Remembering victims outside the courthouse in Guatemala City. Photos by Manuel de Jesus Castillo Paiz.
12/19/16 update to this story: Fourteen Maya Q'eqchi women of Sepur Zarco, enslaved by the Guatemalan military in 1982, were awarded the Juan Jose Gerardi Human Rights Award in a December 9 ceremony in Guatemala City. Two former Guatemalan army officers were convicted in the Sepur Zarco case earlier this year, marking the first time military personnel had been convicted of the enslavement of women by a domestic court anywhere in the world. Eleven Sepur Zarco survivors attended the five-week trial completely covered in traditional Q'eqchi clothing, afraid to reveal their identities. But in the emotional December 9 awards ceremony, the women revealed their faces to a swarm of Latin American journalists, afraid no more. The annual Gerardi award is awarded by the archbishop of Guatemala and is named after former Guatemalan Archbishop Juan Jose Gerardi, a human rights crusader whose 1998 assassination inspired “The Art of Political Assassination,” a New York Times bestseller.
In the first trial of its kind anywhere in the world, a Guatemalan court has convicted two military officers for sexual enslavement of women during the country's long civil war. The case, known as Sepur Zarco for the village where the crimes took place, has grabbed national headlines and caught the attention of the global human rights community. The court convicted the men on February 26 for crimes against humanity.
Never before have military personnel been tried for wartime sex crimes by a national, domestic court—only by international tribunals.
Two years ago, few outside the hot, steamy, lowland Department of Izabal in northern Guatemala had ever heard of Sepur Zarco. But that all changed in 2014. Eighteen years after the 1996 end of the nation’s thirty-six-year civil war, the two government soldiers, formerly posted to Sepur Zarco, were arrested and charged with murder and the enslavement of women for purposes of labor and sex. Sepur Zarco was about to take its place in global human rights history.
Throughout the four-week Guatemala City trial, twelve surviving victims, all indigenous Q’eqchi women, sat together silently in a group behind the long prosecution table, their faces almost completely covered with colorful scarves. Thirty years after their nightmare, they still fear being identified.
Twelve survivors of the atrocities, who even now hide their faces, have waited for over 30 years for justice. They received a standing ovation when they entered the courtroom.
In perhaps the most dramatic testimony of the four-week trial, one witness—elderly, frail, her face almost completely covered—told of how her daughter and two granddaughters, ages two and three, went down to the village river to wash clothes and didn't return. They were abducted by soldiers from the Sepur Zarco barracks, and the daughter was pressed into slavery.
The witness sat upright and spoke quietly into a microphone, her testimonyin Q’eqchi translated into Spanish by the interpreter sitting next to her. She said her daughter came home once during her enslavement and showed signs of severe beatings. Then the daughter disappeared altogether. Years later the witness identified articles of her daughter's clothing beside partially decomposed and unidentifiable human remains. No sign of her granddaughters has ever been found.
When the twelve Q’eqchi women filed into court for the February 26 verdict and sentencing, the courtroom—packed with hundreds of observers, human rights activists and media—rose to its feet and applauded for three minutes.
And the moment Judge Yassmin Barrios Aguilar announced the verdicts and sentences—120 years for Lieutenant Colonel Esteelmer Francisco Giron and 240 years for former Military Commissioner Heriberto Valdéz Asij—a chant of “Justicia! Justicia!” erupted in the courtroom. The atmosphere was electric.
Judge Barrios managed to regain control, but she rushed the rest of the court’s sentencing statement, and then more chants broke out. “Mi corazon es Sepur Zarco!” (My heart is Sepur Zarco!) And “Si, se pudo!” (Yes, it could be done!) And there was a small smattering of “Asesino!” leveled at the condemned men. There was singing, and crying. From their place behind the prosecution table, the Q’eqchi women raised their arms to thank the court, and as they rose to leave the courtroom, a loud chant of “Sepur Zarco!” went up, and lasted until the last Q’eqchi woman left the courtroom.
Guatemalan Nobel laureate and human rights activist Rigoberta Menchú and Vermont Nobel laureate and landmine activist Jody Williams attended the trial, as did human rights activists from as far away as France. In a post-sentencing interview, Menchú said the United States bore some responsibility for Sepur Zarco.
Nobel laureates Rigoberta Menchu (right) and Jody Williams (center) attended the war crimes trial in Guatemala City.
“They supported the army, they knew exactly what was happening here, and they did nothing,” Menchú said. “They knew of the brutality. This is documented. So there is a responsibility that the [United States] has to assume.”
In the trial, defense attorney Moisés Galindo also raised the issue of U.S. involvement in the war, which claimed an estimated 200,000 lives and saw the massacre and burning of entire villages. Galindo denounced the court for refusing to call current U.S. ambassador Todd Robinson to testify about U.S. National Security Doctrine that Galindo said gave rise to a similar Guatemalan doctrine and laid the foundation for the war's brutality.
“The Public Ministry said this happened within the politics of National Security implemented by the Guatemalan army in which the people were considered an internal enemy,” Galindo said in a post-trial interview. “So we asked that ambassador Todd Robinson come here, because if the Guatemalan army was guilty, it was at the instruction of the United States, so the government of the United States should be seated here. The ambassador should explain what is the national security policy that they [prosecutors] say was applied here, and was that policy to do this, as they say, to systematically and massively rape?”
The court’s three-judge panel awarded monetary damages, to be paid by the state, on March 2.
Lawrence Reichard is a freelance journalist reporting from Guatemala.