Landmark court ruling in Guatemala against civil war sex crimes


In late February, fifteen indigenous women from the Mayan Q’echii tribe made history by winning the first case in the world leading to convictions in national courts for crimes of sexual violence and slavery within the framework of an armed conflict.

Second Lieutenant of Artillery Esteelmer Francisco Reyes Girón and Military Commissioner Heriberto Valdes Asig were sentenced to 120 and 240 years in prison.

The activist groups belonging to the Alianza Rompiendo el Silencio y la Impunidad (Alliance Breaking Silence and Impunity) explain that the Sepur Zarco case dates back to 1982 and takes its name from a community based in the Alta Verpaz and Izabal departments of Guatemala where around six military detachments were established during the Guatemalan civil war, each with its own agenda of murder and torture.

It was there that the victims’ husbands were branded as insurgents and forcibly disappeared, whilst the women were subjected to violence, domestic and sexual slavery, rape and gang rape by soldiers on a daily basis (the camp effectively became the recreational and resting grounds for the troops).

To prevent pregnancies amongst the women raped, some of them were injected or made to take pills by force.

These events unfolded shortly after the inhabitants of the area had formally applied for property rights to the land they cultivated.

The women who survived these acts of violence, who were mostly monolingual (without knowledge of the Spanish language), illiterate and living in extreme poverty. They received support through an empowerment initiative run by the organisation Mujeres Transformando el Mundo (Women Changing the World). This body and its allies successfully filed action and broke the silence, after more than 30 years of impunity.

In 2009, the alliance identified 15 women to represent the victims during the trial. Analogies were made with animal figures to help them understand the judicial process.

The victims were represented as butterflies, the judge as an owl, the public prosecutor as a parrot, the translator as a hummingbird, the psychologist as a dove and the accused as a lion.

The trial concluded with a guilty verdict, pronounced on 26 February, along with other reparatory measures such as 26 February being declared the National Day of Truth for Women Survivors of Sexual Violence, Sexual Slavery and Domestic Slavery. The Sepur Zarco atrocities will also be included in school textbooks dealing with the civil war, and a course on women’s human rights and the prevention of violence against women will now be included in the military curriculum.

In addition, Reyes Girón has been ordered to pay out the sum of 500,000 quetzals (around US$65,000) to each of the women victims (11 in total) of Sepur Zarco by way of individual compensation.

“We believe we have set out a litigation strategy that carries a gender focus and places women at the core of all actions to be undertaken,” Paula Barrios, general coordinator of Women Changing the World, explained to the press.

“For us, it is of paramount importance that the legal process should always be led by the victims, that they (the women) make the decisions based, of course, on the possible courses of action as set out by the legal team, and that the process should belong to the victims, as this ensures they are empowered and head their own proceedings. We hope that all legal proceedings involving women be treated from a gender perspective and that of defending women’s human rights,” said Barrios, pointing to one of the advances made in terms of jurisprudence thanks to this case.

This case is all the more relevant in that it saw national courts taking into consideration gender and multiculturalism as well as stopping the use of delaying tactics in judicial proceedings, tactics that have affected other historic cases including that of retired General Ríos Montt, presumed to be involved in the genocide of the Ixil tribe and whose conviction has been frustrated on two occasions, despite dealing with crimes against humanity.

The Sepur Zarco case began on September 2011 when the Alliance Breaking the Silence and Impunity (comprised of Women Changing the World, the National Union of Women and the Community and Psychosocial Action Team) launched their legal action.

One year later, in September 2012, the victims gave evidence in advance of the judicial proceedings and, in June 2014, arrest warrants were issued against the accused, Reyes Girón and Valdez Asig.

The judicial hearings opened in October 2015.

“In no country in the world has a national court ever specifically tried crimes of sexual and domestic slavery,” Leonor Artega, senior programme officer of the Fundación para el Debido Proceso (Due Process Foundation - DPLF), told the media.

“This case goes to show that justice is possible when there is a will on the part of the prosecutors and the judges, when there are legal systems composed of brave and technically competent professionals who work with the victims in mind. This trial shows that in a country where there are those who send out hate messages, who are opposed to such trials and where indifference prevails within society, in spite of all these (adverse) factors, justice is possible. It also shows that the rule of law works and that it works in favour of preventing a repeat of such horrific crimes,” said Artega, who was amongst those accompanying the plaintiffs.

Julia Barrera, spokesperson for the Office of the Public Prosecutor of Guatemala, told Equal Times that besides the Sepur Zarco case, two other cases related to the armed conflict have been opened and are underway in the country: that of Molina Theissen, regarding the forced disappearance of a 14 year old, and the Creopaz case involving violations committed in a military base.

The sentence issued in the Sepur Zarco Case can be appealed before national courts, and could go to cassation, but there is no indication thus far of the defendants taking any action to this effect.

Sexual violence is a weapon of war that is considered a crime against humanity.

According to the United Nations Outreach Programme on the Rwandan Genocide, it is estimated that between 100,000 and 250,000 women were raped during the genocide that spanned a period of three months in this country in 1994; more than 60,000 were raped during the civil war in Sierra Leone in 1991; over 40,000 in Liberia between 1989 and 2003; an estimated 60,000 in former Yugoslavia between 1992 and 1995; and at least 200,000 in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1998.

The internal armed conflict that devastated Guatemala from 1960 to 1996 was amongst the bloodiest on the continent, and left a toll of more than 200,000 dead and 50,000 missing.


This article has been translated from Spanish.