In 1982, a group of Mayan men in the small Guatemalan village of Sepur Zarco filed for legal titles to win rights to the land they had famed and lived on for years. They were abducted by the military.
A few weeks later, the soldiers came for their wives. After burning down their houses and crops, and stealing their belongings, the soldiers forced 11 women to live in shacks outside a nearby military base. For the next 10 months, they were forced to cook, clean, and submit to rape for shifts of 12 hours at a time. Four of the women fled into the mountains only to see their children die in the extreme conditions. The others remained in captivity for the next six years.
Now, 30 years later, the women — who are now in their 70s and 80s — are having their day in court. One of them has died since they initially recorded their testimonies in 2012.
On Monday, the women gathered in a Guatemalan court to seek justice against two of their abusers. Esteelmer Francisco Reyes Girón, a former base commander, and former regional military commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asij, are accused of crimes against humanity perpetrated during the country’s bloody 36-year civil war.
“The Sepur Zarco case constitutes an example of perseverance and bravery on the part of the women survivors and the groups that accompany them, who have overcome fear and have undertaken this path towards justice,” Kelsey Alford-Jones of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission said in a statement.
Even though the war ended in 1996, justice has been hard to come by in Guatemala. That’s despite clear evidence of widespread abuses.
More than 42,000 men, women, and children were killed in the civil war, primarily at the hands of the military, according to a report by the United Nations’ Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH). The CEH also found that rape was used as a weapon of war.
“[T]he rape of women, during torture or before being murdered, was a common practice aimed at destroying one of the most intimate and vulnerable aspects of the individual’s dignity,” the 1999 report stated.
That’s partly why this case is so important.
“Guatemala’s Sepur Zarco trial could set a new precedent for prosecuting sexual violence in the context of armed conflict, which rights defenders say is one of the most widespread yet under recognized violations of human rights,” according to the Latin American news organization, TeleSur English. “The Sepur Zarco case has the potential to be a precedent-setting trial to break the cycle of impunity for sexual violence in Guatemala.”
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Winning justice in such cases from the country’s bloody civil war will require confronting the country’s ruling elite – some of whom have been charged with perpetuating violence during the bloodiest years in the Central American country’s history. The two men on trial served under General Efrain Jose Rios Montt, a man who went on to be military dictator. He has been charged with the crime of genocide. But despite two trials and one conviction, he has yet to be held accountable for his actions while leading the military during the most violent part of the civil war.
Although Guatemala elected a political outsider to the presidency in October, his administration has been forced to contend with the country’s dark past.
Just last week, the Guatemalan Supreme Court upheld a former military officer’s request to honor his immunity as a current member of Congress. Edgar Justino Ovalle, an adviser to President Jimmy Morales, is charged with carrying out war crimes and human rights offenses during the country’s nearly 40-year civil war.
Esteelmer Francisco Reyes Giron and Heriberto Valdez Asij were found guilty of crimes against humanity on Monday. They were sentenced to a combined total of 360 years in prison for murder, rape, and sexual slavery. The verdict marks the first successful prosecution of sexual violence related to the Guatemalan Civil War.