Three decades later, enslaved Maya women find justice

They were the invisible victims of Guatemala's bloody civil war. Their sexual enslavement by Army soldiers was a war crime, a gender-based crime and an atrocity. It was also part of a carefully planned strategy by the Guatemalan military. This is their story.

Sonja Perkic

WOMEN may be called the weaker sex, but 15 Maya Q'eqchi' women armed themselves with courage to complement their dignity and took two of their torturers to court. But they had to wait 34 years to do it.

In the end though, the Guatemalan justice system confirmed that they weren't lying, that their story of sexual slavery inside the Sepur Zarco military post in the 1980s was true.

'What we went through was no lie,' the women repeated in their declarations before the court. 'We came here to tell the truth.'

The trial for sexual violence against the 15 Q'eqchi' women lasted four weeks. On 26 February, former Army Lt.Esteelmer Reyes Giron, who was the top-ranking officer in charge of Sepur Zarco, was sentenced to 120 years in prison for multiple homicides and crimes against humanity - defined in Guatemalan law as crimes against 'deberes de la humanidad' or 'duties of humanity' - in the form of violence and sexual slavery.

The head military commissioner, Heriberto Valdez Asig, got 240 years for having participated in the forced disappearance of seven rural farmworkers and for the rape of the women who survived Sepur Zarco.

What happened to these Q'eqchi' women is by no means an isolated case in Guatemala. During the 36-year armed conflict - and especially during the 1980s - the Guatemalan Army committed war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, the majority of them against the indigenous population.

Using the pretext that indigenous people were likely to either belong to guerilla groups or support them, Guatemalan security forces moved systematically against the civilian population, committing indiscriminate massacres as well as forced disappearances, torture and extralegal executions. They destroyed villages and their populations' means of subsistence, thereby provoking massive human displacement.

Sexual violence was part of the genocidal strategy to destroy the indigenous populations as such. Women were raped, mutilated and tortured on a massive scale. Soldiers would even open up the wombs of pregnant women and take out the unborn foetuses.

A singular characteristic of sexual violence during the Guatemalan civil war was not just how large-scale and indiscriminate it was, but the public manner in which it was carried out. The raping of women in front of community members, and the leaving of mutilated corpses where they could be found as evidence, reveal a desire not only to terrorise the population but to thoroughly destroy it.

The disappearances

Sepur Zarco lies in the Polochic Valley in the northeast of Guatemala. The Army would call it a 'recreational' outpost. Soldiers would arrive there after combat to recover, rest and 'have encounters with the opposite sex', to quote the military plans. It was not a combat site.

The area's latifundistas - large landowners - had negotiated the installation of six military posts within their estates to provide security for their farmlands, as well as to aid in their efforts to appropriate the surrounding lands.

When a group of campesinos (peasants) started demanding the legalisation of their ancestral lands after they had been occupied by the landowners, the Army disappeared many members of the group. Some were executed outright; the rest were never heard from again. They were accused of belonging to the guerilla organisation. This was in August of 1982.

Their widows and other women left behind were forced to provide domestic services inside the military base. For more than six months, they had to work three-day shifts, cooking, cleaning and washing uniforms. During these work shifts, they were repeatedly raped by the soldiers.

The women suffered constant haemorrhaging. They were injected against their will with contraceptives; preventing pregnancy meant the soldiers could continue raping them. Many suffered spontaneous abortions.

Most of the surviving women had fled to the mountains after their homes, their animals and their crops were burned. Many of their children died there from hunger or illness.

The women of Sepur Zarco were victims of violence specifically because they were women. But they were also targeted because they were indigenous. The sexual violence at Sepur Zarco was a continuation of the crime and violence the indigenous people of Guatemala have been living through since the colonial era. It is part of the historical and structural racism which sees the indigenousas inferior to the white, to the ladino and to the mestizo. The indigenous peopleare seen as dirty, backward and fit only for servitude.

Victimhood and shame

The women who survived Sepur Zarco could not put their lives back together completely. Being monolingual in a native language and illiterate, they were doomed to a life of extreme poverty anyway. But they also suffered the stigmatisation of having been violated, of being 'the soldiers' women'. They were rejected and humiliated in their own communities.

As could be heard throughout the trial, the victims themselves felt shame and guilt for what had happened to them. In the rigidly patriarchal society they lived in, women did not make their own decisions. Instead, they were destined to be wives and mothers only, practically the property of their husbands, who ruled not only over their lives but also over their bodies and sexuality.

A telling piece of testimony during the trial by one of the victims was that the soldiers had 'broken up my marriage'. How could that be? Because rape is usually seen in that social context not as a form of aggression against the woman but as a kind of sexual relation. She is seen then not as a victim but as unfaithful, a whore, a worthless woman.

No wonder that the women said they felt as though they no longer had a reason to live.

Dark strategy

In Guatemala, the indigenous communities were attacked through the bodies of their women, because women are the community's centre of gravity precisely because they are women, and for what they, as women, symbolise.

What they symbolise, of course, is the continuity of the group. They are in charge of reproduction, both biological and cultural. So when women are attacked - when their dignity is compromised, when they are forced into submission and demoralised - the entire society is brought to heel and demoralised as well.

Guatemalan military intelligence was well aware of this. That is why sexual violence was used as a tremendously effective weapon of war that destroyed indigenous communities. It wasn't just about making the female victims suffer as individuals. It was, in the case of Sepur Zarco, about inflicting damage on the entire Q'eqchi' culture.

'Profaning the women's bodies targets the entire community,' the feminist anthropologist Rita Laura Segato said during her testimony at the trial as an expert witness.

Delayed justice

The women of Sepur Zarco needed three decades to break their silence. They were finally able to overcome their fear and talk about what happened thanks in large part to help from feminist groups and teams of community mental health specialists. Most importantly, they were able at last to understand that what happened was not their fault, that they were the victims.

Over time during these discussions, a desire took hold to take the perpetrators to court, so that, as stated in their declarations before the court, 'the same thing won't happen to our children.' Another motive was to reveal the truth, a truth that had been silenced for decades.

So it was that lawyers from the organisations Mujeres Transformando el Mundo and Alianza Rompiendo el Silencio, acting as plaintiffs on the women's behalf, filed a criminal complaint in 2011 with the Public Ministry. It took almost five years for oral arguments to begin.

The female victims were in attendance from the first day of testimony, seated behind their lawyers. Their faces were covered by veils; they still feared reprisals. That was the image that circulated in the media worldwide - the invisible women, visible.

It was a landmark trial culminating in historic sentences. For the first time ever, a national court in Guatemala handed down a sentence for gender crimes - sexual violence and sexual slavery - characterised as crimes against humanity. The precedent applies not only to Guatemala but to other countries with similar histories.

It could also be a watershed moment for the ongoing struggle by women - especially indigenous women - to have their rights respected.

Women have been defiled and used as spoils for as long as war has existed. But that's usually been seen as collateral damage, rather than the crime that it is. For that reason, the stories of women have almost always been rendered invisible in the process of memory, truth and justice. In Guatemala as well, despite how massive and systematic the violence against women has been, this part of the nation's bloody history was silenced for decades.

Today, however, the women of Sepur Zarco are no longer victims. They are women with rights. As Judge Yassmin Barrios declaredin her sentence, 'We think that crimes of this nature must never be repeated.'            u

Sonja Perkic is a human rights and transitional justice expert. She has led investigations into rights violations during the Guatemalan conflict with a special emphasis on gender crimes and sexual violence. Presently a doctoral candidate at Mexico City's Universidad Iberoamericana (political and social sciences), she has been a consultant with the UN and the Guatemalan Public Ministry. The above article, translated from the Spanish by Kelly Arthur Garrett, is reproduced from El Daily Post ( URL of article:

*Third World Resurgence No. 307/308, March/April 2016, pp 54-55