Santos López Alonzo (Guatemala)

Over the course of three days in December 1982, Guatemalan Kaibil soldiers invaded the community of Las Dos Erres and murdered over 200 civilians, including the family of CCIJ client Ramiro Osorio Cristales.

In 1999, an arrest warrant was issued for Santos López Alonzo for his participation in the Dos Erres massacre as a member of the Kaibiles, a special counterinsurgency force of the Guatemalan army. After being deported to Guatemala by American authorities in 2016, López Alonzo was accused of crimes against humanity and of abusing and falsifying the identity of CCIJ’s client Ramiro Osorio Cristales, a survivor of the Dos Erres massacre who was forced to live with him after the massacre. Ramiro was a key witness in this trial and has testified numerous times before adjudicative bodies in an effort to hold accountable the individuals who carried out the massacre.

The trial against López Alonzo is the third trial in the case of the Dos Erres massacre. In 2011, Jorge Sosa Orantes, a former Kaibil who had been living in Canada, was accused by the United States of lying on citizenship forms about his role in the Guatemalan army and his participation in the massacre. On two occasions, CCIJ and Lawyers Without Borders Canada, joined by Ramiro and Guatemalan lawyer Edgar Perez, called on the Canadian government to investigate whether Sosa Orantes was responsible for war crimes. In 2012, Canada extradited Sosa Orantes to the United States where he was subsequently found guilty of citizenship fraud.

In 1982, during the Guatemalan civil war, a special forces unit of the Guatemalan army, known as the Kaibiles, invaded the community of Las Dos Erres and murdered over 200 civilians after the inhabitants were wrongfully accused of being members of rebel groups, also referred to as ‘the guerrilla’.

The operation was particularly brutal and carried out systematically over three days. Many civilians were killed with a sledgehammer, and small children were thrown into a well after being murdered. Of the town’s entire population, only two children survived. The massacre was part of a deliberate “scorched earth” campaign implemented by Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt, which reportedly included the commission of 626 other massacres across Guatemala.

In October 1999, the Criminal Court of First Instance of Petén ordered the arrest of López Alonzo for his participation in the massacre. At the time of the massacre, López Alonzo was an officer of the Kaibil special operations unit of the Guatemalan army specializing in counterinsurgency warfare. This unit is infamous for its officers’ role in gross violations of human rights during Guatemala’s civil war.

In 2009, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) ruled on the case of the Las Dos Erres massacre, finding that the State of Guatemala had violated the American Convention, namely the right to a fair trial and judicial protection, the obligation to respect rights and to adopt domestic legal effects enshrined in the Convention, the rights of the family and the right to a name, as well as the right to humane treatment. The IACtHR ordered Guatemalan authorities to investigate, prosecute, and punish the perpetrators and masterminds behind the massacre.

In 2010, López Alonzo was arrested and charged with illegally re-entering the United States after a prior deportation order. In August 2016, he was deported from the United States to Guatemala where he was arrested by Guatemalan authorities acting in conformity with the IACtHR’s order to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of the massacre. He was accused of committing crimes against humanity during the massacre and of abusing and altering the identity of Ramiro Osorio Cristales.

The trial was initially scheduled to start in August 2018. However, it was delayed after the presiding judge recused himself for having previously heard the same case with different defendants and announced a new date of May 2021. Lopez Alonzo’s public defender filed a petition claiming that the delay unduly violated his client’s rights to a speedy and impartial trial, and the proceedings started on 1 October 2018.

The trial lasted three weeks and more than 12 witnesses were heard by the tribunal including experts, CCIJ client Ramiro Osorio Cristales, and other witnesses and survivors of the massacre.

The public prosecutor argued that the evidence clearly demonstrated that the Kaibiles carried out the massacre, that Alonzo was a member of the Kaibiles who was present during the operation, and that he was responsible for the abduction of Ramiro. The defendant’s lawyer argued that the operation was planned by the military high command of which the defendant was not a member. She argued that López Alonzo was a mere baker, not a Kaibil specialist and, as such, he did not have control over the military operation. She added that the evidence did not establish that Lopez Alonzo participated in the atrocities that took place in Las Dos Erres. In response to the charges regarding the falsification of the identity and the abuse of Ramiro, he argued that he rescued Ramiro from certain death by renaming him and raising him as his son.

On 21 November 2018, The High Risk Court ‘C’ found that López Alonzo was guilty of crimes against humanity committed during the massacre and sentenced him to 5,130 years in prison. The tribunal also recognized and validated the story of Ramiro but acquitted López Alonzo of the charges related to abusing and abducting Ramiro.

Ramiro Osorio Cristales’ survivor story

CCIJ’s client Ramiro Osorio Cristales was only 5 years old at the time of the massacre that took his parents and six siblings. Following the assault, López Alonzo abducted Ramiro, renamed him Ramiro Fernando López García, and illegally registered him as his adoptive child. López Alonzo’s wife later testified that her husband admitted that he had taken him from Dos Erres.

Ramiro was first interviewed in 1999 by the Criminal Court of Péten. At the time, he told the Court that López Alonzo had taken him through the mountains to the training centre of the Kaibil soldiers where he stayed for approximately two months before being taken to López Alonzo’s home and forced to change his name. Eighteen years after his abduction, Ramiro finally escaped. With the help of the Attorney General’s Office and the Families of the Detained-Disappeared of Guatemala (FAMDEGUA), Ramiro was resettled to Canada as part of a witness protection program.

In his testimonies, Ramiro remembers Kaibil soldiers coming into the house where he lived with his parents and siblings. The soldiers immediately started beating them before taking his father and older brother to a school, while he was taken to a church along with his mother and other brothers. He shared memories of women and children being tortured before being killed outside of the church. He testified that as the armed men separated him from his mother and took her from the church, he ran to the back of the building to see where they were taking her. He remembers hearing her scream for them not to kill her children.

Ramiro Osorio Cristales’ testimony in the trial against Santos López Alonzo

Ramiro’s previous testimony was accepted as evidence that led to the confirmation of charges against López Alonzo.[22] On 18 October 2018, Ramiro testified in the trial against López Alonzo.

In court, he identified Santos López Alonzo as the man who separated him from his mother as other soldiers dragged her away. He told the Court that he was tormented by Lopez Alonso as he suffered discrimination in his home for the colour of his skin, and said he was mistreated by the Lopez Alonso’s wife who often beat him. He told the Court that Lopez Alonso abused him and claimed that, on one occasion, López Alonzo hit him with a stone in the head and threatened to “finish” if he did not get up. Ramiro also told the Court that he did not know his full real name until after his first declaration before the courts in 1999.

Case timeline

October 1999

  • The Criminal Court of First Instance of Petén orders the arrest of López Alonzo.

August 2016

  • U.S. authorities deport López Alonzo after he was arrested and charged with illegally re-entering the U.S. after a prior deportation order in 2010. He is immediately arrested for his alleged role in the 1982 Dos Erres massacre and for falsifying the identity of and abusing Ramiro Osorio Cristales.

August 2016 – June 2017

April 2017

August 2018

  • The presiding judge of the Chamber that was supposed to hear the trial recuses himself for having previously heard the case with other defendants. The trial is postponed to May 2021.

1 October 2018

  • Following the defence lawyer’s petition against the unusual delay, the trial of López Alonzo starts.

10 October 2018

  • Salomé Armando Goméz Hernández, who also survived the massacre, testifies and identifies López Alonzo as one of the soldiers who participated in the massacre.

18 October 2018

  • Ramiro Osorio Cristales testifies against López Alonzo and speaks about the harms he suffered from the massacre and from being forced to live with López Alonzo.

9 November 2018

  • The witness Tranquilino Alvarez testifies his son was also taken away by Kaibiles and that they were only reunited once he was fully grown.
  • Two witnesses, former Kaibiles Cesar Franco Ibanez and Fabio Pinzon Jerez, testify on the planned and coordinated instructions that led to the massacre and identify López Alonzo as a baker in the patrol.

13 November 2018

  • Survivors of the massacre testify on their losses and ask for justice.

14 November 2018

  • More survivors testify about their losses. Technical military expert Rodolfo Robles Espinoza concludes there is no evidence that any Kaibil tried to stop the killing. He establishes that the Kaibiles’ operation was planned and coordinated.

16 November 2018

  • The hearing is adjourned following a request from the defendant’s counsel. The presentation of the witnesses for the defence is rescheduled for 19 November 2018.

19 November 2018

  • The defendant’s daughter, Nora Lopez Garcia, chooses to testify and identifies Ramiro as her big and exemplary brother.
  • Two friends of the defendant testify and tell the court that they remember meeting Ramiro but that they did not know where he came from. The witness Geronimo Herrera declares that López Alonzo told him that he had ‘picked up the child’.
  • López Alonzo testifies in his own trial. He tells the Court that Sosa Orantes was killing people but that he did not see soldiers committing rape. He says he did not stop the killings because they could have killed him too. He denies having abused or mistreated Ramiro. He tells the Court that what he did was a favour to save Ramiro’s life.
  • The public and private prosecutors present their conclusions and requests for sentencing. They demand a conviction for all charges and a total of 5,970 years in prison for López Alonzo.
  • The defendant’s lawyer presents her conclusions and requests for sentencing. She concludes that López Alonzo’s participation in the massacre was not proven, demands an acquittal for all charges of crimes against humanity and a 1-year sentence for the alteration of Ramiro’s identity.
  • The survivors of the massacre are given an opportunity to address the Court. They ask for justice for the victims of Dos Erres, for a conviction in the present case and for the Court to restore the land that they lost after the massacre.

20 November 2018

  • López Alonzo requests that the Court considers the fact that he was not present in the specific places where the massacre occurred.

21 November 2018

  • The Court unanimously concludes that López Alonzo is guilty of crimes against humanity committed against the community of Las Dos Erres and sentences him to 5,130 years in prison. He is acquitted of the charges related to Ramiro’s abuse and of the charges related to the falsification of Ramiro’s identity. The Court clarifies that it recognizes and validates Ramiro’s story.
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