Last week, the case advanced against two men for their role in mass sexual violence and slavery at the Sepur Zarco military base during Guatemala’s brutal armed conflict. In a hearing on Wednesday, June 10, the prosecution, defense, and civil parties presented an investigative judge their intended evidence against a former commander of a military installation and a local military commissioner.
Prosecutors charge Lieutenant Colonel Esteelmer Reyes Giron, former Sepur Zarco commander, and Heriberto Valdez, a former military commissioner, with crimes against humanity, including rape and sexual violence of at least 11 Maya Q’eqchi’ indigenous women, and for the enforced disappearance of at least nine men. The crimes were allegedly committed 30 years ago – between 1982 and 1988 – but there have been no prosecutions since then.
The prosecutor and civil parties representing the victims named more than twenty witnesses who will testify about the abuses they and their family members suffered at Sepur Zarco, as well as about the responsibility of the defendants for these abuses. Prosecutors would like to provide evidence from exhumations, including reports of the exhumation of human remains, as well as bullets and objects that blindfolded or bound the victims.
They also seek to present more than 30 experts, including military, forensic, ballistics, and psychological experts. They have asked to present documentary evidence concerning the abuses suffered by the victims, the location and status of the military installation, the involvement of the defendants, and the relevance of the government’s counter-insurgency strategy.
Colonel Reyes’ defense attorney, Moises Galindo, opposed the introduction of all forensic evidence on the ground that no judge participated in the exhumations conducted by the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG). Reyes also opposed the prosecutor’s request to introduce video testimony and pre-recorded testimony (so-called “anticipatory evidence,” done legally in some instances to preserve evidence). Valdez’ public defense attorney, Ernestina Santizo, also sought to reject the prosecution’s evidence as excessive given that the witnesses were to testify to the same facts.
Colonel Reyes seeks to present 18 witnesses and 50 documents in his defense, and he will contest that he was ever assigned to Sepur Zarco. He also seeks to demonstrate that the military policies during this period condemned sexual violence and that such crimes did not occur.
Valdez seeks to present more than 10 witnesses and documentary letters concerning his morals. He is also expected to argue that, as a military commissioner in Panzos, he was unaffiliated with any abuses at Sepur Zarco.
Women rights organizations were present, but the victims did not attend. Victims have previously expressed disappointment about the repeated delays in the trial. The civil parties representing the victims are Women Transforming the World, National Union of Guatemalan Women, and Jalok U Collective.
Judge Miguel Angel Galvez is expected to issue a decision on June 22. This is the last preliminary stage before the start of the trial.
Meanwhile, for an eighth consecutive week, thousands of Guatemalans gathered at the city center to protest rampant corruption after high-profile cases implicating government actors plunged Guatemala into a political crisis. The vice president and interior minister have resigned, and protesters continue to demand President Otto Pérez Molina’s resignation as well as the reform of electoral laws.
Last week, the Supreme Court compelled the establishment of a special congressional commission to determine whether Pérez Molina must relinquish executive immunity and face prosecution in connection with the corruption cases. On Friday, in an extraordinary session, Guatemala’s congress established a commission, dominated by the official opposition party Lider, to consider the issue. Following a report of this committee, due within 60 days, a vote of two-thirds of the members of congress is required for the president to lose immunity. On Saturday, the members of the investigative commission reported to the ombudsman that they received death threats.