Two former members of Guatemala’s military were arrested and now face charges before that country’s judiciary that they participated in crimes against humanity, including abduction and murder. Esteelmer Reyes Girón, a former army officer, and Heriberto Valdez Asij, a military commissioner, were both captured in raids on June 7 and are alleged to have participated in events that took place in northern Guatemala at Sepur Zarco, a former military installation near a town called El Estor in the province of Izabal, between 1982 and 1983.
Reyes Girón was the commander of an army detachment at Sepur Zarco in the Polochic river valley region. It was there that he captured and killed a mother and her three children. A subsequent exhumation provided the physical remains of the murdered woman and the clothing of two girls. Military commissioner Valdez Asij, a.k.a. El Canche, is accused of participating in an operation in which 18 persons were arrested in 1982. They subsequently disappeared and are presumed dead.
According to Guatemalan prosecutors, between 1982 and 1983, 15 women were kept in virtual slavery at Sepur Zarco and subjected to sexual torture. Years later, in 2012, the victims provided testimony about their captivity and the sexual violence to which they were subjected. Most of the victims are members of the Maya Kekchi ethnic group who live in the area of Izabal. Out of fear of reprisals, the victims and four male family members who accompanied them, their faces were covered in court.
According to an official investigation, the women were shanghaied by the military and forced to provide domestic services such as cooking and cleaning. They were also forced to grow beans and maize to feed the troops. The women were subjected to sexual exploitation, having been divided into three alternating shifts.
The women were given contraception so as to avoid pregnancy resulting from the frequent rapes at the hands of the military. That these and other crimes were committed – such as sexual torture and the disappearance of their husbands and family members for the purpose of obtaining information – have been offered as evidence that they were planned and administratively organized by the military.
Some of the victims were able to escape to the nearby mountains, remaining hidden from the military during the balance of the civil war that pitted Guatemalan security forces against dissidents and Marxist insurgents. Many of their children starved to death. Upon return to their native villages, the women were stigmatized by their families and neighbors.
Guatemalan law enforcement have identified 36 perpetrators of criminal acts against their fellow citizens. Many of them remain at large. According to the United Nations, the Guatemalan civil war (1960-1996) claimed the lives of 200,000 people. Many of the victims were members of Guatemala’s traditionally exploited Maya ethnic groups, while the great majority (as much as 93%) of the victims were killed by security forces.
In 2012, Lucía Morán – who leads a support group for female victims of exploitation – testified that there were at least six army detachments at Sepur Zarco. Each of these, she said, had specific goals and purposes. Some were dedicated specifically to torture, while others held political prisoners. Among them were concentration camps, as well as recreation centers for officers and soldiers. It was at plantation called San Miguel, a playground for officers and soldiers, where the rape of the women took place.
Catalina Caal Bash testified in 2012, “They put a gun to my chest and another in my mother and raped me,” as she recalled the horrors of mid-1980s. She said that three of her nine children died of malnutrition while they hid in the jungle. One of her daughters, she testified, was murdered by soldiers who hacked her with machetes. She was pregnant at the time. “What I suffered is very said and painful.”
Rosario Xo told the court that she was raped on a river bank when her husband was arrested by the army. “I was with my four-year-old son who screamed when he saw what they were doing. They took him away to Las Tinajas plantation and I never saw him again,” she said.
One female witness, identified only as Victim Number 9, testified “Arturo Milla and three soldiers came to our house looking for my husband. They told me that they would bring him back that night, but I never saw him again. On the same day that they took him away, they burned down my house and raped me in the street when three men grabbed my hands and threatened to shoot me in the chest.” Her daughters, Angelina and Magdalena, were also seized and raped but managed to escape with their lives.
The 15 women who testified about Sepur Zarco did so during the trial of Efraín Rios Montt, a former army officer, who seized power in 1982. Already notorious for his brutal military campaigns to supposedly rout Marxist insurgents, Rios Montt, an Evangelical Christian, doubled down during his term in office. It was his 'Beans or Bullets' campaign that brutalities reached a level that surpassed levels committed heretofore by the military. He was deposed by a U.S.-orchestrated coup d’etat.
However, Rios Montt remained a fixture in Guatemalan politics in the subsequent decades. Following a trial, he was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity in May 2013 and sentenced to 80 years in prison: the first head of state to be convicted of such crimes by a court of his own country. At the time, Judge Yasmin Barrios declared that "[t]he defendant is responsible for masterminding the crime of genocide." Moreover, said the judge, "We are convinced that the acts the Ixil suffered constitute the crime of genocide...[Ríos Montt] had knowledge of what was happening and did nothing to stop it."
However, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court overturned Rios Montt and ordered a retrial for January 2015 for the octogenarian general and deacon.