Sepur Zarco: Landmark Sexual Violence Case in Guatemala


Image from the Sepur Zarco trial taken by Nelton Rivera

On Monday, February 1, the landmark Sepur Zarco trial opened in Guatemala City before High-Risk Court A. It is first time that a case of sexual violence related to Guatemala’s 36-year internal armed conflict is being prosecuted in a Guatemalan court. It is also the first time that a domestic court in any country is hearing charges of sexual and domestic slavery charged as international crimes.

Jo-Marie Burt has been writing about the trial for International Justice Monitor and I am summarising below her reports of the first two weeks of the trial.

The two accused are Lieutenant Colonel Esteelmer Reyes Giron, former commander of Sepur Zarco military base, and former military commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asig, and the trial is taking place in the same courtroom in which the genocide trial against José Efraín Ríos Montt took place nearly three years ago.

Reyes Giron was charged with crimes against humanity in the form of sexual violence, sexual and domestic slavery against 11 women; the murder of Dominga Choc and her two small children; and cruel treatment of two children. Valdez Asig was charged with the forced disappearance of six men, who were the husbands of the female victims of sexual violence; and crimes against humanity in the form of sexual violence against one woman. The prosecutor said that these crimes were violations of international humanitarian law, and as such, constituted war crimes.

The majority of the witnesses speak the Mayan Q’eqchi’ language, and interpreters were presented to the court. The interpreters translated each question and the witness responses.

Pedro Cuc, whose son was disappeared by the military, testified that he, along with other men from Sepur Zarco, were forced to build the military base. He said that the soldiers forced the women to cook and clean for them, saying “We all knew they were being raped, though I didn’t see it with my own eyes.” He said it was impossible to imagine disobeying the military’s orders. He ended his testimony saying: “I can do nothing more but ask for justice.”

Juan Maquín Caal, whose father was disappeared by the military, affirmed that soldiers had forced women to work as their domestic slaves. “They forced the women to cook. The women said that they caused them to suffer a lot. They told us that they raped them,” he said. “Those who caused us harm live well,” he said, “while we continue to suffer the consequences.”

Rogelio Hüitz Chon was 12 years old when he was detained and tortured at the Sepur Zarco military base. His father was also disappeared. He said he wanted justice, and he said to the judges, “If they offer you money, do not accept it.”

Petrona Choc Cuc was the first woman to testify and spoke to the court in person and testified about the sexual violence that she and her daughter experienced at the hands of soldiers in the Sepur Zarco military base. Unlike most of the women survivors, she wore no scarf over her head to protect her identity. She said that her husband was killed by the soldiers, but she and her children managed to flee further in the mountains. Conditions were so dire, however, that they decided to go back. “We went to the military base and got on our knees and begged them to forgive us, to not kill us.” She added: “They told us to go take a shower. Then a fat man came, he was the first one to rape us, then other smaller men came and raped us.” She added: “Many times I was raped. One of my daughters was raped too…. Every day I suffer because of what they did to me.” She added: “The soldiers said, ‘No one asks about you anymore, no one cares about you. You belong to us now’.”

Arturo Choc Chub testified that the army detained five men from his village, who never returned. He also stated he was married to Magdalena Pop, who he affirmed was raped in the military base. Magdalena Pop died three years ago and her testimony was presented before a preliminary court and entered as evidence.

Manuel Cu, was deputy mayor of the community of Miguelito. He testified that in 1982 he was detained and beaten by soldiers. “They kicked me in the stomach, in my back. It was very painful,” he said. “It was a tremendous suffering,” he said. “They treated me like an animal. They urinated on me. They dragged me around like a cart in the mud.” His wife was raped while he was detained in the military base.

Santos Be Xol was captured by soldiers who took him to a house with several others. He said of these, six were killed while three, himself included, were released alive. He testified that a woman in the house named Manuela Tiul told him that she and other women were raped in Pataxté military base.

Manuel Ical testified that the women who were being held within the Sepur Zarco military base were forced to make tortillas and food for the soldiers. “The (soldiers) did whatever they wanted to the women,” he said. He said he had knowledge that many people were killed in Sepur Zarco. “I was forced to dig large pits,” he said. “That was where they dumped the bodies.”

Five of a total of 15 videotaped testimonies of women victims of sexual violence were presented in court. The videotaped witness testimonies were taken in preliminary evidentiary hearings overseen by Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez in 2012 and were accepted as evidence at that time. This was requested by the prosecution and civil parties because many of the victim witnesses, especially the women victims of sexual violence, are of advanced age. Use of the pre-recorded testimony also helps prevent the re-traumatization of victims of sexual violence, who would have been obliged to repeat their testimony otherwise.

On the fifth day of the trial, a protected witness, who had been forcibly recruited into the army and was stationed at the Sepur Zarco military base, testified about the abuses he witnessed there, confirming that women were victims of sexual violence and forced labor at Sepur Zarco.

Catalina Mash stated, on videotape, that Valdez Asig brought the military to their community and testified that soldiers raped her in her home. “They grabbed my hands and they threw me on the ground,” she said, crying; three soldiers raped her several times in one day. The military killed one of her daughters, who was pregnant at the time. She also testified that her ten-year-old son witnessed soldiers torturing her husband in the Tinajas military base; he was later killed.

Rosario Xoc, also on videotape, testified that her husband was disappeared by a man known as Gilberto Asig and that she was repeatedly raped by soldiers. She said that she had to walk a certain distance to get water, and every time she did the soldiers would pursue her. “They threw me on the ground and raped me right there. My four-year-old son saw it. These abuses led her to flee to the mountains, where she said she and her children lived in inhuman conditions, with little food and no shelter from the cold. “I thought that my children would be safe there, but instead, they died of hunger,” she said.

Mateo Rax Maquín was detained and brought to the military base. “The army detained us. One man had a list in his hand. Those whose names appeared on this list were being detained.” He believed that those detained were being targeted because of their efforts to seek land titles in the community. He stated that the military arrived in the community and would rape the women whose husbands had been disappeared. He affirmed that accompanying the soldiers was Heriberto Valdez Asig, and pointing to the defendant, stated “That’s him. There he is.”

Matilde Choc, whose testimony was also presented using pre-recorded video, said soldiers detained her father and that she was raped by soldiers repeatedly in her own home. This led her to decide to flee to the mountains with her mother and children. They were in the mountains for six years. Four of her children died because of the harsh conditions there.

Julia Cuc Choc described the killing of her daughter Dominga Cuc and her two granddaughters in 1982. She was told that her daughter had been killed at the edge of the river. She said her daughter had also been raped by soldiers. “After they killed my daughter they demanded food from us,” she said. “They forced us. They would come and surround our homes. We were very afraid.” She also described the exhumations that were conducted many years later, in which they found her daughter’s body, but only the underclothes of her granddaughters. “In the exhumation they found hair, clothes, and my daughter’s bones. But they only found the undergarments of my granddaughters. Their bones had turned to dust.”

Marcos Tut testified that soldiers would grab people as they were walking, while Domingo Tzup testified that he and his family members fled into the mountains in response to the military presence in their community. He said that when they returned to the house they found that his father had been killed.

Domingo Chub Pop testified that the conflict in Sepur Zarco started when the community began demanding land titles. His father was one of the leaders of this process. Inside the military base there was a place referred to as the “dungeon,” which was a pit where they held detainees. He related how one time soldiers tossed a grenade into the pit with several people inside it. He also said that soldiers killed a woman named Minga along with her two daughters near the edge of a stream; this may have been a reference to Dominga Cuc.

Vicente Choc confirmed the testimony of other men in this case about having to participate in forced labour at the military base. He testified that he saw soldiers take away his father-in-law, Miguel Cucul Caal. “They took him away, and he never returned,” he said. “We were afraid of the military, they were always angry. We never dared look them in the face.”

Domingo Coc was emphatic in his narration about the relationship between the persecution he and the other members of Sepur Zarco community suffered and the poverty in which they continue to live today. “I remain poor because of the soldiers. I’m very sad because I lost my father. He was killed in the Sepur Zarco [military base].” “The people who did this are free, they eat well, while we remain poor,” he said. “I want to know what this tribunal is going to say about the murder of my father,” he stated.

Another protected witness, who had been forcibly recruited into the army and worked at the Sepur Zarco military base, spoke about the abuses he witnessed there. The former soldier confirmed that women were victims of sexual violence at the military base and that they were forced to work at the base cooking and washing clothes for the soldiers. He also corroborated witness testimony provided to date asserting that the local landowners (finqueros) had called upon the military to deal with a land conflict in the area. “The military arrived because of the finqueros. They were taking away the community’s lands. That is why the community members were organizing to obtain legal title to their lands,” he said.

Rosa Tiul, through videotape, went into great detail about how the military base was created in the community, how she and other women were forced to cook and clean for the soldiers, and how she and other women were the victims of repeated sexual abuse by the soldiers. At the base there were rooms where they would take the women to rape them. “Sometimes there were three, four, or even five of them,” she said. She said she had been forced to cook for the soldiers for six months inside Sepur Zarco military base, then she was allowed to go back to her home. However, she had to keep providing them with tortillas, and she was also often raped.

The second week of the trial began with testimonies from a number of expert witnesses, including historians, forensic anthropologists and archaeologists, and social psychologists.

Juan Carlos Peláez Villalobos testified about the history of land conflicts in the Polochic Valley, where Sepur Zarco is located. Historically this territory belonged to the Maya Q’eqchi’, but over the years they lost their land through fraud and violence. Community leaders in the early 1980s attempted to obtain legal title to their lands in order to prevent ongoing land grabs by local landowners, or finqueros. The expert testified about the nature of land acquisition: “The landed estates (fincas) are created in direct relationship to the dismemberment of the historic territory of the Maya Q’eqchi’ in Sepur Zarco.” Several witnesses testified that the men who were disappeared or killed by the military when they first arrived in the region were community leaders who were trying to obtain legal titles to community lands. Several witnesses also asserted that the finqueros called upon the military to come to the area to help them suppress these activities. “The finqueros were afraid that the truth [about these irregularities] would become known… They had to silence the indigenous communities.” Sexual violence was a symbol of domination by the finqueros to ensure the submission of the peasant farmers. However, he said, because of the deep-seated racism in Guatemala, the finqueros themselves would rarely rape an indigenous woman; they would send their administrators, or the police or military, to do this.

Karen Peña Juarez is a physician and forensic psychiatrist who works at the National Institute of Forensic Anthropology (INACIF). She described how the victims experienced real physical ailments associated with the abuse they suffered (women who experienced multiple rapes have chronic back pain, for example) as well as psychosomatic pain, including fear, physical pain, and stress, that is the result of severe trauma that they experienced.

Jorge Luis Romero de Paz, from the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG) testified about the exhumations conducted in Tinajas military base. He described interviews with 107 individuals, in which the community members consistently accused the army, military commissioners, and the finqueros of perpetrating enforced disappearances against community leaders, mostly men. This was done either by abducting them from their homes or calling them to meetings from which they never returned. In addition, the FAFG interviewed survivors of sexual violence and domestic and sexual slavery, who directly described the abuses they suffered. The expert also stated that every one of the 78 family groups in Sepur Zarco suffered a violation during this period.

Candelaria Maas Sacul, through videotaped testimony, testified that she witnessed soldiers take away her husband, Ricardo Caal. She has not yet found his body. She stated that she believed they killed him because he was one of the community leaders seeking to obtain land titles. She also stated that soldiers brought her to the Sepur Zarco military base, where they raped her and forced her to work for six months. She stated she received no payment for the work she did at the base, and that she even had to buy the soap to wash the soldiers’ clothes. During that time, she was raped every other day by soldiers.

One of the most dramatic moments of the proceedings was the presentation of 38 boxes filled with human remains and the belongings of 51 victims who were killed at the military bases in Tinajas and Sepur Zarco. Only two of the 51 victims have been positively identified, in part due to the deteriorated nature of the bones, making identification difficult. One of the individuals identified was the husband of one of the victims of sexual violence in this case.

Juan Carlos Gatica Pérez, FAFG forensic archaeologist, testified that the FAFG team found 48 complete bodies and the remains of three additional people. In addition to human remains, they found ropes, blindfolds, shoelaces, clothing made of synthetic material, coins, and other such items, in the gravesites. About half of the bodies were found lying face down, while about half were found lying face up, which the witness said revealed that the bodies had been thrown into the grave rather than being placed there as would be consistent with a traditional burial site or cemetery. Many of the bodies were found with ropes tied around their wrists, ankles and necks, he said. Also, the bodies were buried with no protective covering, and as a result the bones were badly deteriorated. Chemicals from the nearby sugar plantation that seep into the earth may have also contributed to the deterioration of the bones, according to the expert.

Oscar Ariel Ixpatan, also a forensic archaeologist from FAFG, confirmed that 23 of the remains were masculine; it was impossible to determine the sex of the remaining bodies. He stated that the remains revealed signs of severe trauma, including bullet wounds and cuts that were the result of sharp objects like machetes or axes. Ixpatan confirmed that many of the bodies had been found with ropes tied around their wrists and ankles and necks. Ixpatan also stated that the FAFG team found several coins dating from 1969 to 1979, which helps circumscribe the dates in which the events occurred.

The remains for two of the victims were not presented in court because they had been positively identified and returned to their relatives for burial. The victims in question were Sebastián Coc and Sabino Chen Chaman. The prosecution noted that Sebastián Coc was the husband of one of eleven victims of sexual violence, Rosa Tiul, whose pre-recorded testimony was presented in court on Friday, February 5.

The tribunal then ordered the opening of each of the boxes, which contained the remains of one or two people each, and exhibited them briefly on the raised platform just at the foot of the bench. It was a sombre moment, with national and international press there to record the moving images of the first bones and articles of clothing being removed from the boxes.

The case continues and you can read Jo-Marie’s testimonies in detail, here, on the International Justice Monitor website. The photograph by Nelton Rivera is one of a piece from Prensa Comunitaria here.


Categories: Gender, Guatemala, Indigenous peoples, Justice, Land, Military, Violence

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