Sepur Zarco Sexual Violence Case
The Case of the Spanish Embassy Fire
The Molina Theissen Case
The Trial of Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez (available here)
1. SEPUR ZARCO SEXUAL VIOLENCE CASE
Guatemala’s Sepur Zarco case is the first known example of the prosecution in a national court of the crime of sexual slavery during armed conflict as a violation of international humanitarian law.
In 1982, Guatemala’s armed forces repeatedly attacked the small village of Sepur Zarco, in the east of the country, capturing and killing or disappearing male Q’eqchí campesino leaders in Izabal who had sought land title from the state. Prosecutors allege that for the six months after the disappearances and executions of male community leaders in August 1982, soldiers raped many of the wives of the disappeared or kidnapped men, often in front of children, and subjected them systematically to sexual and “domestic” slavery.
The women were required to report every third day for “shifts” during which time they were raped, sexually abused, and forced to cook and clean for the soldiers. After this initial period, soldiers reportedly continued to rape the women when they went to fetch water and forced them to work at the military installation, some for as long as six years until the closure of the military installation in 1988.
In one case, a local woman, Dominga Coc, came to Sepur Zarco with her young daughters, aged four and one, searching for her husband who had been captured by the military. Dominga was then reportedly held captive for four months, during which time she was repeatedly raped in front of her husband and daughters, often by many soldiers. She and her daughters then disappeared; Dominga’s bones and the remnants of children’s underwear were found during a 2001 exhumation beside a nearby river.
Col. Esteelmer Francisco Reyes Girón, the commander of the Sepur Zarco base between its inauguration in 1982 and 1984, is charged with multiple acts in violation of international humanitarian law, including rape, sexual slavery, and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment against at least 11 Maya Q’eqchi’ women. He is also charged with murder. (Col. Reyes denies he was the Sepur Zarco commander, and the military asserts that it has no records of personnel at the military installations during this period.)
Heriberto Valdez Asij (“El Canche”), a former military commissioner who purportedly commanded the civil patrols (patrullas de autodefensa civil) in Panzós from April 1982, is charged with the enforced disappearance on April 25 and August 25, 1982 of seven farmers seeking land title. (Only seven of the 19 men believed subjected to enforced disappearance have been identified—Antonio Sub Coc on April 25; and 18 others on August 25, including Manuel Cac and his two sons Santiago Cac Ba and Pedro Cac Ba, Abelardo Coc, Heriberto Choc Tzi and Juan Choc.) Valdéz denies many of the central facts, including being present and serving as a military commissioner.
This case follows various initiatives in which survivors of sexual violence broke their silence. In March 2010, in Guatemala’s First Court of Conscience on Sexual Violence Against Women during the Internal Armed Conflict, nine indigenous women testified publicly. In September 2011, prosecutors initiated the Sepur Zarco case in Izabal, before seeking its 2012 transfer to a high-risk court in the capital. In September 2012, for the first time, indigenous women testified before a domestic court of sexual violence suffered during the conflict. In the high-profile 2013 Rios Montt genocide trial, women testified again to rape and sexual violence and, in a now-annulled judgment, the court recognized the rape and sexual violence as part of the basis for a conviction of genocide and crimes against humanity.
On June 14, 2014, Col. Reyes was arrested for crimes in connection with his time at Sepur Zarco. He and Valdez have been in preventive detention since their capture. The Sepur Zarco case was approved for trial on October 14, 2014. The trial opened on February 1, 2016.
On February 26, 2016, High Risk Tribunal “A” convicted Col. Reyes and Valdez of crimes against humanity for murder, sexual slavery, and other atrocities committed at the Sepur Zarco army base in 1982 and 1983. Col. Reyes was given prison sentences totaling 120 years. Valdez was given sentences totaling 240 years.
2. CASE OF THE SPANISH EMBASSY FIRE
In 1980, indigenous campesinos and student protesters occupied the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala, seeking to draw attention to their plight. Guatemalan state security forces quickly laid siege to the occupied embassy in an overwhelming attack that afforded no special protections to the status of the diplomatic mission, and ignored the pleas of the Spanish government to retreat.
The ensuing fire killed 37 people. Among those killed were the father of Nobel Peace Prize recipient Rigoberta Menchú, two former senior Guatemalan ministers, and embassy staff. There were only two survivors—the Spanish Ambassador and a protester who was tortured and executed soon after. Two additional civilians were shot to death during the subsequent funeral march, while the killings led to a three year break in diplomatic relations between Guatemala and Spain.
In this trial, which opened on October 1, 2014 and ended on January 19, 2015, prosecutors charged Pedro García Arredondo, former chief of the now-defunct National Police Special Investigations Unit, with murder, attempted murder and crimes against humanity over the embassy killings. Arredondo was already serving a 70 year prison sentence, handed down in 2012, for the 1980 torture and execution of university student Edgar Sans Calito.
The events at the center of the case began on the morning of January 31, 1980, 27 indigenous and student protesters occupied the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala to protest the actions of Guatemalan security forces in the country’s northern highlands during the brutal dictatorship of Fernando Romeo Lucas García.
The occupiers took embassy staff and visitors captive, including the ambassador Maximo Cajal y López and visiting officials—among them former vice-president Eduardo Cáceres Lehnhoff and former Foreign Minister Adolfo Molina Orantes. Hundreds of heavily armed state forces, commanded by the now-defunct National Police, soon surrounded the building, cutting communication, electricity, and access to water for those inside.
The police eventually forced their way into the embassy building—breaking out the windows and blowing a hole in the roof of the building. The protesters then barricaded themselves and their hostages in the ambassador’s office, which subsequently caught fire in circumstances that remain disputed. The fire killed 37 people — 22 campesinos, five students, eight diplomats, and the two visiting dignitaries.
Only two people survived the siege—Ambassador Cajal, and Gregorio Yujá Xoná, a campesino protester, who was found by the Red Cross, badly burned and barely alive under a pile of dead bodies. Guatemalan lawyer Mario Aguirre Godoy escaped early into the occupation before the fire started.
Both Ambassador Cajal and Yujá Xoná were transferred to a private hospital at the insistence of the Red Cross. The morning after the two survivors arrived in the hospital, armed forces kidnapped Yujá Xoná from the hospital.
Two days later, Yujá Xoná’s tortured corpse was dumped outside the national university with a placard around his neck—“brought to justice for being a terrorist”—and a warning that “the Spanish Ambassador runs the same risk.” At the time, the Guatemalan government implicated the Spanish Ambassador in the occupation.
Other ambassadors then launched a secret operation to move the Spanish ambassador to the US embassy while he recovered from his injuries. The US embassy was shot at with a machine gun while Cajal was sequestered inside. Cajal was subsequently flown secretly from Guatemala to Madrid.
During a collective funeral on February 2 for most of those killed at the embassy, more than two thousand mourners marched in a procession, under high surveillance by heavily armed security forces. At the funeral, two student leaders were shot to death—Gustavo Adolfo Hernández and Jesús España.
In 1998, after the end of the conflict, the Guatemalan Congress singled out the embassy killings as in need of an investigation by the truth commission—the only case in which it did so. The Historical Clarification Commission concluded in 1999 that “agents of the state … were materially responsible for the arbitrary execution of those who were inside the Spanish Embassy, and the highest authorities were the intellectual authors of this extremely grave violation of human rights.”
The case was first investigated by Guatemalan prosecutors in 1980. While the quality of their investigation was poor, and did not include autopsies, they did gather forensic evidence from the bodies, as well as victim and eyewitness statements, including a statement of the Spanish ambassador and Mario Aguirre Godoy, who escaped the embassy before the fire started.
For the more than twenty years that followed, the Public Prosecutor´s office showed no interest in prosecuting the case before the Guatemalan courts.
In the trial of Pedro García Arredondo, the defendant faced three indictments: the murder of the 37 who died in the embassy fire, as also identified as a crime against humanity (delitos contra los deberes de humanidad, Article 378 of the Guatemalan Criminal Code, which codifies international humanitarian law obligations); the assassination of two students from the University of San Carlos on February 2 during the collective funeral; and the attempted murder of the two survivors of the embassy fire—Máximo Cajal, then Spanish Ambassador, and Gregorio Yujá Xoná (not his disappearance and subsequent murder).
Among other things, the indictment alleges that the defendant cut communication lines with the embassy, prevented means of peaceful negotiation, illegally ordered the storming of the embassy despite its protected status, and prevented occupants of the embassy from fleeing when the embassy was in flames. The indictment alleges that the occupants were viewed as the internal enemy and, despite being members of the civilian population, were subjected to inhumane acts.
On January 19, 2015, Pedro García Arredondo was sentenced to 40 years in jail for murder and crimes against humanity in connection with the embassy siege.
He was given another 50 years for the killing of two students at the funeral of the victims of the embassy siege, Gustavo Adolfo Hernández and Jesús España.
3. THE MOLINA THEISSEN CASE
The Guatemalan state officially acknowledged responsibility for grave crimes against members of the Molina Theissen family in 2000. Criminal charges against five former military officers, including two previously thought to be untouchable, began some 36 years after the underlying events.
The prosecution case relates to events that took place between September 26 and October 6, 1981. During this time, the Guatemalan army was implementing a counterinsurgency strategy based on the Doctrine of National Security. According to prosecutors, under this doctrine, the army considered Emma Guadalupe Molina Theissen to be an “internal enemy,” and someone with information of value to military intelligence. She was a militant of the Patriotic Worker Youth (Juventud Patriótica del Trabajo).
Prosecutors allege that the army illegally detained Emma Molina Theissen at a military checkpoint on September 27, 1981 and brought her to Military Zone No. 17, where she was interrogated, sexually assaulted, and tortured. Prosecutors say that the accused knowingly permitted soldiers under the influence of alcohol to enter the room where Emma Gaudalupe was being detained and shackled, where they used physical and psychological violence to sexually violate her outside of interrogation sessions. They also allegedly permitted soldiers to use physical and psychological violence to sexually violate her during interrogation sessions. She escaped from the base nine days after her detention. The day following her escape, October 6, armed men raided her home. Not finding her there, they beat her mother and abducted her 14-year-old brother, Marco Antonio Molina Theissen, who has not been seen since.
On January 6, 2016, acting on orders from the Attorney General’s Office, police arrested 18 former senior military officers in relation to the Molina Theissen and CREOMPAZ grave crimes cases. This was the largest simultaneous set of arrests targeting officials linked to alleged wartime crimes.
The five accused in the case are:
Benedicto Lucas García, former Brigadier General and head of the High Command of the Guatemalan Army. Prosecutors argue that Benedicto Lucas García directed, coordinated, and oversaw the work of the High Command and was in charge of the design and conduct of military strategy in the counterinsurgency war. Lucas García is charged with crimes against humanity and aggravated sexual assault perpetrated against Emma Guadalupe Molina Theissen, and with offenses related to the enforced disappearance of Marco Antonio Molina Theissen.
Manuel Antonio Callejas y Callejas, former infantry colonel who served as director of intelligence (G-2) of the High Command of the Guatemalan Army at the time of the events. Prosecutors say that Callejas y Callejas helped to implement the counterinsurgency strategy developed by the Guatemalan army during the internal armed conflict. The Attorney General’s Office charged Callejas y Callejas, as director of military intelligence, with crimes against humanity and aggravated sexual assault for permitting the existence of clandestine detention centers within some military zones, where detainees were interrogated using torture, cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, as well as sexual violence primarily against women. He is also charged with not taking the necessary actions to stop grave violations against non-combatant civilians. Callejas y Callejas allegedly supervised the military intelligence operation to recapture Emma Guadalupe and is accused of the crime of enforced disappearance in relation to the abduction of Marco Antonio.
Francisco Luis Gordillo Martínez was commander of Military Zone No. 17 at the time of the events. Based on his functional duties as commander, the Attorney General’s Office charged Gordillo Martínez with crimes against humanity and aggravated sexual assault for allegedly failing to act to stop the crimes against Emma Guadalupe, to punish the officers involved, and omitting to fulfill his duty as guarantor of rights under Guatemalan law.
Edilberto Letona Linares served as Deputy Commander of Military Zone No. 17 at the time of the events, and the charges state that he was functionally responsible for all actions at the military base when the Commander, Francisco Luis Gordillo Martínez, was absent. He therefore faces charges of crimes against humanity and aggravated sexual assault for allegedly failing to take necessary actions to stop the perpetration of crimes against Emma Guadalupe and to punish the officers involved.
Hugo Ramiro Zaldaña Rojas served as a military officer and intelligence official (S-2) in Military Zone No. 17 at the time of the events, and allegedly had direct control over Emma Guadalupe during the period of her detention. Prosecutors charged him with crimes against humanity for allegedly having directed, supervised, and controlled her interrogation, and of therefore being criminally responsible for the crimes committed against her, including aggravated sexual assault. Prosecutors also charged Zaldaña Rojas with the crime of enforced disappearance for allegedly commanding the operation to recapture Emma Guadalupe, which resulted in abduction of Marco Antonio.
In pre-trial hearings held between March 2016 and July 2017, Judge Víctor Herrera Ríos heard arguments from prosecutors, civil parties, and the defense, and ruled that there was sufficient evidence to proceed to trial. He then ruled on the admissibility of evidence to be heard at trial. The defense cases rest on a mix of claims, including contesting facts alleged by the prosecutor, and some accused denying that their positions gave them authority over the events in question.
The Molina Theissen trial began on March 1, 2018.
4. Efrain Rios Montt and Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez Case
Background information on the 2013 trial of Jose Efrain Rios Montt and Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez is available here.