Transcript

465:

What Happened At Dos Erres
Transcript

Originally aired 05.25.2012

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Full audio: http://tal.fm/465

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Oscar was 31, working two jobs with three little kids and a fourth on the way. His living room in Framingham, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb, was covered with toys, and in the kitchen in a corner were some trophies that he won as a bull fighter as a teenager back in Guatemala where he grew up. He'd been in the United States since he was 19, a dozen years.

And then, he had a strange phone call. A woman from the public prosecutor's office back in Guatemala was looking for him. Now, he was in the United States illegally. And he worried, could it be about that somehow?

And then, he spoke with this woman. Her name was Sara Romero, and it had nothing to do with that. It was way stranger. She had been looking into a massacre that had happened back in the early 1980s out in the countryside in a tiny town during Guatemala's civil war. And she believed Oscar was one of the survivors.

Oscar Ramirez

I was, like, confused. I didn't know what she was talking about. She said, "I know you don't know much about it or you probably don't know anything about it," because I was quiet. I was just listening to what she was saying.

Ira Glass

Clearly, they have the wrong person, Oscar thought. He had never been to the little town where this massacre happened. He grew up far away from there. He didn't have any questions about his past. In fact, he had a pretty idyllic childhood.

Yes, his mom had died when he was a baby. Yes, his dad was killed in a truck accident when he was four. But his dad's mom, his grandmother, raised him comfortably. He felt loved.

What Sara told Oscar was this. The massacre that she was investigating happen in 1982, when Oscar was three at a village called Dos Erres. More than 200 people were killed there Sara had spoken to several soldiers who were at the massacre, and they told her that two boys had been spared.

One of the boys, the soldier said, was taken by a lieutenant named Oscar Ramirez Ramos. That was Oscar's dad. If Sara's suspicions were right, the man that Oscar thought was his father, the man he had looked up to his entire life, had stolen him from his biological family. His unit killed them and their entire village, Dos Erres. Though, Sara says, when she first contacted Oscar--

Sara Romero

I told him about the two boys. We felt getting into any specifics about the participation of his dad so as not to hurt his feelings. But I let him know that he could be one of the surviving boys.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our radio show, we have investigators trying to solve an unsolved murder of more than 200 people from the 1980s in a case that could potentially nudge the political climate of their entire country, and finally hold military officials responsible for massacres that happened there. Just this week, the former president of the country was indicted for genocide in this case.

And at the center of the whole thing is a guy, Oscar Ramirez, who discovers that everything he thought about his past-- his dad, who he really is-- is all a lie. Oscar's DNA, the DNA of this guy in some Boston suburb, becomes the final piece of evidence in this case. The idea is that if they could just prove with his DNA that he was stolen from Dos Erres, they could link the lieutenant who raised him and his unit to this massacre. For the very first time, they might bring high level soldiers and officers to justice for one of these massacres, which had never been done in Guatemala.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Our program today is a co-production with ProPublica and the Fundacion MEPI in Mexico City. It has taken months to report and research. It is truly an amazing, heartbreaking tale that takes us deep inside some experiences that I think we all see headlines about that can often seem very far away and hard to imagine the reality of, that, as you'll hear, are not far away at all. We're devoting our entire program to it. Stay with us.

OK, before we dive into this story, just a quick history review. Now, I myself was the kind of insufferable, politically correct person who was obsessed with Latin America back in the 1980s. I called Nicaragua "Neek-ar-ah-wah," and actually went to Nicaragua for a month during the fifth anniversary of the Sandinista revolution. I traveled in Guatemala during the civil war.

You, however, might be what we call a normal person and didn't do any of that. So to provide some context, I turned to Kate Doyle, who's testified as an expert witness in the trials of human rights abuses by senior military officials in Guatemala. She's a senior analyst at a watchdog group in Washington, D.C., called the National Security Archive.

Kate Doyle

The violence in Guatemala made the country an outlier, because you don't have anything on the scale of what happened in that country in places like Peru or Argentina or Chile.

Ira Glass

And so when you talk about this, I picture, OK, somewhere in the back of your mind, there's a list of the ranking of most f'ed up countries in the region.

Kate Doyle

Right.

Ira Glass

And is Guatemala number one?

Kate Doyle

Guatemala is way up there.

Ira Glass

Give me the rankings. OK, so number one f'ed up is?

Kate Doyle

Honduras probably right now.

Ira Glass

Honduras?

Kate Doyle

Honduras is bad.

Ira Glass

OK, and then number two?

Kate Doyle

Guatemala is pretty bad.

Ira Glass

Pretty bad going back decades. Starting in the 1960s, small guerrilla groups challenged what was a corrupt and repressive government. There was also a broader movement calling for political rights, land reform, workers' rights. This always met with brutal violence. Reformers were assassinated. Civilian populations in the countryside were accused of harboring guerrillas and exterminated in the name of anti-communism. This violence peaked in the 1980s.

Kate Doyle

These were essentially scorched earth operations. Soldiers would sweep through targeted areas. They were using plans drafted by the Army High Command. And they would essentially kill everything in sight.

Ira Glass

She says that what's amazing is the pattern. You see the same techniques again and again. A warning-- this description gets violent. A patrol would enter the community, usually on market day when everybody was gathered.

Kate Doyle

And they would immediately separate out the men from the women and children. And they would put them into some of the village's biggest buildings, like the school or the church. And then, the soldiers would proceed to destroy everything.

They would burn the fields where the villagers grew their food. They would slaughter the animals. They would destroy the houses. They would burn them to the ground. They would bring the men, then, out and execute them.

They would then take the women and the children. They would rape most of the girl children and the women. And then they would kill them.

Ira Glass

This happened in over 600 villages, tens of thousands of people. A truth commission found that the number of Guatemalans killed or disappeared by their own government was over 180,000. And unlike many other Latin American countries, none of the soldiers and leaders who did all this were held accountable.

Kate Doyle

Many of them transitioned into civilian government. Most of them continued to be very notable, very prominent figures in Guatemalan society.

Ira Glass

For years, the government denied the massacres happened at all. Even after a peace treaty with the rebels in 1996, a truth commission was set up but told specifically not to name names, not to gather evidence for trials. No soldier or military leader was brought to justice for the massacres-- until Dos Erres and the investigation into what happened there.

Several people were involved in reporting the story that you're about to hear. There's Sebastian Rotella and Ana Arana. There's our producer, Brian Reed, and Habiba Nosheen. Sometimes, you're going to hear Brian in the tape. Habiba narrates this story. Here she is.

Act One.

Habiba Nosheen

When investigators started looking into the Dos Erres massacre in the '90s, people trying to uncover the truth about that sort of thing were being killed like an anthropologist, Myrna Mack, who was trying to expose the details of the military's scorched earth campaign and then was stabbed 27 times by a member of the president's intelligence team.

Or like in 1998 when a Catholic bishop headed a truth commission that concluded that the military was behind the vast majority of the atrocities during the civil war. Just two days after the report came out, he was found bludgeoned to death with a concrete block in his garage.

But none of this stopped a woman named Aura Elena Farfan when she first started looking into rumors of a secret grave at a place called Dos Erres. Aura looks like someone's grandmother. She's 72 years old with short, graying hair. In 1984, a member of her family was disappeared. Aura suspected the military was behind it, so she and her brother started looking into what happened.

Two months later, her brother vanished, too. So Aura started an organization to investigate and bring these kinds of cases to justice. And that's how she came across the massacre of Dos Erres.

Aura Farfan

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

At the beginning of 1994, we received reports of bones being found just on the surface of the Earth. And in addition, there were reports of a well.

Habiba Nosheen

The well, Aura heard, had bodies inside of it. It was in the jungle, located in what used to be the village of Dos Erres. In 1982, Dos Erres disappeared. One day, the residents were there. The next day, they were nowhere to be found.

When Aura heard about the bones, she put together a team of forensic anthropologists. She told my producer, Brian Reed, and me they trekked 7 and 1/2 miles into the jungle.

Aura Farfan

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

It was desolation. Overgrown weeds, trees, and bushes would cover us. We couldn't see each other. And because we couldn't see each other, just by whistling or yelling we would call on each other.

Brian Reed

Do you remember the moment that you saw the well?

Aura Farfan

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

I remember it. It was sunk. It sank one meter, or maybe more. It was three meters below. And then, this tree was growing in the well.

Habiba Nosheen

They began digging-- one meter, two meters, three meters. Nothing. Day after day, they went back to the well. They invited the local public prosecutor. He came by, looked into the well, told them they wouldn't find anything there but dog bones.

Finally, they hit four meters. A warning that the next minute or so gets very graphic and probably isn't suitable if you're listening with small children.

Translator

We were able to see the shirt of a small boy, the bones inside. And that made us think that all the inhabitants of Dos Erres were there.

Habiba Nosheen

So they kept digging. And they found more and more bones, more and more bodies, more and more clothing. They dug up shirts, shoes, hair pins, heart-shaped earrings, boots with silver spurs. In a video they shot at the time, one of the anthropologists stands at the bottom of the well. It's about 40 feet deep. She looks exhausted. There's a tiny skeleton at her feet.

Female Anthropologist

[SPEAKING SPANISH].

Habiba Nosheen

Just to think that they were thrown from that height into the well, she says, it's hard to even imagine it. It's hard to convince herself of these things. At the end of it all, they found at least 162 bodies plus lots of incomplete remains. 67 of the bodies were victims under 12 years old. Their average age was seven.

Aura and her team wanted to identify these bodies. So they took the remains to the center of the nearest town. They put them together as best they could into skeletons and laid them out. Alongside, they placed the clothing they found in the well next to the body they thought each piece belonged to. Then, they put out an invitation for the community to come and look.

There is video of this, all the bones and clothing spread out on a concrete floor. People filed by, taking it all in. Some of them recognized clothing worn by their relatives and friends from Dos Erres.

Female

[SPEAKING SPANISH]:

Habiba Nosheen

But only 10 people came forward to specifically identify relatives. Most were still afraid to admit they knew anyone who had disappeared from Dos Erres. People still remembered how, in 1982 right after the village vanished, family members went to the army commander in the nearest town and asked what happened. This commander, Lieutenant Carlos Antonio Carias, said the guerrillas were responsible. The guerrillas had killed or taken everyone.

But he also told family members that if they talked about the incident, even asked about it, they would die-- which just reinforced people's suspicions that the Army was probably behind it. So Aura put herself out there even more to try to get people to talk. She appeared on local media in the province they were in, Peten.

Aura Farfan

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

Each time that we visited in Peten, we took advantage of that moment to speak on the radio, to speak on the TV, to ask people that whoever knew something about Dos Erres to come forward.

Brian Reed

Why were you chuckling just then?

Aura Farfan

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

Because sometimes I think that I was too daring.

Aura Farfan

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

The life of Guatemalans doesn't cost a thing. It's not worth a thing. And just anything could have happened to us.

Habiba Nosheen

Aura was worried about how members of the military might react when they heard her announcements. But she never expected the reaction she got from this guy.

Favio Jerez

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

I heard this. And I looked at my little children playing. And I decided I'd do this so the same thing would not happen to them, as happened to the children in the massacre at Dos Erres.

Habiba Nosheen

Favio Pinzon Jerez is a former sergeant in the military. And after hearing Aura on the radio, he got on a bus and took the 12-hour ride to Guatemala City. He walked into the UN office and told them he knew what had happened at Dos Erres, because he had taken part in it. He did something no one soldier had ever done in Guatemala-- he confessed.

Aura went to see Favio in Peten. A UN official trailed her to make sure she was safe.

Aura Farfan

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

We went to his house. We knocked on the door. His children were playing nearby around a table. He says, "Come in, sit down." And so I told him, "I just come from the UN office. And they told me that you wanted to speak to me." He told me, "That's right. I wanted to talk to you because what I have right here, in my heart, I cannot stand it anymore. It's hurting me so much." That's how we talked for four hours. He told me everything that had happened.

Habiba Nosheen

The story Favio told Aura was deeply upsetting. For nearly 15 years, he'd kept it a secret even from his wife. He told Aura what he and other soldiers had done at Dos Erres.

Habiba Nosheen

Were you mad at him?

Aura Farfan

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

Of course I was. I didn't want to shake his hand.

Habiba Nosheen

Why did you not want to shake his hand?

Aura Farfan

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

Because I didn't. It wasn't in me to shake his hand.

Habiba Nosheen

After Favio confessed, he convinced another soldier to do the same-- to confess in exchange for immunity. This soldier's name is Cesar Franco Ibanez. They're both in hiding now. We met them secretly at a hotel.

The story they told us is disturbing. So again, if you have children with you, it's probably not appropriate for them. Also, if you're sensitive to violence, you may want to tune back in in about 15 minutes.

Favio joined the military when he was 18. His dad worked for the Air Force and got him a job, he says, because he had nothing else to do. He eventually became an Army cook. And in 1979, the Army assigned him to a place called The Schools of the Kaibiles. The Kaibiles are an elite special forces unit. They refer to themselves as killing machines.

The school is where they trained in jungle warfare, like how to jump out of planes and moving vehicles. As part of survival training, Favio says, they ate raw snake and dog. He saw people being tortured.

Favio says he tried to make it as a full-fledged Kaibil.

Favio Jerez

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

I just really only lasted about two weeks. My knees just couldn't take it.

Brian Reed

So that's when you went back to cooking?

Favio Jerez

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

Well actually, I spent a week sleeping. And then, I went back to cooking.

Habiba Nosheen

In 1982, the president of Guatemala, Efrain Rios Montt, formed a secret ops unit of all the instructors at the school. These soldiers were the elite of the elite. Favio was their cook. And their job was to deploy on urgent missions all over the country. One of those was to Dos Erres.

It was fall of that year, and the Army had just suffered a humiliating attack from the rebels. Several soldiers had been killed. So commanders called up the special unit. Cesar, the other solder we talked to, told us the story.

Unlike Favio, Cesar has the bearing of a soldier. He's serious, rarely smiles. They have the same interpreter.

Cesar Ibanez

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

They said that a unit from our brigade had been ambushed by the guerrillas, and they had taken 21 rifles.

Habiba Nosheen

At the time, the military was waging its scorched earth campaign where they destroy any village they suspected of helping guerrillas, even something as small as giving them some food. In this case, officers told the unit that guerrillas were keeping the rifles in Dos Erres.

Cesar Ibanez

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

And they told us that our mission was to recover the 21 rifles that had been taken. And so the plan was we'd go in in the dead of night for a surprise.

Habiba Nosheen

Their strategy was to pretend that they were guerrillas. That would make it easier to sneak in. It would also make it easier to later blame guerrillas for this attack.

So they disguised themselves. They wore green t-shirts, camouflage pants, and red arm bands. They rode in vegetable trucks that they car jacked off the highway. When they reached Dos Erres at 2:00 in the morning, they found a quiet, peaceful village. Too small, in fact, to even be a full village.

Residents were still asleep. They were mostly small time farmers who grew beans, corn, and pineapples. Though when the Kaibiles arrived, Cesar says, they expected something different.

Cesar Ibanez

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

Well, we were expecting that they were going to shoot at us because we thought that the people in Dos Erres were all communists. And so were expecting them to attack us. We were waiting for them to attack us with heavy armament. And it didn't happen. Nobody shot at us.

Habiba Nosheen

They split off into smaller groups, including an assault group of the fiercest soldiers. Cesar says these were the soldiers who were normally in charge of capturing prisoners, interrogating them, and killing them. Psychopaths, he called them.

Cesar Ibanez

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

This assault group was given the task of getting everybody out of their houses. They put the women and children in the church and the men in the school. And so when they had everyone together, some of the women at the church began to scream for help. And they were raping them. They didn't respect anyone.

Habiba Nosheen

Both soldiers, Cesar and Favio, say this was the moment when the mission turned from recovering rifles to something darker. It started with a lieutenant who grabbed a girl and raped her in front of her family. And because he was one of the highest ranking officers, other soldiers started doing it, too, throughout the day. Here's what Favio saw.

Favio Jerez

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

There was a girl about 12 years old. And a guy grabbed her by her hair and dragged her along. And there in the little field to the side, that's where he raped her.

Habiba Nosheen

One group of soldiers, including Cesar, was ordered to guard the perimeter of the village. People could enter, but no one could go out. Others, including Favio, were ordered to start bringing people from the church and the school to a nearby well.

Favio Jerez

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

The first massacre was of a baby. I heard crying. And I looked. And I saw Gilberto Jordan and Manuel Pop Sun carrying the baby. They threw the baby alive into the well. And that's the way the massacre began. The first were the children.

Habiba Nosheen

It was like an assembly line. One by one, soldiers grabbed villagers, blindfolded them, and dragged them to the edge of the well. Along the way, many of the women were raped. This is Cesar. He brought people to the well, too.

Cesar Ibanez

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

And as they were brought to the well, they were asked, "Where are the rifles?" They said nothing about rifles. And they were hit on the back of the head with a sledgehammer and thrown in the well.

Brian Reed

Did they ensure that they were killed before they were thrown in the well?

Cesar Ibanez

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

No. People fell into the well. Then, all of a sudden, they reacted. They screamed.

Brian Reed

How many people did you bring to the well? Did you bring to their death?

Cesar Ibanez

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

About 15, around 15.

Habiba Nosheen

Were you ever asked to kill anyone?

Cesar Ibanez

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

Yes, when I took the first person to the well, Lieutenant Rivera told me to throw the person in the well. He did it so that we'd all be implicated in what happened.

Brian Reed

What would have happened if you said no?

Cesar Ibanez

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

They would have killed us.

Habiba Nosheen

Incredibly, one person managed to escape from all this. He was 11 years old. His name is Salome Armando Hernandez. And he didn't live in Dos Erres. He and his brother showed up later in the morning to visit their uncle.

By sundown, the well was filled with bodies. And soldiers forced a group of women and children, including Salome, out of the church where they had been held, put them in a line, and led them to the forest. Some women carried their children. Some were pregnant. We talked to Salome in Guatemala City. He's 42 now.

Salome Hernandez

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

All the women were resisting. They didn't want to go. So the soldiers started pushing and beating them. I remember one of the women saying, "We're not dogs for you to kill us in the field. We know that you're going to kill us. Why don't you kill us right here?" That's when I decided to run.

Habiba Nosheen

Salome waited for a soldier to turn away. And then, he sprinted into the woods. He ducked behind a tree trunk and hid. The soldier fired a shot in his direction. He fired again. Salome didn't move.

Salome Hernandez

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

I was very scared. I was trembling. And then I saw them gathering the women. And they took several steps back. And they started firing, shooting the women. And you could hear all the women in mourning. They were screaming. And then you could still hear some of them wounded. But they were still alive. And after that, you could hear some solid shots like they were killing them one by one, the ones that were still alive.

Habiba Nosheen

At the end of it all, the entire village was wiped out. No rifles were ever found. Salome escaped. And according to Favio and Cesar, this patrol of killers spared just two other people, both young boys with light skin and green eyes. Three months later, the second in command of the squad that wiped out Dos Erres, Lieutenant Oscar Ramirez Ramos, showed up at his mother's house with a three-year-old boy and a fake birth certificate. He introduced him to his family as his son.

In 1996, the Dos Erres case landed on the desk of Sara Romero, the assistant prosecutor who contacted Oscar. She was a rookie, just a year out of law school. And she had almost no support from her own ministry. This is the same ministry that, at one point, had dismissed the remains at Dos Erres as dog bones. So the case wasn't exactly a priority for them. It was just Sara and one other colleague working it on their own. They had almost nothing to go on. They couldn't even prove the military was behind the massacre, never mind which unit of the military or which members in the unit.

So when Favio and Cesar came forward, it was an unprecedented break. Sara's office had to create a witness protection program specifically for the two of them, because before that they hadn't had any witnesses to protect.

Sara Romero

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

The next step was to confirm all the pieces of information that the Kaibil witnesses had given.

Habiba Nosheen

Remember, Sara was trying to do something that had never been done before in Guatemala. There hadn't been a single trial against members of the military for crimes they had committed during the war. So she knew if she was going to build a case that would win, she needed more evidence.

She didn't have names for most of the victims. So she poked around until she found a teacher who lived near Dos Erres who had taught some of the children from the village back in the '80s. Sara asked her to remember, as best she could, the names of her former students. Sara used those names to track down relatives.

Because of Favio and Cesar, Sara did have the names of the other Kaibiles who had been at the massacre. So she started tracking them down, too, which meant walking up to their doorsteps and confronting them face to face, including a Kaibil who took one of the green-eyed boys who was spared that day. The Kaibil's name was Santos Lopez Alonzo.

Sara Romero

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

I had never faced a Kaibil before. And because of the description that I had of the Kaibiles, I thought that he was going to be armed, and that if he knew that I knew something about Dos Erres he was going to shoot at me. Or perhaps he was going to capture us and torture us.

Brian Reed

Were you armed?

Sara Romero

No.

Brian Reed

Your colleague?

Sara Romero

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

No, he wasn't either. None of us was armed.

Habiba Nosheen

Sara and her partner had to leave their car on the road and walk through the woods to Lopez Alonzo's house. They told their driver to call the police if they didn't come back.

They approached the house. And there was Lopez Alonzo, lying in a hammock.

Sara Romero

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

When I saw him, I wasn't fearful at all.

Brian Reed

Why not?

Sara Romero

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

Because he looked like a campesino, like a peasant. He was just a simple person, a person without education and not as ferocious as I imagined him to be.

Habiba Nosheen

Lopez Alonzo was polite and invited them in. At first, he wouldn't talk about Dos Erres. Then, Sara told him that two soldiers from his squad had already come forward. And he started telling the truth. "My oldest son, Ramiro, has a sad story," he told them. And he confessed to taking him from Dos Erres.

When Sara tracked Ramiro down, he was serving in the military that had killed his family. The fact that he existed and that he was saved by one of the Kaibiles, and raised by one of the Kaibiles, made it nearly impossible for the Kaibiles to deny their involvement in the massacre.

At the same time, Sara started to look for the other boy who Favio and Cesar told her was spared. But it wasn't as easy. The soldier who allegedly took him was dead. That soldier's mother who supposedly raised the boy was also dead. The soldier's brother refused to talk. His sister was also reluctant, but told Sara that in 1983, he did indeed come home with a three-year-old boy. The boy was chubby with broken teeth. His name was Oscar.

After his grandma died, he'd moved to the US illegally. She told Sara she had no way to reach him. So Sara stopped looking for 10 years.

Ira Glass

Coming up, and the Oscar goes to-- where did he go to? That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. If you're just tuning in, we're devoting our entire program today to a massacre of a village in Guatemala called Dos Erres in 1982, and the attempt to bring the killers to justice, which took years. One of the ways that we know about what happened at Dos Erres is from secret cables that have been declassified that were sent back and forth between the United States embassy in Guatemala and Washington, D.C.

These cables show that back in 1981 and '82, embassy officials heard lots of reports about the Army massacring whole villages throughout Guatemala, which they dismissed until finally, in 1982, at the urging of the State Department back in Washington they got in a helicopter to see for themselves if the stories were true. And this is just a coincidence-- the site that they happened to investigate was Dos Erres.

They flew their helicopter low over the village. They saw the burned-out houses. They looked for but found no survivors. They landed in a nearby town where the mayor told them that the disappearance of every man, woman, and child from Dos Erres was simply a mystery. The United States concluded that the Guatemalan Army was responsible. But they kept this a secret, didn't discuss it publicly. And for years afterwards, the killings continued. And the US knew about it but stood by.

Before the break, you heard about how Sara Romero started her investigation, how she found one of the two boys who'd been taken from the village but couldn't find Oscar. She had enough evidence to start trying the case, though, and got arrest warrants for 17 members of the Army squad that was at Dos Erres. And then, nothing happened for nearly 10 years.

The soldiers filed motions and appeals and stalled the case before it ever got started in the Guatemalan court system. Finally, the Interamerican Court of Human Rights looked at what was going on and declared that these appeals were paralyzing justice and ordered Guatemala to bring the soldiers to trial. And that is where our story picks up, with Sara Romero still working on the case 13 years after she started it. Habiba Nosheen takes it from here.

Act Two.

Habiba Nosheen

Finally the case was moving forward, and the judge ordered the investigators to do a bunch of things including find Oscar, the green-eyed boy who had been abducted from Dos Erres who they still hadn't located. So Sara got back to work.

She traveled back up to Oscar's hometown where she'd gone looking for him 10 years before. Back then, Oscar's uncle had stonewalled her. He refused to tell her anything about his nephew.

This time, Sara squeezed a bit more out of him. He gave her two pieces of information-- that Oscar's girlfriend was from a nearby town and that her nickname was La Flaca, the skinny one. Sara went to the town, asked around about La Flaca, located her parents. And that's how she tracked down La Flaca and Oscar in Massachusetts and convinced Oscar to take a DNA test to see if he was actually a survivor from Dos Erres.

Fredy Peccerelli, the forensic scientist who was working the case, was excited at the prospect. Usually, he's dealing with dead bodies, people who've been assassinated or massacred.

Fredy Peccerelli

To actually be able to talk to one of the people that we're looking for is a privilege that I've never felt before.

Habiba Nosheen

In June, 2011, Fredy took a swab of Oscar's saliva, his DNA, back to Guatemala and ran a series of tests. One was against Ramiro, the other green-eyed boy who was taken from the massacre to see if Ramiro was Oscar's brother. They also tested Oscar's DNA against the DNA of other people who were related to the victims of Dos Erres.

On a Sunday night in August, Fredy called Oscar with the results.

Fredy Peccerelli

I said, you know, remember that test we did?

Oscar Ramirez

So at that point, I was a little bit nervous. You never know.

Fredy Peccerelli

And I told him that I had the news. The news is that Ramiro is not your brother.

Oscar Ramirez

He told me that we weren't brothers. I said, "I knew it! I knew that wasn't true!" He says, "Yes, but I haven't finished yet. You guys are not brothers. But we compared with other people's. And we found that you have a father." I said, "What are you talking about?" "It's your father. We found your father," he said. "And you are one of the survivors."

Fredy Peccerelli

I just told him. "Your father's not who you think he is. The guy who you think is your father is not your father. Your father is alive. His name is Tranquilino. And he's old, but he's alive."

Habiba Nosheen

Yes, that's right. Fredy's team matched Oscar to his biological father. And that biological father is alive. He survived. Aura found him as part of her ongoing search for anyone related to the victims of Dos Erres.

Tranquilino Castaneda

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

My name is Tranquilino Castaneda Valenzuela.

Habiba Nosheen

You hardly need a DNA test to know that Tranquilino is Oscar's dad. The resemblance is striking. Both have green eyes and curly hair. They're both thin. Tranquilino is 70, and he limps when he walks. When we met him, he wore a white cowboy hat and carried two machetes.

Tranquilino's pregnant wife was killed at Dos Erres, along with all of his children-- nine of them. Or so he thought.

For 30 years, he's lived alone in the jungle. He never remarried after the massacre, never had another child. And in the middle of our interview, Tranquilino interrupted with a request.

Tranquilino Castaneda

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

Can I give the name of my children?

Habiba Nosheen

Of course.

Tranquilino Castaneda

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

My first born was Esther Castaneda. Second one was Etelvina. Enma was the third. After that was Maribel. She was around 13 when she died. Then, it was Luz Antonio, part of my sons. Then, it was Cesar. Cesar was seven years old. Then, two other girls, Odilia and Rosalba.

Habiba Nosheen

Anyone else?

Tranquilino Castaneda

Si, Alfredo.

Habiba Nosheen

Alfredo was Oscar's given name.

Tranquilino was out of town when Dos Erres happened visiting relatives. When he learned about the massacre, that everyone including his wife and kids had been killed--

Tranquilino Castaneda

Ha, ha, ha. [SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

I got all crazy. I really can't put into words. But I felt like I was stupid, dumb. I really thought I was becoming mad.

Habiba Nosheen

Tranquilino told us that after that, he just couldn't sleep. He would stay up night after night patrolling his house. He says he started to lose his mind. He would forget simple things, like which turn to take to get to work. His head dropped constantly.

Tranquilino Castaneda

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

Listen, I started to drink. I was really, really deep into drinking. It was just really, really deep, because I was sad. I thought I could drown all my sorrows. But then I figure out that my sorrows could swim.

Habiba Nosheen

When I met Tranquilino, as soon as he leaned in to say hello, I could tell he'd been drinking. He told me it's still hard for him to talk about Dos Erres without a drink. After 20 minutes, he broke down and said he couldn't continue.

Fredy and Aura told us what it was like when they revealed the news to him that one of his children, his son Oscar, was still alive. They asked Tranquilino to come to Guatemala City. They needed to see him in person.

Fredy Peccerelli

Well, he hadn't been told because he's old. He's like 75. You want to be careful with how you deal with this information. So when he was told, I had a doctor standing by just in case he had a heart attack.

Brian Reed

Really?

Fredy Peccerelli

Oh, yeah. I was afraid that he might be too excited about it or something.

Aura Farfan

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

He was told that Oscar had been found, that a DNA test had been conducted, and that the results showed with 95% certainty that it was a match. And he would take his hat off, scratch his head, laugh, cry. He didn't know what to do, because he wouldn't believe us. He felt that all his children were dead.

Brian Reed

What was he saying?

Aura Farfan

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

"Incredible, incredible, incredible!"

Habiba Nosheen

Here's how Tranquilino remembers it. He has a different interpreter.

Tranquilino Castaneda

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

First when they told me, I wasn't happy. I was sad somehow, and then in a bit of a shock. And I remember that because they had to give me some hard liquor for me to come back to my senses, because I was in a bit of a shock.

Habiba Nosheen

If that wasn't enough to handle, there was more. One of the anthropologists walked in with a laptop. She turned on Skype. And there, on the screen, sitting in Massachusetts, was Oscar.

Tranquilino Castaneda

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

We were there talking. She pulled my chair. She put it next to her. She grabbed me hard. And then, she said, "Do you know the person, the young man on the screen?" And I said, "No, I don't know who that is." And then, she said, "It's your son." I said, "Not him." And then, I couldn't speak anymore. I couldn't speak anymore.

Oscar Ramirez

When we first see each other, he couldn't talk. He was just crying. And he said, "I can't talk."

Habiba Nosheen

Oscar just sat there looking at Tranquilino. He didn't know what to say. Oscar was just three when he was taken from Dos Erres. Seeing this man triggered nothing for him, no memories. The first thought that he had was that Tranquilino looked really old. It was hard to believe that this was his father. Then, Tranquilino spoke.

Oscar Ramirez

He said, "Alfredo." That was the first word that he said, "Alfredo." I said, "Yes, yes, I'm Alfredo."

Habiba Nosheen

That name was familiar to Oscar because it's his middle name. The lieutenant kept it for him. He also kept Oscar's original last name, which is Tranquilino's last name, Castaneda. So Oscar realized that his full name, Oscar Alfredo Ramirez Castaneda, is a combination of his biological dad's name and his Kaibil dad's name.

Tranquilino kept talking. He told Oscar that he was chubby as a kid, which was true. Oscar was chubby as a kid. Tranquilino told him he used to boss around his siblings even though they were older than him. To this day, Oscar says, that's still true. He is bossy. But the thing that really hit Oscar in the gut was something that was a mystery to him as a little kid.

Oscar Ramirez

He told me that I didn't have my teeth. And that was true. I didn't have my teeth for a long time.

Habiba Nosheen

Until he was eight or nine, he was missing a bunch of teeth. He says he looked like Dracula. Tranquilino told him his teeth had been rotten when he was young, so they had to pull them out.

Brian Reed

When he said that, what went off in your head?

Oscar Ramirez

Then I started to, you know-- suddenly, this is true. This is really happening.

Fredy Peccerelli

I was right there. I was on the screen with them.

Habiba Nosheen

Here's Fredy.

Fredy Peccerelli

We were all crying. There wasn't a person in that room that wasn't crying. Everybody-- I don't know. It was amazing. It was one of the most fulfilling things I've done in my life.

Habiba Nosheen

But the happy ending for Fredy and Aura and Sara didn't feel that way for Oscar. Oscar says it's hard to describe how he felt.

Oscar Ramirez

I don't even know what to tell you. I think blank. Like, what could I say? I was happy. I was more happy than sad. I didn't know what to think about it, you know what I mean? My mind was just blank.

Habiba Nosheen

The difficult thing for Oscar is that he really loves the family that raised him. He wasn't treated the way other children who were stolen from massacres were often treated. Ramiro, for instance, the other boy who was taken from Dos Erres, he was treated horribly growing up, beaten and used almost like a servant. But for Oscar, there's no one to easily hate. His whole life, he's looked up to Ramirez Ramos, the man he thought was his father.

Oscar Ramirez

I said it was very, very, very tough because he's still a hero for me.

Habiba Nosheen

Oscar never really knew Ramirez Ramos since he died when Oscar was so young. But growing up, he heard amazing things about him. His family praised the guy all the time, how he was the first in his class at military school, how he rose through the ranks and was able to pay for his siblings' education. In the end, Oscar's actually grateful to the lieutenant. He may have stolen Oscar, but he also saved him. Some 200 people were killed at Dos Erres-- infants, the elderly, all of Oscar's siblings, his pregnant mother. "Imagine being taken out of that pile," Oscar says. "Why me?"

We've tried to figure out why Oscar was taken. And the most plausible theory we've heard comes from Oscar's aunt. She told Sara that Ramirez Ramos wasn't married and he didn't have any children, and that his mother wanted a grand-kid. She kept asking him to give her one. So one day, he showed up saying, "This is my son. I had him with a woman I'm no longer with."

Habiba Nosheen

You had said to me last time we met that you wanted to know more about your dad.

Oscar Ramirez

Yes.

Habiba Nosheen

While my producer, Brian Reed, and I were reporting this story, Oscar asked us if we could find out more about Ramirez Ramos, this man who chose him. So we did.

Habiba Nosheen

We've talked to a lot of people. And different people have said different things. There's some good stuff. There's some descriptions. And there's some bad stuff. What do you want to know from what we've learned?

Oscar Ramirez

All of it.

Habiba Nosheen

You want to know everything?

Oscar Ramirez

I want to know it all, oh yeah. I want to know everything.

Brian Reed

The bad stuff, some of it is going to be upsetting.

Oscar Ramirez

That's OK. I want to know everything. It probably is not going to change the way that I think about him. But I want to know.

Habiba Nosheen

We told Oscar, sitting at his kitchen table. It was very difficult. Some of what Cesar and Favio said about Ramirez Ramos was positive. Soldiers looked up to him. They say they never saw him rape anyone.

In fact, Cesar said Ramirez Ramos was angry about the rapes at Dos Erres. He heard him tell another lieutenant, "This is an attack unit, not a rape unit." We asked them if they ever saw Ramirez Ramos kill anyone. Cesar said, "No, the lieutenant spent much of the massacre overseeing the operation from a tree trunk with the other commanders." But Favio said yes, he definitely saw Ramirez Ramos kill people at the well.

He said the lieutenant was actually showing soldiers how to use the sledgehammer to murder people. "It's easy to give a blow to the head," Favio heard Ramirez Ramos say as he was demonstrating. Favio says this happened while Cesar was away guarding the perimeter, so Cesar didn't see it.

We talked to a third person who knew Ramirez Ramos, a soldier who went to school with him and was stationed at a base with him before he became a Kaibil. The soldier said Ramirez Ramos had a reputation for being bloodthirsty, that he would dress as a civilian and go out in covert operations to capture people and torture them for intelligence.

Brian Reed

He called him "a crazy sadist," someone who took pleasure in hurting people. And that's basically what we've learned from the three people we talked to.

Oscar Ramirez

Obviously if you're in the army, at some point you ended up doing bad things, even if you don't want to. But killing, the killing, that's bad. But he wasn't bad with his family. He wasn't bad to me. He was my father for me. He was my father, you know?

Habiba Nosheen

In the summer of 2011, 16 years after Aura first found the bones in the well, a judge finally handed down a verdict in the case. Three Kaibiles and Lieutenant Carias, the local military commander who had threatened victims' families, were found guilty of murder during the Dos Erres massacre. The judge sentenced them to 6,060 years in prison-- 30 years for each confirmed victim, plus another 30 for crimes against humanity.

This was unprecedented. It was the first time any member of the military was put away for a massacre they had committed during the war. Two months ago, Sara Romero's prosecution team did it again. One of the soldiers who was at Dos Erres was found living in California. He was sent back to Guatemala and also sentenced to 6,060 years.

And even more incredible, just this week, the man who was the president of Guatemala during the massacre, Efrain Rios Montt, was indicted for genocide at Dos Erres. Now, there are half a dozen cases like Dos Erres moving forward in Guatemala. The climate in the country is changing. And some people worry about this new direction. First among them, this man.

Otto Perez Molina

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Habiba Nosheen

The president of Guatemala, Otto Perez Molina. He took office five months ago. During the war, he did counter-insurgency. At one point, he was director of military intelligence. He also headed the School of the Kaibiles for a while. When Perez Molina was elected, there was concern that he might put an end to the Dos Erres case and investigations like it.

He hasn't. He's letting them move forward. There's a lot of international pressure for him to do that. It's a precondition for the US to resume military aid.

But at the same time, he says publicly that seeking justice for crimes of the past is not the best way for Guatemala to move on. He told us that 16 years ago the Guatemalan Congress granted amnesty to most people who committed crimes during the war, so the war wouldn't continue in courts. He says trying these cases is counterproductive to reconciliation. It just stirs bad blood.

Otto Perez Molina

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

Emblematic cases like Dos Erres should be known. But it's not the path or the route that Guatemala should follow. We Guatemalans should be able, on both sides, for the benefit, for the sake of the future generations, to find forgiveness and to look forward without stumbling upon the past at every moment.

Habiba Nosheen

People involved in these cases are amazed at the changes now happening in Guatemala. And if you look back at Dos Erres, the Kaibiles made a few mistakes that allowed that case to be the first one of its kind-- mistakes that came back to haunt them 30 years later.

They let an 11-year-old escape, Salome, who testified against them. They abducted two boys, who later became living evidence linking specific soldiers in that unit back to Dos Erres. And probably the biggest mistake, they brought along a weak link, a guy who hadn't gone through all the intense Kaibil training, a cook who had flunked out and who, years later, couldn't stand the guilt and cracked.

Without Favio, there would be no case. He and Cesar are still in witness protection.

As for Oscar, this coming Monday, he's doing something he almost never does-- he's taking the day off from work. He's got plans.

Oscar Ramirez

Next Monday, yes. Next Monday's going to be a big day for me. My father is coming over to the USA.

Habiba Nosheen

Tranquilino is getting on a plane with Fredy and Aura to come see Oscar for the first time since they were separated at Dos Erres.

Habiba Nosheen

Are you nervous?

Oscar Ramirez

Yes.

Habiba Nosheen

It's fair for Oscar to be nervous. His dad's visa allows him to stay with him for six months. There is a lot to talk about. Oscar has questions for Tranquilino. He wants to know what his mom looked like. He wants to hear about all his eight brothers and sisters. He talks to Tranquilino almost every day on the phone. But he still hasn't asked him any of that stuff. He doesn't even know basic things about his old life, like if he was the youngest of all the kids.

And there will probably be challenges. Tranquilino is old. He's never left Guatemala. He still drinks. Oscar works 80 hours a week, and his wife has four kids to take care of. They live in a two-bedroom house. But amazingly, Oscar's not focusing on that.

Oscar Ramirez

I'm so happy to have him over. Everybody's so happy. So all that we need is a little bit more space.

Habiba Nosheen

Where's he going to sleep?

Oscar Ramirez

In my bed, I guess. Maybe the couch.

Brian Reed

You're going to give him your bed?

Oscar Ramirez

Of course, yes.

Habiba Nosheen

Where are you going to sleep?

Oscar Ramirez

The couch, maybe, or on the carpet. We have missed so much time. So we have a lot of time to spend together. We have to spend together a lot of time.

Ira Glass

Habiba Nosheen, and Brian Reed, and their co-reporters for this story, Ana Arana and Sebastian Rotella, have a slide show and an even more detailed ebook version of this story at propublica.org. The ebook's also available at Amazon and at iBooks. It's called Finding Oscar. The story is also running in Spanish in a bunch of publications in Guatemala and throughout Latin America. There are links to all that stuff at our website, thisamericanlife.org.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program and our story about Guatemala were produced today by Brian Reed with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sarah Koenig, Jonathan Menjivar, Lisa Pollock, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer's Julie Snyder. Annie Correal helped with research and translations. Seth Lind is our production manager. Emily Condon's our office manager. Production help from Matt Kilty. Music help from Damien Gray and Rob Geddis.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who stopped begging during the pledge drive so soon after he started.

Favio Jerez

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

I just really only lasted about two weeks. My knees just couldn't take it.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.