Ascent and descent to the Tower of the Courts

Accused on the stairs of the tower, they wait to be heard.

On July 29, 1982, 25 people were murdered in El Rancho Bejuco, in the district of Pacoj, Santa Cruz El Chol, region of Quebranto Verapaz. 80% were girls and boys. Newborns not yet registered are not included in this number. The names of the missing, whose bones have not yet been found, do not appear in this number. Some women are not known to have been pregnant.

Only five people from the small town, who were not there at the time of the executions, survived this carnage.

The crime took place under the government of Military Efraín Ríos Montt. Colonel Juan Ovalle Salazar led the operation. Under his command were nine members of the civilian self-defense patrols and military commissars.

Many minors and women were raped.

One by one, these people were driven from their homes. One by one, these twenty-five people were killed. And one by one they threw their bodies into a hole the patrolmen had dug in the ground. To verify that none of them survived, grenades were thrown at them.

It is half past ten in the morning this Thursday, May 26, 2022. Almost forty years ago. In room number 7 of the Old Danger audit office on Highway 14 of Guatemala City’s Honesty Tower, five handcuffed ex-patrol members await their first hearing. Some of them fall asleep intermittently. They lowered the person. You are about eighty years old. They barely notice the presence of your shoes. The process is delayed. Four more will follow. They come from the Pavón prison, where there was a smoothing tomorrow.

Accused on the stairs of the tower, they wait to be heard. Sandra Sebastian

When they appear, only one of these men has his lanterns hanging. It annoys him that they take pictures of him. Greet your arrival by raising your chin. He walks with his head held high in black Sketchers sneakers. It could be any retiree from anywhere in the world. It carries the benefactor in structure and is the only one who is not bound. It’s Colonel Ovalle Salazar, the soldier who was at Rancho Bejuco.

Outside, behind the nine prison police who accompany them – one for each defendant – and who discuss near a window, the storm bursts on the city of Guatemala.

The hearing starts two hours later than scheduled. The agreement is part of the transitional honesty process in which Guatemala is investigating to respond to a warrant of serious and widespread human rights violations.

The magistrate authorizes the officers to remove the men’s handcuffs. A woman sits between two of the defendants to translate from Spanish to Maya Achí in case they need to understand a little. No one will speak. The first hearing called was suspended because one of the former patrol officers had hearing problems. “To suggest that they are old, for what they are condemned, is to start victimizing the victims again,” says lawyer Lucía Xiloj, a Maya Quiché.

The men have been jailed since February 2022 for homicide and crimes against humanity. In the forty years since death, these men have evolved; with life ahead, with band and work ahead, trying to forget that they were once some kind of monster and killed 25 people. Finally, the hearing is postponed again. They will be summoned on June 3 to risk whether or not they are connected to the case.


Fourteen levels below, in the same tower of the courts, dozens of meters below, hundreds of lawyers in light suits and dark shirts below, under piles of files and files, from the fatigue of those who were at the doors of the courtrooms, police rooms, Beneath all this immense and precarious regulatory ecosystem, around twenty stroll through one of the chicken coops where the accused await their hearing. He looks like a tiger in a dungeon. He lies on his side, gets up, then walks from one end of the cell to the other. He approaches the fence and says he belongs to MS13, the Mara Salvatrucha. Between Mara Salvatrucha and Morería 18, these gangs are estimated to have an army of 15,000 to 20,000 members operating in a country of nearly 18 million people.

An assistant descends into the basement of the tower with a document.An assistant goes down to the basement of the tower with a document Sandra Sebastián

The kid says he’s been in Pavoncito’s dungeon for two years, one of the toughest in the country. She wears a string of green plastic beads around her neck, not a tattoo. “We don’t get tattoos anymore,” he says. He wears an oversized stark white FNC shirt and baggy pants. He does not answer why he was arrested. It doesn’t count, he said. He doesn’t even say that this cell, isolated from the others, is reserved for people accused of murder.

At this moment another girl, who appears to be no more than fourteen years old although she must be a theater dean to be there, is taken out of the dungeons, searched by a policeman and made available for prosecution. Another later walks through a hallway guarded by an agent. He wears blue jeans ripped to the waist and an open cerulean hospital suit, and is bleeding from his temple and chest.

The prisons where the prisoners are waiting are in the basement, on the edge of the parking lot, in the dark. All of Guatemala knows this clandestine: it was broadcast every day on television, broadcasting the entries and expectations of those accused of corruption.

This enormous 1972 behemoth, which will be completed as an annex to the Palace of Equity, saw Ríos Montt enter theaters and broadcast around the world a few years ago, lying on a stretcher and wearing huge glasses of Sun. It was going to be noticeable from the murder of 1,771 unarmed natives of the Ixil area. Ríos Montt, one of Latin America’s bloodiest soldiers, died with impunity at the age of 91, enjoying the honesty he denied his victims in life.

In 2020, 660 people were charged with corruption in this tower, with the support of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, and more than 400 of them were convicted. Many of them are the same ones who were once allies of those ancient armies. Today, most trials involve gang members charged with homicide, disorder, drug trafficking, arms trafficking, robbery, or assault. Exception children of the same system.


A people’s knowledge of the history of its oppression is part of its heritage. The dictators of the 20th century continue to sleep at dawn. Guilty but unpunished. Unpacked.

Blackboard in courtrooms.Blackboard in courtrooms Sandra Sebastián

Everyone leaves behind the same thing: millions of bones buried underground, open mouths that no longer speak of absence, women buried with a child’s rattle in their skirt pocket, tedious trials that rarely end tight, white glove thieves, fringes of children who will never be the center of grief, stories that will not go down in history.

What to do when there is no procedural truth. While historical truth does not exist if neither collective truth nor individual truth is reached. Because the truth, if it is not sought and insisted upon, like the rights that every people wins, can one day be lost forever, just as peace can be lost one day.

With its precarious operations, its filthy basement, despite the open contestation of criminal networks and senior officials of the system against officials dedicated to the fight against impunity for corruption and organized crime, despite its Jurassic movement, the Tower is a shared memory trade.

Those who until now have lived with impunity, with a history of homicide or delinquency behind them, come to his apartments. That’s more than others can claim.

The fourteen floors of the Torre de los Tribunales cross Guatemala’s conflict with itself, from the top floor to its dark root that sinks into the humidity of its basement. Here their strata intertwine and form an ongoing story that the investigation understands, erased and unhappy.

victims and executioners. Order and chaos. This building contains part of the pulse of this continuous presence of which we are all a part.

One of the tower cells.One of the cells in the Sandra Sebastián Tower

Guatemala, May 2022

This chronicle is part of the Cuenta Centroamérica program, in which three Ibero-American writers, participants in the Centroamérica Cuenta 2022 Festival, have written about emblematic places and characters in Guatemala City.

All civilization to your measure lingers here.

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