In Guatemala, military stands trial for sexual slavery

by @saul_elbein February 25, 2016 12:15PM ET

More than two decades after the civil war, former soliders are on trial for having used rape and murder as tools of war

Boxes containing the remains and personal effects of 48 people who were found in Tinajas, Coban are displayed in court on Feb. 8 as part of the trial of soldiers accused of sex crimes during the country's 36-year civil war.
Saul Martinez for Al Jazeera America
Indigenous Q'eqchi Mayan women who were victims of rape sit with their faces covered during a hearing of the Sepur Zarco case in Guatemala City's Supreme Court.
Saul Martinez for Al Jazeera America

GUATEMALA CITY — When the audience filed into the courtroom, they found 38 boxes in three rows, sealed with masking tape and marked “Finca Tinajas.” It was Feb. 9, the seventh day of the Sepur Zarco trial in Guatemala City’s Palace of Justice. Amid murmurs from onlookers, forensic archaeologists cut open the boxes one by one and laid out their contents as Judge Yazmin Barrios listed the new evidence for the court reporter.

“Light red underwear,” Barrios said. “Pieces of a white shirt. Pieces of fabric, coffee colored. A blouse, colored blue, with flowers.” Next to each garment, archaeologists laid little paper bags. Inside the bags were human bones dug up with the clothing from the former military base at Finca Tinajas, in northeastern Guatemala.

On one side of the courtroom, behind a row of government and NGO lawyers sat 11 elderly women from the Q’eqchi Maya communities of the Polochich Valley, in the fertile lowlands near Guatemala’s Caribbean coast. Their faces were covered with colorful scarves to hide their identities, but as the archaeologists pulled out clothing and bones, several of the women shook silently, scarves slipping to reveal lined brown faces.

Though acidic soil degraded the bones beyond possibility of identification, the implication put forth was clear: The unveiling of bones was a grim reunion. According to the prosecution, in August 1982, Guatemalan soldiers responded to a Maya land-rights campaign by raiding valley communities and taking many men — including the husbands of six of the women in the courtroom — to Finca Tinajas, never to be seen again. In the hours and days that followed, prosecutors said, soldiers forced the women into sexual and domestic slavery at a military base near the village of Sepur Zarco. In 2012 evidence to support that story was found when the body of a missing man was identified among the skeletons at Tinajas.

Sitting across the courtroom, starting alternately at the ceiling and the floor, was Heriberto Valdez Asig, a military auxiliary and municipal policeman accused of leading the raids that transported the six men to Finca Tinajas. He is being charged with their forced disappearance, a crime under Guatemalan law. Next to him sat Estheelmer Reyes Giron, a former artillery lieutenant who is charged with the murder of a Q’eqchi woman and her two children, and with committing crimes of sexual violence for his role in running the base at Sepur Zarco. Because these crimes are violations of international law, the men are also being charged with crimes against humanity.

Asig and Giron, the nameless bones and the covered women — all of it marked a bold new phase in Guatemala’s efforts to hold former military officials accountable for crimes committed during the country’s brutal civil war. During that war, which lasted from 1960 to 1996, battles between the state and Marxist guerrillas often served as impetus and cover for massacres that left an estimated 200,000 people dead and another 45,000 missing — the vast majority of them civilians. Other ongoing cases involve the discovery of 500 bodies on a different military base, the 1980 burning of the Spanish Embassy with 37 activists inside, and the forced disappearance of a teenage boy from the western city of Quetzaltenango in 1981. These cases parallel ones in other Latin American countries such as Argentina and Peru, where local prosecutor’s offices are going after former military officials for massacres and disappearances committed during their own Cold War-era dirty wars.

But Sepur Zarco was a new development, a test case in which prosecutors are attempting to prove that the wartime Guatemalan military deliberately used rape and murder as tools of war to crush grass-roots activism. This is significant not only for Guatemala but for international jurisprudence: It is the first trial of soldiers in a national court rather than by an international commission for sexual violence. That is, strategic rape, as seen in cases as varied as the Korean “comfort women” of World War II and the rape campaigns in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. In Guatemala the trial has made international headlines. U.S. Ambassador Todd Robinson attended the first day, tweeting his congratulations to “Guatemalan society and the Guatemalan justice system for confronting these issues.”

In the courtroom, the two sides agree on very little. To the prosecution, the nameless dead and the masked women are part of a common story of government repression. To the defense, the case is a legal lynching, a politically motivated trial of the wrong men, based on nonexistent evidence. But the display of the boxes was a theatrical reminder of one thing both sides agree on: Whatever happens, the consequences of the Sepur Zarco trial go far beyond the fate of the two men in the dock. 

Heriberto Asig, a former police officer accused of leading the raids at the center of the Sepur Zarco trial, sits in the courtroom during the hearings.
Saul Martinez for Al Jazeera America
Estheelmer Reyes Giron
Saul Martinez for Al Jazeera America

II. The Land and the Base

According to the prosecution, the story begins with a fight over land. On Feb. 8, Juan Carlos Pelaez Villalobos, an expert on land conflicts, testified that for generations, rich plantation owners in the Polochich Valley took lands from the Q’eqchi Maya by fraud and force. In the late 1970s, to avoid further thefts, several Q’eqchi leaders, calling themselves the Land Committee, began the formal process of getting title to their lands.

This proved a costly decision. Witness after witness testified that the plantation owners, or finqueros, called on the Guatemalan army to deal with what they called guerrillas in their midst. In a dawn raid on Aug. 25, 1982, an army patrol allegedly led by Asig set out across the valley and rounded up land activists. He is charged with the disappearances of six members of the Land Committee, who were allegedly taken to the base at Finca Tinajas and murdered.

Sitting at the defense table, Asig sat with his head tilted toward the floor in apparent boredom. Reyes Giron flipped through case documents with one hand, his other arm clasped tight over his gut. A former lieutenant in the Guatemalan army, Reyes Giron is accused of leading what the prosecution has described as a strategic effort to crush peasant resistance. Witnesses accused him of holding local leaders in a pit and executing them with hand grenades. He has also been accused of raping Dominga Cuc, a young mother who was looking for her husband, in front of her two children and of then murdering all three.

After her husband disappeared, Rosario Xoc told the courtroom that the soldiers would chase her when she went to get water from the river. One time, “they threw me on the ground and violated me right there,” she said, speaking through a Q’eqchi interpreter. “My 4-year-old son saw it. He was terrified. He was screaming.” Like many other women from communities in the Polochich Valley and elsewhere in Guatemala, she fled up into the frigid mountains. “I thought my children would be safe there, but instead they died of hunger.”

Those who stayed found horrors of a different sort. Widow after widow testified that they were forced to take turns having sex with several men at a time in special rooms on the military base. Nurses gave them shots of contraceptives, and while on the base, the women were also made to prepare soldiers’ food and wash their clothing. They said the soldiers knew their husbands had been taken and the women were defenseless. “The soldiers said, ‘No one asks about you anymore. No one cares about you. You belong to us now,” said Petrona Choch Cuc.

Coverage of the trial has largely focused on allegations of sexual slavery. But the sexual violence wasn’t limited to the military base. Women who were not held on the base report being raped in their homes, often in front of children, or on their way to perform chores.

Rosa Tiul, one of several Q’eqchi women who testified by videotape, said that after soldiers would return from patrols in search of families who had fled to the mountains, they would go to her house and rape her at gunpoint. “They knew which of us were alone,” she said — her husband, disappeared by the soldiers, was later dug up at Finca Tinajas. “If we said no, that we didn’t want to, they would have killed us. I was afraid they would kill me,” she said.

When she appealed to the authorities, she found little assistance. “One time I got so upset, I went to speak to the lieutenant [Reyes Giron] to complain [about the repeated sexual abuse],” she said. “He said maybe I liked it, maybe it was my fault they had gotten used to it.”

Indigenous women of the Mayan ethnic Q'eqchi sit at the rear of the courtroom during the hearing.

III. Rape as a Weapon of War

In the six years when the rapes were believed to have happened, the prosecution has focused on the six months when Reyes Giron commanded the base at Sepur Zarco. He is not the only soldier suspected of orchestrating the mass rape of Maya women, just the only one being tried. The Guatemalan truth commissions of the late 1990s recorded over 1,000 cases of women raped by soldiers; the Committee for Historical Clarification noted that Maya women “were considered to be the spoils of war.”

According to experts from the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, every family in the village of Sepur Zarco has some connection to at least one of the women who were raped in the early 1980s. Because of rape’s effectiveness in breaking down family and community relationships, it is especially destructive when used as a tool during wartime, said Jo Marie Burt, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America. She has written extensively on transitional justice movements in Peru and Guatemala. “The violence may be against the body of the woman, but the point is to break down the community.” Forced sex, she said, can break up marriages and make women distrusted by their neighbors.

The social stigma surrounding sexual violence, she said, makes these cases fiendishly difficult to prosecute. That’s especially true in old cases because physical evidence disappeared long ago. “Even in regular rape situations, women don’t want to report,” Burt said. “In this case, multiply it by a million.” As such, the prosecution in Sepur Zarco had to rely on a concerted process of community building. Psychologists and social workers from a variety of Guatemalan women’s nongovernmental organizations — Women Transforming the World, Community Studies and Psychosocial Action Team, the Guatemalan Women’s Union — worked with the women for years to counsel them and persuade them to testify. Even so, from the time of the original criminal complaint in 2011 and the beginning of the trial in February 2016, three of the 15 original plaintiffs dropped out of the case. 

The personal effects of a Sepur Zarco victim are removed from a box.
Saul Martinez for Al Jazeera America
Boots and other items belonging to a victim.
Saul Martinez for Al Jazeera America

IV. “International Interference”

As the community work was being done, a parallel legal development was taking place. Since 2007, the U.S. and U.N. have funded the Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, an international mission dedicated to help Guatemala’s independent prosecutor’s office, the Ministerio Publico, prosecute difficult cases of corruption and organized crime. Drawing on legal tools created to prosecute rebels and terrorist groups in Colombia and Spain, the commission built a system of so-called high-risk courts to try sensitive cases against dangerous networks. Though the commission can’t participate in war crimes cases, independent judges may — and have since 2012, when Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz heard a case against former military dictator Efrain Rios Montt.

To the military apologists, this international involvement is proof that foreign interests are pouring money into destabilizing Guatemala. To Ricardo Mendez Ruiz, the director of the Foundation Against Terrorism (FCT), the trials were simply a new phase of the civil war, and this time, the former guerrillas were in power, prosecuting former soldiers on bogus evidence in order to go after what they’ve always wanted: the estates of the landowners. “A sentence would mark the private sector as complicit,” he said. “And if they’re complicit, then maybe their lands can be seized.”

According to the FCT, the entire Sepur Zarco case has been made up — witnesses coached, evidence manufactured, experts paid off. Reyes Giron’s lawyer, Moises Galindo, sits on the board of directors at FCT; he has also defended a number of other former soldiers, including Rios Montt and Byron Lima Oliva, who was convicted of murdering one of the authors of a report published by the Catholic Church that laid out a detailed and fact-checked record of wartime atrocities, including mass rape. At the FCT offices in a residential neighborhood of Guatemala City, Galindo, a balding and bespectacled man with a salt-and-pepper beard, seemed unhurried and in high spirits. The prosecution, he said, had nothing concrete on Reyes; the witnesses kept naming a Reyes but couldn’t prove it was the defendant. “Even in Guatemala you can’t convict someone for having the wrong last name,” he said. He said he would present evidence proving that Reyes Giron was in another part of the country at the time. (Part of the ambiguity results from the fact that the military claims to not keep records of personnel at wartime bases like Sepur Zarco.) This is roughly the strategy that the public defender representing Asig has adopted. In her opening statement, she argued that although what happened to the women and their husbands was tragic, her client had nothing to do with it.

For the most part, Galindo’s strategy has been a guerrilla battle against the trial itself. After an attempt to get the judges to recuse themselves failed, he spent several days refusing to participate in the trial, telling the judges that he didn’t recognize their authority. Reyes Giron at first would not even give the justices his name. 

A Q'eqchi woman observes the trial.

V. Picking Up the Pieces

One thing both sides agreed on: Behind the trial, old questions of land, wealth and economic power are inextricably mixed. (The question of who, precisely, was stealing whose land is as disputed now as it was in the early 1980s.) The women repeated, over and over, that their husbands’ deaths followed from their activism and that their deaths left their families destitute and without a community. After her husband was taken away to Tinajas, “I was left alone with four children,” said Vicenta Coy Pop. “The military was able to support soldiers’ children. Widows like me were unable to support ours.” She had to sell handwoven clothing to buy food for her children, she said, which “my heart aches over.”

Pop described one soldier who was dark-skinned and Q’eqchi-speaking, like her. “Now that you don’t have a husband, we’re in charge,” she recalled him telling her. Felicia Cuc, another survivor who testified in the week after the display of the boxes, described being rejected by her community as the soldiers’ “lover.” After six months of being held at Sepur Zarco, she said, she was allowed to return home but found no peace. Soldiers went to her house and raped her and her two daughters, she said. “There was no solidarity” from her community, she added. “They said we were the playthings of the soldiers.”

Without community, there was no one to help her. Her house burned down, her children went hungry, and they lived for years beneath a nylon tarp stretched under a tree. Experiences like Pop’s took place on a mass scale, said Paula Barrios of Women Transforming the World. Sitting in her office in Guatemala City, she laid out the situation that the Q’eqchi women still live with, 20 years after the peace accords ended the war. “They live amid fertile lands, but they don’t have access to them,” she said. “They don’t have access to water. There’s little work for children and none for adults. The war may be over, but they’re still slaves.”