Sepur Zarco2017-12-13T20:03:53+00:00

Sepur Zarco

On February 26, 2016, indigenous women from the community of Sepur Zarco made history when they and their legal team successfully prosecuted former Guatemalan military officials for sexual and domestic slavery. Based largely on the testimonies of 15 Q’eqchi’ survivors, a Guatemalan tribunal convicted two men—former Military Commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asig and former Colonel Esteelmer Francisco Reyes Girón—of crimes against humanity for sexual and domestic slavery carried out at a military recreation center in the 1980s.
While the defendants faced charges for other crimes committed in the same context, including the forced disappearance of several of the women’s husbands, the trial holds national significance as the first transitional justice case in Guatemala to firmly center the experiences and impacts of sexual and domestic violence against women during the internal armed conflict.
When I became strong enough to be able to say what I had to say, I told the whole truth. That was what gave me strength…The moment came that we had been waiting for, for so long – to see justice.
Rosa Tiul, survivor and witness

In-depth NISGUA reports

The importance of comprehensive reparations for the women of Sepur Zarco.

Q’eqchi’ women set a precedent in Guatemala with first-ever conviction for sexual and domestic slavery.

Report-back from the “Guatemalan Women Healing Towards Justice” tour, featuring Maudi Tzay from the Alliance to Break Silence and Impunity.

In the early 1980s, communities in the Polochic Valley in Guatemala were in the process of challenging wealthy landowners for legal titles to their ancestral lands. Around the same time, as part of the U.S.-backed regional counterinsurgency strategy, Guatemalan dictatorships constructed several military bases around the region of Sepur Zarco, bordering the departments of Izabal and Alta Verapaz. The base built in Sepur Zarco was designated a military recreation center, where troops would return after taking 15-day rotations patrolling the surrounding mountains.

One of the survivors testified during the trial that in 1982, the military called her husband to a meeting along with several other men from the community who had been organizing to access land titles. He never returned home. She was taken by soldiers to the military base and for six months, she was forced to take a “shift” every three days where she would cook and clean for the soldiers and endured routine sexual assaults. For several years afterward, she was obligated to cook for the soldiers from her home, where she was repeatedly attacked and sexually abused by soldiers on patrol. Her husband’s body was found during a 2012 exhumation at the neighboring Tinajas military base.

The soldiers at the Sepur Zarco military base also disappeared the husbands of many other women, who were then forced into sexual and domestic slavery for years – some until the base closed in 1988.

Held in its entirety, the 20-day trial illustrates the ways that systems of patriarchy and racism have historically and globally played out on women’s bodies in contexts of war. Grounded in the recognition that these systems endure today in Guatemala and the world over, the women survivors sought to prosecute this case as part of a multi-faceted strategy for social change, working with a coalition of feminist, legal, and psychosocial organizations known as the Alliance to Break Silence and End Impunity.

Photo: CPR Urbana

After the verdict, the courts ordered a series of 18 reparations to redress the physical, psychological, and material impacts of the violence. Broadly speaking, these measures include increased access to healthcare and education for the women survivors, other members of the community, and future generations, as well as reforms in the legal system to reduce the barriers other survivors face in coming forward. The reparations focused on repairing the harm that was done and ensuring that such violence is not repeated in Guatemala.

Even as the verdict is a powerful milestone for survivors and others working to end gender-based violence around the world, the testimonies presented during the trial and the ongoing reality faced by women in Sepur Zarco show the need for comprehensive reparations to begin addressing the impacts of violence. Reparations call for intergenerational and community healing and transformation beyond the legal verdict.

The intergenerational struggle for access to and protection of land

While the trial focused on the women’s experiences of sexual violence and slavery, survivors repeatedly testified to the deep psychological and economic impact of their husbands’ forced disappearances and how a lack of access to land has perpetuated conditions of poverty. To carry out reparations as ordered by the court, the Guatemalan national land registry must grant land titles and prioritize families of those forcibly disappeared who were in the process of registering land during the armed conflict.

The dispossession of land in the service of U.S. corporate interests has a long history in Guatemala. Military and political support have been consistently provided to dictators across Latin America and the world who fall in line with U.S. economic policies, while the people’s movements that don’t have been violently suppressed. Today this economic project is forwarded by transnational corporations that use violence and intimidation against environmental defenders as they fight for access to and say over their land. Granting survivors legal access to their land and respecting self-determination of rural and indigenous communities everywhere would be one step toward redressing centuries of violent dispossession.

In Solidarity

The Alliance to End Silence and Impunity has called upon the international community to stand in solidarity with the women survivors of Sepur Zarco to ensure the legal system respects the sentence in this emblematic case of justice for gender-based crimes and actively implements the ordered reparations. The Alliance has made direct requests for international accompaniment, writing, reporting, and advocacy to broaden the social impact of the case toward eliminating violence against women on a global scale.

Members of the NISGUA network responded to this call by gathering together to educate themselves and express solidarity with the survivors, strengthening movements in Guatemala and the U.S. by drawing direct connections with local feminist struggles for gender justice and indigenous solidarity.

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