1990: The October 13 Massacre

Add comment October 13th, 2014 Headsman

This date is the dolorous anniversary of the “October 13 massacre”, a bloodbath wrapping up the Lebanese Civil War when the Syrian army executed hundreds of captured Lebanese.

The intractable war, which dated back to 1975 and made “Beirut” a 1980s watchword for conflict, had boiled down* to two rival governments: a Maronite military government based in East Beirut under the leadership of Michel Aoun, and the Syrian-sponsored Muslim government in West Beirut putatively headed by Selim al-Hoss. Over the course of 1989-1990 Aoun’s “war of liberation” against the occupying Syrian army all but emptied the city of Beirut.

Thanks to a complex political schism, Aoun was also ensconced in the city’s presidential palace from which he issued decrees denouncing and rejecting the political settlement that was supposed to return the country to normalcy.

Unfortunately for him — and moreso for the prisoners who are the day’s topic — Aoun was also supported by Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein. In August 1990, Hussein invaded Kuwait, precipitating an American attack on Iraq in response.

As this latter operation involved the U.S. attacking a Muslim oil-producing state with military resources it deployed for that purpose the politically sensitive sands of a neighboring Muslim oil-producing, the U.S. spent the last months of 1990 working the Middle East diplomatic circuit to bring the region’s governments on board for the impending bout of ultraviolence.

Syria’s particular carrot was the green light to finish off Aoun — who, simultaneously, had of course been deprived of aid from the now-preoccupied Iraqis. This the Syrian army did with a massive attack on Beirut’s presidential palace beginning at 7 in the morning on October 13th. The palace was overcome by 10 that morning, but resistance continued elsewhere throughout the day from pro-Aoun militias who had not received word of that gentleman’s surrender and escape to the French embassy.**

Several hundred people were killed during the onslaught into pro-Aoun enclaves. An unknown number of these ballparked to around two or three hundred are thought to have been killed by summary execution after capture (or after intentional rounding-up). A Lebanese nurse claimed that at the nearby village of Dahr al-Wahsh “I counted between 75 and 80 [executed] … Most of them had a bullet in the back of their heads or in their mouth. The corpses still carried the mark of cords around their wrists.” Other captured Lebanese fighters were reportedly deported to Syria and never heard from again.

There are several other atrocity accounts collected here. This two-part documentary on the end of the Lebanese civil war available on YouTube has several participants’ perspectives (including Aoun’s) on the chaotic situation marking the war’s last days: 1, 2.

* This is quite a gross oversimplification of a fractious civil conflict in which innumerable blocs continually rearranged their alliances.

“I had a chart on my wall of the constantly proliferating militias — four dozen or so by the time I left in 1985 — and their constantly shifting alliances and enmities,” one former Beirut denizen wrote recently. “Allies one day could be trying to kill one another the next, even within sects, over issues that had digressed far from their common cause.”

** Aoun went into exile in France, returning in 2005 when the Cedar Revolution finally drove the still-occupying Syrians out of Lebanon. He has served in the Lebanese parliament since that time, leading the country’s largest Christian party.

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1925: Shi Congbin, grievance

Add comment October 4th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1925 the Chinese warlord Sun Chuanfang had a captured enemy commander beheaded. In so doing, he signed his own death warrant too.

Deep into China’s Warlord Era, the chaotic decade-plus after the collapsing empire gave way to a fractured republic. From 1916 to 1928, leagues of rival generals cut China into jigsaw pieces.

The chiefs of these shifting statelets, being warlords, fought numerous wars.

Sun Chuangfang, one of the generals of a warlord party known as the Zhili clique, was engaged in the south in 1925 in a campaign whose successful resolution would ultimately install him in Nanking with effective control of five provinces. In the service of achieving such a power base he must have thought little about destroying an enemy commander caught in a counterattack and mounting the man’s severed head on a pike to cow any opposition.

According to Eugenia Lean’s book about the amazing incident,

On October 3, 1925, while leading the Superior Iron Brigade (Tiejia jun), a brigade of mercenary troops, in an attempt to capture Guzhen, Shandong, Shi Congbin was surrounded by Sun Chuanfang’s troops with no support in sight. Shi’s four thousand soldiers were slaughtered, while Shi himself was taken prisoner and beheaded the next day upon Sun’s personal order. Shi Jianqiao [Shi Congbin's daughter] related in heart-wrenching detail how her family would not have learned the truth except for the bravery and loyalty of one of Shi Congbin’s personal servants. “Only a single servant was able to flee home. When we asked him about news from the front line, he threw himself to the ground in tears. We knew the news was not good.” The servant had been too grief-stricken to speak. Only after he Shi family had gone to Tianjin did they learn all the facts behind Shi Congbin’s death.

The named daughter Shi Jianqiao was about 20 years old when she received this devastating news.

Years elapsed. The general, as we have said, rose to his acme, and then fell, and retired, and like as not he had never in the following decade tarried over the destruction Shi Congbin.

But Shi Jianqiao did. She nursed her grievance and her sense of filial honor until when she was 30, she at last found her opportunity to strike back at her father’s slayer. Approaching the by-then-long-retired general as he performed Buddhist meditations, the faithful daughter shot him three times.

The supporting cast in Shi’s tale of revenge included the grieving widow and the suffering family her father had left behind. Even though there is little indication that the Shi family underwent any real financial strain, Shi Jianqiao nonetheless insisted that Shi Conbin’s death meant that a poor widow and six children, four of whom were still young, were left to fend for themselves. Sun Chuanfang was directly to blame for her family’s plight. The way in which Shi portrayed her mother was particularly important. Traditionally, dutiful daughters and chaste wives were expected to commit suicide if their fathers o husbands were killed unjustly. Such an extreme gesture was meant as an ultimate expression of loyalty and protest against injustice. But in this twentieth-century tale, Shi Jianqiao did not commit suicide and, moreover, justified her decision to live in terms of her filial piety to her mother. She portrayed her mother as particularly grief-stricken by the affair and argued that she needed to right the wrong committed against her father on behalf of her mother. In her GGRS, Shi declared, “Although all I wanted to do was die, my elderly moter’s illness gave me the will to live.” In her will, she stated, with similar effect, “To my dear mother … what I have been hiding from you for years, I can no longer hide. Our enemy has not yet been retaliated [against]. Father’s death can no longer be obscured … A sacrifice should be made for father’s revenge. In the future, five children will still be able to wait on you. They are all dutiful.” Shi Jianqiao’s act of revenge would be the ultimate gesture of filial piety, while her remaining siblings would be able to wait on her elderly mother in more mundane ways throughout the rest of her mother’s life.

Shi Jianqiao’s family loyalty attracted so much sympathy in China that she received a free pardon and even became a symbol of national resistance against the Japanese occupation. She died in 1979.

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1822: Francisco Javier de Elio

Add comment September 4th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1922, Spanish royalist Gen. Francisco Javier de Elio was garroted in Republican Valencia.

Elio (English Wikipedia link | Spanish) was a career Spanish officer noted for being the last Viceroy of the Rio de la Plata in South America.

The Rio de la Plata forms the border between present-day Uruguay and Argentina, and by the time Elio self-proclaimed his viceregal rank, the May Revolution had confined Spanish authority to Uruguay.* He maintained the Spanish monarchy’s power in Montevideo until revolutionaries routed his forces at the Battle of Las Piedras** and Elio had to return to Spain.

This was just in time for the Spanish crown, as that country’s liberals had answered the chaos of the French invasion by promulgating in 1812 one of Europe’s most forward-thinking constitutions. King Ferdinand VII wholly repudiated this constitution upon his re-enthronement at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and this soon led to yet another liberal revolt in 1820† and yet another French invasion.

Elio, who administered Valencia with a rough hand for Ferdinand, was such a ferocious monarchist that revolutionaries took him prisoner in the 1820-1823 “Liberal Triennum”. The attempt by a group of mutinous cannoniers in 1822 to place Elio at their head (with or without the general’s foreknowledge) led to his condemnation by a military court.

The September 26 London Times preserves two accounts by opposing partisans of Elio’s end.

EXECUTION OF GENERAL ELIO

The infamous General Elio has at length suffered the pain of death (by the garotte). His execution took place this morning at 11 o’clock, after having been publicly divested of his rank and honours. The General was not condemned on account of his conduct as Captain General, but in consequence of the revolt of the cannoniers who occupied the fort of Valencia, on the 30th of May. Being tried before an ordinary Court Martial on the 2d of June, at which General Villa-Campa presided, he was on the 27th of August adjudged to the most ignominious death known to the Spanish laws, that of the garotte. This sentence, submitted to the Auditor of War to be revised, was not only approved, but the Auditor demanded its immediate execution, comformably to the martial law of the 17th of April, 1821. The arrival of the Brigadier Espina, who was provisionally invested with the military command of this district was regarded as the signal for the execution. If it had been retarded, we should have broken into the prison, and ourselves have conducted the victim to the scaffold. The people maintained that demeanour which becomes an heroic nation, and accompanied the culprit to the scaffold with shouts of — ‘To death with Elio! his blood will cement the constitutional edifice.’

And a contasting version …

The scaffold on which General Elio was strangled at Valencia, on the 4th instant, was erected close to a delightful garden which belonged to him when he was all-powerful in that town. It appears that this spot was selected in order that his tragical end might be marked by a circumstance which was calculated to make him regret life. One of our journals, which is at all times distinguished for its violence, affirms that General Eio, previously to walking to the scaffold, knelt down and asked pardon of the authorities who were present, for all the mischief he had occasioned — this is wholly false. Above 12,000 persons were witnesses of the firmness which he showed on this sad occasion, and of the last words which he pronounced. The General protested his innocence in the face of God and man; he declared that he had only carried into execution the orders which he had received from the Government during the period of his command; that he was utterly unconnected with the revolt of the cannoniers; and, finally, that he begged of God to pardon his murderers, as he himself forgave them. ‘I wish,’ he added, ‘that my blood may be the last which is shed in Spain. Spain will one day do justice to the purity of my intentions, and repeat the cry which is now my last prayer — ‘”Long live the King and religion.”‘

* When a Spanish colony, Uruguay was known as the Banda Oriental.

** The date of this decisive battle, May 18 (1812), is still kept as a Uruguayan national holiday.

† Guess what happened to the guy who led that 1820 revolt.

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1571: James Hamilton, Archbishop of St. Andrews and uncle of a crack shot

1 comment April 6th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1571, the Archbishop of St. Andrews hanged in his clerical vestments at the Mercat Cross in Stirling.

John Hamilton‘s fate was tied up in that of his Romish church during the strife-wearied years of Queen Mary. There was a sure reckoning for the Church due in those years, but whose?

After the transition in England from the Catholic Queen Mary to the Protestant Queen Elizabeth, an alliance of Protestant Scottish nobles moved to overthrow the authority Mary of Guise, the French Catholic who ruled Scotland as regent for her expatriate daughter Mary, Queen of Scots.

As she was pushed back, Mary of Guise called in French reinforcements, and the Protestant lords English reinforcements. But Mary of Guise dropped dead of dropsy in 1560 and put the Protestants in the driver’s seat, shattering Scotland’s centuries-long Auld Alliance with France.

Political maneuvering in Scotland over the next decade makes for a tangled skein with many unexpected accommodations and alliances. But the religious direction of the realm would be the most prominent and knotty thread of them all.

James Stuart, Earl of Moray, one of the most prominent Protestant lords, was the illegitimate half-brother of Mary, Queen of Scots — Mary of Guise’s very Catholic daughter, who soon returned to rule a native land she had not laid eyes upon since the age of five.* The practical Moray became at first the real power behind the throne of the teenage queen, but the two also increasingly maneuvered against one another for, among other things, the future of Scottish Christianity.

The prelate Hamilton naturally held for out to keep reforms within the pale of orthodoxy. He had printed a noteworthy “Hamilton’s catechism” of Catholic doctrine in the 1550s, in the vernacular for popular consumption.

So as the Moray-Mary relationship went pear-shaped in the late 1560s and the country fell into civil war, Hamilton of course gravitated to the side of the Catholic queen. Mary by this time had been forced to abdicate the throne in favor of her son, James VI (eventually also James I of England). Moray was now “Regent Moray” and exercised power in the infant king’s name. He also drove Mary to England, and her eventual execution.

He certainly had no shortage of mortal enemies.

On January 23, 1570, from the window of a house Archbishop Hamilton owned with his brother in Linlithgow, their kinsman James Hamilton shot Regent Moray dead as he passed in a procession en route to a diplomatic rendezvous in Edinburgh.


James Hamilton prepares to win your barstool bet by becoming the first firearm assassin in history on January 23, 1570. (via)

This appears to be the first assassination with firearm on record (beating William the Silent‘s murder by a good 14 years), and it would set an encouraging precedent for Team Assassin: the gunman sprang onto a ready-saddled horse and successfully escaped his pursuers by desperately daggering his own mount in the hindquarters to spur it to leap over a creek. James Hamilton took refuge with others of the Hamilton clan in the town of that name.

As his subsequent course suggests, James Hamilton was not a lone gunman: a number of family members knew of and aided his plot. (He had actually been stalking Moray over several cities on his travels, looking for the right opportunity.)

Through them, the killer escaped to France. His uncle the archbishop was not so fortunate.

John Hamilton fled to the refuge of Dumbarton Castle following the assassination, but this citadel loyal to Mary was taken by surprise at the start of April 1571 by a daring nighttime escalade. John Hamilton was captured there and hailed to Stirling, where he was put to immediate death without benefit of trial.

* It was a bit of a step down from the French court for Mary, who had briefly been Queen consort of France when her frail husband unexpectedly succeeded the throne following the death of Henri II in a joust.

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1908: Massillon Coicou and the Firminists

Add comment March 14th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1908, the octogenarian Haitian president Pierre Nord Alexis had a number of political opponents arrested and, that very night, summarily executed.

Nord Alexis, a career officer risen to the post of Minister of War in a provisional 1902 government* when the previous president Tiresias Simon Sam* resigned to avert a constitutional crisis.

That was a strange affair: a misreading of the constitution had Sam set to rule until 1903, until someone caught the mistake. Sam’s diligently on-time resignation proved not the Rule of Law victory he might have hoped when the resulting power vacuum brought civil war.

The contest for power boiled down to Nord Alexis on one side, and the scholar and diplomat Joseph Auguste Antenor Firmin on the other.**

As one can see, Nord Alexis won it — but the conflict flared again in 1908, with the exiled Fermin making an attempt to return to Haiti. Nord Alexis’s response was ruthless and, for now, effective. (Nord Alexis was ousted later in 1908, however.)

Massillon Coicou

Prominent among the victims of the crackdown this date was the novelist and poet Massillon Coicou (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed French).

Coicou had been in the diplomatic service in France with Firmin, where the two forged a close affinity, and Coicou became a toast of literary circles.

Coicou and his two brothers Horace and Pierre-Louis, staunch Firminists all, were shot together with a several others at the walls of the Port-au-Prince cemetery on the night of March 14-15. (The exact number of others seems a little hard to come by; there are different counts from around 10-15 ranging up to 27+ total people executed in this incident, although the larger count may encompass executions other than those at the cemetery.)

For Francophones, several of Coicou’s poems can be perused via links at the bottom of this biographical page.

* Sam’s cousin Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam held that same office for a brief and bloody interval in 1915.

** Firmin is noted for his 1885 book De l’égalité des races humaines, which mounted a strong defense for the fundamental equality of the races, and also predicted a black U.S. president.

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1865: Amy Spain, liberation anticipation

1 comment March 10th, 2014 Headsman

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.

Mopping up after his march to the sea, Union Gen. William T. Sherman proceeded to South Carolina. After occuping the capital, Columbia, Sherman’s army made a northerly progression towards North Carolina.

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.


This illustration of Amy Spain’s execution appeared with the Harper’s Weekly article quoted above.

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.

-Harper’s Weekly

* 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.

** Septemer 30, 1865.

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1961: About fifteen anti-Lumumbists, in Stanleyville

Add comment February 20th, 2014 Headsman

Although it occurred some weeks before, the execution/murder of Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba only became public on February 13, 1961.

A week later, on February 20, pro-Lumumba forces in Stanleyville (today, Kisangani) shot approximately 15 prisoners in retaliation. Stanleyville was the headquarters of Lumumba ally Antoine Gizenga, whose enclave the late Lumumba had been trying to reach when he was captured. In the confused post-Lumumba days, Gizenga elevated himself to head of state for the rebellious Lumumbist state; 21 Communist-backed states would recognize this as Congo’s legitimate government, in opposition to the official one of Joseph Kasavubu.

Those suffering the Lumumba-backers’ wrath this date included ten politicians — notably Alfonse Songolo, a former Lumumbist minister who had prominently broken with that faction after Lumumba was deposed the previous autumn — plus five soldiers in the anti-Lumumba force of the bright young officer and future definitive author of Congolese horrors, Joseph-Desire Mobutu.

The London Times had reported (Feb. 23-24) that “usually well-informed sources” alleged the execution, but that the U.N. was unable itself to confirm the fact independently.

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1931: The Longhua Martyrs and the Five Martyrs of the League of Left-Wing Writers

Add comment February 7th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1931, the Chinese nationalists executed 23 Communists at Longhua, including five members of the League of Left-Wing Writers.

Early in what would prove to be the very long Chinese Civil War, the Koumintang government in 1930 mounted a suppression* of Communist outposts. That included military campaigns attempting to encircle communist-held regions, as well as an internal crackdown. It’s the latter that concerns us here.

A Communist-founded League of Left-Wing Writers operating in Shanghai was formally banned by the Koumintang in September 1930. Threatened with arrest, the writers struggled to stay underground but at a January 17 meeting in the British concession area,** British police arrested Li Weisen, Hu Yepin, Rou Shi, Yin Fu, and Feng Keng. They were handed over to the Chinese authorities.


The Five Martyrs: From left: Hu Yepin, Rou Shi, Feng Keng, Yin Fu, Li Weisen (Li Qiushi)

They became the Five Martyrs of the League when they were shot this date in 1931 along with 18 other Communist prisoners, one of them a pregnant woman.

Among the five martyrs, Rou Shi† was particularly close to the great writer Lu Xun, who was heartbroken when he received word of his young protege’s untimely end — “one of China’s best youths,” in his estimation. In hiding himself, Lu Xun composed a “Lament for Rou Shi”:

To long and sleepless nights I’ve grown
accustomed in the spring;
Fled with a wife and babe in arms,
my temples are graying.
‘Mid dream there comes an image faint —
a loving mother’s tear;
On city walls the overlords’
e’er-changing banners rear.
I can but stand by looking on
as friends become new ghosts,
In anger face bayonet thickets
and search for verse ripostes.
The poem intoned, my gaze turns low —
one cannot write such down.
Moonlight shimmers with watery sheen
upon my jet-black gown.

(as translated by The Lyrical Lu Xun: A Study of His Classical-Style Verse)

The discerning present-day visitor to Longhua can pay respects at the Longhua Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery.

* The suppression claimed, among others, the life of Mao Zedong’s first wife.

** The extraterritorial British concession in Shanghai was a legacy of the opium wars.

† There’s an English translation of Rou Shi’s short story “A Slave Mother” here.

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1934: John and Betty Stam, China missionaries

Add comment December 8th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1934, Chinese Communists beheaded John and Betty Stam in the Anhui province town of Miaoshu.

The Stams had settled as China Inland Mission proselytizers in the town of Jingde (at their time generally rendered as “Tsingteh”). Betty Stam (nee Scott) had grown up in China, the daughter of a Presbyterian missionary. John was a New Jersey native who had graduated Moody Bible Institute in 1932. They had a three-month-old daughter named Helen Priscilla.

On December 6, 1934, Communist rebels in China’s long-running civil war entered Jingde and seized the foreign family. According to a tribute page kept by a great-nephew of the, John wrote a short note that evening.

Tsingteh, An.
Dec. 6, 1934

China Inland Mission, Shanghai

Dear Brethren,

My wife, baby and myself are today in the hands of the Communists in the city of Tsingteh. Their demand is twenty thousand dollars for our release.

All our possessions and stores are in their hands, but we praise God for peace in our hearts and a meal tonight. God grant you wisdom in what you do, and us fortitude, courage and peace of heart. He is able-and a wonderful Friend in such a time.

Things happened so quickly this a.m. They were in the city just a few hours after the ever-persistent rumors really became alarming, so that we could not prepare to leave in time. We were just too late.

The Lord bless and guide you, and as for us, may God be glorified whether by life or by death.

In Him,
John C. Stam

The author of John and Betty Stam: Missonary Martyr summarizes his subjects’ “inspiring and instructive story” in a blog post here.

A foreboding message, but Christian evangelizing in China had often proved dangerous to its practitioners.

The next day they were march 12 miles to Miaoshu where they stopped for the night. Facing martyrdom, the couple stowed their daughter away like Moses, hidden in a sleeping bag with John’s last missive and ten dollars that might serve to care for her.

Miraculously, Helen Priscilla would be overlooked when the Stams’ captors came for them on December 8 and marched them through Miaoshu. It’s said that one local man made bold to object, and was added to the doomed party for his trouble. At the end of the march, John was forced to his knees and beheaded before his companions’ eyes; Betty and the shopkeeper followed him.

Little Helen survived her parents’ ordeal. A Chinese evangelist named Lo found the girl and carried her 100 miles to a mission hospital. She was taken in from there by Betty’s parents and eventually adopted by Betty’s sister and raised in the Philippines before returning to the United States.

Back in China, another missionary, Frank Houghton, was moved by the sacrifice of the Stams to compose a hymn, “Thou Who Wast Rich Beyond All Splendour” (set to an old French canticle, Quelle est cette odeur agréable?).

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1982: Dos Erres massacre

Add comment December 7th, 2013 Headsman

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 against leftists 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”.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Bludgeoned,Borderline "Executions",Children,Execution,Guatemala,History,Innocent Bystanders,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Notable Jurisprudence,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Summary Executions,Torture,Wartime Executions,Women

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