A Landmark Trial Seeks Justice for Victims of Sexual Violence From Guatemala’s Civil War

Orsetta Bellani, Vice News (Photo: O.B.)

The eleven elderly indigenous women of Maya Q’eqchi’ origin sat silently with their shawls covering their heads as their stories of sexual torture at the hands of the military from the height of the country’s civil war were retold in a Guatemala City courtroom. At times tears welled up in the eyes of the younger woman who was translating the Spanish proceedings into their language.

In the part of the courtroom reserved for the accused, Heriberto Valdez Asij kept his eyes fixed on the ground. His hands were handcuffed and he seemed to be praying. Beside him, Steelmer Reyes Girón stared at the members of the public watching the historic trial.

This is the first time sexual slavery carried out during the armed conflict has ever been prosecuted in Guatemala. It is one of the few times that a case like this has reached a courtroom anywhere in the world.

It comes in the context of a new drive in Guatemala to finally address the lack of justice for the terrible atrocities committed during the country’s 36-year conflict that ended with peace accords signed by the government and the country’s left wing guerrilla groups in 1996. A UN Truth Commission set up as part of that deal concluded that around 240,000 people were either killed or disappeared during the war, but until now the sexual violence involved has received little direct attention.

“Attacking and enslaving women was a military strategy during the country’s civil war. The accusers represent just some of the women who were sexually abused during those years,” said Hilda Elizabeth Pineda García, the main prosecuting attorney in the case.

The trial of Valdez and Reyes is based on events in and around a small military base near the tiny hamlet of Sepur Zarco in the eastern department of Alta Verapaz during 1982 and 1983. These were the most intense years of the war when the country was run by military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt.

According to the prosecution, the women were forced to live in shacks outside the base after the army had first killed or disappeared their community’s leaders, and then destroyed their homes and raped them.

The initial raid allegedly stemmed from an effort by the community to obtain titles to their land. The prosecution argues that this led the military to view the community as filled with dangerous rebels at a time when the counterinsurgency strategy was focused on brutally eliminating all potential sympathy for the guerrilla movement.

Over a period of about six months the women have testified that they were obliged to report to the base for “shifts” during which they had to cook and clean. At the same time the said they were subjected to systematic rape, sometimes by groups of 15 soldiers at a time.

The victims also tell of being forced to wash soldiers’ clothes in a nearby river where they were also repeatedly raped.

“There are people who say it isn’t true and that the stories were invented but there is evidence that the women really did suffer this, and experts who have concluded that their stories are credible,” said Pineda Garcia, the prosecutor. “Moreover, it is very difficult for a woman to say she was sexually abused, even more so when she was gang raped in public.”

Prior to the trial, the judge agreed to record the victims’ testimonies in private, so as not to subject them to public scrutiny. But Petrona Choc, a victim, did speak to the court about the abuse.

“Nobody asks about you anymore, no one cares about you,” she remembered the soldiers telling her. “Now you belong to us.”

The other witnesses are men from Sepur Zarco who were detained at the base.

“Remembering that is like taking the scab off a wound,” said Manuel Cuc of the torture and humiliation, such as soldiers peeing in his mouth, “the pain comes back.”

As well as charges related to the sexual slavery, the defendants — who were military officers associated with the base at the time — are also accused of the enforced disappearance of seven men, and the murder of a woman and her two daughters.

“I was part of the municipal police, I did not work for the military. I’m human, and I’m innocent,” said military commissioner Valdez.

The trial, that began on February 1, is expected to last at least until the end of the month.

“The attack on women was a planned strategy aimed at dividing communities and leaving them stigmatized,” Felipe Sarti Castañeda, a psychologist for the Psychosocial Action Community Team, told VICE News. “There are strong psychological, cultural, and gender issues within the counterinsurgency tactics implemented by the Guatemalan army to spread terror among the population.”

The landmark Sepur Zarco case is particularly remarkable given that the military remains very influential in Guatemala, even two decades after the peace was signed.

Otto Perez Molina, who resigned as president last September amid a major investigation into a corruption scandal he allegedly headed, was a retired general and former head of military intelligence during the war. President Jimmy Morales, the former TV comedian who was elected by a landslide in December thanks to his image as an outsider, is tied to a political party that was formed by military veterans.

“There’s an ongoing struggle inside the justice system, which is highly infiltrated by organized crime,” said Luz Méndez, of the National Union of Guatemalan Women, who is also connected to the current case.

Two other cases associated with past atrocities are due to begin in May.

One of them, the Molina Theissen case, will see three high military officers face charges for the enforced disappearance of a 14-year-old boy. The other one, involves about a dozen former high-level officers allegedly associated with a mass grave at a major regional military base.

Méndez highlighted the determination of specific judges and prosecutors to push forward with these trials. They include the current attorney general Thelma Aldana, and the judge hearing the Sepur Zarco case, Yassmin Barrios.

“We are contributing by spreading a message among society in favor of women rights and in favor of transforming gender-based oppression,” she said of the current case.

Article published by Vice News on 2.08.2016: https://news.vice.com/article/a-landmark-trial-seeks-justice-for-victims-of-sexual-violence-from-guatemalas-civil-war