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Guatemala Genocide Trial – Women Seeking the Truth

FRIDAY FILE - AWID spoke to Maya Alvarado, Executive Director of Unión Nacional de Mujeres Guatemaltecas (UNAMG) about the historic trial in which Guatemala’s former dictator and chief of military intelligence are charged with genocide and crimes against humanity, the first such trial to take place in the Central American country.

By Gabby De Cicco

On March 19, 2013, the trial against former president Efraín Ríos Montt and Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez began in Guatemala. The first genocide charge being brought against the former dictator by the Attorney General’s Office, led by Claudia Paz y Paz is in relation to 15 massacres in the Ixil region in Quiché, north of Guatemala, in which 1771 people died, more than 29,000 persons were displaced from their villages and 1485 women were raped by soldiers.

Between 1960 and 1996 Guatemala was engaged in a civil war that resulted in the deaths or disappearance of more than 200 000 people, over 80% of which were from Mayan indigenous populations. According to research done by the Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico (CEH, Commission for Historical Clarification), it is estimated that 600 massacres occurred and, “approximately one out of every four victims of human rights violations and violent incidents were women. They died, they were disappeared, tortured and raped, some because of their political and social engagement and beliefs while others fell victims to massacres and other indiscriminate actions".[1] Findings of the commission showed that state security personnel and paramilitaries were responsible for 93% of the violations. The most violent stage of the 36-year conflict was the five-year period between 1978 and 1983, under the dictatorships of Generals Romeo Lucas García (1978-1982) and Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-1983), when 81% of the violations took place, 48% occurring during 1982.

AWID: What is the significance of the Ríos Montt trial?

Maya Alvarado (MA): It is important because the trial is for genocide and crimes against humanity; and because one of the accused is a former chief of State. By bringing these charges, the justice system is helping to open debate about racism in Guatemalan society. For many years there has been reluctance to acknowledge that what happened during the armed conflict constitutes genocide. Genocide which has to do with the racism that prevails in Guatemalan society and with the ideological assumptions the State made about indigenous people saying that, because of their nature and their situation, they were undoubtedly allied to the guerrilla forces. In this way, the State ideology built the image of an “internal enemy” at the core of which stood indigenous people.

To have these events on trial today as genocide is a significant step forward in bringing to light the atrocities that took place during the civil war, and which the Guatemalan State tried to erase and make people forget after signing the peace treaties in 1996, following 10 years of negotiations between the guerrilla and government. They wanted to turn the page and make a fresh start. But that is not possible. Indigenous people and the victims are demanding that the truth be known, that those responsible are identified as well as the degrees of responsibility.

Unfortunately the media has tried to influence urban citizens, asserting that bringing these matters to trial will reopen wounds and polarize society once again. Social, women’s, feminist and human rights organizations believe this will not polarize society but rather uncover the truth that has been denied to the victims of the civil war in Guatemala, whose numbers are staggering and go beyond this particular trial.

AWID: Could you tell us about the Sepur Zarco case? How is it related to the Ríos Montt trial and how could it be affected by what happens at the trial?

MA: In this case, four levels of command were involved, including Ríos Montt. A military detachment was placed in the Sepur Zarco community located in the Polochic area, where, since the colonial times, there was demand for land, and indigenous people fought for land claims. The guerrilla forces were not very active in the area and the military presence there illustrates the alliance between the army and the national elites to dominate the communities and to ensure that land was expropriated from them.

In the Polochic river valley, an area covering about 12 kilometers (7 miles), we have identified at least seven military detachments established to play different roles. For six years, the function of Sepur Zarco detachment was to provide entertainment, leisure and rest to the troops. Women there were forced to serve the troops, washing the soldiers’ clothes, cooking and feeding them, having to use using their own cleaning products and their corn or bean harvests. The women were also raped.

The fact that the women were organized in shifts, provided with contraception to avoid getting pregnant as a result of the rapes and that other crimes had been committed before – like the forced disappearance of their husbands – or that sexual violence was also used as torture to obtain information, proves that the sexual violence was planned and administratively organized by the military. Women’s bodies were used to send messages of terror to whole communities. With all these facts, we consider the planning as proof, and that these events did not take place in isolation.

UNAMG is working with 60 women in the region who have been stigmatized in their community, because unlike victims of other crimes - the women are being held responsible for the sexual violence perpetrated against them. This is the reason not all of them wanted to bring their cases to the justice system. But women organized in networks and provided support to the 15 women who have decided to take their cases to the trial to tell their stories.

The cases are clearly related because the Sepur Zarco case is framed as sexual violence that constitutes genocide. Investigations have shown how sexual violence was used as part of the war machinery to divide communities and literally use women to destroy the continuity of indigenous people. How the Sepur Zarco case moves forward will depend on what happens at the Ríos Montt trial. The 15 women, who are now quite old, have submitted their testimonies as advanced evidence. One of the women died in January this year, which is why we took the advanced evidence option for them.

AWID: What role has the State played vis-a-vis these complaints?

MA: The Guatemalan State never investigated these events and much less took them to trial, as it should have done. There have been exhumations that proved all the facts, and every time a grave appears, the State should investigate ex-officio but this has not been done. We value the work of the current Attorney General, and acknowledge that the previous and current administration have made it possible to move forward with these cases. But, there are still serious difficulties because of the parallel powers with vested interests in keeping these facts concealed, preventing justice from being achieved. To compound the situation further, current President, Otto Pérez Molina, is a former Intelligence Chief of Operation who was also part of the genocide in the Ixil area and other regions.

AWID: How do you see the trial developing?

MA: The two presiding judges – a man and a woman – have shown themselves to be impartial and committed to justice, as well as knowledgeable about how to handle these facts according to the existing laws. We believe they are handling it in the best possible way, under heavy pressure. We have the best expectations, but we are also ready for anything that might happen. We think lawyers have done a fantastic job and built a solid case; the expert reports are of the highest quality. We think all this should lead to a trial in accordance with the law, resulting in broad condemnation of all the crimes committed and appropriate sentencing. But if this does not happen, we will continue to appeal until justice is served.

AWID: How can international social and women’s organizations show their solidarity?

MA: It is important that the international community be aware of what might happen, that it knows everything we (social, women’s and human rights organizations) are doing is because we believe that justice is necessary for this country to move forward, and also that the situation is one in which the integrity of the victims, witnesses and plaintiffs are highly threatened. Governments of other countries should urge the Guatemalan State to respect and guarantee the trial according to the law and to the various human rights protocols and conventions that Guatemala has signed up to.

Further reading

To Follow the Trial you can visit: Read Testimonies of the April 8th proceedings visit:


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