From February 17-19, the prosecution presented eyewitness and victim testimony, as well as several expert witnesses in the ongoing Sepur Zarco trial. The witnesses testified about military organization, sexual violence as an international crime, and the interrelationship between gender, race, and class that permitted the massive and sustained assault on indigenous Mayan women. One of the most stunning testimonies was that of former military commissioner Miguel Ángel Caal, who not only affirmed that one of the accused, Lieutenant Esteelmer Reyes Girón, was the head of the Sepur Zarco military base; but that he also saw him order soldiers to gang rape a woman and that Reyes Girón himself “took” this woman as his “wife.”
February 17, 2016
The prosecution presented one eyewitness and two expert witnesses: Spanish army colonel Prudencio Martínez de Murguía, who testified about the military chain of command, and anthropologist Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj, who testified about the individual and collective impact of the sexual abuses suffered by the women of Sepur Zarco. The first witness of the day was Agustín Chen, whose videotaped testimony was presented in court. Chen stated that he worked at the Chavilá estate, where some 200 tenant farmers (colonos) worked.
“In 1982 the soldiers started to arrive,” he stated. “They detained people and took them away.” He said he was forced to organize civil defense patrols. Chen said that the estate administrator, Víctor Milian Vásquez, was the chief military commissioner, and he was appointed his personal assistant. “The soldiers didn’t think enough of us to even tell us their names,” he said. “They looked at us like simple Indians.” He testified that Juan López and Miguel Ángel Caal were the military commissioners for Sepur Zarco and that Lieutenant Reyes Giron worked at the military base for at least one month.
Chen stated that one day he was ordered to capture Manuel Cuc, from Semococh; the military commissioner, Juan López, suspected Cuc of supplying food to the guerrillas hiding in the mountains. Chen said that he failed to capture Cuc and was imprisoned for a month as a result.
“The military commissioner tied me up and put me in the cell; I was there for 15 days,” he said. “They put two sacks over my head, and they didn’t give me anything to eat or drink.”
He said soldiers beat him while asking him about the people from Semococh. “The man they ordered me to capture fled into the mountains, but he was later detained with 18 men,” the witness stated. He also recounted an incident, consistent with testimony of other witnesses, in which one of the prisoners hit Lieutenant Reyes in the eye. He said Reyes ordered that prisoner and several others from Semococh killed. Chen also mentioned that some 20 women, all widows, were sexually abused and forced to work in the military base.
The prosecution next called on retired Spanish army Colonel Prudencio Martínez de Murguía to provide expert testimony. He affirmed that while the defendants in this case, Reyes Girón and former military commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asig, may argue that they were acting on superior orders, they were not obligated to obey those orders.
“No illegal order should be carried out,” Martínez de Murguía said. “The crimes committed by the soldiers are the responsibility of the defendants, because they were the ones who commanded the troops,” he stated.
Guatemala was in the midst of a non-international armed conflict; as such the acts committed by the soldiers were violations of the Geneva Convention. In addition, he stated that military officials who committed human rights violations were given protection by the military institution, rather than face prosecution and punishment. Defense counsel Ismael García asked several questions that were not allowed because they were outside the scope of the witness’s expertise. Fidencia Orozco, defense counsel for Valdez Asig, objected to the expert report’s conclusions on the grounds that they included a judgement about the facts of the case, unrelated to the report’s purpose; discussion of those conclusions during the proceedings amounted to a violation of the accused’s presumption of innocence. Judge Barrios accepted this objection.
The next prosecution witness was anthropologist Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj. In her report, the expert analyzed the individual and collective consequences of the abuse and suffering experienced by the 15 Maya Q’eqchi’ women in the Sepur Zarco case. The specialist carried out in-depth interviews with each of the victims, who varied in age from 52 to 75 years, in 2012, with the objective of better understanding the psychological, physical, and cultural impact of the violations the women endured.
The expert emphasized Guatemala’s history of racism, as reflected in social and state structures and control, and the repression and exploitation of indigenous peoples. She stated that it was important to understand the intersections of the hierarchies of class, race, and gender in Guatemala.
“Indigenous women occupy the bottom rung on the social ladder,” she stated. “They were viewed as ugly and dirty, and were treated like animals that were only useful as slave labor.”
The expert presented several direct quotes from the women she interviewed. She noted that the day the military left Sepur Zarco, the soldiers organized a party and in a particular exercise of cruelty, forced the women to dance. She stated that the women did not speak for many years about the abuses they suffered; this was a mechanism of “cultural protection.” The violence suffered by the women affected them physically and emotionally, but it also affected their ability to reproduce their culture.
“A fundamental part of the Q’eqchi’ culture was destroyed” as a result of the systematic abuse of the women, Velásquez Nimatuj said. She concluded that reparations for victims must be integral and should include psychological, physical, and legal redress at the individual and collective levels. Defense counsel asked a series of questions that were now allowed as they had already been addressed or were outside the scope of the witness’s expertise.
February 18, 2016
The prosecution presented testimony from two expert witnesses: gender specialist Dr. Rita Laura Segato and gender violence expert Paloma Soria, as well as the recorded testimony of eyewitness Santiago Itzep. The defense presented its first witness, military expert Gustavo Adolfo de Jesús Uger Baldizón.
Dr. Segato explained that the attack against the indigenous women of Sepur Zarco, their sexual and domestic enslavement, and the sexual assaults against them, were all part of a war strategy.
“The desecration of the women’s bodies and reducing them to utter destitution were military objectives,” Segato stated.
The violence exercised against women strengthened the fraternity among the members of the army. While the justification for this violence was that the men in the area were involved with the guerrillas, the true motive was that the community members were becoming aware of their rights and were challenging the interests of the landowners (finqueros). After the men were disappeared, the sexual violence exercised against the women became routine. The women were stigmatized as a result, and suffered a kind of “social death,” meaning that they were isolated from the rest of the community. The violence exercised against women was a strategy designed to destroy the community. Defense counsel for Reyes Girón, Moisés Galindo, had no questions for the witness. Defense counsel Orozco asked the witness if she was an expert in military strategy; she affirmed that she just published a book about women and war. Orozco also asked questions about the methods Segato used to prepare her expert report.
Gender violence expert Paloma Soria stated that sexual violence in contexts of conflict constitutes a human rights violation and a war crime. Sexual violence is exercised when an individual is forced to engage in sexual activity, whether penetration is involved or not. In contexts of extreme repression, as was the case in Sepur Zarco, coercion is a given; women are stripped of all possibility of giving consent in such circumstances. Domestic and sexual slavery are crimes against humanity, as is forced marriage. In contexts of war, these practices are imposed through fear and violence.
Guatemala experienced an internal armed conflict, as noted by the Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH), Soria stated. The CEH documented 1,465 cases of sexual violence against women and children; 88.7 percent of these were indigenous women. The use of sexual violence was “a strategic plan,” as determined by the CEH. Citing the CEH, she stated: “The devaluation that the women were subjected to was absolute and allowed army officials to assault them with total impunity because they were indigenous women.” She also mentioned Plan Victoria 82 Annex F, which recognized sexual violence committed by troops against indigenous women, and actually regulated “contact with the female sex” in “recreational” areas.
Sexual violence in the context of an internal armed conflict, such as the one Guatemala experienced, is an international crime, she stated. The women in Sepur Zarco were noncombatants and as such enjoyed the protection of the Geneva Conventions. The sexual violence committed in Sepur Zarco was therefore a war crime, she stated. Among the many acts of violence committed during the Guatemala conflict, sexual violence was committed against the civilian population. Soria stated that because the rape of the women at Sepur Zarco was employed to prevent the reproduction of a social group, it (and acts of forced displacement) also constituted acts of genocide.
Soria stated that as part of her expert report, she studied 19 testimonies; 15 women and 4 men. Women were subjected to sexual violence, forced sterilization, and abortions. Men were subjected to torture, beatings of their genitals, and in some cases (though not in Sepur Zarco), castration. Defense counsel Galindo asked the expert how a genocidal army could take part in UN peacekeeping missions; the judges sustained a prosecution objection to the question. He asked the expert how she determined that Guatemala had an internal armed conflict; she said she drew on the report of the Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) and her understanding of the Geneva Conventions. He then asked if she was aware that the CEH report cannot be used in a judicial proceeding. This question was not allowed.
The defense presented its first witness, retired military official Gustavo de Jesús Unger Baldizón. He stated that he has known Reyes Girón for ten years. Defense counsel Ismael García asked him a series of questions about how artillery regiments operated within the Guatemalan Army. He also asked him about the chain of command, since Reyes Girón was a lieutenant colonel in artillery. The witness stated that he knows Reyes Girón but does not recall the circumstances under which they met.
The prosecution then presented the recorded testimony of Santiago Itzep, the husband of Dominga Cuc. Multiple eyewitnesses have testified that Dominga Cuc was the victim of repeated rape and sexual slavery and was later executed in the Sepur Zarco military base, along with her two daughters, Anita and Hermelinda. Santiago Itzep stated that he had been detained and taken to the military base. Dominga Cuc and their daughters went with him. She was 20 years old at the time. Soldiers began hitting him, then they grabbed Dominga Cuc and began to rape her in front of him and his daughters. He said she was raped by ten soldiers. “They destroyed my marriage. I couldn’t do anything, because there was a soldier guarding me.” He was later sent to a different military base.
“I thank you [judges] and God. I am here because of what happened to me and my family,” he said. “What did my wife and daughters do to deserve this? The soldiers did not respect anything. I’ve told you everything I suffered.”
February 19, 2016
On the 15th day of the Sepur Zarco trial, the prosecution presented five witnesses: one eyewitness who worked with the victims; three expert witnesses; and the pre-recorded testimony of Miguel Ángel Caal, one of the military commissioners at Sepur Zarco.
Mariano Mez is a member of the Association of Victims, Widows and Orphans of the Internal Armed Conflict (AVEDESMI), an organization that works with victims, documents the violations committed during the internal armed conflict and accompanies exhumations. He has worked with victims of the Sepur Zarco case. He stated that his organization has documented abuses throughout Guatemala. He also stated that he has collected testimonies of numerous women who were the victims of sexual violence by soldiers and some who were forced to work in military bases.
Mez accompanied the exhumations in Tinajas in 2012. He also mentioned that the exhumation of Dominga Cuc and her daughters was conducted by the National Commission of Widows of Guatemala (CONAVIGUA) in 2001, with the assistance of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG); their remains were buried in 2002. He said that he assisted some of the victims in processing requests for reparations before the National Reparations Program (PNR).
Defense counsel Ismael García asked the witness if he was himself a victim of the internal armed conflict, which was not allowed. García also asked if Mez assisted victims in receiving reparations, and if so, how much they received. Mez said he had, and that some received reparations, but many have not yet received anything. Defense counsel Orozco asked the witness how his organization identified victims and other questions about how they handled any evidence they collected. She also asked if he knew the names of those who received reparations and the amounts they received; this and similar questions were not allowed by the tribunal for being impertinent and repetitive.
Two photographers who work for the Attorney General’s Office, Luis Renato Mauricio Figueroa and Oscar Eduardo Aragón de Paz, testified that they took the photographs of Sepur Zarco presented by the prosecution. Among the images presented were the remnants of the Sepur Zarco military base, and the Tinajas and Pataxte landed estates, where there were also military bases.
Forensic architect Elisa Gabriela Mendoza García presented her expert report, based on site visits and geospatial images, which helped her to develop a three-dimensional map of Sepur Zarco that included locations of the military base and other relevant landmarks. The expert also explained in detail, using images, how the Sepur Zarco military base was organized. “What happened in the kitchen or surrounding areas of the military base was visible and audible because of its location,” stated the expert. Given the architectural structure of the military base and its location in the middle of the community of Sepur Zarco, the expert stated that it was impossible for those who were in charge of the base not to know that the women being held there were being subjected to repeated acts of sexual violence.
The final testimony of the day was videotaped testimony of Miguel Ángel Caal. Caal was a military commissioner between 1982 and 1983. His name has been mentioned by several witnesses during the course of these proceedings.
Caal testified that Lieutenant Reyes Giron was the head of the Sepur Zarco military base. He stated that Reyes Giron was permanently stationed at Sepur Zarco and that he gave the orders and the commissioners and the soldiers obeyed the orders he gave. He testified that Santiago Itzep was detained in reprisal for the killing of a soldier, along with his wife, Dominga Cuc, and their two daughters. The soldiers kept her in the kitchen. He said he thought she had been raped, and later patrol members said that they had taken her to the river where they killed her and her two daughters.
When asked if the women were raped in the military base he answered, “Of course they were raped. There was a small house inside the base where they kept the women and they were raped there by the soldiers.” One time, he said that he witnessed soldiers gang rape a woman from the community. The woman’s husband reported her to the military commissioners because she had allegedly cheated on him. As punishment, he said, “Lieutenant Reyes ordered the lovers to have sexual relations, but he couldn’t do it. So he called over ten soldiers and told them to take off their pants and one by one they raped her… It was like a game” They tortured the man who she was cheating with. The woman was then “taken” by Lieutenant Reyes as his “wife.” According to Caal, she was eventually released and is still alive. He also confirmed that he witnessed one of the detainees being held in one of the pits hit Reyes Girón in the eye with a stick.
Defense counsel Galindo protested to the videotaped testimony and exhorted the tribunal to require the witness to appear in court in person for cross-examination. He also protested because one of the victims accused the witness of raping her. As on previous occasions, citing Guatemalan procedural law, Judge Barrios rejected the objections to the pre-recorded testimony.
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 report.