In 1982 – in the midst of Guatemala’s brutal civil war, which ended in the deaths of more than 200,000 people (83 percent of whom were Mayan) – the army took control of Sepur Zarco, a small village in eastern Guatemala. That same year, General Efraín Ríos Montt took power and essentially hit a reset button on the political system; he annulled the 1965 constitution, suspended political parties, and he dissolved Congress, PBS reports.
Montt was able to take back territory occupied by guerrillas through the combined use of civilian and military force, and this set off one of the most violent periods of Guatemala’s civil war.
In Sepur Zarco, the military first came for the men, Mayan leaders who were either killed or disappeared. Weeks later, they came back to further upend the lives of the 15 women. According to The Guardian, they raped women in front of their children, they burned their houses, and they made them move into shacks near their base. The women were forced to cook, clean, and submit to rape in 12-hour shifts.
The shifts ended after 10 months, but the abuse didn’t. “The bondage lasted for as long as six years until the military installation was closed in 1988,” The Guardian explains. “During this time, the women were forced to find corn and make tortillas for the soldiers, even though their own children were starving. And the rapes continued.” Four of the women were able to flee to the mountains, but without any food or shelter, many of their children died.
On February 26, 2016 – more than 30 years later – a Guatemala City court found base commander Esteelmer Reyes Girón, 58, and paramilitary Heriberto Valdez Asij, 74, guilty of crimes against humanity. They were sentenced to a combined 360 years for the disappearances and sexual enslavement of these women.
The trial began in early February, and it was difficult to reach this point. The women are now in their 70s and 80s, and they only speak Q’eqchi. The judge got the women’s testimony on record in a 2012 pre-trial hearing, because of their age. These women’s personal accounts were so important in this trial, because it was impossible to gather physical evidence.
One woman died four months after giving her testimony. But at the trial, the videotaped testimonies played, including that of Rosario Xoc, who said that her husband, Gilberto Asig, was disappeared. Xoc testified that every time she went get water, the soldiers raped her in front of her 4-year-old son, who screamed as he saw what happened. She wound up fleeing to the mountains with nothing to protect her family. “I thought that my children would be safe there, but instead, they died of hunger,” she said, according to International Justice Monitor.
The verdict has defined domestic and sexual slavery as a war crime, which is important in a country where these crimes have previously gone unpunished. The case will also serve as hope for others. And as The Guardian excellently put it, “The Q’eqchi survivors’ victory is a clear message for the whole region and the world: women’s bodies are not battlefields.”