“Your Husband Isn’t Coming Back:” More Stories of Abuse at the Sepur Zarco Trial

Over the course of the past two weeks, numerous witness-survivors, indirect witnesses, and expert witnesses have offered harrowing testimony of rape, forced labor, murder, and enforced disappearance in the context of the ongoing Sepur Zarco trial. The third week of the trial started with the presentation of the prerecorded testimony of several women survivors of sexual violence, as well as several expert witnesses.  Of special significance was the presentation of the prerecorded testimony of Magdalena Pop, one of the survivors of sexual violence, who died not long after testifying in 2012 before a judge at a preliminary evidentiary hearing. The Attorney General’s Office and civil parties requested that her testimony, and that of the other women victims, be admitted as evidence at this stage in part to prevent the women from having to testify a second time, which could be re-traumatizing, and in part because the women are of advanced age, between 52 and 75 years. The video evidence was meant to ensure that their testimony would be entered into evidence even if something were to happen to them. It was therefore of great significance to hear Magdalena Pop’s testimony in open court.

This report covers days 11 and 12 of the Sepur Zarco trial. The prosecution presented the testimony of four women victims of sexual violence and domestic and sexual slavery via video recording, and three expert witnesses.

February 15, 2016

The prosecution presented the recorded testimony of three women survivors in court on Monday, February 15. As in previous hearings, each of these women testified in preliminary hearings presided over by Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez in 2012. At the request of the prosecution and civil parties, Judge Gálvez allowed these testimonies into evidence during those proceedings as a way to protect the women’s identities and, given the nature of the violations to which they are testifying, to prevent them from having to present their testimonies again to avoid re-traumatization. At this stage of the proceedings the victims were cross-examined by public defenders who represented the alleged perpetrators. (The two defendants in this case were apprehended only in 2014, so their current lawyers were not present at the preliminary hearings.)

The first videotaped testimony was that of Cecilia Caal, who is from the village of La Esperanza. She testified that five soldiers abducted her husband from their home and brought him to Tinajas on August 25, 1982. The soldiers detained several other men that day as well. She remembers the day well, she said, because it was the day of Santa Rosa de Lima, the patron saint of Panzós. On that day, soldiers detained a total of 18 men. Most of those detained were members of the land committee and were mobilizing to demand legal title to community lands. She stated that the soldiers spoke Spanish, and she mentioned that military commissioner Juan San was involved in the arrests.

Caal testified that she was raped by soldiers in her home. “Two [soldiers] tied me up while two were standing guard,” she said. “They had weapons.” Her children were all in the house when she was being raped; one of her sons fell down and broke his leg. Caal said that she was pregnant at the time of the rape and as a result, she suffered a miscarriage. She said the soldiers set her house on fire and forced her to go with them to the Sepur Zarco military base. There, she was forced by soldiers to cook and wash clothes. Later the women rotated duties at the military base, having to report every three days.

“Every time I went to the base, the [soldiers] raped me, every three days,” she said.

She said that the other women there were also raped. “The [women] did not have husbands; that is why they were raped.” She said the soldiers did not pay her for the work she did at the base.

Caal stated that there was a room in the military base where the soldiers kept the people they captured. She stated that she saw a woman there with her two daughters. (This may be a reference to Dominga Cuc, mentioned by previous witnesses, who was allegedly killed along with her daughters by defendant Reyes Giron.) She said that they tortured the women. The soldiers did not let her go near that room; that was where the soldiers killed the people they captured, she stated. Caal affirmed that Margarita Xol was held there. She also affirmed seeing Lieutenant Esteelmer Reyes Girón at Sepur Zarco. “He was tall and light-skinned. He didn’t have any scars on his face,” she said. “He carried a weapon.”

After Caal’s testimony, it was evident that the public defender asked the witness a question, but it was difficult to distinguish what was said. Defense counsel for Heriberto Valdéz Asij, Fidencia Orozco, protested that this was accepted in the preliminary hearing. In previous sessions, Moisés Galindo, Reyes’ defense lawyer, objected to the fact that the women who testified in 2012 are not required to submit to cross-examination in the present phase of the trial. In this instance, Orozco challenged the very fact that the testimony was allowed into evidence at the preliminary hearing. He demanded that the Attorney General’s Office be required to justify why it had insisted on admitting the testimonies in the preliminary phase of the proceedings. Judge Barrios rejected this challenge because, as the tribunal had explained earlier in the proceedings, the testimonies had already been admitted into evidence, and the defense had an opportunity at that time to challenge the evidence; in the current phase this was not procedurally allowable.

The next pre-recorded witness testimony heard was that of Magdalena Pop. Pop died shortly after testifying before Judge Gálvez in 2012. Her husband, Arturo Choc Chub, testified on the second day of the Sepur Zarco trial.

Pop testified that soldiers detained her husband on February 3, 1982, along with Alfonso Xicol. She was taunted by the soldiers who arrested him: “Your husband isn’t coming back,” they said to her. “He wasn’t to blame for what happened to me,” she said. “The soldiers raped me in the Sepur Zarco military base. I was there for three months. They told me, ‘no one is going to come looking for you.’” She referred to three military commissioners by their first names, Andrés, Neto, and Miguel Ángel, saying they were the ones who forced her to go to the military base. Chepe and Roberto Milla, who are brothers, were the owners of the San Miguelito estate (finca). 

Pop also mentioned a soldier named Raúl Cuc, who was dark-skinned and spoke Q’eqchi’. “Now that you don’t have a husband, we’re in charge,” he told her. “I was left alone with four children,” Pop concluded. “The military were able to support their children. Widows like me were unable to support ours. I say this because my heart aches over this. I had to sell my traditional handwoven clothing (cortes) so that I could buy [my children] food to eat.”

Defense counsel Galindo stated that if this was the witness who had died, why has her death certificate not been presented? The tribunal dismissed this complaint.

Next was the videotaped testimony of Carmen Xol, from Panzós. Xol testified that soldiers detained her husband, Heriberto Choc, on August 25, 1982. It was a holiday in Panzós that day. Many soldiers surrounded the house, she stated, and took him away with his hands tied behind his back. They took him to Tinajas. Many years later exhumations were carried out in Tinajas. They found many bodies, she said, but her husband’s was not among them.

“He grew rice, beans, and maize. He was a hard worker. He never complained,” she said. “All of this was because of the struggle for land,” she stated. “His blood was spilled over the land.”

Xol testified that Heriberto Asig, who lived in Panzós as well, was present on August 25, 1982. “He was the military commissioner,” she said. “They called him Don Canche.” She also made reference to Juan San; “He was the one who ordered us to go to Sepur Zarco, about a week after they took away my husband, then they burned down my home.”

Xol testified that she was raped in her home by three soldiers. They told her she had to submit to them because they had authority over her. “They put a gun on my chest and they grabbed me,” she said. “They kicked my children out of the house.” She said that she hemorrhaged as a result of this assault. Like several of the other witnesses, she said she received contraceptive injections. She said that when she was taken to the Sepur Zarco military base, she was forced to cook for the soldiers and wash their clothes; she never received any payment for the work she did. Xol also testified that when she was doing her work rotation, she saw the wife of Don Santiago in the Sepur Zarco military base. This is presumably in reference to Dominga Cuc, who has been mentioned by previous witnesses. “They took her down to the Roquepur River and killed her,” she said. “She had two children. I was working there when they took her away.”

The witness also referred to a small house that was used as a prison cell. There was a pit in the house; she stated that she saw soldiers take Margarita Chub there, but she did not know why. When asked by the prosecution if she knew Lieutenant Reyes, she said that she had seen the faces of the military men, but she didn’t know all their names. She did mention military commissioners Miguel Ángel Call and Juan San.

Edgar Ajquí of the National Institute of Forensic Sciences (INACIF) testified about his expert ballistic report based on the bullets and other metal pieces that were found in the mass grave in Tinajas. According to the expert, these were army-issued munitions. Defense counsel Galindo asked about the dates the expert received and returned the evidence. When asked by the judge what his purpose was in asking these questions, Galindo stated that he wanted to demonstrate that INACIF followed proper procedures in the chain of custody of evidence, while FAFG did not. Defense counsel Orozco asked about the expert’s training. She also asked how he was able to confirm that the bullets came from military-issued weapons. He stated that the caliber of munitions found is exclusive to the military.

Galindo stated he was filing a protest because there was no indication that the chain of custody of evidence was not altered when it was in the hands of FAFG, which is an argument he has made throughout the oral phase of the trial regarding physical evidence. In the Guatemalan legal system, the parties present evidence to the tribunal prior to the oral phase of the proceedings. In this case, the legality of the evidence was presented in the 2012 preliminary hearings. Procedurally, the parties have the right to challenge the legality of the evidence at this stage of the proceedings, but once evidence is determined to be admissible, its legality cannot be questioned. In other words, as Judge Barrios has stated repeatedly in response to Galindo’s objections, the procedural phase for examining the legality of the evidence has passed, and it is impossible to go back to an earlier procedural phase of the trial. The defense had the opportunity to challenge the chain of custody at the preliminary phase of the trial, and the tribunal has stated time and again that the continued line of questioning about the chain of custody by the defense is not pertinent because the chain of custody was already studied and determined to be satisfactory.

February 16, 2016

This day’s hearing started with the testimony of prosecution witness Arsenio García Cores, who outlined the conclusions of his expert report on international standards of credibility in relation to cases of grave violations of human rights. First, he stated, sexual violence is a form of torture, and the ultimate objective of torture is to impose silence. Victims of human rights abuses are deeply affected by the traumatic memories of what happened to them, therefore they may not have the ability to recall specific details, including dates and times, or those details may not be accurate. García Cores also noted that there is differentiated impact on women compared to men, particularly with regard to sexual violence. The stigmatization and shame associated with sexual violence is a mechanism of impunity, he said.

“Stigmatization is the most useful tool of extermination,” García Cores stated. “When the humiliation is collective, society tends to blame not the agent of abuse, the military, but rather the victims, the women.”

He also said that the women victims likely experienced tremendous nervousness when testifying before a judge for the first time, and that it is therefore necessary to rely on the expertise of a linguist to interpret the language being used by the victims.

García Cores then discussed his analysis of the testimonies of the victims. In his expert opinion, there are no contradictions or discrepancies among the different victim testimonies. The central facts are related in consistent terms, and it is these central facts that sustain the validity of the victims’ testimonies, including the presence of the military base in the community, the fact of systematic human rights violations, and the identification of the perpetrators. Other common facts include the accounts about the demand for land titles as the initial cause of the repression and violence. The testimonies establish that the military’s modus operandi was the capture and enforced disappearance of the women’s husbands.

Referring to the testimonies of the women victims, García Cores stated that Lieutenant Reyes Girón is mentioned eight times, and five women identified him. Military commissioner Asig is mentioned in seven testimonies, and one female victim identified him. The alleged perpetrators are identified based on their physical characteristics and in reference to their name and rank, and they are situated in a specific place and time. There is consistency in the women’s accounts: there are no contradictions, there is an abundance of detail, and their accounts are clinically credible according to the medical expert report. In addition, he said, there was consistency in the accounts of the male witnesses. They mention Tinajas and Sepur Zarco; they mention the detention and disappearance of the women’s husbands, the sexual violence and forced displacement, as well as the torture suffered by the men.

Other evidence presented provides additional substantiation of the facts. For example, the existence of the Sepur Zarco military base is consistent with Plan Victoria 82: “The existence of Sepur Zarco fits within the system of control over the population imposed by the army,” he stated. This consistency of the testimonies with this additional evidence leads to the conclusion that the accounts presented here are credible, he stated. It is the duty of the state to properly give value to and evaluate the credibility of the testimonies of the victims, he added.

Defense counsel Ismael García asked the expert witness a series of questions that were not allowed because they were outside the scope of the witness’s expertise, including questions about the ethnicity and language of civil defense patrol members. García asked how the women could have provided food for the soldiers over the course of six years, if their economic level was one of mere survival; this was not allowed. Defense counsel Orozco asked the expert to identify which of the witnesses identified “Canche” Asig. The witness listed three or four names. She asked if his expert report was objective or subjective; this question was considered impertinent by the judge. She also asked the expert whether other names, such as Miguel Ángel Caal and Juan San, were mentioned by the witnesses; this question also was not allowed.

The next presentation was the prerecorded testimony of Demecia Yat de Xol. She started by saying that military commissioners Andrés and Miguel Ángel accused her husband of giving food to the guerrillas. He was a member of the land committee that was seeking to obtain legal titles, so soldiers took him away.

“The landowners gave them a list of names of men to disappear,” she said. “They said we were troublemakers.”

The military detained 18 men from the community. Only two, Manuel Xol and Manuel Yat, survived. After her husband was taken away, Yat said she went to the military base to ask about him: “The [soldiers] told me that if I continued looking for him then I was asking for them to do something to me as well.” Yat said that she was raped by soldiers inside of her home. She said the commissioners told the women it was their duty to let the soldiers rape them. About a month later, a military commissioner, Juan San, sent her and the other women to live at the military base. “They put us in a room and began raping us,” she said. “I was pregnant at the time and suffered a miscarriage.” She was raped repeatedly, as were the other women. She said that she did not get pregnant as a result of the rapes because they injected her with medicine every week. Later she worked at the military base on a rotating basis, every three days.

Yat stated that the women who were left widowed were forced by soldiers to participate in the civil defense patrols. She named several women who participated in the patrols. She said they were not paid for this work. She said they also had to buy the soap to wash the soldiers’ clothes. “When we went to the river to wash the close, the soldiers would rape us,” she said.

Yat said that Dominga Cuc was her cousin. She said that the soldiers locked her in a small house and sexually abused her until she was practically lifeless. “I don’t know who gave the order but we could hear them shooting, then we heard that she had been killed,” she said.

She also stated that after she was allowed to leave the military base she realized that her house had been burnt down by soldiers, and her livestock were gone and her crops had been destroyed. They had nowhere to live so they used nylon sheets to create a makeshift shelter. “I came here to tell about everything I suffered,” she said. “I ask for justice to be done and for these things to never happen again.”

Defense counsel García stated that the witness is the legal representative of the civil party, Colectivo Jalok U. He then asked: “Why doesn’t she give her declaration here in person?” He requested that Yat’s testimony not be given probative value. Judge Barrios rejected the request, saying that her testimony had already been accepted into evidence in the 2012 preliminary hearing. Defense counsel Orozco argued that it is not allowable to vary procedural forms; the witness is present in the courtroom and should have to testify in person, otherwise the accused’s rights are being violated. Judge Barrios rejected the complaint, stating that the legal proceedings are being conducted properly and that the defendants’ right to defense is being respected.

Forensic anthropologist Reinaldo Leonel Acevedo Álvarez presented testimony about two exhumations conducted by the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG), one at Sepur Zarco and another at Tinajas. He presented a series of images to the court using PowerPoint, including satellite images of the area where the 13 clandestine graves were found at the former Tinajas military base.

At the Tinajas exhumation, Acevedo Álvarez reported that approximately ten meters from the river, investigators found the human remains of a woman aged 17 to 25 and a woman’s clothing, as well as the undergarments of two small girls. According to the expert, the way the woman’s vertical vertebrae were positioned revealed that she had been subjected to significant violence. Investigators identified the remains as belonging to Dominga Cuc, who had been 18 years old at the time she was killed. The FAFG did not discover any bones belong to Dominga Cuc’s daughters, but according to the expert, this is because they were so young (one and two years old) their bones were not fully formed and therefore disintegrated over time.

On the Sepur Zarco exhumation, Acevedo reported that they identified four gravesites, which were clandestine cemeteries. The remains of 15 individuals were found. Of these, 13 were male, and the other two were likely a male and a female. Defense counsel García asked a series of questions that were not allowed, as they were repetitive or outside the scope of the witness’s expertise. García also insisted again on the chain of custody of evidence question, which was not allowed.


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.