By Lisa Rankin, BTS Guatemala Coordinator
May 11, 2018 was the day the women had been waiting for; after years of gathering testimonies, psychosocial support, preparation and investigation, the National Civil Police and Public Prosecutor arrested six men, former military commissioners in Rabinal, accused of sexual violence during the Internal Armed Conflict. However, the police and Public Prosecutor didn’t act alone- far from it. For over a decade the real proponents of the case were 36 women, representatives of the scores of women who suffered sexual violence during the Internal Armed Conflict and genocide in Rabinal. Throughout this long journey, the women have been accompanied by the Rabinal Legal Clinic, a constant pressure on the Guatemalan state to move this case forward.
“We need to demand justice so this doesn’t happen again, what we suffered in our own flesh. It’s difficult because we started this case in 2011, and the people who hurt us are still in power. I was scared when the arrest warrants were carried out, but I have to continue the struggle and the search for justice,” stated one of the women involved in the case, who will remain anonymous for security reasons.
The 36 women are from all over Rabinal, the youngest 11 years old at the time, and all have different stories of how sexual violence was used as a tactic of genocide in 1982, 1983 and 1985. The former military commissioners, who were in charge of the Civil Self Patrols, and overseen by the head commissioner and the commander of the military base in Rabinal, are accused of crimes against humanity, which includes sexual violence, torture, and illegal detention.
“This case is important to set precedents, that these acts of sexual violence committed during the Internal Armed Conflict are criminal acts and should be judged as such. There are three or four women that have left their communities, because the accused is from the same community. So, for their own security, they are now outside and living in the capital,” stated Executive Director of the Rabinal Legal Clinic, Jesus Tecu Osorio.
Photo: Stacey Gomez
Rabinal is a small town in the Central Highlands in Guatemala. Its strategic location between the departments of Quiche, Alta Verapaz and Guatemala City made the area a trading route for centuries. The Guatemalan military identified the area as a potential supply stop for the guerilla during the Internal Armed Conflict. In the early 1980s, when Guatemalan de-facto presidents Benedicto Lucas Garcia and later Efrain Rios Montt took power, they implemented scorched-earth policies throughout the Guatemalan Highlands, signalling Indigenous communities throughout Guatemala as the life-source of guerrilla groups. Communities were met with state violence, repression, massacres, forced disappearances, torture and sexual violence. This is true for Rabinal, one of the hardest hit areas during the genocide. From 1980 to 1983, there were over 40 massacres (where five people or more are killed) in Rabinal.
This is not the first legal case to be brought forward in Guatemala regarding sexual violence committed during the Internal Armed Conflict. In 2016, another 15 women survivors of sexual violence, sexual slavery and domestic slavery fought for justice in Guatemala courts. On February 16, 2016, after a trial which only lasted two weeks, a former coronel and former military commissioner were found guilty of all charges, sentenced to 120 and 210 years respectively for their crimes. The Sepur Zarco case shed light on the systemic use of sexual violence during the Internal Armed Conflict, and brought to light the suffering and exploitation of Indigenous women, breaking the silence on these human rights abuses.
For the women in Rabinal, the journey for justice in the National Courts is now in the public eye. The women have received threats due to their participation in the case, as the families of the military commissioners still live in their communities.
Thus far, the six accused former military commissioners have made their initial statements, and a seventh accused was arrested in mid July. The case is now concluding the intermediary phase of two months to present evidence. On August 24, the Public Prosecutor will present the evidence against the accused, and the presiding judge will decide if there is sufficient evidence for the case to go to trial. Three more accused are still at large, including one man who is currently living in the United States.
However, in Rabinal there is no time to waste. Now sights are set higher, on the middle and high command. After cases like the genocide trial against Efrain Rios Montt and other intellectual authors in high profile cases in Guatemala, this case may seem like a step backward because the Public Prosecutor has not shown interest in pursuing bigger fish, and instead has has focused their energy on the local perpetrators. Meanwhile, the intellectual authors remain in impunity. Nevertheless, the 36 women and the Rabinal Legal Clinic are committed to justice at all levels, however long it may take.