Justice and atoning for Guatemala's past

In Guatemala UNDP support is helping the nation to heal a cruel past, provide reconciliation and justice to the victims of war and prosecute the guilty. But those affected are finding that sometimes the truth is painful.

It took 29 years for Alfredo to find out the truth about who he really is. The 31-year-old, originally from Guatemala, now lives in the US. He always thought that his name was Oscar, and that Lieutenant Oscar Ovidio Ramírez Ramos, the father he loved, was a military hero in his native country.

But thanks in-part to a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) initiative that is helping to shed light on the violence of the former regime and providing reparations to its victims, Alfredo has learned the harrowing truth.

“My grandmother and aunts raised me to worship my father, who died when I was just four-years-old. In their version of history, my dad was a hero,” he says. But the efforts of Guatemala’s prosecutor’s office, supported by the UNDP run Transitional Justice Programme, revealed that in 1982 Ramírez Ramos took part in the notorious Dos Erres massacre. Over 200 people, including women, the elderly, and children were killed by commandos. Among them was Alfredo’s family. No-one knows why, but the young Lieutenant took pity on the then three-year-old Alfredo and raised him as his own son.


  • Over 200,000 people died in Guatemala’s 36 year civil war and over 45,000 “disappeared,” including an estimated 5,000 children. 93 percent of atrocities were carried out by the army
  • Five of the soldiers who took part in the Dos Erres massacre are now in prison thanks in-part to support provided by UNDP. More senior figures, including the former president, await trial for their role in other atrocities
  • UNDP will spend US$ 36 million between 2010 and 2014 to support transitional justice in Guatemala

The massacre was a gruesome chapter in the 36-year conflict between government forces and guerrillas in which up to 200,000 (mostly indigenous) people died and over 45,000 “disappeared.” In 1996, the fighting ended with a treaty between the rebels and army. Both sides agreed to an amnesty that exempted combatants, but allowed for the prosecution of atrocities.

Since 2010, the Transitional Justice Programme began supporting victim’s advocacy groups and helping victims of violence seek reparations; helping the police to investigate past crimes; and bolstering the skills of the Prosecutor’s and Attorney General’s office.

A long list of cases is coming to light. UNDP supported training for the police and the Attorney General’s Office in forensic archeology, exhuming mass graves,  and the development of a witness protection programme. Government measures to fight impunity, including the support provided by UNDP, have helped to reduce the high levels of violence, rampant in Guatemalan society, as well as increase the conviction rate by 70 percent since 2009, not just for crimes committed during the war, but for all crimes.

It is perhaps in this environment of improved security that some former soldiers, wracked with guilt, are coming forward to help resolve past atrocities. This is what happened when two former commandos who took part in the Dos Erres massacre approached the Attorney General’s Office. Thanks in-part to their testimony, and the decades long work of public prosecutor Sara Romero; investigators were able to track down Alfredo and let him know the painful truth.

It turns out that Alfredo’s real father survived the carnage. Tranquilino Castañeda is still alive. His whole family, including eight children went into the pit on that day in 1982. He always thought that Alfredo was one of them. “Now I can die in peace,” says Don Tranquilino. “I spent many years trying to drown my sorrows with alcohol but it seems that my sorrows could swim. I was saved by not being on the site. I must now reconfigure my ideas and emotions because of the results of the investigation. I lived with a completely false story, but now we can finally see a light at the end of the tunnel.”

The UNDP supported exhumation of mass graves, directed by prosecutor Romero, as well as the work of the Forensic Anthropology Foundation showed that Alfredo's mother was killed along with the rest of the family.

The slaughter at Dos Erres is now emblematic of transitional justice and the assistance being provided through UNDP to the Attorney General’s office. Several former commandos are now in prison and some await extradition from other countries to face their crimes. Cases have been opened against some top level officials, including former de facto President Efraín Ríos Montt, who led the country during the time of the Dos Erres massacre.

For Guatemala, these investigations have been fundamental to changing the culture of impunity. And UNDP is helping many victims find out the truth, even though, as in Alfredo’s case, it is a sometimes painful story.

By Hector Morales and Damian Kean

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