Written by Lisa and Laura

Wednesday, January 5th, 2022

“This is a historic day not only for the 5 women but for the 1000s of women victims of sexual violence during the Internal Armed Conflict.” – Lawyer Haydee Valey, Impunity Watch

The second morning of the trial began after the first scheduled day was delayed due to the absence of the defense lawyer, Julio Cesar Colindres Monterroso. The small courtroom, adhering to COVID-distancing protocols, was filled with the legal team for the 36 Maya Achi Survivors of Sexual Violence, press, accompaniers, and the women who had travelled from Rabinal, Baja Verapaz to witness the proceedings.

Today, the previously absent defence lawyer was present to provide the explanation that their absence was due to a heart condition. As a result, he claimed he would continue to miss scheduled hearings for the trial. Colindres asked for an eight-day suspension in order to prepare another lawyer to fill in in his absence. The judge rejected the request and asked that the other lawyer be present from now on to familiarize themselves with the case.

With that sorted, the trial began.

(Photo Credits: Verdad y Justicia)

The Public Prosecutor (MP)’s opening statement highlighted the severity of the atrocities committed by the five former civil patrollers against five women from Rabinal, Baja Verapaz. The testimony of the 5 female survivors, one of whom was 12 years old at the time, and 2 of whom were pregnant, will be the key evidence in this case. These 5 women only represent a small percentage of the sexual violence committed against women in Rabinal during the Internal Armed Conflict (IAC).

Lawyer Lucia Xiloj’s opening statement spoke to the systematic nature this sexual violence represents for many women in Guatemala and especially Maya Achi women during the IAC. Women in Rabinal and surrounding communities were subjected to the control of a military base, military outposts, and the civil patrols supported by the military. Multiple rapes, sexual violence against pregnant women, and detention was a pattern across Guatemala during the IAC. In this case, the husbands of the women were disappeared and killed, whereupon the women were attacked in their homes or detained in military bases and detachments.

Lawyer Gloria Reyes of the Rabinal Legal Clinic (ABJP), declared that it is an important day for the Maya Achi people. These 36 women represented by the case have faced an outpouring of intimidation as they denounced these crimes. Additionally, there are many women whose crimes are not included in this case as they were killed or disappeared. However, this case recognizes the systematic and generalized nature of the sexual violence perpetrated against women and families at this time. She stated that the state must recognize the damage done to the social fabric of the Maya Achi people.

In her opening statements, lawyer Haydee Valey stressed that the long-term impacts of sexual violence should be acknowledged. Especially where it was a state policy to use sexual violence as a weapon of war against women during the IAC.

(Lawyers Gloria Reyes, Lucía Xiloj, and Haydeé Valey. Photo Credit: Verdad y Justicia)

In the opening statements of the defense, the Guatemalan State, represented by the National General Ombuds Office (PGN) argued that the accused were in fact civilians and not state actors and therefore the State could not be held responsible. However, it is important to note that the accused men were civil patrollers at the time and there is proof that the civil patrols were linked to the Guatemalan army (this includes military reports and the infamous Plan Victoria 82, the military’s counterinsurgency campaign against Indigenous communities perceived to support the guerrilla movement).

The lawyer of the accused men argued against the evidence provided, stating there was no physical proof that they were civil patrollers or that they were present for the commission of the crimes. The defense argued that the women’s testimonies are inconsistent and therefore invalid. However, as Lucia Xiloj argued in her opening statement, despite the fact the crimes occurred over 40 years ago and were first denounced ten years ago in 2011, the women will never forget what happened to them. Nevertheless, apart from the first-hand testimony that will serve as the bedrock of this case, the prosecution has also prepared over 20 expert witnesses and various witnesses who are giving their testimony anonymously with court protection because they are from Rabinal and could be at risk for speaking out.

The accused (Benbenuto Ruiz Aquino, Bernardo Ruiz Aquino, Damian Cuxum Alvarado, Gabriel Cuxum Alvarado, Francisco Cuxum Alvarado) were given the chance to make a statement but all five men declined.

The first expert witness, professor of anthropology, Dr. Aura Estela Cumes Simón, then began to testify. She explained that when confronted with sexual violence and the counterinsurgency policy, Maya Achi Women suffered from not only machismo but also racism and that sexual violence was used as a weapon of torture to destroy Achi culture.

The Achi women were subjected to public and repetitive sexual violence often by multiple actors. The civil patrollers committing these acts employed government resources to facilitate this violence, including but not limited to vehicles, uniforms, etc. Women had no safe refuge given the power of the military and civil patrols, finding themselves in danger in their homes, the streets, and military bases. As a result, they fell victim to severe torture and abuse. Additionally, their houses were raided and burned. This sexual and overt violence affected their livelihoods and led them to live in poverty, hunger, or flee into the mountains for safety. These episodes of sexual violence destroyed the integrity of the women’s lives, leaving lasting impacts. Above all, they were considered enemies of the state because they were women, Indigenous, and lived in rural communities.

In the afternoon, Dr. Irma Alicia Velasquez presented her expert report, drawn from interviews with the 35 women in the case who suffered sexual violence in Rabinal during the IAC. She interviewed the women about their lives before the sexual violence occurred, during, and after. She found that the women were not poor or vulnerable before the arrival of the Guatemalan army and the creation of the civil patrols. However, during the 1980s, a period of time during which genocide was perpetrated against the Mayan people of Guatemala, the men in the families of rural, Indigenous communities of Rabinal and around Guatemala were accused of being guerrilas or subversives. After the husbands, fathers, brothers and uncles were killed or forcibly disappeared, the women were told they were “paying” for the crimes of their family members by being tortured with sexual violence. Dr. Velasquez found clear patterns of violence perpetrated against the women and the wider community of Rabinal. One pattern was the use of violence and state power during the IAC to appropriate land and natural resources, as was the case of Rio Negro, which suffered 5 massacres during a push by the Guatemalan State to build a hydroelectric dam which eventually flooded the community. 18 women interviewed reported that they had lost land during the IAC.

(Photo taken during the ceremony held January 4th before the commencement of the trial. Photo Credit: Verdad y Justicia)

She also spoke about the destruction of homes, the theft of food and animals, and the burning of crops as an attempt to slowly kill the women, their families, and their culture. 14 of the women had children or grandchildren killed, stolen, or who died from illness during the IAC. After suffering sexual violence, the women were plagued with shame, facing stigma and for years which forced them to confront their reality and trauma alone in silence.

Tomorrow there will be more expert testimony to further develop the historical context in which this sexual violence occurred and support the case against the five former civil patrollers.

Read the report back for day 1 here.
Read the report back for day 3 here.