VIENNA, Austria — On Feb. 26, 2016, the “Sepur Zarco Grandmothers” turned their tragedy into national – and international – history. During the 36-year long Guatemalan civil war from 1960 to 1996, more than 200,000 people were killed or disappeared. Around 83% of those killed or disappeared identified as Mayan. Government forces contributed to 93% of the human rights violations. Of the victims of sexual violence, 88.7% were Maya women. In one community near the outpost Sepur Zarco, the military systematically raped or enslaved indigenous Maya Q’eqchi’ women. Thirty years later, 15 of these women stepped forward to pursue justice in the federal courts of Guatemala. The Abuelas of Sepur Zarco finally received justice.
Sepur Zarco Grandmothers
This “was the first case of conflict-related sexual violence challenged under Guatemala’s penal code.” It is especially profound since Guatemala is a country where sexual violence is normalized. It was also the first time a national court prosecuted sexual slavery during conflict using national legislation and international criminal law. The court acknowledged that the sexual violence inflicted on the women was part of the Guatemalan army’s strategy.
Representing the 15 abuelas of Sepur Zarco, Ada Valanzuela of the plaintiff organization National Union of Guatemalan Women (UNAMG, in Spanish) addressed the court in her closing remarks. “For the thousands of women who suffered sexual violence during the internal armed conflict in many parts of the country, and for the thousands of girls and women that continue to suffer sexual violence today, today we have a date with justice. After more than 30 years of prolonged silence, we have the possibility to achieve the justice that has been longed for. Today we stand before history to make a difference for Guatemala and the world. The women have spoken. The women have been heard.”
The History of Sepur Zarco
Located on the border between the departments of Alta Verapaz and Izabal, Guatemala, the military detachment located in Sepur Zarco was one of six detachments installed in private farms. Each detachment “had a military purpose”, such as extermination or torture. Sepur Zarco’s purpose was to “rest the troops.”
In 1982, local indigenous men, who had gathered to gain legal title to their ancestral lands, angered the current rich landowners. These men subsequently disappeared, leaving their wives vulnerable both physically and financially. Women lacked ownership of their land, strengthening the grip of poverty on these women. These widows were considered “women alone and therefore available.” For six months, they were subjected to domestic slavery and sexual violence. The women took turns every three days to do chores for the military, such as cooking and washing military uniforms, while continuously being raped and forced to take medicines and injections to prevent pregnancy.
The abuelas of Sepur Zarco spent years in silence, facing stigma and their own shame and guilt. It was not until 2003, 20 years later, that these abuelas formed the Jalok U Collective. With help from the Alliance to Break the Silence and Impunity, the Community Studies and Psychosocial Action Team (ECAP), Women Transforming the World (MTM) and the National Union of Guatemalan Women (UNAMG), these women pursued formal justice in the Guatemalan courts.
Justice for the Abuelas of Sepur Zarco
After 22 court hearings and 34 years, the court convicted two former military officers, Esteelmer Reyes Girón and Heriberto Valdez Asij. They were “convicted for crimes against humanity on counts of rape, murder and slavery” in Sepur Zarco. This was the first conviction for sexual slavery as a war crime that a national court had ever issued. The reparations also promised to restore the communities near Sepur Zarco by creating steps to address the systemic poverty and culture of sexual violence in the community:
- The Guatemalan state promised to continue the land titling process as started by the men who attempted to gain ownership over their land and develop committees in the neighboring communities to provide basic needs and services to the communities.
- The Ministry of Health promised to construct a mobile health center to supply the communities with necessary medications.
- The Ministry of Education promised to support existing primary school education and build a new bilingual secondary school that would include the case in the curricula and fund scholarships for women, girls and other community members.
Despite the historical significance of the case, few of the steps were implemented. The Ministry of Health did successfully install the mobile health clinic. This allowed the women to undergo their first state-provided doctor’s visit in their lives. However, because most of the land is owned by the most powerful families in the country, the ministry cannot build a permanent center. While the construction of the new bilingual secondary school is on hold, schools are taught in both the native language, Q’eqchí and Spanish. Additionally, 11 scholarships have also been rewarded, three schools renovated and a documentary was made about the case.
However, the case itself remains significant. It was the first time sexual violence was prosecuted as a weapon of war using transnational justice at the national level rather than at the International Criminal Court. These 15 abuelas of Sepur Zarco were the first indigenous women who achieved justice. They proved the existence of racialized gender-based violence and inspire hope for other sexual violence victims in Guatemala and abroad.
– Charlotte Ehlers