In 1954, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama hired as its pastor a 25-year-old fresh out of Boston University’s doctoral program.
In his memoir, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. remembered his entry to civil rights activism in Montgomery. One of his first steps was setting up a Social and Political Action Committee for his church, prominently emphasizing voter registration.
But his next engaged a major death penalty case that haunted Montgomery throughout the 1950s.
After having started the program of the church on its way, I joined the local branch of the NAACP and began to take an active interest in implementing its program in the community itself. Besides raising money through my church, I made several speeches for the NAACP in Montgomery and elsewhere. Less than a year after I joined the branch I was elected to the executive committee. By attending most of the monthly meetings I was brought face to face with some of the racial problems that plagued the community, especially those involving the courts.
Before my arrival in Montgomery, and for several years after, most of the NAACP’s energies and funds were devoted to the defense of Jeremiah Reeves. Reeves, a drummer in a Negro band, had been arrested at the age of sixteen, accused of raping a white woman. One of the authorities had led him to the death chamber, threatening that if he did not confess at once he would burn there later. His confession, extracted under this duress, was later retracted, and for the remaining seven years that his case, and his life, dragged on, he continued to deny not only the charge of rape but the accusation of having had sexual relations at all with his white accuser.
The NAACP hired the lawyers and raised the money for Reeve’s defense. In the local court he was found guilty and condemned to death. The conviction was upheld in a series of appeals through the Alabama courts. The case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court on two occasions. The first time, the Court reversed the decision and turned it back to thes tate supreme court for rehearing. The second time, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case but later dismissed it, thus leaving the Alabama court free to electrocute. After the failure of a final appeal to the governor to commute the sentence, the police officials kept their promise. On March 28, 1958, Reeves was electrocuted.
The Reeves case was typical of the unequal justice of Southern courts. In the years that he sat in jail, several white men in Alabama had also been charged with rape; but their accusers were Negro girls. They were seldom arrested; if arrested, they were soon released by the grand jury; none was ever brought to trial. For good reason the Negroes of the South had learned to fear and mistrust the white man’s justice.
A Montgomery native, she was a classmate of Reeves at Montgomery’s segregated Booker T. Washington High School.
On March 2, 1955, Colvin boarded a city bus in front of King’s church on her way back from school, and plopped herself down in the middle of it. As the bus meandered on its route, it began to fill up. Montgomery’s segregated-bus rules at the time reserved a few rows up front for whites, and opened the middle rows for blacks … but only until the white rows overflowed, at which point black riders in the midsection were expected to give up their seats.
Colvin refused to do it.
She furiously argued with the police summoned by the bus driver, invoking her constitutional rights.
When they arrested her, she didn’t do nonviolent resistance: she fought back.
“Other kids got home and told Mama what happened,” Colvin remembered. “She already knew how hurt I was about Jeremiah Reeves. She knew this wasn’t a one-day thing. This was a rebellious time that started with Jeremiah … I just couldn’t get over Jeremiah being framed.”
Colvin’s spur-of-the-moment act of civil disobedience predated the more famous refusal of Rosa Parks by nine months. (Colvin’s parents knew Rosa Parks, and Parks was an advisor to the NAACP Youth Council, which Colvin was involved in.)
Montgomery civil rights leaders were already looking for a test case to mount a challenge against Montgomery buses’ racial ridership rules. Colvin was considered for the part, but ultimately Montgomery’s leaders took a pass on the case: she was an angry teenager, very dark-skinned, and from a working-class family; moreover, she soon became pregnant by an older, married man whom Colvin refused to name. Nevertheless, her name, and her act, became well-known in Montgomery and nationwide. The first pamphlets about Parks’s arrest reference Colvin as the well-known precedent.
And Colvin was one of four plaintiffs in the federal suit that forced desegregation in Montgomery.
Claudette Colvin’s refusenik notoriety made it so difficult for her to work in Montgomery that she moved to New York in 1958 — the same year her schoolmate was finally electrocuted for that supposed rape.
Days after Reeves died in Alabama’s electric chair, an Easter rally assembled on the lawn of that state’s capitol building to protest the execution — and gird for the struggles still to come.
We assemble here this afternoon on the steps of this beautiful capitol building in an act of public repentance for our community for committing a tragic and unsavory injustice. A young man, Jeremiah Reeves, who was little more than a child when he was first arrested, died in the electric chair for the charge of rape. Whether or not he was guilty of this crime is a question that none of us can answer. But the issue before us now is not the innocence or guilt of Jeremiah Reeves. Even if he were guilty, it is the severity and inequality of the penalty that constitutes the injustice. Full grown white men committing comparable crimes against Negro girls are rare ever punished, and are never given the death penalty or even a life sentence. It was the severity of Jeremiah Reeves’s penalty that aroused the Negro community, not the question of his guilt or innocence.
But not only are we here to repent for the sin committed against Jeremiah Reeves, but we are also here to repent for the constant miscarriage of justice that we confront every day in our courts. The death of Jeremiah Reeves is only the precipitating factor for our protest, not the causal factor. The causal factor lies deep down in the dark and dreary past of our oppression. The death of Jeremiah Reeves is but one incident, yes a tragic incident, in the long and desolate night of our court injustice.
Let us go away devoid of biterness, and with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive. I hope that in recognizing the necessity for struggle and suffering, we will make of it a virtue. If only to save ourselves from bitterness, we need vision to see the ordeals of this generation as the opportunity to transfigure ourselves and American society … Truth may be crucified and justice buried, but one day they will rise again. We must live and face death if necessary with that hope.
-Martin Luther King, ““Statement Delivered at the Prayer Pilgrimage Protesting the Electrocution of Jeremiah Reeves” (pdf transcription)
* Parks would say that she had been thinking on the occasion of her refusal of that summer’s murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi.
On this date in 1819, 16-year-old Hannah Bocking was hanged outside the Derby Gaol for murdering a friend with an arsenic-laced spice cake. She appears to be the youngest girl executed in 19th century England.
Bocking had been turned down for a household servant’s position on account of “her unamiable temper and disposition,” but her friend Jane Grant had been hired.
Instead of tightening up her job-interview game, the seething Bocking plotted her revenge on Jane, with whom she maintained a feigned comity. One day while out for a walk past the clanking remains of Anthony Lingard, who had been hanged four years before and left on display to strike terror into the hearts of malefactors, the un-deterred Bocking gave Jane her little pastry. Jane ate it, and died in agony, but not so much agony that she wasn’t able to tell what happened.
It was an easy conviction, and the sentence executed just four days later. Still, “at the moment, when she [Hannah Bocking] was launched into eternity,” one observer reported, “an involuntary shuddering pervaded the assembled crowd, and although she excited little sympathy, a general feeling of horror was expressed that one so young should have been so guilty, and so insensible.”
Hannah Bocking, though of so young an age, appears to have had a mind greatly darkened and depraved, for it seems that she was instigated to the dreadful crime that she committed, solely from envy and hatred to the young woman (Jane Grant) because she lived in the family of her Grandfather-in-law, as servant, where she had herself formerly lived, and been turned away.
She procured arsnic [sic] at a surgeon’s in the neighbourhood, by saying, that it was for her Grandfather, for the purpose of killing Rats, and she prevailed on a young man to go with her, saying, that they would not sell it alone to her.
This mortal poison she put into a spice cake, and gave it the young woman, who thanked her, and unsuspectedly eat it, but was soon after seized with dreadful pains and agonies. In her illness she was attended by her relations, and being about to expire, her dying declaration was taken, that the cake she had eaten was the cause of the torments she suffered, which dying declaration was produced at the trial, and which, connected with other strong circumstances, was satisfactory to the minds of the jury and to every person in court.
So senseless and hardened in sin was this wretched creature, that she shewed no signs of remorse, nor appeared at all sensible of her awful situation when he solemn sentence of death was passed on her by the Learned Judge, but it seems that she felt severely afterwards on her return in the Caravan to the Gaol she shed many bitter tears, and continued crying for hours.
It was in this situation that she confessed her crime to a Lady, distinguished for her humanity; and entirely cleared her Brother and Sister in law from any participation in her crime. She declared that she alone was guilty.
On the Jury returning their verdict of Guilty, the learned Judge rose and passed sentence of death upon her, that her body should be given to the surgeons to be dissected and anatomized; at the same time most solemnly expatiating upon the enormity of the unnatural crime she had committed, and the horrid light she must appear before her divine Maker, recommending a sincere repentance and a full confession of her guilt.
Since her condemnation she has been attended by the Chaplain of the Gaol, and the Rev. Mr. Leech and others; and we hope their instructions have proved beneficial to her soul Between twelve and one o’clock she was brought in front of the county Gaol, and having spent a shot time in prayer, she was launched into eternity, amidst a vast concourse of spectators, a dreadful example for all such as indulge the sin of envy, hatred, or malice. From envy, hatred, and malice may the Lord in his grace deliver us. Amen.
Sin has a thousand treach’rous arts,
To practice on the mind;
With flatt’ring looks she tempts our hearts,
BUt leaves a sting behind.
With names of virtue she deceives
The aged and the young;
And while the heedless wretch believes,
She makes his fetters strong.
She pleads for all the joys she brings,
And gives a fair pretence;
But cheats the soul of heav’nly things,
And chains it down to sense.
Thanks to Aaron Molyneux for the guestpost. It’s just an excerpt of a much more detailed treatment Molyneux first made of this case on PrisonVoices.org. I’ve made a handful of minor edits to compress this excerpt, and added or moved some links. -ed.
On Wednesday the 14th of January 1789 Mary Wade stood in court at the age of just 11 years old and received the verdict that her life was to be cut short. For the robbery of one cotton frock, a linen tippet and a linen cap she was found guilty and sentenced to hang. Judged to have committed an adult’s crime, she would face an adult’s punishment.
Although in modern Britain theft may seem a quite unremarkable crime, in Mary Wade’s age robbery was dealt with by extreme punishment. The court suggested that Mary’s theft was equal to “holding a pistol to the breast of a grown person”. Whether or not Mary Wade was aware of the hard-lined punishments given to those who stole remains unknown but having committed a very similar crime at the age of eight, only to get away with it because of her young age, she did know it was a crime and therefore it would seem that there was an air of desperation about Mary’s actions.
Sentenced to die by hanging Mary was taken away from her mother and marched out of the Old Bailey. For a girl of Mary’s age this situation must’ve been a frightening ordeal. Being sent to Newgate prison was not for the faint hearted. It was a vile place deemed so unhealthy that Physicians often refused to go in. By the time Mary entered, Newgate was London’s main jail and Mary joined many others waiting to be hanged before huge crowds outside the prison doors. Arriving in irons Mary would have been faced with open sewage, disease and lack of water. It would be a shock to the system for anybody never mind an eleven year old girl. If those entering had enough money they would enter the Master’s side or the press yard where they would have beds, heat and have their irons removed. But those who could not afford would be thrown into the Common Felons side. These would go without bedding or proper clothing and be forced to slum in the overcrowded, rat-infested cells. Mary almost certainly would have been with the fellow women convicts in the Common Felons side.
More than likely alone, vulnerable and scared Mary would spent a total of ninety three days waiting to be marched out in front of the baying crowds which gathered outside the prison walls to watch convicts hang for their crimes. Ninety three days in which she would wait for her death.
Then, on the 16th of March 1789, in celebration of King George III‘s recovery from madness, Mary Wade’s death sentence was respited along with all other condemned women. Instead of hanging, she would be transported to New South Wales on the convict ship Lady Juliana.
This date in 1865, just weeks before the final collapse of the Confederacy, a slave named Amy was hanged on a sycamore tree before the courthouse of Darlingon, S.C., for anticipating her liberty a little too exuberantly.
In early March, Union Cavalry appeared in Darlington. Our 17-year-old principal, the domestic of a local lawyer named A.C. Spain,* exulted at this arrival.
“Bless the Lord, the Yankees have come!” Harper’s Weekly** would later report her to have exclaimed.
The long night of darkness which had bound her in slavery was about to break away. It was impossible to repress the exuberance of her feelings; and although powerless to aid the advancing deliverers of her caste, or to injure her oppressors, the simple expression of satisfaction at the event sealed her doom.
But the Union men were not long for the town. It was just a scout party; constrained by strategic objectives, and hindered by swollen early-spring rivers, the main body of Union forces passed Darlington by.
Anticipating an occupation that was not about to occur, Amy recklessly declared herself free and took some of the Spain household’s possessions — the fruit of her own involuntary labor. Whatever her exact actions in those days, they were frightfully punished — over the objection of A.C. Spain himself, who reportedly served as her advocate at the rebel military trial that condemned her.
Her persecutors will pass away and be forgotten, but Amy Spain’s name is now hallowed among the Africans, who, emancipated and free, dare, with the starry folds of the flag of the free floating over them, speak her name with holy reverence.
* Spain was also a Confederate commissioner to Arkansas at the start of the Civil War, in which capacity he successfully urged Arkansas into the rebel camp.
You recall the time when the Jesus Indians of the Delawares lived near the Americans, and had confidence in their promises of friendship, and thought they were secure, yet the Americans murdered all the men, women, and children, even as they prayed to Jesus?
This incident during the American Revolution took place in the Ohio River basin, a vast and fertile flashpoint whose part in not only the revolution but the antecedent French and Indian War perhaps entitles it to claim the midwifery of the coming American empire.
After victory in the French and Indian War, the British closed the area west of the Appalachian mountains to European settlement. This proclamation:
Made good a wartime pact Britain had made to secure the support of the Iroquois, Lenape (Delaware) and Shawnee tribes; and
Trailed facts on the ground the moment it was issued.
European settlements and land claims already existed in the supposed Indian Reserve, and land-hungry settlers did not let the supposed frontier deter them from advancing new ones. Confrontations between these arriving claimants and the native inhabitants not infrequently came to atrocious resolutions.
By 1768, a new treaty pushed the line further west, effectively ceding to the colonists everything south of the Ohio River — present-day Kentucky and West Virginia.*
Map of the disputed area: the frontier moved from the yellow line along the Applachians to the orange line along the Ohio.
Ohio Country, the remaining territory in dark green shading north of the Ohio River, lay at the time of the American Revolution between the British garrison at Fort Detroit and colonial outposts along the nascent United States’s western marches, such as Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh).
The Lenape Indians in Ohio Country had a difficult calculation to make as to which side (if any) and how to support during the British-American fighting. The question split the Lenape internally.
In this cauldron, a strange morsel: Lenape who were Moravian** Christian converts had established a little missionary village. “Gnadenhutten” literally means “huts of grace”.
As one might imagine, Gnadenhutten and its sister settlements of pacifistic, Christian Lenape stood in a terribly ambiguous position in the brutal irregular war going on around them. Their fellow Lenape distrusted them because they were Christians; their fellow Christians, because they were Lenape.
Suspected by the British of being friendly enough with the American colonists to pass intelligence to their eventual murderers, these converts were in 1781 forced out of Gnadenhutten by British-allied Lenape to a new settlement aptly named “Captive Town”.
Starving there in the ensuing winter, the Moravians dispatched nearly 100 of their number back to Gnadenhutten to retrieve food abandoned at that settlement.
The Moravians were still at their village when a raiding party of Pennsylvanians descended on the town. Under no authority but the militiamen’s own festering grievances from the ongoing dirty war, the Pennsylvanians rounded up the Delaware and heartlessly declared their deaths.
Here were Indians who would pay for the violence Indians had done. And they were the best kind: the kind who didn’t fight back.
After spending a night praying and preparing for the end, the Moravian Lenape were systematically butchered on the morning of March 8† with mallet blows and scalpings.
Depending on your source, there were either 90 or 96 scalps to take that morning – women, men, and children in nearly equal proportions. At least one young boy survived the death squad and reported the massacre. Nor were all the militia themselves at peace with their deed.
one Nathan Rollins & brother had had a father & uncle killed took the lead in murdering the Indians, & Williamson was opposed to it; & Nathan Rollins had tomahawked nineteen of the poor Moravians, & after it was over he sat down & cried, & said it was no satisfaction for the loss of his father & uncle after all. — So related Holmes Jr. who was there — who was out on both Moravian campaigns, & Crawford’s. (Source)
Ah, Crawford’s campaign.
Later in 1782, another expedition of frontiersmen under Col. William Crawford set out “to destroy with fire and sword” a different Lenape settlement in Ohio. Instead, the Lenape met and routed the expedition, taking Crawford prisoner. He and the other captives from that misadventure would be burned to death, in part to avenge Gnadenhutten.
This, and whatever like tit for tat could be exacted in the field, was all the justice the Lenape could ever hope to have for the hecatomb of Gnadenhutten. American authorities declined to prosecute or sanction any members of the militia.
“Here triumphed in death ninety Christian Indians March 8, 1782″: inscription at the base of a memorial obelisk in Gnadenhutten. (cc) image from Mike Drabik.
* This might have been a nice solution, except that said treaty was made by the Iroquois — and only the Iroquois. For the Shawnee who actually lived and hunted in this cessation, this was two outside powers bartering their land. They didn’t mean to give it up on the say-so of the Iroquois. Another nasty frontier war followed, and even when that was won by Virginian militia, dissatisfied Shawnee continued targeting settlements in Kentucky; it’s partly for this reason that the Declaration of Independence slates King George III with having “endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
For more on the long and tragic Shawnee struggle in this period, see “‘We Have Always Been the Frontier': The American Revolution in Shawnee Country” by Colin G. Calloway in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Winter 1992).
** The Moravian Church‘s name harkens to its Czech origins. It’s a successor to the reform tradition of Jan Hus.
† There are a few cites out there for the day before or the day after March 8.
January 21 is the feast date and traditional martyrdom date (in the year 304) of Agnes of Rome, a 13-year-old put to death in the Diocletian persecutions who has the distinction of being among the seven women mentioned by name in the Catholic Canon of the Mass.
Agnes means “chaste” in Greek,* and this was precisely the problem.
As prosperous as she was pulchritudinous, she was pious even moreso and spurned the many suitors for her hand and bed. Eventually one or the other of them peevishly reported her as a Christian.
Upon arrest, the abstinent youth was allegedly subjected to an official program of sexual assault, including displaying her naked in public and forcing her into a brothel. It’s said that divine intervention prevented her violation in these ordeals. (The flowing locks in the Ribera portrait of her at right are part of that myth, supposed to have sprouted long enough to save her from her public shaming.)
Considering that her defining characteristic is her virginity, Agnes has quite the lurid legend — and that does not exclude her very martyrdom. Per the erotically-charged poetic account of the 4th-5th century Christian poet Prudentius,** Agnes rejoiced sensually in the executioner sent to to render her to her heavenly bridal-bed:
I rejoice that there comes a man like this,
A savage, cruel, and wild warrior,
Rather than a languid, soft,
Womanish youth fragrant with perfume,
Come to destroy my life with the death of my honor.
This lover, this one at last, I confess, pleases me.
I shall rush to his eager steps
And not demur from his hot ardor.
I shall welcome the entire length of
His blade into my bosom, drawing the sword-blow
To the depths of my breast.
Agnes, whose purported relics are interred in the Roman church Sant’Agnese in Agone, is the patron saint of an entire pantheon of feminine sexual incipience: chastity, virgins, young women, and betrothed couples.‡
Little surprise, then, that the legend arose in Christendom that a maid could invoke the vision of her future husband by performing certain suggestive rituals — like lying supine and naked on her bed — on the eve of St. Agnes (that is, the night of January 20).
It’s upon this occasion that Keats pins his narrative poem The Eve of St. Agnes§ (full text here or here), in which a young woman performing these rites is in her dreamlike state deflowered by the desired suitor her family forbids — and then the two slip away by night “o’er the southern moors.”
Beyond a mortal man impassion’d far
At these voluptuous accents, he arose,
Ethereal, flush’d, and like a throbbing star
Seen mid the sapphire heaven’s deep repose;
Into her dream he melted, as the rose
Blendeth its odour with the violet,–
Solution sweet: meantime the frost-wind blows
Like Love’s alarum pattering the sharp sleet
Against the window-panes; St. Agnes’ moon hath set.
A year ago today, a blindfolded, white-clad Rizana Nafeek had her head chopped off in public in Dawadmy, near the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan, was among the numerous foreign laborers routinely imported to Saudi Arabia for domestic work. There are an estimated 1.5 million migrant domestic workers in Saudi Arabia from South Asia (especially Sri Lanka), Nepal, Indonesia, East Africa, and the Philippines. Most are employed via the kafala (“sponsorship”) system that places their host in an almost lord-like position of authority.
Such workers are excluded from Saudi Arabia’s labor protections, and as a result stand vulnerable to horrifying abuse.* Household heads often confiscate these workers’ passports, and in some cases have subjected their domestic employees to rape, horrifying physical abuse, wage confiscation, and work weeks of 100-plus hours. One Sri Lankan woman had nails driven into her hands when she complained about overwork.
Rizana Nafeek hardly had time to find out whether any of these perquisites were in store for her. Not long after she arrived in Saudi Arabia in 2005 hoping to make enough money as a domestic drudge to move her impoverished family into a house, she had bottle-feeding duties for her host family’s infant foisted upon her. Nafeek had no training in caring for infants.
In May 2005, child child began choking while in Rizana’s care, and her panicked shouts summoned the mother. By the time the mother arrived, the infant had fallen unconscious, and the upset family immediately handed over their maid to the police, accusing her of strangling the baby.
This was the victim for whom Nafeek was decapitated, and also perhaps an illustration of tunnel vision in law enforcement. It’s quite doubtful whether there was ever any objective basis for supposing a homicide, but the fact that this was the color the family gave to events in the horror of the moment set in motion all the ensuing events.
During the investigation leading up to her 2007 trial and condemnation, Nafeek confessed to smothering the child — but she would later claim this confession was tortured out of her, and that the baby simply started choking on its bottle. (There was never a post-mortem on the dead baby.)
Opaque as the Saudi Arabian criminal justice system is, it’s got ample reputation for obtaining confessions by violence, and for mistreating migrant workers. And the accused had scant legal representation and no translator when she was tried for her life in a Saudi court.
After her conviction, it would also emerge that, order to land her the gig, Nafeek’s Sri Lankan recruiting agency falsified her papers to bump her age up past the legal minimum of 21. Rizana Nafeek arrived in Saudi Arabia carrying a passport that said she was born in 1982, making her 23 years old when she committed the supposed murder … but her birth certificate said that she was born in 1988, and was still a minor when the “murder” took place.
Noting that the dead infant’s family refused repeated blandishments of “blood money” to exercise its right to grant clemency, Riyadh officially “deplore[d] the statements made” by Rizana’s supporters “over the execution of a Sri Lankan maid who had plotted and killed an infant by suffocating him to death, one week after she arrived in the kingdom.”
More sympathetic Saudis, undoubtedly meaning well, offered Rizana Nafeek’s family cash compensation after the young woman was beheaded. That money, too, was angrily refused.
“I will not accept any gifts from the Saudis or the Saudi government which murdered my daughter,” mother Saiyadu Farina told a Sri Lankan newspaper. That anger was widely shared in Sri Lanka; Colombo even recalled its Saudi ambassador in protest.
That’s as may be, but money is sure to carry the argument at the end of the day. Wage remittances by overseas laborers are a massive boon to the island nation, amounting to $6.3 billion in 2012 — 8.8% of the Sri Lankan economy. And Saudi Arabia remains the single largest employer (pdf) of Sri Lankans abroad.
As of the time of Rizana Nafeek’s execution, at least 45 other foreign domestics, most of them Indonesians, were also awaiting execution on Saudi Arabia’s death row.
After a decade of bloody left-right civil strife, the Turkish generals toppled the civilian government on that date. Hundreds of thousands of arrests with rampant torture marked the period, but it did quell the endemic street fighting and terrorism of the 1970s.
Erdal Eren was actually arrested during the chaotic pre-coup period. February 1980 student protests after the murder of Sinan Suner, an activist of the communist Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Association, turned into a melee that resulted in an officer shot dead under confused circumstances. Eren was among 24 students rounded up.
Despite his youth, Eren was sentenced to die in a March 19 trial — but his appeals had legs until the post-coup military junta abruptly sent him to the gallows on December 13.
Eren went to his death with a brave step, gamely writing his family that he had witnessed so much torture in prison that death was a relief and not a terror.
He’s very warmly remembered today. A number of cultural artifacts pay tribute to the young martyr, including two different songs (“Two Children”, “Seventeen”) by Teoman, a relative of Erdal Eren’s.
On December 7, 1982, a unit of army commandos entered the Guatemalan hamlet of Dos Erres.* There it authored one of the signature atrocities of the bloody Guatemalan Civil War.
This was the Guatemala of Efrain Rios Montt, once a junior officer during the CIA-backed 1954 coup that set in motion decades of civil strife.
Relative brutality in that conflict waxed and waned over the years. In 1982, the now-General Efrain Rios Montt overthrew another general and went full werewolf. “A Christian has to walk around with his Bible and his machine gun,” Rios Montt infamously remarked. And more than walk them: the general’s policy was a you’re-either-with-us-or-with-the-terrorists hard line called Frijoles y Fusiles, “beans and shooting.” Campesinos who were with Rios Montt got the beans.
Shortly before this date’s atrocity, a column of Guatemalan soldiers were ambushed by leftist guerrillas, killing 21. Those guys were going to get the fusiles — them, or any convenient peasants who might hypothetically be on friendly terms with them.
Dos Erres, a remote jungle village of 60 families, was the settlement nearest where the rebels were thought to be operating. The little town had already drawn the ire of the army by resisting recruitment to civil defense patrols.
Late on the night of December 6, 1982, 20 members of Guatemala’s Kaibiles commandos set aside their special forces uniforms and disguised themselves as guerrillas, in green t-shirts and civilian trousers and red armbands. Ostensibly their mission was to recapture the rifles the rebels had seized from the ambushed convoy, which were supposed to be stashed in Dos Erres.
Hiking two hours into the jungle to reach their target, the commandos crept into the still-sleeping settlement at 2 in the morning. With the support of a 40-man regular army detachment to seal Dos Erres’s perimeter, the commandos stormed into residences and drug bewildered townspeople out, herding the men into a school and the women and children into a church.
That commenced an all-day litany of horrors for the residents of what was about to become the former village. Dos Erres was wiped off the map by the end of it.
One of the senior lieutenants on the mission raped a woman, and other commandos immediately availed themselves of the implied license to abuse women and girls. By the end of it, the last sobbing women and children were led out to the forest and machine-gunned en masse.
They were by then the last survivors, save for a little boy who managed to escape into the jungle. Throughout the course of the 7th of December, the Kaibiles brought villagers old and young to the edge of the town well. “As they were brought to the well, they were asked, ‘where are the rifles?’,” one of the participants later described. “They said nothing about rifles, and they were hit on the back of the head with a sledgehammer, and thrown in the well.” Every commando had to participate, so that all were implicated.
Commando Gilberto Jordán drew first blood. He carried a baby to the well and hurled it to its death. Jordán wept as he killed the infant. Yet he and another soldier, Manuel Pop Sun, kept throwing children down the well.
The commandos blindfolded the adults and made them kneel, one at a time. They interrogated them about the rifles, aliases, guerrilla leaders. When the villagers protested that they knew nothing, soldiers hit them on the head with a metal sledgehammer. Then they threw them into the well.
“Malditos!” the villagers screamed at their executioners. “Accursed ones.”
“Hijos de la gran puta, van a morir!” the soldiers yelled back. “Sons of the great whore, you are going to die!”
[Commando Cesar] Ibañez dumped a woman in the well. [Favio] Pinzón, the cook, dragged victims there alongside a sub-lieutenant named Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes. When the well was half-filled, a man who was still alive atop the pile of bodies managed to get his blindfold off. He shouted curses up at the commandos.
“Kill me!” the man said.
“Your mother,” Sosa retorted.
“Your mother, you son of the great whore!”
Pinzón watched as the infuriated Sosa shot the man with his rifle and, for good measure, threw a grenade into the pile. By the end of the afternoon, the well overflowed with corpses.
The commandos left town the next morning with six captives: the rebel who had been forced at gunpoint to guide the Kaibiles to Dos Erres in the first place (he would be executed in the field); three teenage girls (the soldiers that night would take turns raping them, then strangled them the next day); and two very small boys (these were returned to the Kaibiles base). A few days later, the army returned and razed the remains of the devastated town to the ground. Only recently has the site been excavated and its many victims’ remains cataloged for proper burial.
The tragedy of Dos Erres became public in the 1990s. Five soldiers who participated in the butchery have each been sentenced to 6,060 years in prison just for this one incident, but there were many more like it in Guatemala in those years — many more people who were put to Frijoles y Fusiles.
A 1990s truth commission after the war pegged the total number of civilians killed during the war above 200,000, mostly indigenous Mayans and (as was the case for most at Dos Erres) mestizos. “State forces and related paramilitary groups were responsible for 93% of the violations documented.”
The truth commission also found that the “government of the United States, through various agencies including the CIA, provided direct and indirect support for some state operations.” Indeed, supporting death squads againstleftists in Central American dirty wars was overt U.S. policy during the 1980s; just days before Dos Erres, U.S. President Ronald Reagan returned from a Latin American tour and told reporters that Rios Montt, whom he had just met, was “totally dedicated to democracy in Guatemala.”
“They’ve been getting a bum rap” from human rights nabobs, Reagan averred.
In the fullness of time that rap would eventually encompass Rios Montt’s own remarkable conviction for crimes against humanity and (since the Mayan population was targeted en masse) genocide in a landmark case that’s still being appealed as of this writing. (The May 2013 verdict against Rios Montt was immediately overturned; the case is obviously extremely politically sensitive.) In a separate case, he’s been charged specifically with responsibility for the Dos Erres massacre.
U.S. President Bill Clinton formally apologized for Washington’s role in Guatemala after the truth commission’s findings were issued in 1999.
The PBS radio program This American Life has an hour-long documentary about Dos Erres here; a companion ProPublica series has even richer (and more horrifying) detail.
* Named for its founders, two men named Ruano and Reyes, the name literally meant “two Rs”.
Mostafaei wrote a Farsi post detailing the harrowing moments leading up to the Shojaee’s hanging, complete with the young offender kneeling in front of the parents of his victim imploring them to exercise their power to spare his life. That post, excerpted below, was translated to English by the site Persian2English.com.
The plan was to get the parents of the victim to drop the case so he would be spared from execution. We could hear the prayers of the activists from outside the prison. After a few minutes we were admitted into another salon. Behnoud was there along with a few of the prison guards. When the parents of the victim entered the room, Behnoud kneeled in front of them and begged them to not execute him. The head of convictions prepared the conviction papers. A few of the prison guards, Mr. Oliyaifard, and I went to the parents of the victim and begged them to not go through with the execution. The mother of the victim replied, “I cannot think right now. I have to put the rope around his neck.” After a few minutes we heard the Call for Prayer. Behnoud walked to another room to say his last prayers. He went to ask God for forgiveness.
After the prayer we all went to the prison grounds. My entire body was shaking and I didn’t know what would become of this boy without a mother. When Behnoud kneeled in front of the parents of the victim, he told the mother, “I don’t have a mother. Please act as a mother and tell them to not execute me.” We all went to another room. In that room there was a metal stool and a blue plastic hanging rope suspended above it. The parents of the victim entered that room. Then they brought Behnoud into that horrible room where they carried out the executions. I had never heard of sole executions in Evin prison. I thought it strange that only Behnoud was being executed that night.
Maybe this was his unfortunate fate that took him to die all alone. The people present in the room asked the parents to forgive and to stop the execution. The mother said you have to put the rope around his neck. Behnoud stood on top of the stool and they put the rope around his neck. After only a few seconds the mother and father of the victim ran toward the stool and pulled it away.