After four intensive weeks of public hearings, on the afternoon of February 26, 2016, the High Risk “A” Tribunal delivered a summary statement of its verdict in the landmark Sepur Zarco case. The accused were charged with sexual violence and domestic and sexual slavery against 15 Maya Q’eqchi’ women, as well as several counts of homicide and enforced disappearance. The three-judge panel found defendants Lieutenant Colonel Esteelmer Reyes Girón, former commander of Sepur Zarco military base, and former military commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asig, guilty of all charges, sentencing them to 120 and 240 years in prison respectively.
“The judges of this tribunal firmly believe the testimonies of the women who were sexually violated in Sepur Zarco,” said presiding judge Yassmín Barrios, who read aloud the verdict to a packed courtroom. Judge Barrios detailed the violence the women suffered, making detailed reference to the witness and expert testimony, reiterating their innocence, and explaining the evidence that confirmed the command responsibility of the two accused. When she finished reading the verdict, the crowd erupted in applause. The 11 women who brought this case to trial raised their arms in unison to signal their view that justice had, at last, been served.
This was the first time a Guatemalan court has prosecuted a case of sexual violence related to the country’s 36-year internal armed conflict. It also marks the first time a case of domestic and sexual slavery has been prosecuted in a domestic court. In addition to finding the both defendants guilty of crimes against humanity in the form of sexual violence and sexual and domestic slavery, the court also found Reyes Girón guilty of the murder of Dominga Cuc and her two daughters. The court found Valdez Asig guilty of the enforced disappearance of the husbands of seven women victims.
Over the course of four weeks, the tribunal, comprised of judges Barrios, Patricia Isabel Bustamente García, and Herbis Sical, heard testimony from survivors and expert witnesses who detailed the pattern of military operations in the area, the relationship between the conflict over land and military repression in Sepur Zarco and surrounding areas, and the lasting impacts of the violence suffered by the women.
When the 11 women survivors of sexual violence and domestic and sexual slavery entered the filled-to-capacity courtroom, veiled in their now iconic brightly colored hand-woven shawls, they were met to loud applause by the public. The public chanted “Justice, Justice” and “We are all Sepur Zarco.”
In attendance were a number of well-known Guatemalan human rights activists, including Nobel Peace laureate Rigoberta Menchú Tum; Rosalina Tuyuc, president of the National Committee of Guatemalan Widows (CONAVIGUA); and Aura Elena Farfán and Blanca Hernández of Relatives of the Disappeared of Guatemala (FAMDEGUA). Representatives of institutions such as the Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations were in attendance. Emilio Álvarez Iacasa, the president of the Inter-American Commission of Human rights, was also present. The relatives of the victims and some military officials attended, as well as Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, a former military officer and the president of the Foundation Against Terrorism, which has long criticized human rights activists and organizations as well as judicial authorities as being “pro-guerrilla” and for undermining the institutional integrity of the Guatemalan armed forces.
After Judge Barrios read the summarized version of the verdict, she remanded Reyes Girón and Valdez Asig to prison. She convened two additional hearings: one on March 2 to present the sentence for reparations, and another on March 4 at which the full sentence would be read aloud in open court.
Criminal responsibility of the defendants
Judge Barrios stated that upon careful review of the evidence presented during the course of these proceedings, the tribunal reached a consensus that a preponderance of evidence established that crimes against humanity had been committed in Sepur Zarco in the context of the internal armed conflict. To accuse someone of being an “internal enemy” was tantamount to a death sentence in the context of the ongoing counterinsurgency in Guatemala. In this case, the underlying motive for identifying some people in Sepur Zarco of being the internal enemy was that the landed elites were angry about the community efforts to obtain legal land titles as part of a broader process to reclaim their historic territories.
The local landed elites (finqueros) instigated a process by which community organizers were accused of participating in or providing support to the guerrilla. These accusations were presented to the local military commissioners, who then proceeded to persecute those leaders because of their presumed connection to the guerrilla.
Judge Barrios said that the evidence reveals a clear modus operandi: first the men who participated in the land committee were forcibly disappeared; then their widows were systematically raped by soldiers; then their homes and belongings were destroyed. In many cases entire families were forced to flee into the mountains to seek shelter; many died of hunger and cold. In the meantime those men who were not disappeared were forcibly recruited in the civil defense patrols (PACs), and the military incited a permanent confrontation between the patrollers and the community as a way of maintaining social control. The expert testimony about gender and violence in Sepur Zarco confirmed that sexual violence was widely used in the context of the internal armed conflict, and that sexual violence against women destroys the social fabric. The confrontation between civil patrol members and community leaders also contributed to the destruction of the social fabric of the community.
The judge made reference to the importance of expert testimonies in supporting the evidence given by the women victims of Sepur Zarco, such as the report presented by forensic architect Elisa Gabriela Mendoza García, which helped determine that it is virtually impossible that those working in the Sepur Zarco military base had no knowledge of the systematic rape of the women that occurred there over the course of several years. The expert testimony of Irma Alicia Velasquez, based on her interviews with women survivors, helped determine patterns in the testimonies: their husbands were detained because they had been accused of helping the guerrilla; the women were brought to Sepur Zarco military base and raped there; and they were forced to cook and clean for the soldiers of the course of several years. The violence against women also had a devastating impact on the broader community and on the cultural life of the Q’eqchi’ people in Sepur Zarco.
Judge Barrios went on to state that the tribunal’s determination was also based on the individual testimonies of the women victims of Sepur Zarco. She referred for example to the testimony of Rosa Tiul. Tiul testified that Juan Xo and Manuel Chocon violently detained her husband and brought him to the Tinajas mitary base. She also explained in detail how soldiers upon return to the military base from the mountains would pass by her house, often raping her repeatedly. Judge Barrios noted that the witness’s account was corroborated by the testimony of Rogelio Hüitz Chon. The presiding judge then went on to describe similar events outlined in the testimonies of other survivor-witnesses whose husbands were disappeared, who were raped and forced to work in the military base, and who were injected with contraceptives to prevent them from getting pregnant. Among the witnesses mentioned by the judge are: Candelaria Maas Sacul, Manuela Bá, Felicia Cuc, Vicenta Coy Pop, Margarita Chub, Cecilia Caal, Carmen Xol Ical, Maria Bá Caal , Demecia Yat de Xol.
Judge Barrios also mentioned the testimony of Magdalena Pop, who passed away shortly after testifying before a judge in an evidentiary hearing where her testimony was accepted as evidence. Judge Barrios noted that Pop was sobbing profusely as she recounted these events. She stated that she trembled with fear each time she had to fulfill her “shift” at the military base because she knew what the soldiers would do to her. The judge also referred to the witness’s statement that she made tortillas for the soldiers using her own maize, even though her own children often went hungry because she had nothing for them to eat. Judge Barrios noted that Magdalena Pop’s testimony was corroborated by the testimony of her second husband Arturo Choc Chub, who testified that she told him that she had been repeatedly raped by soldiers at Sepur Zarco.
Judge Barrios summarized:
Upon examination of the testimonies presented by the victims, this tribunal finds that they were sexually violated by soldiers in the Sepur Zarco military base and that they had no other option but to submit to this mistreatment because physical force was used. We also find common denominators in their testimonies: the women’s husbands were forcibly disappeared, meaning they found themselves alone and with no one to protect them. In many cases their children were also victims and in some cases were killed.
In reference to the latter Judge Barrios discussed the testimony of Petrona Choc Cuc, who testified that the military persecution forced many villagers to flee into the mountains, where they lacked food, shelter, and medicine, which led to the death of many individuals, especially small children. “This demonstrates cruelty and a lack of sensitivity towards the pain experienced by the victims,” said Judge Barrios. “In addition to which the women, among them the witness, were raped daily by soldiers, who also forced them to cook and prepare food for them.” Again she referred to the importance of the testimonies of other individuals who provided corroborating testimonies of the sexual violence of the women and the forced labor they were obligated to perform, including Pedro Cuc, Arturo Icho Choc Chub, Manuel Ical, Petrona Choc Cus, and Mariano Caal.
The tribunal emphasized that at the time in which these events occurred, between 1982 and 1983, Guatemala was a deeply patriarchal society, and in isolated rural communities, such as Sepur Zarco, the military authorities and commissioners had total control over the fate of the inhabitants of the region and especially of the women. In this context, then, the tribunal found that members of the army killed or detained most of the men in the community, many of whom were seeking legal title to community lands. The nature of the land conflict was outlined in the expert testimony of Juan Carlos Peláez Villalobos and confirmed by Héctor Rosada Granados. This situation made it viable for the soldiers to systematically rape the women. As expert witness Rita Laura Segato explained, the systematic rape of the women of Sepur Zarco was not even primarily a sexual act but was instead a weapon of war designed not only to destroy women’s bodies, but also the broader body politic. Drawing on the ideas of the expert witness, Judge Barrios asserted that women are carriers of life; by destroying their self-esteem through constant physical assault, not only the women themselves, but all of humanity, has been harmed. “The assault against women’s bodies constituted a way of ensuring that the women could not reproduce life in their community,” said the judge.
Fear became part of daily life in Sepur Zarco, not only for the women who were direct victims of sexual violence, who were isolated and stigmatized within their own communities, but also because of the confrontations between the patrollers and the other members of the community. By exploiting the vulnerability of the women, the military was able to destroy the capacity of resistance of the broader community.
According to Judge Barrios:
The harm done to the victims transcended their bodies and their minds because after returning to their homes, after having fled to the mountains to seek refuge, they were completely dispossessed, their community had changed irrevocably; their homes had been destroyed, their animals killed. The women victims were enslaved; they suffered a loss of liberty and were subject to the constant control and domination of the soldiers. They were obligated to take shifts cooking, washing the soldiers’ clothes, and were repeatedly raped, which caused palpable emotional harm.
The judge also stated that the evidence clearly showed that military commissioner Valdez Asig was the person who identified the community leaders who were then detained, and he participated directly in the detention of those leaders; and that he was, therefore, was fully aware of this situation.
Esteelmer Reyes Girón, the head of the Sepur Zarco military base, was also aware of all these abuses, including the sexual violation of the women and the abusive treatment they received. The judge referred to the testimony of several witnesses, including Valeriano Caal and Rogelio Hüitz Chon, who identified Reyes Girón as the commander of the military base and testified that he gave orders to the soldiers stationed there.. Drawing on the expert testimony of Prudencio Martínez de Murguía, who stated that rape is a weapon of war and in this case it was exercised against women in areas believed to be controlled by the guerrilla. Moreover, neither Lt. Col. Reyes Girón nor military commissioner Valdez Asig can possibly claim that the sexual violence that occurred at the Sepur Zarco military base happened without their knowledge and consent. As head of the base, Reyes Girón was responsible for the actions of his troops and necessarily had knowledge of what occurred inside the military base. Within the military institution, Martínez stated, an officer cannot claim ignorance if he has the obligation of exercising control. The defendant Reyes Girón was required to order his troops to respect the women in Sepur Zarco; by allowing women to be raped, and subjected to sexual and domestic enslavement, he engaged in illicit acts that constitute crimes against humanity (delitos contra los deberes de humanidad), which, according to Article 378 in the Penal Code, is a crime in Guatemalan law, in the form of sexual violence, humiliating and degrading treamtent, and domestic slavery. The defendant Valdez Asig also permitted and facilitated the sexual violation and humiliating treatment of women, constituting crimes against humanity in the forms of sexual violence, humiliating and degrading treatment, and domestic slavery.
The court also determined that the Guatemalan Constitution establishes the primacy of human rights treaties and conventions, thus giving the tribunal the faculty to apply Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibits the attack and cruel and degrading treatment of civilian populations, to this case. The repeated sexual attacks against the victims, the sexual and domestic slavery to which they were submitted, and other degrading treatment, including the burning down of their homes, were amply demonstrated in the course of these proceedings, stated the judge.
Guatemalan law in such cases prohibits the accumulation of sentences. In addition, due to the principle of legality, the judges are inhibited from imposing the sentences requested by the prosecution and the civil parties. Thus, stated Judge Barrios, the tribunal is imposing a sentence of 30 years in prison for each of the accused for the commission of crimes against humanity.
Judge Barrios noted, “Today, with the sentence, we recognize and acknowledge the value and respect that the women of Sepur Zarco deserve. Overcoming obstacles and stigmatization, they have made public the violations they suffered… the judges of this tribunal consider that crimes of this nature should never again be repeated.”
In addition, the tribunal found Lt. Col. Reyes Girón responsible for the murder of Dominga Cuc and her daughters, Anita Itzep, and Hermelinda Cuc. Judge Barrios referred to the testimony of several witnesses, including Dominga Cuc’s husband, Santiago Itzep Ical, and her mother, Julia Coc de Choc, to determine that Dominga Cuc had been taken to the Sepur Zarco military base, where she was sexually violated, and later was brought to Roquepur River where she was killed along with her daughters.
Judge Barrios stated:
Based on all these testimonies, the judges of this tribunal find that Dominga Cuc was assassinated together with her two daughters. The accused Esteelmer Francisco Reyes Girón was the chief of the Sepur Zarco military base, and…he had knowledge of what occurred there and in the surrounding area. The court therefore finds Reyes Girón responsible for the assassination of Dominga Cuc and her daughters Anita and Hermelinda, based on Article 132 of the Guatemalan Penal Code.
The tribunal imposed a 30-year sentence for each of these three victims. Combined with the 30-year sentence for crimes against humanity, the tribunal imposed a total sentence of 120 years on Lt. Col. Reyes Girón.
The court further found Valdez Asig responsible for seven counts of enforced disappearance. The seven individuals in question, all husbands of the women victims of sexual violence in this case, are: Antonio Sub Coc, Manuel Cac, Santiago Cac Bal, Pedro Cac Bal, Abelardo Coc, Heriberto Coc Tzí, and Juan Choc. The judges found that Valdez Asig participated in the violent detention of these individuals, who were then forcibly disappeared and remain missing to this day. The court based its decision on the testimonies of several witnesses, including Manuel Cú, Rogelio Hüitz Chon, Juan Maquín Caal, Pedro Cuc, and Santos Xe Choc. The court affirmed the now widely accepted international jurisprudence determining that enforced disappearance is a crime that continues in time and space. Based on Article 201 of the Guatemalan penal code, which outlines the crime of enforced disappearance, the court imposed a sentence of 30 years for each count of enforced disappearance. In addition to the 30-year sentence for crimes against humanity, Valdez Asig’s total sentence is 240 years.
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.