The Operation of a Death Squad in San Pedro la Laguna

By Benjamin D. Paul, Stanford University
& William Demarest

Chapter Three
The Tragic Blow

The impending calamity had cast its shadow on San Pedro one night a week earlier, when two strangers were seen walking about the town at 9:00 p.m. a Pedrano on civil patrol duty informed Lencho that an alguacil (errand man in the municipal service system) was showing the strangers the houses of military commissioners. When Lencho asked what the strangers were up to, the alguacil replied that they had been hired as boatmen by his uncle, the owner of a tavern and of several launches. Lencho found the two strangers at the boat owners tavern. They were drinking with the proprietor and Jorge, the man who had been imposed and deposed as mayor of San Pedro. The strangers identified themselves as army agents and told Lencho that they were investigating a matter that did not concern him. A day or two later, heeding the advice of fellow commissioners, Lencho had a memorandum drawn up at town headquarters. It stated that if a commissioner disappeared the alguacil would he held responsible.

On Tuesday, February 26, 1985, Lencho went to plant corn on his brother-in-law's land. At home in the late afternoon he was visited by a neighbor who had just returned by boat from Panajachel. The visitor reported that Lencho’s uncle Pedro had not come back on the afternoon launch. As Pedro was about to board the boat in Panajachel the day before, he had been suddenly summoned to appear in Sololá and had asked a passenger to tell his wife that he would be home the next day. But Pedro had not returned.

This news troubled Lencho. He went out to supervise the rotation of the civil patrol, urging the men to be particularly alert that night. Instead of eating his dinner, he decided to confer with one of his church brethren. That evening he did not attend church service. He was distraught, stayed up late, joined his wife in prayers, and eventually went to bed.

"El Ultimo Grito," the last cry. Painting by Mario González Chavajay, 2001.

Around midnight Lencho's sister answered a knock on the door. The callers said that they were looking for Lencho. She assumed that they were civil patrollers with some routine problem that could wait and told them that her brother was not there. She knew that Lencho had worked hard in the field that day, and she did not want to disturb his sleep. The men left but soon came back and broke in forcibly. Lencho's wife rose, snapped on the lights, and saw four armed men in civilian clothes, their faces hidden by woolen gorras (stocking caps). "Fetch Lencho and make it fast," they demanded. She went to the other room and warned Lencho, "They want to grab and kill you." "Very well," replied Lencho. "Bring me my pants and shirt and jacket." "Hurry up. It's urgent," the men commanded. Lencho entered the lighted room and calmly addressed a man in the doorway whose gorra was pulled halfway up: "Buenos noches, mi teniente Rolando." The man jerked the gorra down over his face. The captors swiftly bound Lencho's arms and hustled him into the street. "Adios, Mama," were Lencho's last words.

Lencho's wife, joined by his sister and brother, tried to run after the men, but they spun around and ordered, "Stay back or be killed." The three doubled back and reached the main street in time to see a yellow pickup turn the corner and head up the road toward Santiago Atitlán. A lone civil patrolman on duty saw the vehicle coming; his companions were taking a coffee break. He signaled the pickup to stop, but it raced on.

The three relatives ran to the town center to report the abduction to the municipal guards and the on-duty commissioners. The church bells rang as they had never rung before, waking the town. By half-past midnight a great crowd had formed to learn what had happened to Lencho. Women sobbed. Men shouted: "Make a list! Let's get them?" They first rushed to seize the alguacil and forced him to name his accomplices. He named his uncle, the boat owner; he named Salvador, Jorge, Mario, others. The elicited names only confirmed what the enraged citizens had long suspected. They did not need to draw up a list. In their collective mind they had already identified at least fifteen resident enemies, including the ten suspects listed in the petition Pedro and three companions had presented to the president and the press nearly two years earlier.

"La captura de los comisionados Militrais," the capture of the militray commissioners. This is the only painting I know of that  depicts a specific event in the history of the death squads in San Pedro. Painting by Mariano González Chavajay.

That night the mob captured as many of the fifteen as they could find. The boat owner and some others could not immediately be found. When they entered Salvador's house, his wife tried to hold them off with a machete. They knocked it from her hand and searched the premises. They found Salvador hiding in a clump of bushes, beat him soundly to make him confess and name co-conspirators, and hauled him off to jail. They nearly killed another man when they pulled him out of his house. In their rage they destroyed suspects' property. Not finding Jorge in his house, they proceeded to wreck his television and smash his stereo set. Jorge, who was hiding elsewhere, turned himself in after the fury had abated.

By 1:30 a.m., a document had been drawn up in the town hall setting forth the facts and circumstances that would provide the basis for later legal proceedings. It stated that Lencho had been abducted at 12:01 a.m. on February 27. Referring to the memorandum drawn up a few days earlier, it implicated the alguacil, the two disguised military men he was escorting, the boat owner, and others. It accused the alleged conspirators of holding secret meetings at such-and-such a time and place, etc.

Before daybreak, Lencho's brother and several military commissioners who had served under Lencho left for Sololá to get help from army officials but reportedly found them unsympathetic. At dawn another Pedrano drove off toward Santiago Atitlán to get firewood. Three miles out of town at a place called Xequistel he came upon the bodies of Lencho and Pedro. Their throats had been cut, and they had been stabbed in the chest. Hanks of hair had been torn from their heads. Pedro's wrists and ankles were bound with nylon cord. Blood and skin were found on the trunk of a tree to which one of the victims had apparently been tied. When they heard the dismaying news, many Pedranos hurried to Xequistel to recover the bodies. The corpses were taken to Sololá for autopsy and returned to San Pedro for burial. That day more of the wanted fifteen were seized and jailed.

The next day, Thursday, the last of the fifteen were rounded up. Newspaper reporters arrived the same day to photograph the jailed suspects, take pictures of the thousands of mourners in the funeral procession, and hear Lencho's widow tell how her husband was kidnapped. Soldiers arrived to take the captured men to Sololá.

"Al Sepulcro," at the sepulcher. Painting by Mario González Chavajay, 2002

On the afternoon of the next day, Friday, the Sololá military commander, accompanied by three aides, went to San Pedro to preside at a general meeting he had called. Whether he wanted mainly to assure himself about the town's position or to reassure the assembly is uncertain. He found an enormous crowd awaiting him and was seemingly impressed by the Pedranos' unanimity in condemning the recently arrested fifteen.

A leading citizen opened the meeting with a prayer that made people cry. All the women who had lost husbands during the 1980-82 reign of terror were in the audience. Some of them spoke up. One widow said that she had noticed Jorge, Salvador, and other alleged conspirators convening at the boat owner's home and had overheard them plotting to kill the current commissioners. The people demanded that the fifteen captured men be tried and punished. They assured the commander that they sided with the army and not with the guerrillas. The commander promised to cooperate, asserting that the suspects would be duly tried.

On the following day, Saturday, the Pedranos themselves called a general meeting to consider forming a town defense committee, a proposal that was swiftly approved. Then and there committee officers were elected: chairman, vice-chairman, secretary, and treasurer. Papers were drawn up formalizing the committee and expressing the town's demand that the criminals be brought to book. The intent of the committee was to assemble testimony and produce documents for the courts, and to do so in a more forceful and official manner than the murdered Pedro had been able to do acting semi-covertly as a private citizen without official backing. As a public entity, the town defense committee hoped to raise enough money to pay for legal and other costs. But when the committee's officers presented themselves to the governor of Sololá Department, their hopes were dashed. The committee was refused official authorization, without which it had no right to exist or collect funds. Why the committee was quashed remains unclear. The explanation given by a Pedrano in the best position to know is simple: "The governor is against us."

Pedro had complained that, despite efforts to work quietly, he had been shadowed by confederates of the imprisoned men whenever he traveled to Sololá. On his last trip to give authorities yet more evidence and arguments, the day he was lured away from the Panajachel dock with the message that he was awaited in Sololá, he had been driven off in a yellow pickup. This was observed by the Pedrano who had told Lencho that Pedro had failed to return on the boat as expected. The same man had observed one of the alleged Pedrano conspirators sitting in the yellow pickup, which presumably then made its way around the lake to haul Lencho to the place where the two bodies were found the next morning. In retrospect it was realized that the two military men in civilian dress seen walking about San Pedro with the alguacil a few days earlier were there to help lay the groundwork for the abductions of Pedro and Lencho.

Informants offered reasons for Lencho's murder: he had been denounced to the army as a subversive for repeatedly failing to cooperate in the capture of alleged subversives; the assassins knew that if he was not killed along with Pedro he would work assiduously to avenge his uncle's death and would carry on the slain man's battle to keep the killers safely locked up. Lencho's wife had said that when she ran after the kidnappers she saw and recognized four of the alleged Pedrano conspirators leaving an alley. Informants believe that some of the suspects could not be found at home on the night of Lencho's abduction because hours earlier they had already left for Xequistel, outside San Pedro, to participate in the torture and killing.

The fifteen suspects taken to Sololá after Lencho was kidnapped apparently suffered few restrictions; on the day after their arrest they were reportedly seen disporting themselves on the Panajachcl beach below Sololá. In two weeks they were returned to San Pedro, accompanied by a contingent of eighty soldiers. The suspects were said to be under house arrest and the soldiers to be in town to protect them from harm. The soldiers were encamped on the outskirts of town and provisioned by the army. The fifteen suspects seldom ventured out of their homes.

The protected suspects, in all likelihood, were due to be released before long without punishment. That indeed was the confident prediction of the lawyer residing in Sololá who had been engaged to defend the fifteen Pedranos. He expressed the opinion that the violence in San Pedro was merely the settling of old scores by vindictive individuals in the bitterly divided town—a judgment that might well have applied to several of the men—and that the fifteen suspects were the objects of false accusations. But in June 1985, the unlikely occurred. After encamping in San Pedro for three months, the contingent of eighty soldiers was withdrawn, but the men they guarded were not set free. Instead they were once again sent to jail in Sololá. This probably would not have happened had a man named Arturo not entered the picture in May.

Arturo, a capable young Pedrano, was about to complete his law training at a university in Guatemala City. Apparently well versed in the country's legal code, he devoted himself vigorously to the task of bringing the suspects to book. His youth and lack of political clout placed him at a disadvantage in comparison to the experienced and well-connected Sololá lawyer who was defending the accused. We asked Pedranos why they did not hire an outside lawyer with more influence than Arturo and were told that that would require more money than they could raise (or were permitted to raise) and that, even if they had the money, no other lawyer would risk his life by taking on a case that challenged the military establishment.

When Arturo went to Sololá to look into the record, he discovered, to his and the town's surprise, that there was absolutely nothing pending with respect to the murder of Pedro and Lencho a few months earlier. The mayor of San Pedro, it seems, had failed in his duty to initiate diligencias (investigations). According to articles 318 and 319 of Guatemala's penal code, the mayor (who is also justice of the peace), is to begin the investigation and turn his findings over to a judge within three days of the crime. The mayor at the time of the double murder—who had been vice-mayor under Jorge until the latter was removed from office—was a friend of Jorge (though .presumably not •n accomplice). The mayor was also a son-in-law of the boat owner, mother of the fifteen suspects. One can understand why the mayor would hesitate to initiate proceedings, but in these circumstances, as Arturo was quick to point out, it was incumbent on the mayor to call on a judge and explain his conflict of interest.

Despite the mayor's inaction, Arturo was able to start up the litigation process by arranging for a "reconstruction of the facts" at a meeting early in May 1985 attended by himself, the lawyer for the defendants, and the judge of the trial court in Sololá. Subsequently Arturo made numerous trips to Sololá, often accompanied by Lencho's twenty-six-year-old widow. The fifteen defendants were summoned from San Pedro to make declarations and, as already noted, were transferred to the Sololá jail in June. Acting through an intermediary, the Sololá lawyer reportedly offered Arturo a handsome sum of money if he would drop the case. Arturo refused, and for six months the suspects bided their time in jail while their attorney and Arturo kept filing briefs and petitions for and against them. On December 20, 1985, they were declared not guilty. Arturo immediately appealed the verdict, and for month after month the men remained in jail awaiting the decision of the appellate court in Antigua.

Meanwhile there were developments in the case of the eight former commissioners who had been captured in October 1982 and were serving time in the Cantel penitentiary. On June 25, 1985, six of them were set free on payment of money put up by their families. Before their release the town had drawn up a petition asking the authorities to prohibit any of the convicted men from setting foot in San Pedro. This request was never granted, either because the papers were stalled in the mayor's office or because the petition found no favor in Sololá. Of the six men released from Cantel, only two returned to San Pedro. One worked in the field by day, always accompanied by a relative, but stayed home evenings. The other kept to his house, fearful of attack by Pedranos whose sons or brothers had been kidnapped. Four of the freed men decided to live elsewhere: one in Santiago Atitlán, one in Quezaltenango, and two on the coast. Jacinto and Adolfo, who had been chief and assistant chief of commissioners, respectively, during the long noche negra, were serving longer sentences and were not released with the others.

That was the situation as recorded during a visit to San Pedro in March 1986. But by the time we made another visit in October 1986, the situation had changed considerably. Except for Jacinto, all the Pedranos imprisoned in Cantel or Sololá had been released. Adolfo, freed from Cantel, went to live in Guatemala City. Freed also were the many suspects who had been unceremoniously rounded up after word of Lencho's abduction aroused the town after midnight on February 27, 1985. Most of the freed men returned to San Pedro. Originally fifteen in number, the group had been reduced to twelve before the time of release. Three of the group, including José, the deposed mayor, had disappeared under mysterious circumstances in June 1985 when the fifteen suspects kept under house arrest were remanded to jail in Sololá. The three were reportedly seized by military police and vanished without trace. Informants conjecture that they may no longer be alive.

One night a brood of penned-in piglets was set afire. The owner was a former commissioner back from prison, and neighbors speculated that the damage was an act of vengeance. Other than that minor incident, however, no serious harm has so far befallen any of the returned men held responsible for having inflicted suffering on Pedrano families. The returned citizens venture into the streets only when necessary and only in the company of kinsmen. With good luck San Pedro may be spared yet another flare-up of the violence for which the military authorities, like their local collaborators, bear part of the blame.