Nobel laureate Jody Williams recounts her experience in Guatemala to witness the Sepur Zarco trial and stand in solidarity with the courageous women survivors.
The Case of the Women of Sepur Zarco: From Victims to Courageous, Precedent-Setting Survivors
Just a little bit of historical and personal backdrop
Twenty years ago, in 1996, peace accords were signed ending the internal conflict in Guatemala that had begun in 1960. Over thirty-six years of war, Mayan indigenous communities were mercilessly attacked by Guatemalan security forces and paramilitary groups. Some 200,000 people were killed in the war, some forcibly disappeared, and countless Mayan women and girls were victims of sexual violence.
Ultimately, the war was the fruit of a CIA-backed coup d’état in 1954 that deposed reformist President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, who planned to nationalize US-owned fruit companies. Such efforts, whenever they have been attempted in a US sphere of influence – particularly in our “backyard” as Mexico and Central America have been called, have never been tolerated.
We could take the story of US interventions back to the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which provided the underpinnings of US dominance over the Western Hemisphere. And while the roots of the Guatemalan war go back generations, the 1954 coup was the immediate trigger for the subsequent decades of internal conflict.
The US government supported the Guatemalan military and its “dirty war.” Many Guatemalan officers, including General José Efraín Ríos Montt, were trained at the infamous US Army “School of the Americas,” which has trained tens of thousands of soldiers from throughout the hemisphere since its founding in 1946. Ríos Montt attended the School of the Americas in 1950 and again in 1961. Leaders of the Salvadoran death squads were trained there, as were those involved in the military dictatorships in Chile, Argentina and other countries in the “Southern Cone.”
From 1961 and throughout the Cold War, a central tenet of the School’s training was teaching “anticommunist counter-insurgency” tactics to military allies. Then it was “antidrug trafficking” tactics and now, “antiterrorist” tactics. In the 1980s the School became an object of protest that still continues today. In an attempt to shift focus away from its unhappy legacy, it has been renamed the “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.” But apparently, only its name has changed.
In 1999, three years after the signing of the Guatemalan peace agreement, the U.N.-backed Commission for Historical Clarification released a report on the war entitled “Guatemala: Memory of Silence.” It found that 83% of the dead were Mayan and 93% of human rights violations had been carried out by the military and paramilitary forces. Here is a map indicating massacre sites during the war.
It is only relatively recently that former military and other officials, including former president General José Efraín Ríos Montt, have been tried and convicted for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Those landmark convictions are largely the result of work of the profoundly brave former Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, now living in exile in the US, and of the Chief Justice of the High Risk Tribunal, Yassmin Barrios, and those who work with them. The Sepur Zarco trial is another groundbreaking case; what happened there was emblematic of the counterinsurgency tactics of the Guatemalan military.
Sepur Zarco was in an area in rural northeastern Guatemala where Mayan Q’eqchi’ (pronounced kek-chee) people had been openly and legally organizing for a decade, trying to gain rights to the land they had long been farming. Huge landholders had never tolerated such organizing and, as always, relied on the military to protect their interests. This resulted, in a military base being built in Sepur Zarco for the “rest and relaxation of soldiers who regularly rotated through the base.
In the beginning of 1982, eighteen indigenous community leaders in villages around the base were forcibly disappeared – along with many others – the overwhelming majority were never seen again. With the leaders removed, soldiers attacked the communities, raped countless women and girls and destroyed anything and everything that they owned – their homes, crops, and animals. Some women managed to escape to the mountains with their children. Not all survived.
The wives of the disappeared community leaders, who the soldiers began calling “the widows,” were forced into domestic and sexual slavery to “meet the needs” of the men at the fort. They were required to go to the fort and endure 12-hour shifts of cooking, doing laundry for the soldiers and then being raped over and over by multiple perpetrators. The garrison was closed in 1986, but for the survivors of Sepur Zarco, nothing would ever be the same again. Ultimately, of the dozens and dozens of women victims, fifteen decided to bring charges against the military for crimes they lived through at the fort in 1982 and 1983. It took six years to get to court, but the trial began on February 1, 2016.
Rigoberta Menchú Tum and I have known each other since the 1980s. I began working on El Salvador at the beginning of 1981 and much of my work in and out of Central America for eleven years involved trying to educate US citizens about the horrible impact of US foreign policy toward the region with a mind to building public support for ending US interventions in Central America.
Rigoberta was the first indigenous person to be recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize. It was in 1992 and I vividly remember the excitement that ran through the various Central America solidarity groups with the announcement of that year’s prize. Grassroots activists somehow felt a part of her prize because a humble Mayan grassroots woman activist had been recognized for her work. Activism for peace mattered and all sectors of society had roles to play in achieving sustainable peace with justice and equality.
Although not directly involved in Sepur Zarco, Rigoberta has been intimately involved in various cases against the Guatemalan military – including the case against Ríos Montt and the trial regarding the 1980 siege of the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City by the National Police. Mayan community leaders had walked all the way to Guatemala City to protest against the ongoing attacks on Mayan villages by state security forces. When set upon by police, they took refuge in the Embassy, which was surrounded by police.
The siege ended with the Embassy engulfed in flames, resulting in the deaths of 37 protesters, diplomats and others. One of those who died in the inferno was Rigoberta’s father. Rigoberta was a plaintiff in that case. Pedro Garcia Arredondo, former commander of the now-disbanded “National Police Special Investigations Unit,” was found guilty of crimes against humanity and murder for the deaths of the 37 victims who perished in the fire, among other charges. He was sentenced to 90 years in prison.
This year marks the 10th anniversary that Rigoberta and I have worked more closely together, with our Nobel sisters, in the Nobel Women’s Initiative. We sat together throughout the last week of the Sepur Zarco trial – except that Rachel Vincent and I had to leave on the very last day – the day that the perpetrators in the case were convicted and sentenced. We were there in support of the women of Sepur Zarco and the Alliance to Break the Silence and Impunity (La Alianza Rompiendo el Silencio y la Impunidad), which has worked with the women for six years to help them bring their case to court.
The Alliance to Break the Silence and Impunity is a coalition of three feminist human rights organizations: Women Transforming the World (MTM), the National Union of Guatemalan Women [UNAMUG], and the Team of Community Studies and Psychosocial Action [ESCAP]. It was formed in 2009 specifically to support women who had been victims of sexual violence during the conflict in their pursuit of justice.
The Nobel Women’s Initiative had been communicating with members of the Alliance, some of whom we had met during our delegation to Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala in 2012, and we had been supporting the Sepur Zarco case in the lead up to the trial.
The Women of Sepur Zarco
Rachel and I arrived in Guatemala City on the evening of Saturday, February 20th. On Sunday, we spent much of the day with Rigoberta, her family and some 150 people marking the beginning of the Mayan New Year. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz of the Philippines, was also at the 4-½ hour celebration and we noted that it was the longest ceremony of a religious nature either of us had ever participated in.
On Sunday evening, we went with Rigoberta to meet the women of Sepur Zarco. The room was packed. Many were from the Alliance, which had arranged the meeting. Rigoberta, Victoria and I were seated at a table at the front of the room along with two members of the Alliance. The women from Sepur Zarco were seated in kind of a semicircle of folding chairs in the first row. They didn’t want pictures taken of their faces, but I was allowed to take a few as long as they weren’t made public.
After a brief introduction and words of encouragement and support from the head table, the women took turns introducing themselves and telling fragments of their stories. Here are a few:
* “Our husbands were killed simply for asking for land. Much blood ran.”
* “In the mountains, I tried to save my children but they died because I could not feed them. I only have one son left. Many organizations support us and help us along the road to justice.”
* “Now we live in poverty. Sometimes I feel alone. But here I see there is support.”
* “I am in pain. I have no home. I move between the houses of my children. I haven’t been able to plant crops on my own land [for decades]. They killed my husband. It wasn’t like this before.”
As they spoke, most sat somewhat hunched over, with their heads down or their eyes otherwise averted. Many had their hands in their laps, palms up, as if in supplication. One of the women looked so desiccated that she appeared very much like a mummy to me. It seemed that there was not much under her skin but bone. Looking at them that evening it was hard to believe that they have had the courage to pursue this landmark case decades after all they lived through. But they have. And the words of one of the women that night seemed to capture their strength:
* “We chose to tell our stories. We will not be silent. We hope justice will come. We speak out because we don’t want our children and grandchildren to live what we lived. I want strong sentences against the perpetrators.”
After having met and talked with the women the night before, it was a shock to enter the courtroom the next morning and see them totally covered. Although one of the women had said then, “When we speak [for the trial], we cover our faces because we are afraid. Here [away from the public eye] we don’t have to cover because we have support.” But even having heard that, I don’t think we were quite prepared for the flood of emotions upon seeing them covered pretty much head to toe. It felt somewhat surreal.
Fourteen of the fifteen women who brought charges in the case sat behind their bank of lawyers, only one of whom was a man. Over the six years it took to bring the case to court one of the women died. Her testimony stands, however, because the women had been allowed to testify by video so they would not suffer revictimization in open court. Had the women testified live in court, they would have been subjected to extremely hostile cross examination by the defense attorneys, two of whom were military lawyers although they dressed in suits.
The women were always still and silent, always with their faces covered. It seemed at times that one or the other might have felt a little claustrophobic because from time to time you might see eyes or a nose and mouth emerging from the shawls that cocooned the women. All I could think of whenever I looked at them was ghosts.
Six years seems a long time to get to the point of finally receiving the justice these women deserve. On the other hand, they have been carrying the weight of what happened to them in Sepur Zarco since 1982. More than three decades of pain, shame and humiliation, and deep, deep loss.
They may cover their faces in public, but these are the women who found something within themselves that compelled them to seek justice – not only for themselves but also for women who come after them.
The Perpetrators & The Charges Against Them
The women and their attorneys sat on the right side on the courtroom, facing the judges’ bench. On the left, the two accused sat at a table with their defense lawyers. The accused sat at either end of the table near their individual attorneys. In this photo the lead attorney for the former commander of the base is absent, as he was until the end of the week. He was being defended by his second lawyer.
The man on the left in the brown shirt is Heriberto Valdez Asig; in this photo he’s somewhat dressed up. Valdez had said that he could not afford legal counsel so he was given a court-appointed lawyer. There was much speculation about the choice of the attractive female – that she was assigned to the case to show that a woman was willing to take on the women of Sepur Zarco and defend a man “wrongly accused.” At the same time, we all agreed that she was the best and most well prepared of the three defense lawyers.
At the time of the charges Valdez was a municipal policeman. He was also a civilian “military commissioner,” working for the Guatemalan military – in other words he was a paramilitary. The military commissioners in the various communities formed a paramilitary network that gathered information and intelligence at the local level while also controlling and repressing people living in the communities where they operated. These paramilitary were bilingual, speaking the Mayan language of the community where they lived (there are 24 distinct indigenous languages spoken in Guatemala) as well as Spanish so that they could interface between the community and the military.
Along with the above obligations, another of Valdez’s his tasks was to lead the “civil defense patrol” made up of indigenous men from the communities around Sepur Zarco who were forced to participate. If they refused they were subject to repression and sometimes death as they were often painted as guerrillas if they would not join a patrol. Valdez contended that he had nothing to do with the patrols and was never near the Sepur Zarco military base.
Despite his protestations to the contrary, that he had led patrols was confirmed by one of the witnesses for his defense who recalled the numerous times he and Valdez had patrolled together. The witness also testified that being part of the patrols was obligatory and the men were not paid, contrary to the claims of the defendants. They had contended that any civilians providing services to the military were paid.
In the courtroom Valdez often stared at the ceiling or the floor and frequently could be seen mumbling to himself. At some point, I was told that he had been born again and become an evangelical minister so then I wondered if he might be praying. If so, I couldn’t help but wonder if he were praying for forgiveness for his crimes or for a not guilty verdict.
The individual on the right side of the table is retired Lieutenant Colonel Esteelmer Francisco Reyes Girón, who headed up the garrison at Sepur Zarco. To my eye he had decidedly porcine features and whenever he heard testimony that infuriated him, the resemblance was heightened because he turned a very bright pink. He was constantly training his squinting eyes on those he wished to intimidate. Unlike Valdez, he always wore a suit or jacket, paid close attention to the proceedings and took copious notes.
The basics of the charges against the two men stem from crimes they carried out at Sepur Zarco between 1982 and 1983. They relate to forced disappearances, murder, mass sexual violence, and domestic and sexual slavery in the context of armed conflict. I’m sure I’m forgetting “peripheral charges” – but how many more do we need?
In the short time we were there, we heard witnesses for the defense – a woman and two men who testified that Valdez was a fine member of their community. He was always friendly and said hello. Then, of course, one of the men, as noted above, said that he was obligated to patrol under Valdez – for no pay. At least in the hours I was there, I heard no witnesses for the defense of the head of the garrison, Lieutenant Colonel Esteelmer Francisco Reyes Girón.
We missed the closing remarks of the lawyers for the women. I’d say unfortunately we were there for much of the defense summation. Reyes Girón’s lead defense attorney, who’d had to excuse himself the first day we were there, was back to head the defense summation on Thursday. Would that he’d not been there?
The attorneys for both sides, while holding dramatically opposing views, spoke mostly civilly and in measured tones. The lead defense attorney, on the other hand, did not speak—he yelled into the microphone to highlight points of his summation on the power point displayed before the court. His primary premise was that there had been no internal conflict (let us ignore the concluding report of the UN, and other bodies on the conflict).
He insisted that the Guatemalan military was responding to a problem of subversion, which of course had to be put down. Subversives, domestic terrorists, but NOT internal conflict. Not civil war. His argument would fit into the narrative of the School of the Americas in that period – training military from the hemisphere in “anticommunist counterinsurgency tactics.”
He then proceeded to deny that there had been any form of domestic or sexual slavery. He said that the women cooked and washed the soldiers’ clothes and other such tasks and were paid for such work. He also said the women were not “sexual slaves” but prostitutes. “As everyone knows,” he bellowed, “In such circumstances, women who have nothing and who have to provide for their children offer themselves for money.”
The women of Sepur Zarco covered themselves to try to minimize re-victimization, humiliation and ostracization in their community – as they’d said that first Sunday night when we met them. And here this lawyer was arguing that they’d not been forced into sexual slavery, but had voluntarily prostituted themselves to help their children.
There were rebuttals and back and forth comments by the lawyers, unlike what happens in a US court once each side gives closing remarks. In a final attempt to prolong the trial, the defense lawyers said they needed time to call new witnesses including the US Ambassador, US military trainers – after all, he said, the US was intimately involved in countering the subversion. His list went on but by then he’d lost me. In any case, the judge refused the request.
A curious side note is that when we met with some Western ambassadors, they asked if we had noticed two men “dressed like Mormons.” In other words innocuously. But we’d not. The diplomats told us that those men had been at the trial since the very first day and had been sent by the State Department in Washington. I’d have wondered if they were a bit into conspiracy theories if I’d not heard the defense’s desire to call US officials on behalf of the defendants. Then it made complete sense to me that the US was worried about how much about US involvement in what happened in Guatemala might be made public.
The Sentence & Its Profound Implications
On Friday, February 26, Rachel and I were at the airport at 6am for flights back to Ottawa and Washington. We knew a judgment would come that day and it did. After 4pm that afternoon, Judge Yassmin Barrios pronounced the sentence. The two men were found guilty of counts of crimes against humanity—including sexual violence, domestic and sexual slavery, forced disappearances and murder. They are to serve a combined total of 360 years in prison. The last link in the section below on suggestions for more information has a picture of the women of Sepur Zarco celebrating the sentence.
Of course their lawyers pledged to appeal. They are all probably hoping for some “divine intervention” as when then-President Otto Perez Molina and his cohorts managed to challenge the sentence of Ríos Montt on “technical legal grounds” so that the case has to be retried. Despite that, Ríos Montt remains under guarded house arrest. He may not die in prison, but he will die there or in his house and Perez Molina will not be able to try to intervene on Ríos Montt’s behalf again.
Former President Perez Molina, chief of military intelligence under Ríos Montt during the period for which Ríos Montt stood trial, is now in jail – along with at least a dozen other high level bureaucrats – for corruption. If he’s found guilty of those charges, perhaps in the process of the investigation, he might also be found guilty of the war crimes and crimes against humanity he carried out under General Ríos Montt, the man who was his commanding superior during many years of the genocide against the Mayan peoples of Guatemala. Perhaps that is wishful thinking, but there’s nothing wrong with that.
I had met with Perez Molina when he was president of Guatemala during a Nobel Women’s Initiative delegation in 2012. We were there around the time of the Ríos Montt trial and I said he must be proud for Guatemala and its justice system that Ríos Montt was being tried – in domestic court, which was a serious breakthrough internationally – for war crimes and genocide.
I will never forget his rage. He so wanted to rise out of his chair and scream at me that there was NO genocide. At “NO,” he’d managed to compose himself and didn’t yell “genocide” even if he’d yelled “NO.” “So,” I said, “OK, maybe it was ethnocide not genocide.” He continued to struggle to control himself and said that the justice system of Guatemala would determine that. Neither he nor his military cohorts ever expected that Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz and Judge Yassmin Barrios would manage to begin the long road to justice and compensation for the war crimes and crimes against humanity and genocide carried out by the Guatemalan security forces under Ríos Montt, himself and others now facing justice in Guatemala.
The Ríos Montt trial was groundbreaking in that a former president and general was tried in domestic courts for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity – and he was found guilty. Sepur Zarco is the first time that a case of rape and sexual slavery during armed conflict had been taken to court in the country where the crimes were committed – and the case was won.
Guatemala, for too many reasons to recount here, has always been one of the most brutal regimes in Central America. It still is no paradise. However, and in the face of all of this, the fact that its domestic legal system has managed to try and continues to try cases related to the armed conflict in the country – and find the perpetrators guilty – is absolutely, positively mind-blowing. It gives all of us optimism and hope.
There will be pushback. But we know our colleague organizations throughout the region will not be pushed back. And we at the Nobel Women’s Initiative will continue to stand with our sisters and confront violations of human rights there – and everywhere throughout the hemisphere and the world.
One final note: I’m often asked who “inspires me,” and perhaps not irrationally some imagine I’ll respond with the world-recognized advocates of peace and justice. And some of them I love and admire.
But those who inspire me day in and day out are women like those of Sepur Zarco; or women like our friend and colleague Berta Cáceres, an indigenous woman from Honduras who lead her Lenca community in opposition to exploitation and who was assassinated in her home just days after the Sepur Zarco victory; or Andrea Ixchiu Hernandez, an indigenous Guatemalan women who was part of our Sister-to-Sister Mentorship Program who used those connections to invite Rigoberta and me to meet political prisoners while I was there.
I will end here. Later I’ll be sending you information about those political prisoners, their families and what we are trying to do to help. Finally, at the beginning of May, Rachel and I will be returning to Guatemala to visit the women of Sepur Zarco in their communities as well as to meet again with others connected to this case.
“Papers Show U.S. Role in Guatemalan Abuses,” Douglas Farah, March 11, 1999.
“Indicted for Genocide: Guatemala’s Efraín Ríos Montt – U.S. and Guatemalan Documents Trace Dictator’s Rise to Power,” The National Security Archive, March 19, 2013.
“Genocide in the Ixil Triangle,” Guatemala Human Rights Commission.
“Guatemala: Memory of Silence,” Commission for Historical Clarification, 1999.
“Clamor for Justice” Luz Méndez Gutiérrez & Amanda Carrera Guerra, November 2015.
“A Massacre in Guatemala: Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchú on the 1980 Fire that Killed her Father,” Democracy Now, January 20, 2015.
“Guatemala Sexual Slavery Verdict Shows Women’s Bodies are not Battlefields,” The Guardian, February 29, 2016.