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.