International Justice Monitor

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“Do you want to live or die?” Survivors Tell of Sexual Abuse and Enslavement

On February 12, 2016, the tenth day of the Sepur Zarco trial, three new victim testimonies that were accepted into evidence in a preliminary hearing by Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez in 2012 were presented in the courtroom. In addition, an expert witness testified about a ballistics report related to the exhumation in Tinajas.

The first videotaped testimony was that of Felicia Cuc. She testified that in 1982, soldiers entered her home in Sepur Zarco and forcibly took away her husband. She said they took him to the Tinajas military base, and she has not seen him since. Like other men who were detained and forcibly disappeared in Sepur Zarco, he was involved in organized efforts to obtain legal title to community lands. She stated that many people fled to the mountains to escape the violence; this was the case with one of her sons, who she believed to be dead until one day he returned.

Cuc testified that after her husband’s disappearance, she was held at the Sepur Zarco military base for six months, during which time she was frequently raped by soldiers and forced to work.

“Since there were many women, they divided us up,” she said. “They abused us all the time. There was no way to say no. If we resisted they threatened us.”

At the base she said she saw a pit in which the soldiers threw the men who had been captured. Sometimes, she said, they raped her in the pit when it was empty.

Cuc stated that defendant Lieutenant Reyes Giron was the commander of the Sepur Zarco military base. He suffered an injury to his eyes, she said, and he was taken away in a helicopter. She affirmed that he was the person who shot the men who were being held in the pit. (During the first week of the trial, a protected witness and former soldier made reference to an incident in which he claimed one of the detainees hit Reyes Giron with a stick, injuring his eye, prompting Reyes Giron to order them to be killed.)

Cuc testified that soldiers raped her and her two daughters behind her house. She stated that the next morning they went to the military base to return some of the belongings the attackers had left behind. She said that Lieutenant Reyes Giron yelled at them, saying “I didn’t tell you to bring these things here.” She said that Reyes denied responsibility for the behavior of the soldiers. She said that in her view, he was responsible because he was the leader of the base.

Upon returning to the community, Cuc said she felt isolated and suffered stigmatization. “There was no solidarity,” she said. “They said we were the lovers, the playthings of the soldiers. There was no one to help me.” She described a situation of dire poverty she and her children endured in those years. Since her house had been burned down, she built a shelter made of nylon under a tree where she and her children lived for years, and they often didn’t have anything to eat. “We suffered extreme poverty,” she said. “I was afraid I was going to die. I fainted because of what they did to me.”

Defense attorney Moisés Galindo petitioned to dismiss the witness testimony, noting that the witness had directly accused his client, Reyes Giron, and he had the right to cross-examine the witness. He also requested a confrontation (careo) between the victim and the accused. The tribunal rejected this petition, stating that the defense had the opportunity to cross-examine at the moment the witness testimony was introduced in the preliminary hearing.

The second victim testimony was that of Vicenta Coy Pop. She testified that her husband was taken away to the military base in Tinajas in February 1982 and was never seen again. She recounted that she went to the base looking for him. She reported meeting there a man named Juan San, who translated for the soldiers and was dressed just like the soldiers. He was the one who took her and the other women to the Sepur Zaro military base, where she remained for six months. Like the other women who have testified, Vicenta Coy Pop said she was repeatedly raped.

“When they raped me they put a weapon on my chest and asked me, ‘Do you want to live or die?’” she said. “Then they spread my legs, there were many soldiers there. They sent my children off to the mountains.”

She was also forced to cook and make tortillas. She stated that she witnessed soldiers kill several people in the military base. Soldiers also burned her home and the homes of various other members of her community, as well as her clothing and that of her children. “I was left with nothing,” she said. “My children walked around naked.”

The third prerecorded witness testimony presented was that of Margarita Chub. She testified that her husband was detained on April 25, 1982 from San Miguelito, along with several other men. When she went to look for her husband she said she could see that he and the others had been badly beaten. She stated that the accused Gilberto (Valdez) Asig accompanied the soldiers. He worked in the municipality and had all the power, she said. Soldiers took her husband away in a truck. She said the soldiers accused them of giving food to the guerrilleros. They were sitting on his body as they took him away, and she has no idea what they did with him. She testified that also she saw soldiers kill her eight-year-old son; they shot him and cut his throat.

Chub said she was brought to the Sepur Zarco military base, where she, like the other women, was submitted to repeated rapes and was forced to cook. Chub stated that she contracted a sexually transmitted disease as a result. “The (soldiers) told me the government sent them to rape us,” she said. “I couldn’t do anything to stop them because they were very strong.” She mentioned other military commissioners who were present in the base, including Juan San, Andrés Call, Juan Sun, and Miguel Ángel Caal (none of whom are on trial in this case).

Chub stated that she saw a woman in Sepur Zarco named Dominga, who was raped daily by soldiers. She had two small daughters. Chub said that the woman was held captive in the military base for about three weeks and was later killed near the edge of the river. (This is presumably a reference to Dominga Coc; Reyes Giron stands accused of murdering her and her daughters, Anita Seb Coc and Herlinda Coc.)

The witness also testified that there was a pit where the soldiers kept the people they captured, but when she was there, the detainees had been taken away. There were many pits, she said. She recounted an incident that has been referred to by other witnesses, in which the accused, Lieutenant Reyes Giron, bent down at the edge of the pit to see the detainees. One of the prisoners managed to take a metal stick he was holding away from him and hit him in the eye with it. The soldiers grabbed the detainee from the pit, shot him, and then threw grenades into the pit, killing the four people inside. Chub said they were from Semococh. She stated that her father was in the base at that moment, and it was he who saw Reyes Giron throw the grenade into the pit. “[Reyes Giron] was the one in charge of the people [at the military base],” she affirmed.

Chub also mentioned the other defendant, Valdez Asig. “They called him ‘Canche’ Asig,” she said. (Canche refers to someone with light skin.) “He was from Panzós. He was with the military. He was there when they took my husband.” She said that the military was in her community for a long time. “If someone didn’t follow the orders of the commissioner, he would give their names to the soldiers…The military had a list, and the commissioners translated for them. On this list was the names of the men from Semococh.” She stated that Marcelo Caal raped many women.

After the presentation of each of the videotaped witness testimonies, the defense petitioned for the witnesses to appear before the tribunal to ensure compliance with due process rights, including the defense’s right to cross-examine the witnesses. This request has been consistently rejected by Judge Barrios, the presiding judge, who has ruled that the proper legal procedures were carried out; that is, a preliminary judge, Miguel Ángel Gálvez, accepted the prosecution’s request to video-record the witness testimony and accepted these testimonies into evidence, and that it is therefore not possible to return to an earlier phase in the proceedings. Judge Barrios also stated that there has been no violation of the due process rights of the defense, and that procedurally, it is not possible at this stage to introduce new evidence.

A ballistics expert, José Benjamín López, testified about his report based on the bullets found with the cadavers of several people in Tinajas by the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG) in April 2012. Four prosecution witnesses did not appear before the court as ordered, due to unforeseen circumstances. Prosecutor Hilda Pineda García stated that she was desisting from requiring their testimony. Defense attorney Fidencia Orozco stated that in her opinion it was imperative to hear the testimony of the witnesses who had not appeared in court. Judge Barrios rejected this request and accepted the renunciation of these four witnesses.

Jo-Marie Burt is an associate professor of political science and director of Latin American Studies at George Mason University. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Paulo Estrada contributed to the research and writing of this post.

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