Days 6 – Expert witness testimony begins
By Fabienne Doiron and Lisa Rankin
Monday, February 8 marked the sixth day of the Sepur Zarco trial, and the beginning of expert witness testimony. The first person called to the stand was Juan Carlos Peláez, a lawyer from Coban, Alta Verapaz. After being sworn in by the judge, he began to present his findings related to the historical context of land tenure and ownership in the area surrounding the Sepur Zarco military base. Going back to the 16th century, Peláez traced the various phases of land dispossession in the region, discussing the shifts in landownership from Q’eqchi ancestral and communal land to large private finca (plantation) ownership. He argued that, throughout Guatemalan history, land dispossession has been accompanied by sexual violence and slavery or servitude as “a symbol of control and power over the land.” Indeed, he found that when the great majority of the land in the region was privatized in the late 20th century, the Q’eqchi’ practice of working communal land collectively translated to forced work on the new plantations, the new finqueros understanding that their ownership of the land also extended to what was on it, in this case, Q’eqchi’ men and women. Having analyzed various land registries and archives, Peláez asserted that the formation of these fincas did not follow constitutional, civil, or agrarian law, and that the land titles should therefore be considered null and void, and that this was also the case of the Finca Sepur Zarco and surrounding plantations. While consulting the archives of the Instituto National de Transformacion Agraria (INTA – the state institution in charge of overseeing agrarian development, including of mediating land claims), Peláez found the names of all of the disappeared men (and women’s husbands) involved in this case. He suggested that these land claims would have led the government to inspect land titles in the region and, he argued, to discover the inconsistencies and contradictions in the titles, a “truth” which went against the interests of finqueros. (“la verdad iba en contra de los intereses de los proprietarios en todos sentidos”)
The second expert witness to testify Monday was Jorge Luis Romero de Paz, who works at the Guatemala Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG) in Guatemala City, and conducted the social anthropology study that accompanied the exhumation process at the Finca Tinajas military base. After giving a detailed explanation of the methodological process followed for this study and explaining how the chain of custody is maintained for the evidence garnered in the investigation, which includes DNA samples from victims’ families, the prosecutor and joint plaintiff’s lawyers asked Romero de Paz about his findings. He explained that the 78 families that participated in the study reported 107 disappeared individuals, most of whom were men who had been disappeared after having been called to a meeting by some level of authority. In most cases, it is assumed that the “final destination” of these men were the various military bases in the area, including Finca Tinajas, since family members report having seen some of the men being taken away in carts pulled by farm tractors.
The third expert witness of the trial was forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Juárez, also from FAFG. After being sworn in, the presiding judge asks each expert witness to read the date on the front of their report as well as its conclusions, and then asks them if they ratify it. In most cases this has been a pretty quick process, but not for this witness: Dr. Juarez had done reports on 18 different survivors, including the women survivors and a few of the male eye witnesses that had been called by the prosecution, and she proceeded to read the detailed conclusions for each case. Her conclusions were divided into different parts, describing how the patient presented, the impacts and manifestations of their condition, comments on the risk of revictimization, and finally, prognosis and need for continued support. It became clear quite quickly that the reports were very similar, the women having experienced the same systematic violence and therefore manifesting very similar mental and physical health issues as a result (a point which the judges picked up on and asked the witness to ratify the conclusion differently, only reading the names and dates of the reports). It was heartbreaking to listen to the witness list the myriad ways that these women’s lives had been impacted by the violence, and, especially hearing her say that she considered the harm to be permanent given these women’s advanced age, the extended period of time over which they suffered the abuses, and the decades of stigma, shame, and rejection that they faced in their communities in the aftermath of the abuses, which affected their self-definition and have been integrated into their identity. Dr. Juarez concluded that the patients presented symptoms consistent with having faced tortured, violence, and persecution, and that in her opinion the victims were telling the truth: she does not believe that they have the capacity or the technical knowledge to invent a story with such complexity and internal consistency, and to maintain it over time. She also explained that the way in which they narrate their story, at times resisting telling it, then spontaneously narrating events with lots of detail is a sign that they are telling the truth. Dr. Juarez also discussed the potential revictimization that this court case could bring for the women, having to re-live the crimes, face their assailants, and have their identity publicized, and explained their face covering as an attempt to protect themselves from this revictimization.
Fabienne Doiron has extensive experience working and conducting field research in Guatemala for the past 12 years and is a doctoral candidate in Gender, Feminist, and Women’s Studies at York University. She is a research associate with the Center for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean (CERLAC) and the Centre for Feminist Studies. Fabienne is currently working with Professor Alison Crosby on research focused on reparations for women survivors of sexual violence during the Guatemalan armed conflict. She is a former international human rights accompanier in Guatemala and member of the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network.