Six Witnesses Recount Atrocities at Sepur Zarco on Day Two of Landmark Trial

The landmark Sepur Zarco trial for sexual violence, domestic and sexual slavery, and forced disappearance, began on February 1, 2016. Prosecution witnesses continued to be heard on the second day of the trial. Six witnesses testified in their native Q’eqchi’ language, as two interpreters consecutively relayed questions and answers from and to Spanish. The first woman witness-survivor to testify was Petrona Choc Cuc. While most of the women survivors will present their testimony via prerecorded videotape, which was admitted into evidence during preliminary proceedings, Choc Cuc spoke to the court in person and testified about the sexual violence that she and her daughter experienced at the hands of soldiers in the Sepur Zarco military base. Unlike most of the women survivors, she wore no scarf over her head to protect her identity.

Moises Galindo, defense attorney for Lieutenant Esteelmer Reyes Giron, did not ask any questions of the witnesses. On the first day the proceedings, he sought repeatedly to recuse the judges and stated that he rejected the legimitacy of the proceedings. Occasionally, an auxiliary lawyer working with Galindo would ask a question about whether the witness spoke Spanish or if they could provide precise dates or names. He often asked questions that were objected to by the civil parties for being repetitive. The lawyer for alleged military commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asig is a public defender.  She has been asking questions of the witnesses who mention her client, seeking to challenge claims that connect him with specific crimes.

On February 2, the first witness of the day, and the fourth prosecution witness to testify in the proceedings, was Arturo Choc Chub, from the community of Esperanza. He testified that the army detained five men from his village, who never returned. He also stated he was married to Magdalena Pop, who he affirmed was raped in the military base. They were married after this happened, and it was only then that he learned about it. Magdalena Pop died three years ago. (Her testimony was presented before a preliminary court and entered as evidence. It will be presented as one of the prerecorded video testimonies in the course of these proceedings.) Choc Chub also testified that he was forced to help build the military base and participate in the civil defense patrols (PACs). He had to inform the military about people who arrived to the community. “The soldiers ordered us what to do,” he stated.

The fifth prosecution witness, Manuel Cu, was deputy mayor of the community of Miguelito. He testified that in 1982 he was detained by the military commissioner to the Pataxté military base, where he was beaten by soldiers. “They kicked me in the stomach, in my back. It was very painful,” he said. He said that he was forced to stay there for several days. He said soldiers urinated on his body and in the water. He was not given any food; he ate grass and drank water he collected from the ground. “It was a tremendous suffering,” he said. “They treated me like an animal. They urinated on me. They dragged me around like a cart in the mud.” The soldiers told him he was a criminal. “They never believed I was a community leader.” He said he believed he was detained and mistreated because he was one of the leaders of the effort to legalize community lands. Cu also testified that he had knowledge that women in the Sepur Zarco military base were being raped, but he did not see this directly because he was blindfolded. His wife was raped while he was detained in the military base.

The sixth prosecution witness to testify was Santos Be Xol. Soldiers captured him in October 1982 and took him to a house with several others. He said of these, six were killed while three, himself included, were released alive. He testified that a woman in the house named Manuela Tiul told him that she and other women were raped in Pataxté military base. He said many of the women fled to the mountains to escape from the military, where many of them died of cold and hunger.

The seventh prosecution witness was Manuel Ical. He testified that he was a member of the PACs and that he knew the defendant Heriberto Valdez Asig when he was a municipal police officer in Panzós. He stated that he was forced to help build the Sepur Zarco military base and that he was obliged to taken turns patrolling near one of the watchtowers surrounding the base. Ical testified that the women who were being held within the Sepur Zarco military base were forced to make tortillas and food for the soldiers. He also said that he and the other men sometimes helped them, bringing them water and other things. “The (soldiers) did whatever they wanted to the women,” he said.

When asked if he saw Valdez Asig inside of the military, base, Ical said that he had. “He was a very well-known person. He had a list with names.” He testified that Valdez Asig detained many people who were never returned, including his two brothers and some of their family members. When asked if he could recognize Valdez Asig, he pointed to the defendant. He also recognized Reyes Giron as the head of the Sepur Zarco military base: “He was in charge of this place.” He said he had knowledge that many people were killed in Sepur Zarco. “I was forced to dig large pits,” he said. “That was where they dumped the bodies.” He said he later participated in exhumations to locate his missing relatives, but to date their bodies have not been found.

Petrona Choc Cuc was the eight prosecution witness to testify in the Sepur Zarco proceedings. She said that in 1982 she, her husband, and their four children fled to the mountains, because the military was taking people away in trucks. “We were so afraid we talked amongst ourselves about what to do, and we decided to flee and hide in the mountains,” she said. She described the hardships they suffered in the mountains. “At night we wrapped ourselves up in nylon sheets. We got rained on. There were many insects.” She added: “This is not the product of my imagination. I lived this. We suffered a great deal. The soldiers found us and we had to flee again.”

Choc Cuc said that the root of the problem was a conflict over the land. “We had eight hectares of land. The big landowners wanted our land. We grew beans, corn, rice. They wanted to take away our land.” One day, she said, her son was eating an orange, and he suddenly began to scream, “The soldiers are coming! We are going to die!” She said that her husband was killed by the soldiers, but she and her children managed to flee further in the mountains. Conditions were so dire, however, that they decided to go back. “We went to the military base and got on our knees and begged them to forgive us, to not kill us.” She added: “They told us to go take a shower. Then a fat man came, he was the first one to rape us, then other smaller men came and raped us.” She added: “Many times I was raped. One of my daughters was raped too…. Every day I suffer because of what they did to me.”

She also testified she was also forced to prepare food for the soldiers and that she had to provide the rice and beans. When asked who was in charge of the military base, Choc Cuc said, “I heard it was someone named Ríos Montt and Asig, but I didn’t know them.” She added: “The soldiers said, ‘No one asks about you anymore, no one cares about you. You belong to us now’.”

The ninth prosecution witness, Mariano Caal, from Esperanza community, stated that he and others from his community fled their community because the military detained several men from his community to the Tinajas military base; three of those men never returned. “This is when our anguish started, we didn’t understand what was happening,” he stated. Like other witnesses, Caal said he was forced to help build the Sepur Zarco military base, and saw how the women were forced to cook for the soldiers. “I was never detained, but when I worked for them, I saw the women making tortillas and cooking rice and beans…. It’s unfair what they did to them. They didn’t just disappear their husbands, they tortured them too.”

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).