Historic sex slavery trial spurs hope for women’s rights in Guatemala

An indigenous woman hides her face behind a scarf on the first day of hearings for a trial of two men accused of sexual violence during Guatemala's civil war in Guatemala City on Feb. 1, 2016. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

In Guatemala, eyes are turned to the courtroom of a historic trial, believed to be the first time any national court has considered prosecution for sex slavery during an armed conflict.

The defendants, Esteelmer Reyes and Heriberto Valdez, are accused of forcibly disappearing 15 indigenous men before enslaving 11 of their wives and subjecting them to systematic rape at the hands of army soldiers throughout the 1980s during Guatemala’s civil 36-year civil war. According to the Independent, both men deny any wrongdoing.

The alleged abuses took place in the 1980s at Sepur Zarco, an isolated civil war-era army base in eastern Guatemala. The women endured the shifts for 10 months in 1982-83, according to BBC, but some were not released until the military base closed almost six years later. The four wives who evaded capture fled to the mountains, where they hid for years with no shelter and little food. According to the Guardian, many of their children died from hunger or disease.

Human rights advocates are hoping that the Sepur Zarco trial, which is expected to last 40 days, may reduce the stigma surrounding sexual violence in Guatemala, which has the third-highest rate of femicide globally.

The women and five male witnesses first came forward with their stories in 2011. Despite strong support from women’s rights and advocacy groups, bringing the case to trial has been a long and painful process; although the two ex-military officers were arrested in June 2014 and went to trial in October, the case was put on hold because of challenges by the defense.

On the first day of the trial, according to TeleSUR, Reyes Giron refused to cooperate with the proceedings.

“I am not going to respond to anyone, I won’t even give you my name,” he told Judge Yassmin Barrios.

Meanwhile, the women – all Mayan Indians, in their 70s and 80s – sat in folding chairs behind a bank of prosecutors in the vast chamber of Guatemala’s Supreme Court. The majority speak Q’eqchi’, a Mayan language native to certain communities of Guatemala and Belize, and all of the women covered their faces with traditional rebozos, brightly colored shawls. According to NPR, most of the women also chose not to testify in court, instead opting to record their stories of torture and rape in videos that were played during the testimony in court.

According to TeleSUR, prosecutors also presented the sealed cardboard boxes of the remains of 51 victims linked to the Sepur Zarco trial. Forensics expert Oscar Ariel Ixpatan explained that injuries found in the remains were consistent with gunshots and beatings, and that blindfolds and ropes were found around the mouths and hands of the victims’ remains. Two of the bodies were identified and returned to their relatives, one of which was the late husband of Rosa Tiul, one of the 11 women victims who came forward for the trial.

Horrifically, these victims were only a few of the 200,000 deaths and 45,000 disappearances thought to be caused by the 36-year war.

Most of the genocide and other crimes during the war targeted indigenous people. According to the Report of the Commission for the Historical Clarification of Human Rights Violations in Guatemala, 83.3 percent of the victims of the war were among the country’s indigenous population. Many of these victims were women, according to Latina, who were raped and enslaved in the commercial sex industry by the Guatemalan army for six consecutive months.

Guatemala is still haunted by the travesties of the war, and some believe that a repeated history of sexual violence in the country has normalized the abuse of women. The fact that the trial has progressed even this far is surprising, especially since Guatemala’s judicial system has been deemed largely inadequate (former president Rios Montt, for example, was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity in 2013, but a controversial verdict overturned the ruling just a few days later).

Prosecutors are willing to try to reform this judicial system after years of hesitancy to take on the military in court. In the light of the Sepur Zarco trial, human rights advocates hope the Guatemalan justice system is up to the task.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Seattle-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. You can contact her at lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org.