Delay in the Maya Achí Sexual Violence Case

Another groundbreaking sexual violence case in Guatemala that had been due to enter evidentiary hearings on August 24 has been postponed to October. The delay in this grave crimes case follows the recent decision to postpone the Dos Erres massacre case to 2021 after Guatemala’s Supreme Court failed to properly constitute the relevant trial court.

The case involves six former civil defense patrolmen who were taken into custody on May 11, 2018. They are charged with crimes against humanity in the form of sexual violence against Maya Achí women in Rabinal, Baja Verapaz between 1981 and 1985. A seventh person was arrested and charged in the same case a month later. Judge Claudette Domínguez of High Risk Court “A” presided over preliminary hearings, which concluded in June against the original six detainees, and in August against the seventh. Evidentiary hearings were scheduled to begin on August 24, 2018, but have been postponed.

Much of the alleged sexual abuse took place at a military base in the municipality of Rabinal, in what is now the facilities of the National Institute of Basic Education. The defendants allegedly took multiple women to the base, raped them repeatedly, and subjected them to other forms of sexual violence. Victims included Maya Achí women, some of whom were pregnant at the time, and one of whom was only 12 years old.

The Rabinal military base fell under the jurisdiction of Military Zone No. 21 (MZ21), which is currently the location of the UN peacekeeping installation known as CREOMPAZ, where 565 human remains have been recovered since 2012, and later Military Zone No. 4 (MZ04), located in Salamá. (Eight senior military officials await the start of their trial in the CREOMPAZ case, which has been delayed since June 2016.) The Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG) has exhumed more than one hundred human remains exhumed from the Rabinal military base, suggesting that it was a clandestine detention center and cemetery. One of those reported missing after having entered the military base was Mateo Xitumul, the father of Pablo Xitumul, presiding judge in the recently concluded Molina Theissen case.

Preliminary Hearings

During preliminary hearings on June 1 and 4, the six accused —Juan Cecilio Guzmán Torres, 77, Pedro Sánchez Córtez, 53, Bernardo Ruíz Aquino, 53, Benbenuto Ruíz Aquino, 60, Damian Cuxum Alvarado, 63, and Símeon Enríquez Gómez, 67— appeared before presiding pretrial Judge Claudette Domínguez. The seventh defendant, Félix Tum Ramírez, appeared before the court in separate hearings, on August 14.

Public prosecutor Carmen Lucrecia Morales Ruíz of the Attorney General’s Office read the charges against the defendants, which include crimes against humanity in the form of sexual violence against of at least nine women. One of the victims was 12 at the time she was sexually violated.

Present at the hearings were lawyers Lucía Inés Xilom and Abelina Osorio of the Popular Law Firm of Rabinal, who represent 36 victims, as well as several attorneys representing the accused. At least three of the accused are represented by public defenders.

The civil defense patrols (PACs) were created by and under the control of the Guatemalan army. Therefore, the plaintiffs requested that the State of Guatemala be considered as an additional defendant in the case, so that the state, as well as the individual defendants, can be held liable. Judge Domínguez rejected this request, arguing that the members of the PACs were not state security agents. This contradicts the findings of the UN-sponsored Commission for Historical Clarification, which determined that the civil defense patrols were created by and under the control of the Guatemalan army, and that civil patrollers participated with the army in the commission of more than 600 massacres between 1978 and 1985.

During the pretrial hearings, Morales Ruíz presented the formal accusation against the defendants. In addition, the court heard the recorded testimony of five of the victims. Morales Ruíz requested that the proceedings be held in reserve given the nature of the crimes. Judge Dominguez rejected the request, arguing that Guatemalan law dictates that once the defendants are taken into custody, the proceedings become public.

The Charges

The Attorney General’s Office accused Juan Cecilio Guzmán Torres of criminal responsibility for at least three events. First, in March 1982, in coordination with members of the army, he allegedly questioned Iginia Chen Valey about the whereabouts of her husband, who was suspected of belonging to the guerrillas. She did not tell them his whereabouts. The accused and other members of the army then allegedly sexually violated Chen Valey. He is also accused of capturing Margarita Cruz and her mother in November 1983, together with members of the army. The accused allegedly took the women to the Rabinal military base, where they were sexually violated every night they were in military custody. Finally, Guzmán Torres is accused of raping Juana García de Paz while she was bathing in September 1985, resulting in a pregnancy. Her son, who sought to protect her, was also physically attacked.

The Attorney General’s Office accused Pedro Sánchez Córtez of capturing Paulina Ixpata Alvarado and Pedrina Ixpata Rodríguez, taking them to the Rabinal military base, where he allegedly sexually violated them, along with other Achí women, in September and October of 1983. The Attorney General’s Office accused the brothers Bernardo and Benbenuto Ruíz Aquino of raping Pedrina López de Paz, who was only 12 years old at the time. She was at home caring for her younger brothers; the Ruíz Aquino brothers are also charged with attacking them.

The Attorney General’s Office accused Damian Cuxum Alvarado with sexually violating the sisters Marcela and Margarita Alvarado Enriquez and Estefana Alvarado Sic on different occasions in November 1981. Each of the three women were pregnant at the time and suffered miscarriages as a result of the rapes. The defendant is also accused of looting and burning the victims’ homes, and of transferring one of the victims to the military base where she was subjected to additional sexual violence. The Attorney General’s Office accused Simeon Enriquez Gomez of participating with Damian Cuxum Alvarado in the rape of Alvarado Enriquez and Alvarado Sic.

The Attorney General’s Office presented recorded audio testimony of five of the survivor-witnesses. For example, Alvarado Enriquez told the court that Cuxum Alvarado and his brother Pedro, who escaped arrest and is a fugitive, killed her husband, then raped her. She also told the court that in October 1981, soldiers and patrollers killed the husbands of at least five women from the village of Xococ, and then raped the women. She said that the women were also forced to make tortillas for the soldiers.

“I came to give my statement because everything we endured,” Alvarado Enriquez concluded. “I ask that there be justice.”

The Attorney General’s Office concluded its accusation by stating that during 2011 and 2012, 11 Maya Achí women presented complaints of sexual violence they suffered during the internal armed conflict. Additional victims had already provided their testimony and qualified as plaintiffs in the case. Morales Ruíz emphasized that senior military officers organized, directed, and armed the civil defense patrols. According to the Attorney General’s Office, 80% of the rural male population between the ages of 15 and 60—an estimated 900,000 men—were forced to participate in the civil patrols between 1982 and 1983.

The Defense Case

Military defense lawyers presented arguments similar to those heard in other grave crimes cases. For example, the defense lawyers accused the Popular Law Firm of Rabinal of being motivated by financial gain for themselves and their clients. In addition, they stated that the accusations are based on lies, and challenged the allegations that their clients were members of the civil defense patrols.

After deliberating over the evidence presented by the parties, Judge Domínguezruled that the charges of crimes against humanity against all of the accused merit further investigation, and ordered that they continue to be held in pretrial detention.

The intermediate phase of the trial, during which the parties present evidence and the judge determines whether the evidence is sufficient to proceed to trial, has been postponed to October 12 for the first six defendants, and to October 30 for Félix Tum Ramírez. It is as of yet uncertain whether the proceedings will be unified into a single proceeding against all seven defendants.

On August 30, Emisoras Unidas reported that one of the defendants in the case, Cecilio Guzmán, died in the military hospital, Hospital Roosevelt, reportedly over complications from diabetes.

Jo-Marie Burt is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Latin American Studies at George Mason University. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Paulo Estrada is a human rights activist, archaeology student at San Carlos University, and civil party in the Military Diary case.