Petrona Choc, 75, did not falter as she told the court how soldiers dragged her and her young children out of her home in 1982, shot her husband and retained her against her will together with other women in a nearby military outpost, where she was repeatedly raped and forced to cook for her captors.
“One day the soldiers came for us and one of my sons, Abelino, said: ‘here come the soldiers; they’re going to kill us’. I rounded up my children and I told them we had to flee to the mountains. We were running when we heard gunfire and that’s when my husband was killed”, she told the High Risk Court A on February 3.
Choc is one of the 11 Mayan Q’eqchí women from the tiny hamlet of Sepur Zarco, in the eastern department of Izabal, who have come face to face with the two men who ordered them to cook, clean and submit to systematic rape over three decades ago: former base commander Esteelmer Reyes Girón and former regional military commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asij.
This is the first time ever and anywhere that a national court has heard charges of sexual slavery committed during an armed conflict.
The victims appeared in court with their heads covered in shawls to avoid being identified and only removed them when it was their turn to testify, as rape victims in rural communities are often shunned and ostracized. Many women from women’s and human rights organizations who have attended the trial have also covered their heads in a show of solidarity.
“They raped us; they caused us great suffering, and they told us that there was nobody left that would care about what happened to us”, said Choc. The witness accounts are so harrowing that on several occasions, the victims’ interpreter appeared visibly moved and on the verge of tears.
Reyes Girón and Valdez Asij are accused of ordering and allowing the rape, enslavement, forced disappearance and murder of non-combatants, crimes against humanity that are exempt from Guatemala’s 1996 amnesty law.
Violation as a weapon
The victims were abducted and enslaved in 1982, under the 1982-1983 dictatorship of Efraín Ríos Montt, who was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity in 2013 and currently faces a retrial after the verdict was overturned on a technicality. Although short-lived, Ríos Montt’s de facto rule was one of the bloodiest phases of the Guatemalan armed conflict, as the armed forces intensified their onslaught against indigenous communities believed to be harboring guerrilla combatants.
According to the Historical Clarification Commission (CEH), until 1979, rape was selectively used by the armed forces against women belonging to guerrilla organizations. However, by the 1980s, it was systematically applied by the army’s onslaught against indigenous civilian populations. The CEH recorded 1,465 cases of rape committed during Guatemala’s 36-year-conflict. Eighty percent of the victims were indigenous.
During the opening hearing on 1 February, prosecutor Hilda Pineda said that sexual violence was used as “a weapon of war” against the civilian population. Three Mayan Q’eqchí men testified that soldiers separated men and women so that the women could be gang raped by soldiers. They also said they were left homeless after soldiers forced them to dismantle their shacks and carry the wood and aluminum sheets to the military outpost where they were used as construction materials. The three witnesses directly pointed to Valdez Asij and said he was present at the scene where these crimes were committed.
The Sepur Zarco trial is taking place in the same courtroom in which Ríos Montt genocide trial took place in 2013. As occurred during the genocide case, the defense has tried to stall the proceedings by filing an endless string of appeals, claiming that the presiding judge, Yassmin Barrios, is not impartial as she already delivered verdicts in other cases connected to human rights violations committed during the armed conflict.
Military officers detained
Two weeks before the Sepur Zarco trial began, another important step towards securing justice for the victims of wartime violations was taken with the arrest of 18 military officers for massacres and forced disappearances committed during the 1980s.
Fourteen of those arrested are charged with the forced disappearance and torture in relation to a mass grave containing the remains of 533 bodies from 84 clandestine graves discovered in 2012 in a former military base in the department Cobán. Among those detained was the army’s former chief of staff Manuel Benedicto Lucas García, the brother of dictator Fernando Romeo Lucas García (1978-1982).
Prosecutors also requested that Edgar Ovalle Maldonado, one of the retired army officers who founded the FCN party that brought Guatemala’s new president, Jimmy Morales, to power, in 2015, be stripped of his prosecutorial immunity as a lawmaker so that he could face charges for his alleged participation in the Cobán case. However, on January 28, the Supreme Court ruled that there were no grounds for Ovalle’s prosecution.
Forensic experts ascertained that the Cobán victims came from various parts of the country, suggesting that the site might have been an interrogation and detention center. Many of the bodies were blindfolded, with their hands and feet tied, suggesting they were executed. Some had gunshot wounds or broken bones that were healed and re-broken, suggesting they were tortured before being executed. Attorney General Thelma Aldana has referred to the case as “one of the biggest cases of forced disappearances in Latin America”.
The four remaining military officers were charged in relation to the forced disappearance of 14-year-old Marco Antonio Molina Theissen, kidnapped by members of the intelligence section of the military in 1981 in retaliation for his family’s activism as opponents of Lucas García dictatorship. Among those charged is retired colonel Francisco Gordillo Martínez who became one of the three members of the military junta led by Ríos Montt.
Meanwhile, the Ríos Montt retrial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity faced yet another setback, after it was suspended on January 11 for the court to resolve outstanding legal petitions.