e-mail us


Ex-soldiers tell of 1982 massacre in Guatemala

Pacific News Service
Guatemala City

Retired college football coach Will Lotter of California is at the center of a milestone case in which two former members of an elite Guatemalan army unit have turned state’s witnesses, naming other officers in the massacre of 300 unarmed villagers in 1982. Special Prosecutor Mario Leal said here March 29 he will request the arrest of 23 persons and is considering formal charges against former Gen. Efraín Rios Montt, chief of state at the time of the massacre and now president of the Congress. Rios Montt, unable to run for president for constitutional reasons, is the political and personal mentor of President Alfonso Portillo, who took office in January.

If the government continues to pursue the case of the massacre at the village of Dos Erres, the testimony of the former members of the military could represent a dramatic turn of events in efforts to bring to justice those who ordered the most flagrant abuses of human rights during the country’s 36-year-long civil war. Most abuses occurred during the 1980s when, according to Guatemalan human rights organizations and a United Nations-sponsored truth commission, the government conducted genocidal campaigns in the countryside against the mostly Mayan population in rural villages. Over the entire span of the conflict between U.S. backed military dictatorships and insurgent guerrillas, more than 200,000 people were either killed or “disappeared,” most of them unarmed civilians.

The testimony of the two ex-soldiers “lends unique weight to this case,” said Angelina Snodgrass, country specialist for Guatemala for Amnesty International U.S.A.

Their testimony identifies those responsible for the massacre, not simply those who carried it out, but those who gave orders. This is what makes the Dos Erres case “unusual” among those few cases coming to court that stem from events during the violence. In the past, a few gunmen have been found guilty. “Convictions seen so far have been of persons far down on the totem pole. What’s really important is to go after the whole structure of impunity, which this case enables the court to do,” said Snodgrass. If the conviction of gunmen are fissures in the structure of impunity, she said, the new evidence in the Dos Erres case “strikes at its very foundation.”

In response to past charges of army massacres, military sources have denied involvement or blamed events on individual excesses committed in the heat of the moment. By naming officers and giving accounts of preparation logistics, the two witnesses show instead that “the practice was systematic,” said Snodgrass.

On April 7, Judge Josue Villatoro, on the basis of testimony from the former kaibiles, as the soldiers are called, issued arrest orders against 10 members of the armed forces as “material authors” in the Dos Erres massacre, according to the Guatemalan press. By April 11, two lieutenant colonels and two captains on active duty were under arrest.

From coach to crusader

Since 1996, Coach Lotter, as he was known for 42 years at the University of California Davis, has been slowly -- sometimes clandestinely -- raising money for lawyers and travel and building trust with the star witnesses in the Dos Erres case, named for the village that disappeared with the killings of its residents Dec. 6-8, 1982. At 75, Lotter represents a hard core of ordinary Americans who continue to contribute money and support to bring egregious human rights cases to justice in Central America, just as they once sheltered refugees and protested U.S. policy in the region. After depositions March 17, Lotter accompanied the witnesses, as he had promised them he would, on a tense journey into exile. Both witnesses said it was trust in the strapping, white-haired Lotter that encouraged them to stick with the process that led to the testimony and official request for indictments.

Front page news here of the Dos Erres developments comes on the heels of a Spanish court’s decision to hear a case brought by Nobel Peace laureate Rigoberta Menchú, charging Rios Montt and seven other generals with genocide, torture and terrorism during the war. While attention focuses on the increasing number of such prosecutions in international venues -- the same Spanish court pursued both former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and Argentine officials, and other European courts pursue Serbian war criminals -- it is on the home fronts where cases like that of Dos Erres form the base of the legal wave. It is riskier work, performed out of the limelight by family members of the dead and disappeared, sometimes in alliance with volunteers from abroad like Lotter, who provide a modest connection to the outside world.

The connection can result in funds that local people might not be able to raise any other way. It can mean someone will be on the other end of a telephone call or e-mail outside Guatemala should help be needed. This is a boost to morale for those who feel they are bucking the tide. “We feel safer, and we feel deeply the accompaniment,” said Aura Elena Farfan, speaking of Will Lotter. Farfan is a founder of the Families of the Detained and Disappeared of Guatemala -- FAMDEGUA.

A star athlete at the University of California Berkeley -- linebacker on its first Rose Bowl team, catcher on its national collegiate baseball team -- Lotter was no life-long political activist. He flew Navy fighters in World War II, and raised four sons with wife, Jane. About 1954 when the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency was orchestrating a coup in Guatemala against a democratically elected president, ushering in military rule that lasted two generations, Lotter was beginning his career at U.C. Davis where he would eventually coach football, soccer and tennis and teach health sciences to a couple of generations of students. The family left Davis for two and a half years during the 1960s, when Lotter took a leave to direct the Peace Corps in Malawi. By the 1980s, however, Will Lotter and Jane -- a U.C. Berkeley graduate -- joined thousands of members of church groups and other grassroots groups who helped refugees fleeing Central American violence. The small city of Davis became one of the strongest outposts of a nationwide “Sanctuary” movement.

FAMDEGUA approached Lotter in 1997 when he was on a Spanish study trip in Guatemala. When FAMDEGUA asked the small (about 20 members) but active Davis group to switch from assisting victims of the violence to helping two men who had been among the perpetrators, the Lotters had to think hard.

“At first I was leery,” said Lotter. The witnesses’ testimony to FAMDEGUA confirmed evidence from a forensic investigation by an Argentinean team that exhumed bodies at the Dos Erres site. It was their unit, specialists called kaibiles, the witnesses said, that carried out the assassination of men, women and children, raped adolescent girls, tortured some, stuffed bodies -- some still alive -- down a well and left others shot or knifed.

Facing a moral dilemma

Lotter admits to a moral dilemma. Each kaibil insisted he did not kill at Dos Erres. Whether or not the claim is true -- Lotter doesn’t speculate -- the fact remains that between them, the two had served a total of 30 years in special forces notorious for brutality in counterinsurgency campaigns. The witnesses represented those who had wreaked havoc on the very families Lotter and other Davis Sanctuary movement folk had been dealing with for years, finding housing, schools and even psychological help for survivors who reached Northern California. Impressed by the request from Farfan, however, whose own brother, Ruben, was tortured and killed in 1984 by security forces in Guatemala City, Lotter agreed to meet the former kaibiles one by one.

“I wasn’t feeling good about him,” he said of a first encounter, unable to shake the idea of the man’s background. “But later I spent five days with him, and found he was straightforward. I came to believe his regret.”

Jane Lotter, dubious at first, recalled that eventually her husband “made me come around. This testimony is so important.” Together they spent days and weeks on the project, soliciting funds that would be used for lawyers and travel. By 1998 the Davis group and the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant in Berkeley, a coalition of 35 local churches and synagogues, presented the case to Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, and Reps. Nancy Pelosi and Dick Fazio. All wrote letters to the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City recommending that visas be granted to the witnesses in the interest of “significant public benefit” for U.S. policy, but the State Department denied them.

For months, the search continued for a country to take in the former kaibiles, whose lives in Guatemala would be in grave danger after their testimony.

Meanwhile in Davis, money was slow in coming, and some still struggled with the idea of working hand in hand with the former kaibiles. A turning point came with a telephone call from a convent of Roman Catholic nuns in Southern California. Lotter had spoken to two of the sisters during a fund raising visit. When they called back he hoped they might be willing to donate a thousand dollars or so, even though he had told them there was no guarantee the witnesses had no blood on their hands. The sisters said they were sending a check for $25,000. “ ‘It’s the only way you’ll bring people like Rios Montt to justice,’ ” Lotter remembers the nun saying crisply. “It’s the only kind of testimony that will hold water.”

On the morning of March 17, Will Lotter wore a white shirt and dark tie to the Guatemala City airport, formally dressed for the tropics, first in line to check in for the early morning flight to the northern jungle province. A head taller and the most senior of the party headed for court that day, Lotter discreetly acknowledged others as they arrived: the briskly cheery government prosecutor; a blue-jacketed observer from the U.S. embassy; Farfan and fellow FAMDEGUA member Lilian Rivas, both middle-aged and indistinguishable from other women traveling in flowered dresses and clutching black handbags, but who had caused bones to be exhumed and repeatedly interviewed the star witnesses without protection in remote locations; and two lawyers for FAMDEGUA, a man and woman in their 30s whose easy manner and blue jeans made them look like graduate students.

In early March, the two lawyers had presented the case of Dos Erres at the Interamerican Court of Human Rights of the Organization of American States, where the Guatemalan government accepted responsibility; now they were coming along to ensure that the names of real people, including army officers -- a first -- would be linked to the crime. A professor from Fordham University Law School, observing the day’s proceedings, met Lotter that morning and asked what he did, to which Lotter simply replied, “Citizen.”

In the steamy day that followed, in the courthouse on a clay road in Santa Elena, some 300 miles north of Guatemala City and about 60 miles from the site where Dos Erres once stood, Lotter played a supportive role. During the night, guards and an official of the Public Ministry prosecuting the case had whisked the witnesses’ wives and children from a safe house in the capital and escorted them out of the country. By now, all hoped, the families were untouchable by anyone who might want to blackmail the former kaibiles and influence their testimony. Finally the two men walked into the courthouse, one spindly and pale, the other short with dark skin and Indian features, escorted by burly Public Ministry guards in knit shirts with no visible weapons. They entered amid the commotion of a rural courthouse, among drug suspects, drunks who were handcuffed together by threes, and local armed guards. Only when the witnesses saw Lotter did their faces relax. They embraced him like men gone overboard hug a buoy in an unknown sea.

The judge took testimony from each separately behind closed doors, over a period of seven hours. As the shorter witness testified, the other, a thoughtful fellow, sat alongside Lotter and at one point began to weep. He did not want to leave behind his 17-year old daughter, he said. Her boyfriend was abusing her and would not permit a passport to be issued for their infant. The daughter wanted to accompany her family into exile, the witness fretted, but would not leave the baby behind. This last-minute domestic crisis might derail the whole process. If the thin witness could not continue, the testimony of just one kaibil, without corroboration, would be of little use. Lotter listened sympathetically, a calming presence although he could promise no resolution. The thin witness seemed to sense there was no turning back; the crisis passed.

The heat was wilting and there were no fans. Greetings became limited to “Calor … calorcito … ” “Hot … really hot … ” or “Just wait till the heat starts.” By midday, Lotter loosened his tie and descended the courthouse steps to stroll outside near towering bushes of red hibiscus. He crossed the clay road to a four-table café. There was time to consider how he had arrived at this place.

Influenced by his mother

“My mother was the big influence, one of the few true Christians I’ve ever known,” said Lotter. A piano teacher in their Alameda, Calif., home, Gladys Vernon Lotter took action when, during World War II, she discovered her Japanese American students and their families were interned in horse corrals at Bay Meadows Racecourse. She regularly traveled to bring them blankets and food, and, trading on her role as a Baptist church organist, she pushed congregations to store pianos and other goods belonging to the Japanese Americans. Other family stories followed, including memories of crossing the Bay by ferry to meet his father, a printer at a San Francisco newspaper.

But Lotter won’t give an inch on churches. “People who are so-called non-religious can be as compassionate as those in organized orthodox religion,” he said crustily. “You don’t have to have a God to see injustices.”

As the light from the late sun went soft against the simple white courthouse, the door to the judge’s chamber inside remained closed, and nerves began to fray. The only return flight of the day would leave soon, but everyone was determined not to lose touch with the witnesses, having brought them this far. The ex-kaibiles, too, seemed connected to Lotter and the others by some invisible string and seemed to want to keep them in sight. But the Public Ministry had taken charge of the witnesses, now that the legal process had begun. Tension would grow in the next days: between FAMDEGUA, which convinced the witnesses to testify, built the case and committed themselves to their protection, and functionaries of the ministry, nervously implementing their first witness protection program of its kind. Add the natural distrust between a government institution and an association of family members of the disappeared whose reason for existence is to squeeze the truth from government forces and files. And add the constant awareness that even well intentioned guards might be incapable of protecting witnesses from hit men sent to quiet them.

Finally, add mixed emotions.

Seated on the terrace to catch a breeze and guarding a folder holding the kaibiles’ original testimony on her lap, Lilian Rivas stole looks at the thin witness, who was eating from a bag of corn chips. One late afternoon in 1982 Rivas’ son left home to buy milk for his infant daughter and never returned. Since then she has marched and demonstrated for his return and that of thousands of others missing in the violence, and devoted herself to helping to raise her fatherless grandchildren. Normally unflappable, this woman who is everyone’s grandmother broke into silent tears during the long wait on the porch. “It has cost us to work for murderers,” Rivas said so the witness couldn’t hear. “I hope their repentance is true.”

The next days are a blur of airports and unknown routes in a foreign land where the witnesses are shepherded swiftly around by Prosecutor Leal, guards and finally by officials in the country of exile. FAMDEGUA members and Lotter become separated from the former kaibiles or are purposely misled by their minders several times -- perhaps for security reasons -- which nevertheless causes consternation on the part of the witnesses and deep aggravation and suspicion on the part of Farfan.

“They often take them from airports,” she said, speaking of disappearances. She was in a waiting room where the witnesses stood nearby. Farfan and Rivas fidgeted, strained to keep watch on an overhead balcony, had difficulty sitting still. Black-vested guards sometimes stood at strategic points in the crowd, not close to the traveling party, but shifting positions when the prosecutor moved, obvious to the Guatemalans, who knew what to look for. Lotter, meanwhile, talked easily to the witnesses, about their children, about nothing at all, and they seemed relaxed. Later, Lotter said honestly, “What guards?”

Finally, in exile

At the house the witnesses would now share in the exile country, the former kaibiles were reunited with their families at 2 a.m. one morning. Within a day they became absorbed in the commonplace concerns of finding schools and determining when their living allowances from the Guatemalan Public Ministry might arrive. The wife of the thin witness was distraught about her 17-year old daughter, the one unable to join them. Wives and children grappled with the idea they would not go home again, wives would not see their own mothers and siblings, at least for a very long time.

On the lawn, “Willy” -- as everyone calls Lotter -- coached the children in endless rounds of soccer kicking, sometimes diving for the ball and rolling on the ground like a man a third his age, delighting the kids torn from their homeland who had no friends yet with whom to play. Bags of groceries arrived, bought by Lotter and Farfan “with the nuns’ money.”

Inside, a security officer gave the couples simple cover stories, instructing them how to answer neighborly questions, impressing them with the potential gravity of mistakes. “Remember, one small thing could mean you would have to leave all this behind and go somewhere else,” he said.

When the ministry personnel left, the huskier witness sat on the edge of a bed and closed the door so the families could not hear, an expression of worry in his dark eyes. “I feel something is going to happen. Please don’t let this case hang like something in the water,” he told Farfan and Lotter. After all he had gone through, the worst fear was that the prosecution would be dropped, hit a dead end, would come to nothing. “I didn’t leave the country because I am a traitor, but for something else.”

“Be assured … be assured … ” Farfan said. “We won’t take a step backward. We are not going to cede.”

“We trust you. We trust Willy,” said the witness.

Why did the witnesses agree to testify? Each expressed exasperation and even hate for the army, which as one said, “took my youth and gave me nothing in return.” Each gave details of other known cases of human rights abuses that have not been resolved. One said he feared for his life in Guatemala even before the issue of testifying about Dos Erres arose because of his knowledge of the other cases and their perpetrators, including well-connected officers. Lotter had always suspected that the two kaibiles turned witnesses because of their families, because they couldn’t live with themselves without telling the truth, and he may have been close to the truth.

Said one of the witnesses, “I watched my own children growing and I said to myself, ‘Those children at Dos Erres did not deserve to die.’ ”

Before he left the house for the last time, Lotter promised the men he would return someday for a visit.

About this story
Mary Jo McConahay lived in Guatemala, reporting on events there for 10 years, before returning to the United States in 1999.
McConahay said after first meeting the Lotters she becames convinced this story represented an important turn of events. “We worked out a code for communicating and as the Lotters went to Guatemala, I waited for the message that meant I should appear at the airport for the trip to court.” For security reasons, palins had to be made day to day. For the sames reasons, no other reporters were present at the court appearance or the journey of the witnesses to exile.
She was trusted by the Guatemalans because of her long involvement in the country and because earlier she had witnessed the exhumation of remains in Dos Erres, shere she “watched as day by day bones and bits of clothing, some it children’s, was lifed from the dirt.”

National Catholic Reporter, April 21, 2000