Moises Castillo/AP
Victims of sexual violence hid their faces during the trial of a former military officer and a former paramilitary fighter accused of sexual violence against indigenous women during Guatemala's civil war, in Guatemala City, Thursday.

Guatemala war crimes verdict breaks grip of impunity

Eleven women testified against soldiers who sexually enslaved them during the country's civil war, in the first case of its kind. Guatemala is at the forefront in the region in using its justice system to pursue justice for civil-war era crimes.

Petrona Choc Cuc’s journey across this sprawling courtroom to the witness stand was one she’d longed to take for the past 34 years.

Ms. Choc joined 10 other Mayan women from the tiny hamlet of Sepur Zarco in Guatemala City recently to testify about crimes committed against them more than three decades ago, at the height of the country’s civil war. She described how soldiers from a nearby military base raided her home and enslaved women in the community, forcing them to cook and clean and systematically raping them.

The soldiers “told us to go take a shower. Then a fat man came, he was the first one to rape us, then other smaller men came and raped us,” Choc testified. “Every day I suffer because of what they did to me.”

The women’s testimony was deeply troubling. But it also made history: It was the first time that a national court has ever heard charges of sexual and domestic enslavement committed during a civil war.

The fact that the case has made it to court, however slowly, represents a critical step in one country's efforts to confront its violent past: the victims have had the chance to confront their perpetrators, who were found guilty of crimes against humanity Friday and sentenced to over 100 years in prison. 

“This has happened thanks to the victims’ determination that those who violated their dignity be brought to trial so that the truth is known,” says Mayra Alarcón, a regional representative for Project Counselling Service (PCS), one of the human rights organizations that are supporting the women of Sepur Zarco. “This is also the result of the perseverance of the organizations that have supported them over the years as well as important changes in the justice system, such as the opening of the new court.”

Guatemala is leading Central America in using its justice system to pursue justice for civil-war era crimes and present-day corruption – bolstered in large part by a UN-backed Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). But it isn’t alone. El Salvador also took a critical step this month when it detained four of 17 ex-military officials wanted by Spain over the murder of six Jesuit priests in 1989, during El Salvador’s civil war.

“I think there’s more respect for the democratic process in Guatemala and El Salvador than there was 20 years ago,” says Mike Allison, a Central America expert at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. “What we’re seeing are decades of transitional advocacy networks pushing for justice."

These two moves, he says – along with other recent cases in Guatemala and political shifts in El Salvador – show that “there are changing norms for what’s acceptable or not in the international community and Central and South America is at the forefront of saying … we don’t find amnesty and impunity acceptable anymore.”

Human rights abuses

On Nov. 16, 1989, members of El Salvador’s military entered the home of the six priests on a university campus, killing them, their housekeeper, and her daughter, according to court documents. The priests had called for an end to the violence, and criticized the US-backed Salvadoran Army for human rights abuses. The murders were emblematic of the 12-year war that claimed the lives of an estimated 75,000 people, and as a result, US support for the right-wing Salvadoran government began to erode.   

But when the war ended in 1992, a sweeping amnesty law was passed that has long blocked the prosecution of civil-war era crimes. Right-wing officials, death squads, left-wing guerrillas, and soldiers are all protected. 

The amnesty “has created a culture of impunity,” says Ellen Moodie, associate professor of anthropology and Latin American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

Perhaps because of that, the Feb. 5 detention of four ex-military officials in El Salvador spurred widespread expression of surprise and hope. The arrests were requested by Spain, which has claimed jurisdiction on the case because five of the six slain priests were Spanish. But past calls for arrests had been ignored.

The detentions also signaled yet another step in the slow erosion of support for blanket amnesty in El Salvador over the past several years, analysts say. In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled that judges can decide whether war-era amnesty laws apply to cases they’re reviewing. In 2014, top judges ordered the attorney general to investigate the massacre of more than 45 people in San Francisco Angulo and to charge any guilty parties – a first. The Supreme Court also announced in 2014 that it would hear a challenge to the amnesty law, filed by the Human Rights Institute of the Central American University.

And while the pace is slow when it comes to war-era crimes, the justice system has made strides in recent years to try and hold government officials – including former presidents – accountable for corruption.

“I see a new level of awareness and willingness to talk through differences and to push for change,” says Ms. Moodie, who works with the post-war generation and youth in El Salvador. “This new generation is coming of age and people are demanding more. It’s a slow process. But I have hope in the long term that things will get better. Political will is an important issue and it’s changing slowly.”

Continued weaknesses

Guatemala has become a symbol of judicial reform both because of the formation in 2007 of CICIG, the UN commission, and a crusading former attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, who held the post between 2010 and 2014. The commission has worked hand in hand with local institutions, training prosecutors and helping investigate some of the country’s toughest cases. Activists, academics, and citizens in neighboring countries, from El Salvador to Honduras, and even some in Mexico, have called on their own leaders to create systems similar to CICIG. 

Guatemala’s legal efforts, including first-ever domestic trial of a former dictator, Efraín Rios Montt, on genocide charges, “show the progress of Guatemala’s system,” says Mr. Allison.

But, he says, “it also exposes [the system’s] continued weaknesses.”

Mr. Rios Montt was found guilty in 2013, only to have his sentence overturned soon after. Ms. Paz y Paz was squeezed out of her position early, on the argument that she was never supposed to serve a full term, but instead finish the term of her predecessor. 

A path opens for the women

The road to justice for the women of Sepur Zarco began in 2010 when they teamed up with indigenous and women’s rights organizations to tell their stories. A year later, they launched a lawsuit against former base commander Esteelmer Reyes Girón and former regional military commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asij for orchestrating their sexual enslavement. 

The prosecution demanded a 1,290-year prison sentence for Mr. Reyes Girón and a 340-year sentence for Mr. Valdez Asij. They received sentences of 120 years and 240 years in prison, respectively.

One of the main reasons the Sepur Zarco case moved ahead rapidly, in contrast to others, like the Ríos Montt case, comes down to who is implicated, observers say. Ríos Montt’s case could have much larger repercussions for high-ranking former military officials – including those holding powerful positions in government or the business community today. The Sepur Zarco case targeted lower-level ex-soldiers.

Nonetheless, Allison describes recent movements in the region as “exciting.”

“The results in efforts to try Rios Montt in Guatemala in 2013 and perhaps the efforts for justice for the Jesuits in El Salvador today is the culmination of two decades of tireless work…. It’s impressive what’s been accomplished, even if the results so far have been mixed.”

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