International Justice Monitor

A project of the Open Society Justice Initiative


1) Sepur Zarco Sexual Violence Case
2) The Case of the Spanish Embassy Fire
3) The Trial of Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez (available here).


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.


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) 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.