read about other days at the trial here.
Sepur Zarco Trial Day 12: “I came here to tell what happened to me so that it wouldn’t be repeated. I don’t want this for the future.”
By Kristine Johnston
Guatemala City, Tuesday, February 16, 2016
Today began with an expert witness, Aresenio García Cores, who talked about the international standards of testimony credibility in cases of sexual violence and human rights violations citing five main concepts: coherence, congruency, consistency, probability, and credibility. Credibility can determine whether or not justice is obtained in cases like this one, he said, so it was important for the prosecution to prove that the testimonies they provided were credible.
His testimony was broken into two parts. In the first half, he explained that several things had to be considered when evaluating the credibility of a testimony of this nature: (1) an understanding of the context of the country of origin; in this case, Guatemala in the 1980s. (2) The application of international credibility standards on torture. To further describe this, he talked about the use of silence as the ultimate torture tool because it paralyses populations. (3) Understanding that traumatic events affect victims’ memories; it is common for victims to be unable to remember specific dates and times associated with traumatic events. (4) A focus on gender stigmatization and its effects. He said that “stigma is the most harmful wound in an extermination because it lies outside the boundaries of the law and has a huge impact”, noting that “the women are still living in a racist society”. (5) A focus on cultural diversity and the importance of understanding the cultural context of the crimes. The women in this case are Q’eqchi and, oftentimes, because of cultural inequalities, the responsibility of the violations was not only placed on the perpetrators, but also on the victims: “they were met with humiliation and shame”. (6) The influence of the educational level of the victims. Other expert witnesses have noted that the women in this case likely didn’t have the education necessary to construct such a complex narrative as well as to maintain it over time. Finally, he asked the court to consider (7) the collection of testimonies and the influence of translation. He continued his analysis by explaining that there is a difference between a contradiction and a discrepancy, saying that not all discrepancies are contradictions and that the credibility of the testimonies shouldn’t be based on a compulsive search for contradictions. He also stated that while dates are important, they are only elements of the narrative. He gave several explanations as to why the testimonies in this case can be viewed as credible, including a graph showing their high level of interrelation. For example, Lieutenant Reyes was mentioned in 8 testimonies, including 5 female victims; Heriberto Asig was mentioned in 7 testimonies, including one female victim; sexual slavery at Sepur Zarco was mentioned by 11 victims; there were consistencies in locations mentioned when describing specific crimes that occurred; and the list goes on.
In the second half of his testimony, he talked about the coherency of the testimonies and about how the women reported an abundance of details, their stories matched each other on all main threads of the narrative, and that the existence of minor discrepancies didn’t affect the overall logic of the narrative. He said that the testimonies in this case were coherent both individually and collectively and concluded that, based on international standards, they could be considered credible beyond a reasonable doubt. He finished his testimony by touching briefly on breaking the silence surrounding these crimes, saying that sexual violence against women, especially Mayan women, during the conflict was largely silenced in an effort to make it seem as though it didn’t exist and that this is how collective memory disappears. The women were blamed by many people in their communities for the violence and suffering they endured, and were sometimes stigmatized so much by their communities that they became separated from them. This part of the testimony, for me, really spoke to the strength of the women seeking justice for these crimes. Despite all that they’d endured, and are now reliving, they are standing up and continuing to fight so that these crimes aren’t repeated.
On the screen as he was questioned by the prosecution and the defense was this quote: “Como no sabemos escribir no lo pudimos escribir, aunque todo está en nuestro corazón y en nuestra cabeza” (In English: “Since we don’t know how to write, we couldn’t write it down [what happened], but everything is in our hearts and in our heads”), taken from an interview with victims in Guatemala City on September 18th, 2014.
Next, we heard from another female victim. She spoke of the hardships she endured after her husband had been taken from her and her children and of the changes in their community. She remembered that her husband didn’t want to go on patrols (with the Civil Defense Patrols), but that the soldiers threatened him with death if he didn’t join them. When left without a husband, she was forced by soldiers to cook and clean (with soap she bought with her own money) at the military outpost, and was often sexually abused while she was there. The first time she was raped, she was in her own home. She said that the soldiers would also abuse young girls while they were assaulting her. Dominga Coc was her cousin, whose remains, along with her two daughters Hermelinda and Anita, were found on the banks of the river called Rojquipur near the Sepur Zarco base in 2001. She said that their communities are now being repopulated, but that the new generation doesn’t understand or know about what they were forced to live through during the years of the armed conflict. “I came here to tell what happened to me so that it wouldn’t be repeated. I don’t want this for the future,” she said.
After the lunch recess, we heard from the second expert witness of the day, a forensic archeologist named Renaldo Leonel Acevedo who works for FAFG (the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala). He presented findings from two exhumations: one at Sepur Zarco, and one on the grounds around the Tinajas finca in Alta Verapaz. To corroborate the testimony we’d just heard from a survivor, they found a skeleton near the river at the Sepur Zarco base of a female between the ages of 17 and 25, along with female clothing and two pairs of little girls’ underwear. This skeleton was identified as Domingo Coc and her daughters, and was located about 20-40 minutes from the river. He also showed us photos of the exhumation site and findings, as well as maps indicating the precise locations of the exhumations. The exhumation at the Tinajas finca included a total of 60 explored trenches. These exhumations uncovered 13 clandestine pits (4 individual and 9 collective) where they recuperated 48 incomplete articulated skeletons. The 50 individuals located were not buried in a consistent position, which suggests that the bodies were thrust into each of the clandestine pits by the perpetrators and not buried properly by loved ones. Also indicating the presence of violence were artifacts found with the remains: 14 had bandages on their face, 8 on their hands, 2 on their feet, and 1 on their neck. These findings are important to the prosecution because they indicate fowl play in the deaths of those exhumed in the clandestine pits. This expert testimony concluded the day. I left the court with a heavy but hopeful heart filled with admiration for the women seeking justice for these crimes.
Kristine Johnston is a graduate of St. Francis Xavier University and member of Breaking the Silence. She is currently volunteering with the New Hope Foundation in Guatemala.