sepur zarco

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Guatemala City
February 1, 2016

By Fabienne Doiron

It was 7:30am in Guatemala City, dozens of people were lining up waiting for the courthouse to open. There’s often a line-up here, but this morning’s was longer, filled with women holding up white flowers, many of them wearing indigenous Maya traje. At the front of the line someone had set up a circle of candles and flowers, in the style of Mayan ceremonies, surrounded by signs of support for the women at the centre of the trial that was about to begin inside. “Apoyamos a las valiente mujeres que reclaman justicia” (We support the courageous women who demand justice)read one, “No mas abuso sexual y esclavitud. Estamos con ustedes” (No more sexual abuse and slavery. We are with you) read another.

The complainants in this case, all Maya Q’eqchi’ women, have waited a long time for justice. Thirty-three years and counting. Today, the trial against the two men accused of having subjected them to sexual violence as well as sexual and domestic slavery during one of the most intense periods of the internal armed conflict finally opened. Lieutenant colonel Esteelmer Francisco Reyes Girón faces charges of crimes against humanity (sexual violence, sexual and domestic slavery) against 11 women, the assassination of another woman and her two young daughters, and of cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment against two girls. Former military commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asij, known as “El Canche Asij,” is charged with the forced disappearance of six men and crimes against humanity (sexual violence) against one woman.

Candles and flowers outside the Supreme Court of Justice, where the Sepur Zarco Sexual Slavery Case Opened on February 1, 2016.

Candles and flowers outside the Supreme Court of Justice, where the Sepur Zarco Sexual Slavery Case Opened on February 1, 2016.

Fifteen women gave their testimony in a pre-trial evidentiary hearing in 2012, after placing a complaint with the Public Prosecutor’s office a year earlier (one of the women passed away only a few months after this hearing, leaving fourteen complainants involved in the trial today). The crimes date back to 1982 when a number of military bases were being installed in the Polochic valley to better control villagers in the resource-rich region, whose efforts to obtain title to the land on which they lived and farmed had attracted the ire of large landowners and business interests. For all of the complainants in the case, the violence started with the forced disappearance of their husbands—who were organizing around land issues—at the hands of the army and local military commissioners, after which they themselves were forced to relocate to Sepur Zarco, near a military base then under the command of Reyes Girón. There, they were ordered to report to the base every few days to complete “shifts” where they cooked and washed the soldiers clothes, and were routinely sexually assaulted. To escape this fate, many women fled to the mountains where they suffered many other indignities.

They have faced disbelief and threats, been shunned by their communities, called “whores,” and the “soldier’s women,” and yet have continued to struggle for justice, to insist that what they are saying is true and asking those of us who listen to their life stories to believe them.

This case is an important one in many respects: it is the first case being tried specifically for sexual violence and crimes against Mayan women during the conflict (previous trials, including the genocide case against Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez in 2013, included some of these crimes, but were not the main focus of the accusation). It is also the first time that these types of crimes committed in the context of an armed conflict are being tried by a national court in the country where they were committed.

After a long wait and several security checks, a few hundred people sat in the courtroom (the Guatemalan Supreme Court having lent its main courtroom for the trial, after much insistence from the social organizations representing the complainants), most of the audience there to show their support for the Q’eqchi’ women who have been leading this process since 2011.

Despite Reyes Girón’s defense’s best efforts to stall the process—presenting four different motions for the recusal of the judges, all of which were rejected—the court began hearing testimonies related to the facts of the case around midday. Three Q’eqchi’ men, villagers from some of the same communities as the complainants and all of which had family members who were killed or disappeared, testified to their own experiences of violence in the region and at the Sepur Zarco base during the conflict.

The first witness, Pedro Cuc, explained how soldiers ordered him and other members of his community to dismantle their homes and carry the building materials to Sepur Zarco. There, they were forced to provide the labour to build the Sepur Zarco military base, using these same materials. When asked by one of the prosecutors what happened if they didn’t follow these orders Cuc explained that “we were afraid of the soldiers, they got mad and responded in a bad way” if they didn’t obey them and stating simply, that he had learned that lesson when his son was killed.

Juan Maquín Caal then told the court of how theviolence in his community forced him and his family to seek refuge in the mountains, where he stayed for 6 years, and where he lost his brothers and sisters: one sister was killed by the army, the others died of hunger. After coming down from the mountain, he was sent to live in Sepur Zarco, where he heard stories of the women’s suffering there, and of how they were raped. Maquín Caal also recounted an encounter with one of the accused, Valdez Asij, in nearby Panzós, where Valdez Asij was also a Municipal Police officer. After accusing him of being a guerrillero, Valdez Asij told him about leading soldiers in sweeps through communities in the Sierra de las Minas during which many men were killed, that Maquín Caal was lucky to have escaped and that he hoped he had learned his lesson.

Yasmin Barrios is the presiding judge in the Sepur Zarco Sexual Slavery Trial, brought forward by 15 Maya Qeqchi women.

Yasmin Barrios is the presiding judge in the Sepur Zarco Sexual Slavery Trial, brought forward by 15 Maya Q’eqchi’ women.

The third and final witness of the day, Rogelio Hütz Chon testified to being taken to the base and beaten there when he was 12 years old, leaving him with a broken ribs and a broken hip. There, he witnessed the women cooking large quantities of food for the soldiers and said he recognized Reyes from the base. In fact, Hütz Chon asserted that he knows both of the accused in the case, and identified them in the courtroom, pointing them out at the defense table. He told of knowing Valdez Asij from when he captured his father, and from his subsequent visits to Panzós to look for his father, whom he never saw again. Importantly, Hütz Chon insisted that “all of these things that I am telling you about didn’t only happen to my father, but happened to many people. He was someone with a lot of power there in Panzós.”

Day two of the Sepur Zarco trial is set for Tuesday, Febuary 2, 2016.

Fabienne Doiron has extensive experience working and conducting field research in Guatemala for the past 12 years and is a doctoral candidate in Gender, Feminist, and Women’s Studies at York University. She is a research associate with the Center for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean (CERLAC) and the Centre for Feminist Studies. Fabienne is currently working with Professor Alison Crosby on research focused on reparations for women survivors of sexual violence during the Guatemalan armed conflict. She is a former international human rights accompanier in Guatemala and member of the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network.