Victim Witnesses Tell of Atrocities at Sepur Zarco

The Sepur Zarco trial concluded its first week at a brisk pace, with more than 20 prosecution witnesses testifying in court. The witnesses have testified that the military made them engage in forced labor at the Sepur Zarco base, as well as sexual violence perpetrated by soldiers against women on the base and in their own homes. Several witnesses have also made reference to the fact that community members were seeking to obtain legal titles to their lands because big landowners were trying to take away their lands; many have stated their belief that this was the root of the violence that was visited upon Sepur Zarco in the early 1980s. This report covers hearings held between February 3 and 5, 2016.

Five of a total of 15 videotaped testimonies of women victims of sexual violence were presented in court during these three sessions, along with other witness testimony. The videotaped witness testimonies were taken in preliminary evidentiary hearings overseen by Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez in 2012 and were accepted as evidence at that time. This was requested by the prosecution and civil parties because many of the victim witnesses, especially the women victims of sexual violence, are of advanced age. Indeed, one of the victims who testified in 2012, Magdalena Pop, passed away, but because her testimony was video-recorded and accepted as evidence, her testimony will still be heard in court. Use of the prerecorded testimony also helps prevent the retraumatization of victims of sexual violence, who would have been obliged to repeat their testimony otherwise.

The defense attorneys objected to the presentation of the videotaped testimonies, asserting that they have the right to cross-examine the witnesses. The tribunal dismissed this objection, stating that the preliminary judge accepted the women’s statements as evidence, as allowed by Guatemalan law and said that the public defenders had the opportunity to question the witnesses during the preliminary hearings.

On February 5,  the fifth day of the trial, a protected witness, who had been forcibly recruited into the army and was stationed at the Sepur Zarco military base, testified about the abuses he witnessed there. The protected witness confirmed that women were victims of sexual violence and forced labor at Sepur Zarco. He identified one of the defendants, Reyes Giron, as one of the commanders in charge of the military base, as well as a Lieutenant Ovalle as being a commanding officer at Sepur Zarco.

At least one media outlet speculated as to whether the Ovalle in question was retired Coronel Juan Ovalle Salazar, arrested in January along with ten other military officers in relation to the CREOMPAZ case, or to Edgar Ovalle, also a retired military officer and currently head of Congress (and whose immunity the Public Ministry has sought to have lifted also in relation to the CREOMPAZ case). However, investigators say the individual in question is Lieutenant Justino Ovalle Vargas, who relieved Reyes Giron as head of the Sepur Zarco military base in December 1983.

Members of indigenous communities from different parts of the country have traveled to Guatemala City to accompany the victims of the Sepur Zarco case. On February 4, community members from Rabinal, Alta Verapaz were present. Numerous human rights violations occurred in this region during the internal armed conflict, include the Plan de Sánchez and Rio Negro massacres. The following day, community members from La Puya were in the courtroom to express their solidarity.

Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, president of the Foundation against Terrorism, which has led a vociferous campaign against the judicial actors and human rights organizations involved in this and other conflict cases, has made several appearances in the courtroom. In a report by David Mercer for Al Jazeera, Méndez Ruiz accuses the United States Government of manipulating the justice system against the Guatemalan army.

February 3, 2016

Witness testimony continued on the morning of February 3, the third day of the trial. In the first videotaped testimony presented in the proceedings, Catalina Mash, who is 70 years of age and is from San Marcos community, stated that “Canche Asig” (Valdez Asig) brought the military to their community. She testified that soldiers raped her in her home. “They grabbed my hands and they threw me on the ground,” she said, crying; three soldiers raped her several times in one day. She stated that she and her family fled to the mountains because of this.

Mash testified that the military killed one of her daughters, who was pregnant at the time. She also testified that her ten-year-old son witnessed soldiers torturing her husband in the Tinajas military base; he was later killed.  She said that they decided to come down from the mountains because helicopters flew overhead saying that the military would not harm them and because the living conditions were so harsh.

In the second videotaped testimony, Rosario Xoc testified that her husband was disappeared by a man known as Gilberto Asig and that she was repeatedly raped by soldiers. She said that she had to walk a certain distance to get water, and every time she did the soldiers would pursue her. “They threw me on the ground and raped me right there. My four-year-old son saw it. He was terrified; he was screaming.” These abuses led her to flee to the mountains, where she said she and her children lived in inhuman conditions, with little food and no shelter from the cold. “I thought that my children would be safe there, but instead, they died of hunger,” she said.

The next witness to testify was Mateo Rax Maquín. He was detained and brought to the  military base. “The army detained us. One man had a list in his hand. Those whose names appeared on this list were being detained.” He believed that those detained were being targeted because of their efforts to seek land titles in the community. Once inside the base, he said, “They tied us up, both our hands and our legs. They had us wrapped up like pigs. We were just waiting to die.” The witness described the army interrogation process and said, “[I]t wasn’t a normal interrogation. They tortured us.”  He also saw executions. “I saw when they cut off their ears, and slit their throats,” he said.

Rax Maquín  explained how he was able to untie himself and escape from the base. He stated that the military arrived in the community and would rape the women whose husbands had been disappeared. He affirmed that accompanying the soldiers was Heriberto Valdez Asig, known as “Canche Asig.” He pointed to the defendant, stating, “That’s him. There he is.”

The fourth witness of the day was Matilde Choc, whose testimony was also presented using prerecorded video that was introduced as evidence in 2012. She said soldiers detained her father and that she was raped by soldiers repeatedly in her own home. This led her to decide to flee to the mountains with her mother and children. They were in the mountains for six years. Four of her children died because of the harsh conditions there. “When I came back down from the mountains, I had lost everything. They burned my house and my crops,” she said.

February 4, 2016

On the fourth day of the trial,  the session began with the testimony of prosecution witness Julia Cuc Choc, who described the killing of her daughter Dominga Cuc and her two granddaughters in 1982. She said that her daughter, her daughter’s husband, and their two small daughters were detained at the same time. Her son-in-law was taken to the Pataxté military base, where he was tortured by soldiers, but he was ultimately allowed to go home. He had been badly mistreated, she said, and she feared he would not survive.

The witness said she went to the Sepur Zarco military base three times trying to get information about her daughter and granddaughters. Ultimately, she said, a patrol member told her that her daughter had been killed at the edge of the river. She said her daughter had also been raped by soldiers.  “After they killed my daughter they demanded food from us,” she said. “They forced us. They would come and surround our homes. We were very afraid.”

Cuc Choc also described the exhumations that were conducted many years later, in which they found her daughter’s body, but only the underclothes of her granddaughters. “In the exhumation they found hair, clothes, and my daughter’s bones. But they only found the undergarments of my granddaughters. Their bones had turned to dust.”

Prosecution witness Marcos Tut testified that he was forced to work at a watchtower near the Sepur Zarco military base. He said the soldiers would grab people as they were walking. He affirmed that he saw Valdez Asig once inside the military base. He also said he once saw Reyes Giron there and that he was the person in charge. Domingo Tzup testified that he and his family members fled into the mountains in response to the military presence in their community. He said that when they returned to the house they found that his father had been killed.

Prosecution witness Domingo Chub Pop testified that the conflict in Sepur Zarco started when the community began demanding land titles. His father was one of the leaders of this process. He was forced to participate in the civil defense patrols (PACs) along with other men from the community of Sepur Zarco. They took turns patrolling around the military base.  There were four military checkpoints, he said. If anyone arrived we had to ask for them for identity documents. “We had to follow the soldiers’ orders. We were fearful,” he said.

Chub Pop testified that inside the military base, there was a place referred to as the “dungeon,” which was a pit where they held detainees. He related how one time soldiers tossed a grenade into the pit with several people inside it. He also said that soldiers killed a woman named Minga along with her two daughters near the edge of a stream; this may have been a reference to Dominga Cuc. In addition, he affirmed that he saw Valdez Asig once inside the Sepur Zarco military base.

He also made reference to a Lieutenant Ovalle, who he claimed was “the person who gave the orders in Sepur Zarco.” As noted above, this refers to Lieutenant Justino Ovalle Vargas, who replaced Reyes Giron as head of Sepur Zarco in December 1983. Other military officers and military commissioners have been named or referred to in the course of the proceedings by several witnesses. Indeed, according to the civil parties participating in the case, Valdez Asig and Reyes Giron are not the only individuals responsible for the crimes at Sepur Zarco. To date, however, the Public Prosecutor’s office has only lodged charges against these two individuals.

The next prosecution witness, Vicente Choc, confirmed the testimony of other men in this case about having to participate in forced labor at the military base. He described the harsh conditions under which they labored: “We had patrol at night. The first day we were there we had to put up poles to make a fence around the military base. We weren’t given a drop of water or any food.” He testified that he saw soldiers take away his father-in-law, Miguel Cucul Caal. “They took him away, and he never returned,” he said. “We were afraid of the military, they were always angry. We never dared look them in the face.”

Domingo Coc, the next prosecution witness, was emphatic in his narration about the relationship between the persecution he and the other members of Sepur Zarco community suffered and the poverty in which they continue to live today. “I remain poor because of the soldiers. I’m very sad because I lost my father. He was killed in the Sepur Zarco [military base].” “The people who did this are free, they eat well, while we remain poor,” he said. “I want to know what this tribunal is going to say about the murder of my father,” he stated.

February 5, 2015

On February 5, a protected witness, who had been forcibly recruited into the army and worked at the Sepur Zarco military base, spoke about the abuses he witnessed there. The former soldier confirmed that women were victims of sexual violence at the military base and that they were forced to work at the base cooking and washing clothes for the soldiers. He also identified Reyes Giron as one of the commanders in charge of the Sepur Zarco military base and said that he ordered the killing of one of the detainees who hit him near the eye with a stick of some kind.

The protected witness, speaking in Spanish, narrated that he was forcibly recruited into the army from his hometown of Puerto Barrios, Izabal. (According to Guatemala’s Truth Commission, forcible recruitment was a common tactic used by the military during the internal armed conflict in Guatemala.) He was trained for 30 days in combat techniques and then was assigned to the Sepur Zarco military base. He confirmed that women were forced to work for the soldiers and were the subject of sexual abuse by soldiers. He clearly identified Lieutenant Esteelmer Reyes Giron as the head of the base.

“The Commander gave the orders, in this case, Esteelmer [Reyes Giron], he was the one who gave the orders,” he said. In response to a question put to him by public prosecutor Hilda Pineda García about whether Reyes Giron participated in any infractions, the protected witness testified that he had: “He was using the women like slaves to cook and wash clothes; our official did not permit this, he was not in agreement with this.”

The witness referred to one case in which Reyes Giron called seven community leaders from Semococh to a meeting. He accused them of being guerrilleros. They were detained and held in a pit three meters deep for several days and were not given any food. One day, “the wives of the detainees came looking for them,” he said. By 5:00 p.m., the witness stated, Reyes Giron ordered them to be killed. Later, soldiers tossed a grenade into the pit where the detainees were being held.

The protected witness also corroborated witness testimony provided to date asserting that the local landowners (finqueros) had called upon the military to deal with a land conflict in the area. “The military arrived because of the finqueros. They were taking away the community’s lands. That is why the community members were organizing to obtain legal title to their lands,” he said.

The protected witness also made reference to a Lieutenant Ovalle, who he said was the head of his platoon.

The defense attorney for Reyes Giron asked the protected witness questions about how long he was based in Sepur Zarco, how he got there, and whether he was familiar with the military code of conduct. The witness responded that he was brought there in October 1983 and was there for about five months. He was later sent to serve in other military bases. The witness said he was in military service between November 1982 and April 1985.

He stated that the military code of conduct explained what was allowed and what was not allowed. For example, soldiers were instructed to protect civilians. If a soldier did not respect the rights of the citizens, they would be punished. He also confirmed that Ovalle was his boss and that he knew Reyes Giron.

The lawyer for Valdez Asig asked the protected witness what the conditions were to be named a military commissioner. He responded that one was required to have good conduct, and be a member of the community. She also asked him to explain who the guerrillas were. He stated that “they were people acting on outside the law; they were in the mountains.” Finally, she asked him if a civilian could give orders to a member of the military, and he responded that this would be impossible.

Two additional videotaped testimonies were presented. In the first, the witness testified that she saw soldiers take her husband to Tinajas military base. They accused him of giving food to those in the mountains, she stated, and they killed him, she said. The audio for this testimony was very poor and hard to understand.

The next witness testimony, also presented via videotape, was longer than the others. The witness, Rosa Tiul, went into great detail about how the military base was created in the community, how she and other women were forced to cook and clean for the soldiers, and how she and other women were the victims of repeated sexual abuse by the soldiers. She testified, “If we said no, that we didn’t want to, they would have killed us. I was afraid they would kill me.”

Tiul continued, “One time I got so upset I went to speak to the Lieutenant to complain [about the repeated sexual abuse]… He said maybe I liked it, maybe it was my fault they had gotten used to it.”

At the base, she said, there were rooms where they would take the women to rape them. “Sometimes there were three, four, or even five of them,” she said. She said she had been forced to cook for the soldiers for six months inside Sepur Zarco military base, then she was allowed to go back to her home. However, she had to keep providing them with tortillas, and she was also often raped.

Tiul said the soldiers would walk to the mountains looking for those who fled. When they returned they would pass by her house, and they would come into my house and rape me. “The [soldiers] told me if I didn’t let them [rape me] they would kill me,” she said. “Sometimes they tied me down and put a rifle on my chest.” According to the witness, “They knew which ones of us [women] were alone.” She stated that at her husband’s body was identified at one of the exhumations in Tinajas, and she was able to give him a proper burial. “They treated us like animals,” she said. “It was so painful. They did this to me because I was alone.”

Several expert witnesses are currently testifying. Direct witness testimony will continue the week of February 15. Those close to the case expect the trial to conclude by the end of February or beginning of March of this year.

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).