February 2, 2016
By Lisa Rankin and Fabienne Doiron
Today marked the second day of the Sepur Zarco trial, in which lieutenant colonel Esteelmer Francisco Reyes and former military commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asij are charged of crimes against humanity committed at the military base of Sepur Zarco and in surrounding communities in the early 1980s (For more information on the case and the charges, click here).
On day two, the court heard six witnesses. The first of the day and fourth of the trial, witness Don Arturo spoke of his own experiences at the Sepur Zarco military base and those of his wife, Magdelena, who died three years ago. She had been one of the complainants in the case and passed away shortly after giving an affidavit in pre-trial proceedings. Like the women, Don Arturo was taken to Sepur Zarco, where he was forced to work building the military base explaining that “they didn’t pay us one cent.” He told the court of being beaten once for not buying the soldiers cigarettes, being forced to patrol and not being allowed to take care of their own homes and land.
The second witness of the day, Don Manuel, was held captive in the military base for forty-five days, where he was tortured and “treated like an animal” by the soldiers. He told the court that while he was detained, his wife, who had recently given birth, was raped in their home. At the time, Don Manuel was an auxiliary mayor in his community, which was trying to legalize their land rights. He was forced to go around the community, and indicate where people participating in the legalization efforts lived. However, he says he “couldn’t do it because we’re all humans with the same god…[the men] are very grateful to me, because they’re still alive.”
The third witness of the second day of the hearing, and the sixth witness of the trial, Don Santos, testified to the court about his experience of being detained by soldiers and brought to the military base of Pataxte with 8 other men—6 of them were killed while he and 2 others were released. Don Santos remembered all their names: they were his brothers and neighbours. He recalled being told that women were raped in this military base as well. When asked why he was testifying, Don Santos explained: “I came to testify as resistance to the suffering we lived through, and so that you know my story.”
The next witness, Don Manuel, testified to his experience working on the Sepur Zarco base with other men from surrounding communities. He explained how some families were able to bring their things with them when they were forced to relocate to Sepur Zarco, but that everything that was left behind was burned and destroyed by the soldiers. He told the court how the men were put to work building the barracks, fencing, and landing strip at the base, and how he was also forced to dig pits where the soldiers later buried people. He named several women that he remembered being at the base, explaining that he saw them working in the kitchen as he was often tasked with carrying water that would be used for cooking. Don Manuel identified Valdez Asij in court, explaining that he knew him because he’d been auxiliary mayor of his community and therefore had to travel to Panzós where Valdez Asij was a municipal police officer. He described “El Cache Asij” as a man with a lot of authority and who was very well-known, and that “he always carried a list of names. If your name was on that list you disappeared.”
The court heard two more witnesses before breaking for the day. The first was Doña Petrona who spoke of having been held and sexually assaulted at two different military bases in the region: Sepur Zarco and Tinajas. Unlike the complainants in the case, she only ‘served’ at Sepur Zarco for a short period of time: six days, after which she was able to leave. However, during her time there, she, like the others, was forced to work cooking large pots of food and was raped repeatedly by several soldiers, who also raped her daughter. She explained that the only ‘payment’ they ever received was four tortillas, and recalled that the soldiers would taunt them, saying that they weren’t hungry anyways since they had already eaten in the mountains with the guerrilleros. Doña Petrona also spoke proudly of having taught her two young sons how to work the fields after having left Sepur Zarco, and of having managed to sustain them into adulthood despite all the hardships she suffered.
The last witness of the day, and the ninth of the trial, was Don Mariano. He was able to corroborate much of the testimonies given by other men who had been held at the Sepur Zarco base. He too spoke of having been forced to relocate there and being put to work building the fencing and barracks at the base, often with material that had been stolen from other communities. He witnessed the women being put to work cooking and washing the soldiers’ clothes, with soap that they had to buy themselves. He was also able to name several of the women he remembers being forced to work at the base, including his mother-in-law.
The most pertinent question of the trial so far was posed not by any of the lawyers, but by Doña Petrona. In the middle of her testimony, she looked up at the panel of judges and asked: “What will the law say about what happened to us? Will there be justice or are things going to stay as they are after all of these years that we’ve suffered?” These questions remain to be answered.
Tomorrow, it’s expected that the prosecution will present the pre-trial testimonies produced by the 15 complainants in 2012 before continuing with it two last witnesses on Thursday.
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.
Lisa Rankin is co-coordinator of the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Solidarity Network, which has a relationship with the Guatemalan Women’s Union (UNAMG), one of the lead supporting organizations of the Sepur Zarco trial. Lisa has acted as international human rights accompanier with ACOGUATE and intern with the Rabinal Community Legal Clinic. She is a student in the Master’s of Adult Education and Community Development program at St. Francis Xavier University.