that the military had committed the massacre, President Ronald Reagan affirmed his support of Montt, whose "scorched earth" tactics meant, at its height, about 3,000 people were killed or disappeared a month.
In sum, a quarter of a million people - 3 percent of Guatemala's population - died or went missing during the 36-year-long war between the army and leftist guerrillas, Latin America's most violent conflict.
In 1999, two weeks after a United Nations-backed truth commission concluded that the U.S.-supported security forces committed at least 90 percent of the war's human rights abuses, saying it had committed genocide against the country's indigenous Mayans, then-President Bill Clinton said Washington "was wrong" to have supported Guatemalan security forces.
"It is important that I state clearly that support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression of the kind described in the report was wrong," Clinton said.
As Guatemala's current president, a retired general with his own questionable wartime record, lobbies to lift a U.S. ban on military aid, the case raises questions about whether that should be authorized. The story of Dos Erres also suggests that Guatemala's civil war has simply transitioned into the drug war, with the same parties benefitting.
Razed by the army, the village is now a ranch owned by one of Guatemala's most powerful drug dealing families with links to the Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas. Relatives must beg permission from narcos to mourn at the site.
In December 1982 - within days of Reagan meeting with Montt and affirming U.S. support to his regime, saying the dictator had been given a "bum rap" - a squad of elite Guatemalan soldiers known as the Kaibiles arrived in Petén. With a reputation as "killing machines," their training reportedly included biting the heads off live chickens and killing puppies they trained as pets. After the war, the U.N. recommended the unit be disbanded, alleging its responsibility in the conflict's cruelest operations. But it wasn't; in fact, today it's being used to fight the drug war.
According to testimony from two Kaibiles who are now witnesses for the prosecution, their orders were simple: "Everything that moved had to be killed," said Fabio Pinzón , a cook in the unit. What sparked the army's ire was a nearby guerrilla ambush, killing 19 soldiers. But Dos Erres was anything but a guerrilla stronghold, according to hours of testimony.
Soon, planes began swooping across Dos Erres. Its residents pleaded with military officials to "check them out," to prove they weren't guerrilla allies. But they told them not to worry, "so no one left," recalled Saul Arevalo, a 54-year-old farmer whose parents and seven siblings were killed at Dos Erres.
On Dec. 7, 1982, about 60 soldiers disguised as guerrillas barged into the village. They ransacked homes and interrogated residents, locking women and children in the church and men in the schoolhouse.
Peering through slats in the church, 10-year-old Armando Gómez could see soldiers beating the men. He heard shots. "The more the mothers cried for their children, the harder the soldiers hit," testified Gómez, one of just a handful of survivors.
At dawn, word spread that a lieutenant had raped a girl. Soldiers followed suit, testified Cesar Ibanez, the second Kaibil. By 6 a.m., a supervisor radioed his bosses, then relayed that residents would be "vaccinated." Soldiers forced the women to make lunch. Then they were ordered to march. Gómez testified he saw women raped along the way: "They picked them up by their hair and pushed them."
At one point, thinking he could escape, Gómez nudged a friend. But the boy pointed to his brother on his shoulders, saying, "I can't leave him." Gómez ran, hiding behind a bush where he would wait until the screams faded and night fell.
Meanwhile, the soldiers had reached a dry well. Their first victim, a newborn infant, was tossed inside, according to testimony from the Kaibiles. Children followed. Soldiers smashed them against trees, "holding them by their feet," then threw them in.
Pinzón, the Kaibil, said one soldier raped a 12-year-old girl then "took her by the hair and kicked her in the head and cast her into the well. The same procedure was then applied to the men, women, and elderly." Kaibiles jumped on the bellies of pregnant women, causing them to miscarry. They struck them with mallets, iron rods and sledgehammers.
Eventually, Kaibiles began covering the well with soil, though some inside were alive. They cried out, but the Kaibiles were "laughing," the soldiers testified.
Within days, the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala wired Washington D.C., saying, "Reliable embassy source relayed second- and third-hand information on possible (Government of Guatemala) army massacre," according to cables obtained by the Washington D.C.-based National Security Archive. They reported soldiers disguised as guerrillas entered Dos Erres, leaving it "deserted."
"Because of the seriousness of the allegation, that the army massacred 200 people, and because of the reliability of this source's information in the past," embassy officials flew to the area, according to the cables. They swept over Dos Erres but their Guatemalan military pilot refused to touch down.
But it was clear the village was "wiped out." Officials noted a widespread sense of terror, concluding: "The party most likely responsible for this incident is the Guatemalan Army."
But though U.S. officials suspected what had happened, they did nothing. In fact, the next month, in January 1983, Reagan lifted a prohibition on arms sales to Guatemala. Congress later repealed that aid, reinstalling a ban on military support that continues today.
More than a decade later, as the army and guerrillas were negotiating a peace agreement, some relatives confided in their priests, who called Aura Elena Farfan, head of a human rights organization for families of the war's disappeared. In 1994, she filed a criminal complaint, obtaining permission to conduct exhumations. They counted 162 skeletons. Then the government suspended the exhumation.
In 1996, a prosecutor requested information related to soldiers stationed near Dos Erres but because of "the incineration of the documents from that time, there is no information available," a military official responded, similarly blocking other requests.
"The military denied the existence of Dos Erres," said Edgar Pérez, a lawyer for the case.
Had the two Kaibiles not heard a plea for information on the radio and contacted Farfan, the case would likely have stalled there. But Pinzón , a cook for the Kaibiles, didn't feel bound by the troop's code of silence. Moreover, witnessing the killings was so shocking, he told Farfan, that "to see my children playing here, and what happened in Las Erres with those little children … I must speak out."
He connected her with Ibanez. Both were given asylum in Mexico in exchange for their testimony. The activists also found two more survivors who had been kidnapped by the Kaibiles as children.
Yet despite all the evidence, the case languished in the courts until a 2009 Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling forced Guatemala to prosecute, calling it, "one of the gravest cases" it has heard, "not only because of the cruelty of the facts and the extreme violence carried out by the Guatemalan Army against women and children, but also because of their impunity."
Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security had opened its own investigation into Guatemalans in the U.S. who tipsters said had been involvedin the massacre. In Del Ray Beach, Fla., they found Sgt. Gilberto Jordan, who confessed to the killings, saying his orders "came from the (Guatemalan) Ministry of Defense." Jordan was sentenced in 2010 for an immigration violation related to the massacre. Two Kaibiles were found in Houston and Los Angeles, and deported to Guatemala to face charges. A fourth, Lt. Jorge Sosa, fled California but was caught last year in Canada, where he is now fighting extradition to the U.S. on charges related to the massacre.
In Guatemala, meanwhile, prosecutors landed the significant trial in August. In front of a courtroom packed with supporters waving red roses in honor of the victims, judges sentenced four soldiers to 6,060 years in prison.
But the victory was clouded by the fact that most of the 16 Kaibiles charged in the massacre remain on the lam. The identities of the 40 other soldiers remain unknown.
In January, a general who had overseen a region at a time when the U.N. concluded the army had committed genocide, took office as Guatemala's president. Otto Pérez Molina has denied his role in the war's atrocities but questions remain. The ruling this week that Perez's former boss, the dictator Montt, should stand trial for the massacre - his second genocide charge - was "a sign that the cloak of impunity has been broken," Farfan, the human rights advocate.
The relatives of the Dos Erres victims, meanwhile, have more pedestrian concerns. They can't freely visit the site of the massacre, now part of a ranch owned by Guatemala's most powerful drug traffickers. For now, they mourn at a hodge-podge memorial where "we just put everyone together," said Arevalo, one of the survivors. "We didn't know who was who."