Sepur Zarco: Day 9 “Sexual Violence was Systemic and Repeated”

sepur zarco

Read reports from other days of the trial here.

Day 9 – Sexual violence was systemic and repeated
Guatemala City
February 11, 2016

As the Sepur Zarco case moved toward the end of the second week of witnesses for the prosecution, the lines to get into the courtroom were shorter than in the initial days. After passing through several security checkpoints we made our way to the large “Sala de Vistas” in the Guatemala Supreme Court of Justice. More than a hundred people were seated in the viewing gallery, and more continued to file in throughout the morning. Some wore vests indicating that they were from a national or international organization officially accompanying the historic trial, while others were clearly journalists busy documenting the proceedings. Many indigenous women from various communities also sat quietly in the gallery, listening to the testimonies and enduring the cameras clicking away in their faces. Down in front of us, I caught a glimpse of Nobel Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú who I had heard was also showing her solidarity by attending the trial.

The first witness of the day was a man who testified about the location of the Sepur Zarco military base and the place by the river where the remains of Dominga Coc and her daughters were exhumed. Through photographic evidence, he identified the base, the path to the river, and the place in which she was killed. The second witness had taken photos of various military bases in the area on behalf of the Public Prosecutor’s office, and he identified the photos as they were entered into evidence. He had also produced a map showing the location of the various military bases in relation to one another, which he identified and was entered into evidence.

Dr. Héctor Rosada Granados, called as an expert witness on the sociological and military context in 1982-1983, when the crimes occurred, was the third person to give testimony. Rosada, through his extensive study of the military and his contacts within the military command, was able to speak at length to the political and sociological context that shaped military operations at the time. He told the court that the elite landowners felt that their economic interests were threatened by the organizing of the indigenous campesinos in the area who were trying to reclaim their lands, and that this was the driving force behind the military actions in the area. As a result of campesinos’ attempts to obtain title to their land, large landowners in the region started accusing them of being guerrilleros, drawing the attention of the ‘counterinsurgent’ state. Rosada Granados also told the court how the military model changed in 1981, when Benedicto Lucas Garcia, then Army Chief of Staff, called together all of the commanders of the military zones. The military made itself more mobile and made efforts to infiltrate communities in reaction to the military’s inability to defeat the guerrilla using more traditional warfare tactics. It was now about capturing the enemy. “It was in this meeting [in 1981] that the idea of the genocide was born,” he explained. He went on to describe a “policy of terror” where observation posts were imposed, suspected insurgents were captured and publicly tortured and executed, and there was constant patrols, surveillance, and persecution and oppression of the population, including women and children. He spoke of the forced service of women – making them cook and clean, even dance for the soldiers – as a means of degrading them. “The rapes, the sexual and domestic slavery, were typical modus operandi in the operative tactical plan for the army in areas of conflict,” Rosada told the court. However, he also told the court on several occasions that there was no guerilla activity in the area of Sepur Zarco (a fact verified, he said, by both parties in the conflict), and that counterinsurgent operations were in fact only a pretext used to protect the economic interests of the landholding elite. “Sepur Zarco is a case of segregation for the historic hate of indigenous people because they were organizing,” he said. He pointed to this as a case exemplary of what was happening throughout the Polochic and in areas such as Chixoy. When asked on cross-examination by the defense lawyers if the crimes of sexual violence and slavery would have been written into operational plans of the military, Rosada replied that they wouldn’t have been written down, but that they also weren’t spontaneous or isolated incidents – sexual violence was systematic and repeated in the context of the conflict.

The rest of the day was spent listening to video testimony from two of the complainants in the case. The first woman, through a translator, told the court that the soldiers arrived at her house at 5 am in the morning, surrounded her house, tied up and took away her husband and sons. She was then raped in her house by one of the soldiers. When they told her that she would die she replied that they had already taken her husband and her sons, how could they kill her too? She was left pregnant from the assault, but with her husband and sons gone she miscarried because of all the work she had to do. The soldiers came back a week later and burned their things and took them to live outside the Sepur Zarco base, where she built a makeshift shelter our of sheets of plastic. There, she was sexually assaulted again, and forced to work for six months at the base in 12 hour shifts. When she couldn’t report for her shifts anymore because she was too weak, she was forced to send tortillas she prepared at home.

The last testimony of the day was another video declaration from a woman also forced to serve at the Sepur Zarco base. Her story, like those of the others, started with the forced disappearance of her husband. During her slavery at the military base, she was repeatedly sexually assaulted by one of the soldiers, sometimes while other soldiers looked on. “It was very sad, what I lived through,” she said.

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