Wartime mass rape of indigenous women trial puts Guatemalan justice system to the test

WOLA: The murdered men and sexually enslaved women may not even have been guerrillas; landowners called in the military when indigenous rulers took legal action to reclaim their plots

Guatemalan Achi women, alleged victims of sexual violence during the internal armed conflict (1960-1996), rest alongside their supporters during a demonstration at the start of the trial against five former members of the Guatemalan Civil Patrol (PAC), outside the Palace of Justice in Guatemala City on January 4, 2022. (Photo by JOHAN ORDONEZ / AFP via Getty Images)

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – After 40 years of waiting for justice, a group of Maya Achi women were forced into further delay on Tuesday. A Guatemala City judge suspended the start of a trial against their accused rapists when the men’s lawyer failed to appear in court. The trial begins Wednesday with a public defender, if necessary.

These proceedings in Guatemala’s capital mark the second time in six years that members of military-controlled paramilitary groups will be tried for alleged mass rape and forced domestic servitude of relatives of suspected guerrillas between 1981 and 1985.

Women in the Alta Verapaz region were reportedly sexually assaulted by soldiers and civilian patrols who were looking for their husbands or had previously abducted and executed them; they were taken to an army facility, forced to cook, wash clothes, and be sexually assaulted for up to six months.

International groups such as the Washington Bureau for Latin America are monitoring the trial, which some see as a test of a newly autonomous justice system in a country with a history of corruption and authoritarian rule. Such corruption and oppression is often cited by advocates as the reason why so many people migrate from Guatemala to the United States.

“These are poor Maya Achi women who have suffered in silence for decades and lived in their communities with the stigma of being victims of sexual violence,” Jo-Marie Burt, associate professor of political science at George Mason University and a senior researcher at WOLA, told Border Report on Tuesday. “I find them inspiring in their just determination to seek justice for the wrongs inflicted on them by paramilitary groups created and controlled by the Guatemalan army with the aim of subjugating the indigenous population.

Guatemala’s civil war ended in 1996, but it is only now that victims of atrocities committed by the military and pro-government forces are able to see justice served, she said.

The case is based on the testimony of 36 Maya Achi women now in their sixties and sixties. The circumstances are reminiscent of the historic 2016 proceedings which resulted in the conviction of two former military officers for crimes against humanity, including the rape of 15 Q’eqchi women at an army outpost in Sepur. Zarco.

The murdered men and sexually enslaved women weren’t even guerrillas, Burt said.

Jo-Marie Burt, right, associate professor of political science at George Mason University and senior fellow at WOLA, is seen speaking with Guatemalan human rights activist Iduvina Hernandez before a press conference in Guatemala City on August 8, 2013. (Photo credit should read JOHAN ORDONEZ / AFP via Getty Images)

“The conflict started not because there was a guerrilla presence in the area, but because members of the Q’eqchi community began to organize to reclaim the land that was stolen from them by the wealthy. landowners, ”she said. “The owners felt threatened. They called the soldiers and said, “There are guerrillas here, you have to come and get rid of them. The army arrives and the owners give them a list of names.

Research by local activists and international organizations shows soldiers and civilian patrols kidnapping the militants, taking them to military bases, torturing them and killing them in such a way as to push them into a 20-foot pit and throw guns. fragmentary grenades in the hole. The women are said to be interrogated and raped in their homes, sometimes in front of their children, or brought to the base and attacked in the showers by multiple attackers.

In many cases, the accusers are kept at the base grinding corn, baking tortillas, baking beans, cleaning, washing and staffing what an internal Army memo describes. as a “recreation area” for soldiers deployed to the region’s combat zones, Burt said. .

Women have demanded the arrest of their attackers and reparations for themselves and their communities since the end of the civil war.

“It took so long because many power structures that were in place during the conflict remained in place after the peace agreement,” she said. “The justice system was generally under the thumb of the ruling elite. It took a lot of effort to build judicial independence with the support of the international community and the determination of the victims.

Some of the accusers and at least one of the alleged rapists died of natural causes during the wait, she said.

A previous judge dismissed the case against seven defendants in 2019; the women won a new appeal on the basis of alleged biased comments made by the judge. Today, five defendants face charges, including Francisco Cuxum Alvarado, Damian Cuxum Alvarado, Gabriel Cuxum Alvarado, Bernardo Ruiz Aquino and Benvenuto Ruiz Aquino.

The trial will be broadcast on Facebook by the Verdad and Justicia group in Guatemala.

Elna M. Lemons