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Historic victory for women’s rights and justice in Guatemala

07 March 2016

Last week history was made in Guatemala as former Lieutenant Esteelmer Reyes Girón and military commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asij, were found guilty of crimes against humanity committed during Guatemala's 36 year internal armed conflict.  

The crimes include sexual violence and sexual slavery committed against 15 Maya Q'eqchi women from the communities surrounding Sepur Zarco for periods of six months to six years. 

Other crimes included the forced disappearances and murders of the women's husbands and the murder of Dominga Choc and her two little girls. 

The plaintiffs at the trial

The plaintiffs at the trial. Photo: Mujeres Transformando el Mundo

The three judge court, presided over by Jazmín Barrios, Patricia Bustamante and Gervin Sical, sentenced Reyes and Asij to 120 and 240 years in prison respectively.

In its judgment the court stated:

“The court is in no doubt that the women of Sepur Zarco were raped. In the Q’eqchi culture women are the bearers of life.  They were raped in order to destroy life, they were denied their humanity. They were raped as a means of sowing terror into their communities and destroy their production. They were raped so as to morally and physically destroy their community because women’s bodies represent the social body… Rape was used as a weapon of war to dominate and terrorize the community. The violence they experienced transcended the minds and bodies of the women and caused a complete rupture of the social fabric.”  -  Guatemalan Supreme Court of Justice, 26 February 2016

The accused and their lawyers at the Supreme Court of Justice

The accused and their lawyers at the Supreme Court of Justice. Photo: Mujeres Transformando el Mundo​

This victory follows six years of struggle by the 15 women at the centre of this case to achieve justice for the murder and disappearances of their husbands and for the sexual violence and domestic enslavement they suffered at the hands of the Guatemalan military. 

They have been accompanied throughout this process by Trócaire partners Women Transforming the World (MTM), The Centre for Community Studies and Participation (ECAP) and National Union of Guatemalan Women (UNAMG), who provided psychological, social and legal support, carried out forensic investigations, gathered witness testimonies and expert reports and mounted the legal case against the former military officials.   

Heriberto Asij makes final plea to the court.

Heriberto Asij makes final plea to the court. Photo: Mujeres Transformando el Mundo

The crimes addressed during the trial occurred between 1982 and 1983, one of the most violent and repressive periods of Guatemala’s internal armed conflict. 

In early 1982 the husbands of all 15 women at the centre of this case were in the process of obtaining legal title over their lands through the National Institute for Agricultural Transformation. 

They were identified by local authorities and land owners and branded ‘agitators’. 

When the military soon came looking for them they were accused of aiding the guerrilla forces. 

Their wives were beaten and raped, some by up to five soldiers, and the men were beaten and taken to the military bases at Sepur Zarco and Tinajas for interrogation. 

These military bases had been recently established at the request of local land owners, for the specific purpose of halting the growing number of indigenous and campesino farmers who had begun to make legal claims for their land rights. 

The women never saw their husbands alive again, seven were murdered and eight more remain disappeared. 

The 15 women were removed from their communities and brought to the Sepur Zarco army barracks where they were told that as widows they now ‘belonged to the soldiers.’ 

Eleven of the women were held there against their will for six months to cook and clean for the 400 or so soldiers that were housed at the barracks. 

They were raped by multiple soldiers on a daily basis. 

After the initial six months they joined the other women in makeshift dwellings made of nylon sheets and pieces of corrugated iron. 

Over six years they were obliged to ‘take turns’ in cooking for the soldiers and washing their clothes. They were never paid for these services and had to use what little resources they had to buy corn and soap in order to perform these duties. 

As a result they and their children often went hungry. 

They were subjected to continued sexual abuse when they brought food to the barracks and when they washed the soldiers’ clothes at the river. 

The women recounted how many of them had been pregnant at the time the aggressions first started and had suffered miscarriages. 

They also were routinely administered contraceptive injections so as to prevent further pregnancies. 

In the 30 years since the crimes were committed the women have had to bear their suffering in a profound silence, unable to share what they had lived through even with their closest friends or families. 

They have suffered years of physical and mental ill-health including chronic pain, gynaecological disorders, anxiety and depression. 

They have lived in extreme poverty and deprivation and for many years were unable to access the necessary health care and emotional and psychological support they needed. The hardest part, they told the court, was living with the shame and fear. 

They were outcasts from their communities who labelled them as the ‘bad women’.  

When they finally began to speak to each other about the crimes committed against them and to tell their stories to the psychologists and lawyers of MTM, ECAP and UNAMG, they realised that justice was not only necessary but possible. 

In 2010 they decided to break their silence and initiate legal proceedings against the two military officials who were in command of the military base of Sepur Zarco when the crimes occurred. 

Throughout the reading of the sentence on Friday, 26 February, Judge Barrios made reference to the fact that the women were targeted because of their husbands’ attempts to obtain legal titles for their land. 

That they had no involvement with Guatemala’s left wing guerrilla forces and had never heard the word ‘guerrilla’ before until the soldiers showed up. 

They were, in effect, punished for their husbands’ attempts to exert their land rights. 

The disappearances of their husbands and the violence they experienced were used to deter other indigenous famers and campesinos from pursuing land claims. 

“The army took advantage of their vulnerability as women, the fact that they were widows...  We find the treatment these women were subjected to completely denigrating; they were treated worse than animals.”

The court emphasized that crimes like this must never be repeated in Guatemala and ended by saying “Knowing the truth can help to heal the wounds of the past.” 

As Judge Barrios made the final declaration of a guilty verdict the usually somber Guatemala Supreme Court of Justice erupted with applause and cheering.

The women who gave testimony at the trial waved their hands in the air in jubilation and gratitude to the court and the hundreds of people gathered in solidarity. 

Indigenous women attending one of the audiences in solidarity with the women of Sepur Zarco

Indigenous women attend in solidarity with the women of Sepur Zarco. Photo: Mujeres Transformando el Mundo

The same court ordered on Wednesday, 2 March, that the accused pay damages to each of the women who lost their husbands and to those who experienced sexual violence, the sentence must be taught in schools and must be translated into the 24 officially recognised indigenous languages in Guatemala. 

The State must ensure the women finally obtain titles to their land and that the armed forces receive training in human rights. 

The Sepur Zarco case marks the first time in history that sexual crimes related to armed conflict have been tried in a national court. 

It sets a strong precedent for the other 1500 Guatemalan women who are survivors of sexual violence committed during the armed conflict that they too might see justice done. 

Trócaire staff accompanied the 15 women throughout the three weeks of the trial and will continue to support them over the next months and years to ensure that the sentence is carried out and that they receive their due reparations. 

Learn more about Trócaire’s work in Guatemala.