Woman PeaceMaker Reflects on the Historic Trial on Sexual Slavery in Guatemala

Mendez, on left, with Nobel Peace Laureates Jody Williams and Rigoberta Menchu

Mendez, on left, with Nobel Peace Laureates Jody Williams and Rigoberta Menchu at the trial in February

On February 26, 2016, two former military officials in Guatemala were convicted of sexual violence and domestic and sexual slavery during the armed conflict in Guatemala. The case was brought by 15 Mayan Q’eqchi’ women from the region of Sepur Zarco. This is an historic judgment — the first time the state of Guatemala has prosecuted a case of sexual violence related to the war.

Woman PeaceMaker Luz Mendez and her organization Unión Nacional de Mujeres Guatemaltecas   (UNAMG) have been involved for more than a decade to achieve justice in this case.

Mendez spoke by Skype with IPJ Interns Ariel Leuthard and Sophia Shetterly on Monday, March 7, to discuss the case.

Q: How long has this fight for justice for the survivors of Sepur Zarco been going on?

A: Well, this road to justice began in 2003. When some women from women’s and feminist and human rights organizations — I was part of that small group — decided to act against the silence surrounding sexual violence against women during the war. The truth commission reported that rape and other forms of sexual violence were used in a generalized and massive way against mainly indigenous women. A deep silence came after that. The truth commission reported atrocities committed against women, but the same report recognized that sexual violence against women was underreported.

We decided to do something in order to bring those horrible crimes to the public, first of all, to render a type of recognition to the women survivors but also as a way to avoid those crimes being committed in current times. So that was the beginning of a long process of women organizing in groups made by women only, groups made by survivors of sexual violence in the war. That was the beginning for them to break the silence.

It was also a space in which they could receive support from social organizations, in terms of psychosocial support and gender equality training. This training gave them the opportunity to think about rape and sexual violence in general terms, not as something that happened for any reason to them, but as a huge human rights violation that was very much rooted in the patriarchal system, in the Guatemalan military’s counterinsurgent policy and also in racism against indigenous women.

The women began to ask for formal justice and the organizations that accompanied them were hesitant in the very beginning because we couldn’t find the political conditions to achieve that justice so we had to wait for some time. But finally, we were all able to begin the formal demand of penal justice. This is just in general terms how the road was. Of course, there is much more that needs to be said, but this is just to give you an idea that the road to the sentence we got a few days ago wasn’t easy.

Q: What does the Sepur Zarco case mean for other cases of this nature in Guatemala and even in other countries, especially in Latin America?

A: The sentence we got in this case was meaningful. First of all, through this legal process, not only did the Sepur Zarco women achieve justice, but also it meant that we were able to break the total impunity for sexual violence during the war. This is the first one in the country’s history. And, as far as we know, it is the first one in Latin America as well. So it will give hope to other women in Guatemala and Latin America that it could be possible to achieve justice in other cases.

This is important because the Sepur Zarco case is only a small sample of what happened in the whole country during the war in Guatemala. There are some cases that have been presented in Guatemalan court, not as advanced as the case of Sepur Zarco. So, there is a sense of hope for many, many women in the country, in Latin America, and, as far as we know, also in many other countries, especially those countries affected by wars right now.

Mendez demonstrating with UNAMG on International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, in 2006

Mendez demonstrating with UNAMG on International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, in 2006

Q: You and your organization, Unión Nacional de Mujeres Guatemaltecas (UNAMG), were heavily involved in this case. Could you elaborate on the role UNAMG played?

A: Yes, the UNAMG has been part of the alliances that have been built to support the Sepur Zarco women. And, not just these women but also all women that have been victims of sexual violence in war time in other Guatemalan regions. We are part of the alliance called Women Breaking Silence and Impunity, made up of three organizations: UNAMG, which I am a part of, has been working in gender equality training and supporting women to create alliances; Mujeres Transformando el Mundo, which is made up of lawyers and they have been leading the legal strategy; and the third organization called Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y Accion Psicosocial has been providing the psychosocial support to these women.

UNAMG as well as Mujeres Transformando el Mundo have been plaintiffs in this case. Another plaintiff is an organization created by the victims themselves called Jalok U, it’s a Q’eqchi’ name. So there are three plaintiffs to this legal case.

Q: The testimony of the survivors was so important in this case, especially due to a lack of much physical evidence. What did these women do to prepare to give their testimony in a court where they don’t speak the language?

A: They were very much prepared for their testimony, because the legal part of this whole process is the last part. They have gone through a lot of activities, and they have been giving their testimonies for a long time. For example, they gave their testimonies in 2010 in a Tribunal of Conscience, as a symbolic justice mechanism. That paved the way for them to be able to speak in a formal tribunal. So they were very much prepared.

I would also like to mention that, in 2012, we asked the court to listen to the women’s testimonies in advance — the formal trial had not begun yet. As the women are elderly and many of them are very sick, the judge accepted to hear the testimonies in a preliminary way. So this year, when the formal trial took place, the women were not obliged to testify again. The videos of the testimonies were presented in court. That was very important for them, because one of the victims died three years ago, and the ones that were there in court knew they did not have to repeat the same story. So that was really important.

Q: There were more perpetrators than just the two men in this case, Esteelmer Reyes Girón and Heriberto Valdéz Asig. Will others be charged as well in relation to the events at Sepur Zarco?

A: Well, you are right. Many other people were involved as responsible in this case. And the names came forward in the trial — names of soldiers, names of officers, names of owners of the farms and people who helped the army perpetrate those crimes. However, as this particular trial is over, now it is the responsibility of the federal prosecutor’s office to continue investigating.

Q: What is next for you and these survivors?

A: We will continue supporting them because we are very aware that the political atmosphere is very insecure for them. These women live in very remote communities that are very hard to get to. They are beautiful places, full of lakes and rivers and mountains, but without the proper infrastructure to get there. To get to these communities, we have to pass through rivers without bridges. The car has to go through the river — actually it’s really dangerous and risky to do that.

In addition, several of the perpetrators live in the same communities [as these women]. So, we will continue to accompany them after the trial. There are many things to do. For example, some of the consequences of the sexual violence, especially the consequences of the sexual slavery of those women, were that the women were stigmatized and ostracized in their own communities. So we, as an alliance, are working to explain to the populations of these communities that these women are not guilty, that they were victims. And now we have the sentence issued by the tribunal in our hands to show them.

So, we, together with the women, have to continue working to educate the communities, and especially the younger generations, the grandchildren of these women and many other women who have survived sexual violence need to be educated. We have a lot to do concerning this group and concerning many other communities in Guatemala.

Mendez with her fellow Women PeaceMakers from 2004, Christiana Thorpe, Shreen Saroor and Zarina Salamat

Mendez with her fellow Women PeaceMakers from 2004, Christiana Thorpe, Shreen Saroor and Zarina Salamat

Q: For these women, justice meant telling their stories publicly and ensuring that something like this could never happen again. Do you think that justice has been achieved in this case and that crimes like these will be prevented from happening again?

A: Justice was achieved, of course, as two of the perpetrators were sentenced to more than 200 years of jail. But, to really advance toward avoiding repetition of these crimes in the future, a lot of work must be done — especially from state institutions.

The verdict has a legal part but also a reparations part, in general terms. Part of the reparations was the obligation of some state institutions to build a monument in memory of the women of Sepur Zarco, to build a school, to build a health center. It is also part of the sentence that they disseminate the verdict in the indigenous languages of Guatemala. This is part of the state’s obligation. But, we know very well that in Guatemala in order for the state to comply with its obligations, a lot of social pressure is needed. So, in order to achieve the goal of avoiding repetition of these crimes in the future all this work has to be done.

Q: How important are larger coalitions in transitional justice and lasting peace? What role have coalitions played in getting justice for survivors of sexual violence?

A: Well, in getting justice for survivors of sexual violence, first of all I have to value the bravery and perseverance of the victims. Then, in the Guatemalan context, we have to analyze some aspects that contributed to achieving this verdict. In the peace accords, the prohibition of granting amnesty for people responsible for crimes against humanity was included. Of course, the accords included amnesty for political crimes to those parties involved in the conflict, but it was made very clear that crimes against humanity and war crimes could not get any type of amnesty. This is very important.

There has been a human rights movement that has been working for transitional justice. This larger coalition has been able to achieve some justice in cases. Though it is necessary to say that for many years, human rights organizations didn’t include sexual violence as a specific crime to be addressed in transitional justice. It was only when feminists and women’s rights organizations asked for it to be addressed in transitional justice we began this whole process.

Efforts have begun to transform the judicial system. The system in Guatemala has for a long time been very much controlled by the military and by illegal groups. However, there are brave and honest people in the judiciary, including judges and prosecutors who have played a very important role. In order to value all the factors needed to achieve justice in this particular case, many people in the civil society and the judicial system were involved.

Q: The priority theme of this year’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is on women’s empowerment and sustainable development, and the review theme is the elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls (from the 57th CSW). In your experience with Sepur Zarco, have you found these to be interconnected and, if so, in what ways? Now that these women have gotten justice, do you think they have been empowered?

A: There is a strong link between women’s empowerment and access to justice for violence against them. In this particular case of Sepur Zarco, this whole process of organizing and creating awareness of their rights as well as getting justice, has empowered the women a lot. Not only the end — the verdict — but the whole process has empowered them.

I must say that the verdict is not enough. Those women live in socioeconomic conditions of extreme poverty. So, it is necessary to address those root economic causes of violence against women together with the political causes, meaning that in speaking about a comprehensive process of women’s empowerment justice is not enough. It is necessary to promote changes in the economy. In that sense, we very much hope that one of the measures included in the reparations sentence could be accomplished — meaning that the perpetrators should provide some amount of money to the women, and if they are not able to do so, the state should do that. To speak about women’s empowerment, we need to ask about changes in Guatemalan society and the whole world.

Three years ago, when one woman from the group of survivors passed away, we went to her house to accompany her family. And it was so shocking. Of course we had been there with them several times, but it was so shocking to see the extreme poverty and conditions in which the whole family lived. It was a tiny house made of pieces of mud, and there was no coffin. The family and the neighbors were building a coffin at that moment. So, I have in my mind the memory of being there, surrounding the body of this brave woman and watching her family and friends cut and build the coffin on the patio. (Just to give you an example of the poor conditions they live in.) We need to advance toward deeper socioeconomic changes in order to really achieve women’s empowerment.

Q: Are the women or yourself experiencing any backlash after the case or have you been receiving a lot of popular support? Is everyone safe?

A: Well, during the whole process we have been receiving a lot of threats, but at the same time a lot of support. During the trial we received a lot of support from university students, from high school students, from the media, and even from conservative people we didn’t expect to get support from. Many people were shocked hearing the women’s stories.

Q: The women involved in the case were present in the courtroom, wearing their traditional shawls. What was the effect of their presence?

Mendez wearing a scarf similar to those of the Sepur Zarco women, at the 2013 UN Commission on the Status of Women

Mendez wearing a scarf similar to those of the Sepur Zarco women, at the 2013 UN Commission on the Status of Women

A: The shawls actually have been an issue. Some of the women don’t like to wear it while others in the group think they are safer if they wear it. Again, in their communities, they have to live with some of the perpetrators, so the majority of them believe it is not yet time for them to uncover their faces. Finally, after the sentence was issued, some of them uncovered their faces as they left the courtroom, so a picture of their faces circulated. They really want to stop wearing the shawl — they are very brave and committed to achieving justice. But much of the group decided that they should wait a little bit longer before uncovering their faces.

Q: It sounds like these women are incredibly connected to each other through their experiences, but also through their culture. Do you think this sense of community has helped them through this process? If they didn’t have each other, do you think they would have been more reluctant to share their stories?

A: It’s a good question. The sense of community played a very important role in the strengthening of this group and in keeping them together. It has to do with the fact that all of them experienced those horrible crimes and that they are part of various women’s groups. But, of course, it mostly has to do with the indigenous culture they are a part of, especially the Q’eqchi’ people, which they belong to.

For the Q’eqchi’ people, the community plays a very important role. The majority of their decisions are made collectively. So, for them, knowing that they are part of a collectivity and that they support each other was so important. They have supported each other in a very deep way. If a woman is sick, the rest of them are supporting that woman. If one women has a problem, the others help. And even if a woman behaves in a way that the rest of the group doesn’t like, they are so careful in speaking with that woman, in a very warm way. That sense of collectivity as an indigenous people has helped these women achieve justice.

For more information on the Sepur Zarco case, please see Clamor for Justice: Sexual Violence, Armed Conflict and Violent Land Dispossessionco-authored by Luz. 

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