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Activists Hail Landmark Ruling on Sexual Slavery in Guatemala’s Civil War

The case is one of the first anywhere in the world to focus on the use of sexual violence in war, and is centered on 15 indigenous women who were kept as sexual slaves by soldiers who had earlier disappeared their husbands and destroyed their community.
Photo by Esteban Biba/EPA

Human rights activists say the guilty verdict in a landmark trial highlighting horrific crimes committed against women during Guatemala's civil war is a lesson for the world.

"The whole world should know that a national court is able to judge the crime of sexual slavery against women, domestic slavery, and the use of sexual violence against women in armed conflicts," Guatemalan indigenous rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu told reporters after the verdict was handed down on Friday. "I think it's a message to all humanity."


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The case — one of the first to be brought anywhere on the use of sexual violence in war — concerns events that took place between 1982 and 1983 at the small Sepur Zarco military base. These were among the worst years of Guatemala's brutal 36-year-long conflict between the government and left wing rebels that ended with peace accords in 1996.

A UN-backed truth commission later concluded that around 240,000 people were either killed or disappeared in the war, primarily as the result of the military's brutal counterinsurgency strategy that included multiple massacres in indigenous communities. Little attention has been paid to the use of sexual violence within the strategy up until now.

The 15 women at the center of this particular case came from a Maya Q'eqchi' community in the Izabal department in eastern Guatemala. They were kept in sexual and domestic slavery for several months after their husbands were forcibly disappeared by the military.

"The women broke down many forms of prejudice, difficulties, threats, and tough situations," Menchu said of the women's bravery in pursuing the case. "They dared to do it."

Eleven of the women were present in court over the course of a harrowing trial that lasted almost a month, and included some horrifying testimony.

"I was raped many times, as was one of my daughters," 75-year-old Petrona Choc had told the court. "What will the law say about what happened to us?"


For the duration of the trial the women sat, their faces covered with their shawls, across the room from the two defendants — retired 2nd lieutenant Esteelmer Francisco Reyes Girón and former military commissioner Heriberto Valdéz Asij.

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Presiding judge Yassmin Barrios sentenced both men to lengthy prison terms after finding them guilty of sexual and domestic slavery, as well as murder and forced disappearances. Asij was sentenced to 240 years imprisonment, while Reyes Girón received 120 years.

Judge Barrios said sexual violence had been used as a weapon of war. She condemned the treatment of the victims as "vile and despicable" and as "worse than animals."

The court erupted with chants of "Justice! Justice!" as the convicted pair were led away in handcuffs.

Prosecution lawyer Heidy Pineda highlighted the stigma that makes it difficult for Guatemalan women to speak out about abuse, but said that the Sepur Zarco case is evidence of changing attitudes.

"It shows that victims of sexual violence are not alone," Pineda told reporters. "There are organizations supporting them, but also a society which supports them and accompanies them in their struggle."

The case fits into a series of trials pushed by a small group of determined prosecutors intent on finally tackling the legacy of Guatemala's civil war. Their most prominent member is Attorney General Thelma Aldana.


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"I think that Sepur Zarco will open up more possibilities by setting a legal precedent which shows that it is possible to judge crimes against humanity, and especially sexual violence, even 30 years after the fact," said Ada Valenzuela of the National Union of Women, one of the organizations involved in pushing the Sepur Zarco case forward.

Valenzuela said that a group of Maya Achi women from Rabinal, in the department of Baja Verapaz, who suffered similar horrors to those laid bare by the Sepur Zarco case, have already given formal legal declarations. She added that she thought Friday's ruling could inspire other groups of women to come forward.

Paula Barrios, who is the director of a Guatemala-based NGO, Women Changing the World, and is no relation of Judge Barrios, told reporters that she is certain that there will soon be many other similar cases in court.

"For the indigenous women of Guatemala, Sepur Zarco means breaking down impunity after 34 years of waiting, and finally gaining access to justice for the crime of sexual slavery which many indigenous women were victims of in this country," she said.

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She said that follow up hearings to establish reparations for the victims of Sepur Zarco are due to be held on March 2.

"The women were seen as the spoils of war and the soldiers violated their bodies in order to destroy the social fabric of the Maya Q'eqchi' community," she said. "We will focus reparations on this area in order to try and rebuild this fabric, if possible, for future generations of Q'eqchi' women so that they have a better future, and don't continue to live with the consequences of this tragedy."


Activists claim that the legacy of the war is also seen in the fact that Guatemala currently suffers one of the highest murder rates in Latin America. Guatemalan women reportedly face the third highest rate of femicide in the world, with 98 percent of cases going unpunished.

Jo-Marie Burt, from Washington Office for Latin America (WOLA), says Friday's verdict could help to alter attitudes to violence against women.

"It sends a clear message that violence against women will not be tolerated and that perpetrators of such abuse will be held to account — whether in wartime or in peacetime," Burt said in an email. "I think that this is an extremely important message in a place like Guatemala where violence against women is so widespread, and where impunity for such violence has been the norm."

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Follow Jack Guy on Twitter: @JGuyGUA