Military Expert Testifies in Sepur Zarco Case

The Sepur Zarco trial started on February 1, 2016. This report covers the eighth and ninth days of the trial, which took place February 10 and 11, when several expert witnesses as well as victims were called by the prosecution to testify.

One of the most anticipated expert testimonies was that of Guatemalan social scientist and expert in military matters, Héctor Rosada Granados. Rosada Granados represented the Guatemalan government in the UN-brokered peace negotiations between 1993 and 1996 and was Guatemala’s first Secretary of Peace. His book, Soldados en el Poder (Soldiers in Power), is widely regarded as a seminal text for understanding the Guatemalan armed forces during the civil war. Rosada Granados was a key witness for the prosecution in the Ríos Montt genocide case. Forensic anthropologists and social psychologists also presented expert testimony, and some of the earlier introduced testimonies of victims were presented.

February 10, 2016

The hearing started with the testimony of Monica Pinzón, a social psychologist who interviewed 15 Q’eqchi’ women, aged 52 to 74, who were victims of sexual violence in Sepur Zarco. She presented the findings of her interviews with the women. Pinzón first recounted the facts as conveyed by the women she interviewed. The women reported that their husbands were killed or disappeared by soldiers. They also reported being victims of sexual violence and rape, systematically and over a period of several months.

The women Pinzón interviewed were forcibly displaced from their homes and communities and fled with their children to the mountains to seek refuge. There they experienced inhuman conditions and extreme poverty, and many of the women reported that their children died as a result of these conditions. They also reported that they later experienced long periods of domestic and sexual slavery; some said that their children witnessed the rapes and that this has caused them extensive and long-lasting harm. They also said that they were forcibly administered medication and/or injections, presumably contraceptives to prevent them from becoming pregnant.

Pinzón affirmed that the women were the victims of a “devastating” attack against their bodies, minds, and sexuality, which she said is at the center of individual and collective identity. The sexual violence exercised against the women resulted in physical pain, humiliation, and deep-seated feelings of guilt and worthlessness. As a result of the violence, women experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, which manifested itself in a variety of ways, including flashbacks, violent dreams, fear of new sexual assaults, and feelings of disassociation and listlessness, among others. This was exacerbated by the loss of their husbands and in some cases of their children.

Furthermore, the women’s inability to give their family members a proper burial remains a source of anguish. Two of the women stated that as a result of the repeated rapes they became pregnant and suffered abortions also as a result of the sexual violence. They also felt extreme guilt at having relations with men who were not their husbands. Fear (susto) was widely described by the women as a permanent feature of their lives after this experience; Pinzón stated that this state of permanent fear was a common response to the kind of extreme trauma these women experienced. Pinzón explained that state violence exerted upon the bodies of women, combined with the destruction of their homes and their forced displacement, disrupted the social cohesion of their community and their ability to sustain their culture and traditions.

The morning’s presentation of evidence continued with the testimony of two forensic archeologists, Mynor Adán Silvestre and Daniel Alonzo Jiménez Gaytán. The contents of the remaining five boxes containing the remains and clothing of victims found in Sepur Zarco during an exhumation led by the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG) were exhibited in the courtroom. A human skull, fractured by a bullet wound, was among the contents exhibited and discussed by the expert witness. There were also bullets and small pieces of metal. As in previous sessions, defense attorney Moisés Galindo challenged the evidence, saying that there is insufficient evidence about the integrity of the chain of custody of the evidence. Judge Yassmín Barrios again rejected this challenge, stating that the evidence had been allowed and that the defense can raise its challenge in closing arguments.

In the afternoon, the court heard the expert witness testimony of Mayra Barrios, a linguistic anthropologist who speaks Q’eqchi’ and has studied the Alta Verapaz region. She also collected testimonies in Q’eqchi’ from victims for the Commission of Historical Clarification (CEH), the UN-sponsored truth commission that investigated human rights violations during the 36-year armed conflict in Guatemala. It produced its report in 1999. Barrios’s expert report seeks to determine the “linguistic interpretation of the facts of sexual violence reported by victims, who have their own linguistic interpretation of the violence they experienced.”

The expert testified that rape is referred to in the Q’eqchi language in different ways. The term most used, according to Barrios, was muxuk, which signifies that the woman’s body was desecrated, encroached upon, tarnished, and made dirty. The women said: “We were the soldiers’ toys.” Because the soldiers had touched the women’s bodies they said they have been “dishonored” and were viewed as women who lacked worth (es una mujer que ya no sirve). Barrios asserted that many of the women said that they felt that they had been stripped of their dignity as women; their social and spiritual world was destroyed. Many of them experienced fear as a result of the violence inflicted upon them.

The defense attorney for Reyes Girón, Ismael García, asked who gave her the list of names of women to interview and who paid her for her work. Barrios responded that the Public Ministry requested the expert report, and that the NGO Alianza para el Cambio (Alliance for Change) had paid her. García also asked if she remembers the names of the women; she said no, because she interviewed them collectively. García asked if her expert report was based on the work of the Commission for Historical Clarification; she said it was not. García then asked a number of other questions that were not allowed by the tribunal because they were unrelated to her expertise. These included a question about whether the Commissioners captured individuals who did not collaborate with the army. Fidencia Orozco, counsel for Valdez Asig, asked her if she is an accredited member of the Academy of Mayan Languages; the expert responded she was not.

February 11, 2016

The first prosecution witness to appear on February 11 was Oscar Chub Coc. He is the son of Margarita Choc, one of the women victims of sexual violence and sexual and domestic slavery. He was called upon to provide information about the location of the Sepur Zarco military base, as well as the place where the remains of Dominga Coc and her two small daughters were found. The witness accompanied representatives of the Attorney General’s Office to Sepur Zarco to photograph the location. Referring to the photographs, he identified the location of the military base, in the middle of the community of Sepur Zarco. He also confirmed that Dominga Coc was found near the river, about 20 minutes from the Sepur Zarco military base.

The defense attorneys asked a series of questions that were not allowed by the tribunal, as the judges found that they were beyond the scope of the witness’s expertise. The photographer who took the images for the Attorney General’s Office also made a brief appearance before the tribunal to confirm that the photographs entered into evidence were the ones he took in Sepur Zarco.

The next witness for the prosecution was Héctor Rosada Granados, a Guatemalan social scientist and an expert in military matters. Rosada Granados was a peace negotiator before the United Nations on behalf of the Guatemalan government in the years leading up to the 1996 Peace Agreement. He also served as Guatemala’s first Secretary of Peace. His book, Soldados en el Poder (Soldiers in Power), is widely regarded as a seminal text for understanding the Guatemalan armed forces during the armed conflict. Rosada Granados was a key witness for the prosecution in the Ríos Montt genocide case.

Rosada Granados briefly described the history and development of the armed conflict, then focused on the period between 1981 and 1983, widely believed to be the most violent years of the conflict.

He explained that this period began during the government of Romeo Lucas García, whose brother, Manuel Benedicto Lucas García, became Chief of Staff of the Army in 1981, and continued in this position under Rios Montt’s government. (Romeo Lucas García died in 2006; Benedicto Lucas García was arrested on January 6, 2016 in relation to the CREOMPAZ grave crimes case.)  This period “gave birth to the vision of total destruction: genocide,” he stated. According to Rosada Granados, the military plan Firmeza 83 played an essential role in helping the military control the civilian population. Referring to the classic counterinsurgency doctrine, he said, for the military “it was essential to remove the water (e.g. the civilian population)” so the fish, the guerrillas, could not survive.”

Rosada Granados also explained the role the National Security Doctrine, adopted by military dictatorships across Latin American after the Cuban revolution. This doctrine upheld the idea that the state, not the individual, was the supreme good; the military was the guardian of the interests of the state; and that the true enemy was not external but internal: anyone who opposed the power of the military and/or the state.

Turning to the specific case of Sepur Zarco, the expert witness explained that what happened in the Polochic Valley and surrounding areas reflected the tight interlacing of the interests of landed elites and the Guatemalan state. The organization developed by the indigenous communities in Sepur Zarco to recover their historic lands was viewed not only as a challenge to the power of local landed elites, but also to the stability of the state itself. The military applied the concept of “internal enemy” to indigenous Q’eqchi’ communities in Sepur Zarco in an arbitrary way in order to justify state violence against them.

“The motive for the violence was the reaction of the landed elite,” the witness stated, “which felt that their interests were being threatened as the peasants began organizing and protesting against the historic dispossession of their land.”

Violence, he stated, was deployed strategically and with the intention of generating terror among the population, in order to establish absolute control over the civilian population. The expert outlined the strategic, tactical, and operational plans used by the military in these circumstances. He explained how violence was specifically deployed, including the detention, interrogation, torture, and later enforced disappearance of community leaders. He stated that the sexual violence and enslavement of the women had the intent of humiliating them and generating absolute terror in the broader community. Those who escaped to the mountains were mercilessly persecuted; many children died as a result and most of those who fled were eventually captured, killed, or surrendered on their own accord due to the harsh conditions.

Rosada Granados also discussed the role of chief military commissioners. They served as military intelligence agents, exercising supervision and control over other military commissioners, supervising a network of collaborators and informants, and exercising authority over the civil defense patrols (PACs). They also oversaw the transfer of detainees to other military bases, and the work of women at the military base. The military commissioners and the soldiers “had hunger” for the women, he stated. They were told that they had control over the women, who they referred to as “available meat” (“carne disponible”) and that they should “have fun.”

Defense counsel Ismael García asked who was in charge at Sepur Zarco. Rosada Granados said he did not know, “Only the minister of defense could tell us who the commanding officers were.” (In 1981-82 that would have been Benedicto Lucas García; after March 1982 it was Efraín Ríos Montt.) He asked if there was a guerrilla presence in Sepur Zarco. Rosada Granados stated that the area was not registered as a conflict zone, and there was no guerrilla presence in the area. Defense counsel Fidencia Orozco asked why, if there was no insurgent presence, was there a military base in Sepur Zarco? The expert responded that the location of any military base was to provide support in whatever was necessary for larger military operations; they were not placed in response to insurgent presence. They were placed to anticipate and in some ways prevent insurgent incursions. They are instrument of prevention, and to establish territorial control. The judges disallowed several other questions for being outside the witness’s scope of expertise.

The day ended with two prerecorded testimonies given by victims in 2012, María Ba and Manuela Ba.

Maria Ba said that soldiers dressed in army fatigues surrounded her house and took her husband away early one morning in 1982. She said they took him and her two sons, Santiago and Pedro Cac Ba, to Tinajas military base. They took them along with several others, around 18 men, including Francisco Chun. The military commissioner was Juan San, she said; San had pointed out the homes of the leaders and the individuals to be taken away by soldiers. (San is not among the accused in the current case).  Ba said that the soldiers burned down her house and her belongings, including her clothes, and took her to the Sepur Zarco military base, where she was forced to stay for six months to cook and wash the soldiers’ clothes. She stated that the military commissioner Juan San forced her to go to the military base. She feared that they were going to kill her and her remaining six children. During this period, she was raped repeatedly and suffered a miscarriage. “They raped me,” she said. “I was crying. I could not think of anything. They hit me with a gun, threw me on the bed, pointing the gun on my chest.” Ba said she recalled the names of two other military commissioners: Andres Caal and Miguel Angel (also not among the accused in this case).

The second victim, Manuela Ba, provided a similar account of the facts. Her husband was one of the community leaders organizing to recover the community’s lands. He was detained by soldiers on April 25, 1982 and has been missing ever since. She accused a soldier, Marcelino Caal, of raping her. (He is not among the accused in the case.) Ba stated that Military Commissioner Andrés Caal forced her to participate in civil defense patrols. She said that she worked for more than six years cooking and washing the soldiers’ clothes.

“Every time I would go to the military base Marcelino would rape me, and others would crowd around to watch,” she said. The soldiers would say to her in Q’eqchi’: “No one is going to ask about you. You are going to stay right here forever.”

She also says that when she and the other women would go to the river to wash the clothes, other soldiers would rape them. She testified that she received a monthly injection to prevent pregnancy and saw how other women in the military base received these injections.

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.