Sexual Violence as a War Crime in Guatemala: Mayan Women Struggle for Justice

Interview with Gabriela Rivera, Lawyer with Mujeres Transformando el Mundo (MTM, or Women Transforming the World) in Guatemala, on the Sepur Zarco sexual violence and sexual slavery case.

Interview with Gabriela Rivera, Lawyer with Mujeres Transformando el Mundo (MTM, or Women Transforming the World) in Guatemala, on the Sepur Zarco sexual violence and sexual slavery case.

Q: We talk a lot about torture, massacres and other atrocities committed during the internal armed conflict in Guatemala, but don’t hear a lot about sexual violence. Can you give a little background on how this case developed?


Sexual violence happens during conflicts. Especially in Guatemala where racism and sexism are so widespread, it is really important to know what happened to women during the war.


After the peace agreements were signed in 1996, there was a truth commission to understand what happened during the conflict. During these investigations, it was known that women suffered from sexual violence, but they weren’t really looking for sexual violence. Because there were so many violations committed during the armed conflict, massacres, enforced disappearances, and they were not really asking what happened specifically with women. Many women even gave their testimonies for these truth commissions and spoke about what happened to others, but didn’t speak about the sexual violence they suffered.


The other two organizations in our alliance, ECAP and UNAMG, were hearing that a lot of sexual violence happened in the eastern part of the country. In 2009, MTM, an organization formed mostly of lawyers, was called in to help women learn about their options in the legal system. During that time, the conditions of the legal system were not very good (they still are not very good) but at the time organizations felt there were no real possibilities to go to trial. So the organizations decided to do a Tribunal of Conscience, a symbolic form of justice. In this tribunal, women from different parts of the country talked about how they suffered sexual violence from members of the army, some from members of the guerrilla, and military commissioners, but mostly the army.


Though there were hundreds of thousands of human rights violations,  not many cases have gone to trial from that time. Maybe you have heard how, two years ago, former General Efraín Ríos Montt was brought to trial on charges of genocide and he was convicted. The events that happened in Sepur Zarco were during the same time Ríos Montt was president. It was all part of a widespread policy of the government to eliminate or exterminate Mayan people – by killing them, disappearing them, by displacing them and forcing them to leave the country, to leave their culture, or forcing them to live in conditions that were impossible to survive in. But the case was overturned.


So there is really no reason that these women would trust a system that has never responded to them. For example, one of the women in the case, when her husband was disappeared by the army, she went to a judge, and he just laughed at her, and told her he couldn’t do anything, that she should go looking somewhere else. This happened in the 1980s.


But in 2009, a lot of people in the general public supported the women. They felt ready to go to the formal legal system and they decided they wanted to give it a try, even though they knew it was really difficult. That’s when what we call the “Path to Justice” started.


Q: What exactly happened in Sepur Zarco?


As you may imagine, it is not easy for women to talk about the sexual violence they suffered. But at this time, the stories were not that clear, and that is the work we started to do. After a few months, we had a better idea of what happened. These are the facts of the case:


In 1981 and 1982, in Izabal and Alta Verapaz, where the Maya Q’eqchi’ people live, there have been historic conflicts over land ownership between the local people and the big landowners. During the 1980s, in the context of the cold war and the internal armed conflict in Guatemala, peasants who were trying to get legal title to their land would travel to Guatemala City to get advice over how to do so. They were always afraid that the big landowners would take away their land, because that is what they did historically – and still do. These men seeking legal certainty of their land were targeted as subversives by the army; they were called guerrillas and insurgents just because they were fighting for their rights.


The women in the case are the 15 wives of 15 men who were trying to gain legal title. In 1981 and 1982, these 15 men were illegally detained and disappeared by the army. Until today, only the remains of 2 have appeared. Weeks or months after their disappearance, the army came back to the houses of the wives, where were alone with their children, they burned down their houses, burned their crops, took their animals, destroyed their few belongings – just clothes and pots and pans. The army raped them and forced them to moved right outside a military post in the community of Sepur Zarco.


After that, they were essentially held as slaves by members of the military and were forced to do shifts. The shifts consisted of being on duty every 2 or 3 days, for about 12 hours, in the military post; to wash the soldiers’ clothes, to cook for them — and they were raped by soldiers every single day they went to their shifts. This happened for periods of time approximately between 4 months and 10 months.


The shifts finally ended at the end of 1983. When this happened the women were not forced to go to shifts, but they were still forced to live near the base and to cook tortillas for the soldiers. They had to find a way to find corn to make tortillas, even though they had absolutely nothing, because they were still threatened by the army. This practice lasted for 6 years, until the base closed in 1988. When the military left the community, they were left with nothing – they didn’t have their land, they didn’t have their husbands … just a lot of trauma and suffering for what had happened to them.


This was the experience of 11 of the 15 women. Four managed to flee to the mountains, with only the clothes they were wearing, and their children. They lived for years with no shelter and very little food. And many of their children died from malnutrition and disease … but also from fear. The women mostly talk about how the children literally were scared to death. One of the women in the case fled with her four children, and returned six years later with only one. Another fled with three children, and came back alone.


Q:What methodology did you use to work with the women?


We do individual interviews. All the women in the case are Maya Q’eqchi’, in their 70s and 80s. They only speak their native language, Q’eqchi’, they don’t speak Spanish. They never went to school, they never learned to read and write, and they are extremely poor.


Because it’s difficult for them to remember what happened, all the interviews go hand and hand with psychosocial support. A lot of them have emotional, but also physical trauma because of the repeated abuse they suffered. That’s why the psychologists work with the women. They remember what happened, and as they remember, their heads starts to ache, or their hearts, so the psychologists are always there when we work.


We also do group interviews. This is very important, because the women don’t always feel comfortable speaking alone, and so they are able to support each other as they speak to the lawyers or to the prosecutors to explain the facts of the case.


We also did interviews with the men who are witnesses, and meetings with community leaders to get support for the case. These are communities that are very remote, , so it is important to have meetings with the community leaders so they can support the women and their advances with the legal case.


It was important for the women to continue to try to find their husbands. So we have done three mass grave exhumations, and by now we have found 58 bodies in these mass graves, all on privately owned land near Sepur Zarco. There were seven military posts in that area, all on private ranches and farms, because the big land owners would call the army to “protect them” from the peasants. What the army did was locate the posts on private land and, according to the testimonies of victims and witnesses, each had a function – one was in charge of torture, others were where the mass graves were locates, another was where the sexual violence happened, another is where people were detained … they divided the functions between the outposts.


Q: What stage is the case at now?


When the facts of the case were clear, we presented a formal complaint in September 2011 and the complaint was filed for crimes against humanity [war crimes]. It’s propelled by these 15 women, and there are five men that are witnesses to the case. These men were victims of torture in the military and that’s how they saw the women were being enslaved.


Finally in 2012 we started a judicial process. We did something called “pre-trial evidentiary hearings” which is a way to have the victims give their testimonies directly to a judge. It is used when it is feared the victims are not going to be around for much longer. These cases usually take many years, and the victims are older and they have been living in very difficult conditions. So in 2012 a judge listened to the testimonies.


Just four months after the hearings, one of the victims of the case passed away, the youngest of the group. She was very sick during the hearings, but really wanted to give her testimony, and afterward she said she had already done her part, and it was up to the other women, the organizations and the lawyers to continue the path towards justice.


Last year, on June, there were two arrests made, one of a former lieutenant allegedly in charge of the Sepur Zarco post and the one that was responsible for enslaving the women. The other was a military commissioner who was in charge of pointing out the local men that supposedly were subversive and that were later disappeared by the army. These two men are currently in jail and we are waiting on the date of the trial. We continue to investigate because the case is obviously bigger.


Of course, the legal case is very complicated, especially because we are trying to prosecute international crimes, which are usually prosecuted in international courts (like the tribunals for Rwanda and Sierra Leone,) but we are doing this at the national level. To make sure the legal case proceeds according to the women’s priorities in their search for justice, we have described the entire legal process in detail to the women – each and every one is an active part of the case and understands its status.


Q: What is the most important part of this process for the women?


It has been quite a journey for the women. They always remind us that their mission in doing this is preventing these things from happening again. They see how the conditions for Mayan communities in Guatemala, outside the capital, are very similar to the conditions during the internal armed conflict, and are very similar to those that fueled the conflict. The racism, the poverty, the exploitation of indigenous peoples, is exactly the same – as is the repression by the government.


During the war, there was a lot of conflict over land ownership, but now pretty much all of the land is owned by private companies. Sepur Zarco is surrounded by plantations of palm oil trees and sugarcane. When you drive there, you pass immense extensions of palm trees, for over an hour straight. Every time there are disputes between economic interests or business interests, against poor people, the government always defends the economic interests of the powerful, harming those that are fighting for their rights.

The women are clear that they want to do everything in their power to prevent events like they suffered from happening again. All of us at Mujeres Transformando el Mundo are very inspired by these women’s bravery and strength and we are committed to continue to walk with them along their path to justice.


Guatemalan Femicide: The Legacy of Repression and Injustice

Kelsey Alford-Jones is the Director of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA, a non-profit, grassroots, solidarity organization dedicated to promoting human rights in Guatemala and supporting communities and activists who face threats and violence. GHRC documents and denounces abuses, educates the international community, and advocates for policies that foster peace and justice.