Juan Manuel Geronimo, Witness

We spent the night in Rabinal, a town where many of the indigenous people who moved from the valley we had just visited lived in grim poverty, still waiting for the government to live up to the promises.

The next day, we looked forward to meeting Juan Manuel Geronimo, President of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation, a UUSC partner. The organization was formed to help Mayan victims of the massacres and displacements pursue justice through the courts.

Charlie Clements has known Juan Manuel for years and prepared us at breakfast for our meeting. After 25 years of unrelenting work in a hostile environment, Juan Manuel and the others have recently been winning human rights cases in international courts.

Juan Manuel Geronimo

With this introduction, I expected a man larger than life, a man of righteous power. He was late and we were preparing to leave when an unassuming stocky man approached us in a green uniform shirt with a patch that read, “Monmouth County Highway Department”. A woman and girl in colorful indigenous clothing followed him. His face lit up when he spotted Charlie and they grabbed each other in a happy embrace.

We disembarked and arranged benches for our meeting in the courtyard of our motel, the only one in Rabinal. Charlie told us he had not met Juan Manuel’s new wife, who was another survivor, or his youngest daughter. I wondered if traveling with them meant his life was in less danger than Charlie had described. I hoped the large knife that dangled at his waist in a leather scabbard was a small machete for farm work and not for protection.

We settled on the benches surrounded by the rose-colored walls of the courtyard of our hotel, damp sheets flapping on lines overhead. Charlie asked him open ended questions, giving him the option to tell us what felt comfortable to him.

He told us his tragic story, a story Charlie had not heard from him with such candor.

He and another man had been warned that they were targets of the militia for their work as lay Catholic leaders. They had fled for safety to the hills near their village.

He choked on the next sentence. His face flushed. After a moment, he took a deep breath and continued. From the safety of the hills, he watched while his wife, his four children, 17 other family members and their neighbors were surprised by the killers. He watched as they ran from blazing guns and fell in bloody heaps. He watched as the girls were raped and he watched as the few men who were still alive dug graves at gunpoint and then joined the others in death.

Two hundred and fifty men, women and children of Plan de Sanchez died that day.

He paused again and wept. My own eyes overflowed at his anguish. I had to remind myself that telling his story to us is part of his healing process. I wondered how many times it will take.

Juan Manuel Geronimo wiped his eyes with his calloused finger and turned to his ten year old daughter. He put his hand on her shoulder and said sadly, “She is the age of my oldest then. She looks so much like them.”

Someone asked him, with all the violence, how does he keep going?

He told us that two nights before the massacre, while he slept in the hills, he had a dream. He was in a church. A priest had a list. It contained the names of the people in his village but not his own. He asked the priest to put his name on the list but he was refused. He begged him, but was again refused. Two women stood on either side of him. Were they angels? One of them said to him, You have work to do. He didn’t understand what it meant until the massacre. Then he knew.

Juan Manuel and His Family

I was moved by his story and upset, yet I didn’t see anger or bitterness in his deeply lined face.

As Juan Manuel and his family stood to leave, someone in our group asked to take their picture. Wait, he said. He drew his daughter from behind and placed her in the center of the family portrait. He inched toward her mother and looked at the camera with a proud smile. Ready.


Juan Manuel Geronimo and other witnesses were coached by the largest human rights organization in Guatemala, CALDH, in order to travel to Costa Rica and testify before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the case against the banks and the Guatemalan government. The court only takes cases for which the plaintiffs can prove that justice cannot be found in national courts. After returning to Guatemala, Juan Manuel Geronimo received death threats and intimidation requiring him to be accompanied for months by someone day and night.

To comply with the court-ordered payments of just and fair compensation, The Vice President of Guatemala, accompanied by other dignitaries and a flock of media people, traveled to Plan de Sanchez. Among the observers in new roles were some of the same men responsible for the massacre. The V.P. was in a hurry to finish the photo op and leave, but Juan Manuel Geronimo refused to take part in the ceremony until the children of the village were allowed to a re-enact the carnage. No one must be allowed to forget. It meant risking his family’s compensation but he knew the government had a lot at stake as well. The Guatemalan government wanted to shake off the perception of corruption in the eyes of the world. It was bad for business.

After the gritty stand-off, the Vice President assented to the re-enactment. With stony faces, they watched as children of the survivors took the place of the villagers, the civil patrol and the military and became those people, running, chasing, screaming and collapsing as if in death.

Not all the families of Plan de Sanchez have received payments and only one captain in the militia, responsible for the deaths of at least 5,000 Mayans, has been indicted. He has not been arrested. Justice is slow, but we understand from Charlie that while the people need services and money, their greater need is to regain their lost sense of community.

Monument to the Dead

Most of the massacres occurred in the rural areas of Guatemala where indigenous people defended their land from the government and the military. During the time of violence the villagers were called rebels, guerrillas and Communists but they were mostly indigenous people defending their families. A village even suspected of harboring guerillas was a target. A name mentioned in a conversation with powerful people would seal someone’s fate.

Diabolically, the military set neighbor against neighbor by kidnapping village men and giving them a cruel choice: kill who we tell you or we will kill you. Those who refused are among the ones being exhumed.

The ones who complied were called the Civil Self-Defense Patrol (PAC). Some no doubt took advantage of their sudden power to accuse a neighbor for a choice piece of land or to extract vengeance for an old quarrel. There was no need for evidence or proof and they killed with impunity.

There were no communications where most of the killings occurred and journalists like Irma Flaquer, who dared write about the atrocities, disappeared. Rumors were quashed. The world did not respond.

A previous administration rewarded the ex-members of the civil patrol for their service to the country years ago. The men and the government denied their mutual responsibilities for the massacres. Even so, the compassion of the survivors for their neighbors who made the choice to kill and live is astonishing. They are pushing for a change in the laws to take into consideration the coercion used at the time the horrible choice was made. They want the guilty men to admit what they did and repent. Helping to pass this law will be a test of the commitment to justice of the current government.