Justice at last for women held as sex slaves during Guatemala’s civil war

A woman holds a sign with messages of support for indigenous women who were victims of sexual violence during Guatemala's civil war, in Guatemala City, Feb. 25, 2016. (Credit: Luis Soto/AP Images for AVAAZ)

After a four-week trial, a Guatemalan court has found former military commander Lieutenant Colonel Esteelmer Reyes Girón and former military commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asig guilty of all charges in the landmark Sepur Zarco sex slavery case.

The men were charged with sexual violence and domestic and sexual slavery against 15 Maya Q’eqchi’ women, as well as multiple accounts of homicide and forced disappearance. Valdez Asig and Reyes Girón were sentenced to 240 and 120 years (respectively) in prison, and fined more than $1 million in damages to victims of sexual enslavement.

The historic ruling on Feb. 26 was the first successful prosecution for sexual violence committed during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war.

“It’s been a long search for the truth. It’s very important for Mayan women to get justice,” said Carmen, one of victims who testified at court, to Reuters.

The abuses took place in the 1980s at Sepur Zarco, an isolated civil war-era army base in eastern Guatemala. The victims testified that they had gone to the military base to ask about their husbands, who had disappeared when the military moved into the area, before the soldiers subjected them to systematic rape and forced them to cook and wash in shifts.

For more than 25 years, the women of Sepur Zarco suffered in silence; but with the help of an alliance of several Guatemalan women’s organizations – the Alliance to Break the Silence and Impunity – the 15 women from Sepur Zarco were able to file their lawsuit in 2011.

In total, about 200,000 people died and 45,000 others disappeared during Guatemala’s military conflict. According to the Guardian, the post-war Commission for Historical Clarification documented 1,465 cases of sexual violations against women during the war, almost 90 percent of which were against indigenous women.

But because no Guatemalan military personnel had yet been prosecuted for wartime rape or sexual slavery, the Sepur Zarco verdict sets an important precedent at both a national and international level. It also marks the first time a case of domestic and sexual slavery has been prosecuted in a domestic court.

“This is historic, it is a great step for women and above all for the victims,” Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, who attended the hearing, told the BBC.

But while there is hope that the progression of the Sepur Zarco case to a national court will set a new precedent for similar rape trials, the level and scope of impunity to be faced in Guatemala is daunting. For the many thousands of similar cases of sexual violence from the civil war, the vast majority of the perpetrators will never be brought to justice.

This kind of impunity is what allows violence against women to become normalized years after wartime conflict ends. An example of this is starkly clear in the 70+ years it took for Japan to offer a formal apology for the suffering of South Korean ‘comfort’ women who were forced to serve as sex slaves for Japan’s Imperial Army during World War II (and these countries are still bickering about it).

These trends point to a weakness of the international human rights system. When the rich and the powerful are the ones most protected in times of violence and suffering, what can a single individual do when they are woefully wronged? In the Sepur Zarco case, apparently, it took 15 of these individuals, more than 30 years and a whole alliance of people who were ready to believe them.

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About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Seattle-based journalist covering news, health and human rights in Latin America and worldwide. As a second-generation immigrant from Greece, Lisa’s objective is to encourage awareness of global issues and cultures through her stories. She has a B.A. in psychology and Spanish from Lawrence University in her home state of Wisconsin. You can contact her at lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org.