A landmark trial begins February 1 in Guatemala for crimes committed against the Mayan Q’ecqchi’ people in the northern community of Sepur Zarco during the country’s decades-long civil war. Two military officers are being tried for charges of sexual and domestic slavery, and forced disappearance.
The trial marks the first time in history that crimes of sexual slavery committed during armed conflict will be prosecuted in the same country where they occurred.
In 1982 the Guatemalan army captured 15 Q’ecqchi’ men in Sepur Zarco, many of whom had been involved in local land rights initiatives, and killed or forcibly disappeared them. 11 of their widows were then captured and held in domestic and sexual slavery; they were raped repeatedly, sometimes in front of their children, forced to take contraceptives, and had to work 12-hour shifts where they would cook and clean for the soldiers, while also being subjected to sexual assault.
The Sepur Zarco crimes are part of a much larger pattern of systematic violation of the rights of the Mayan population by the State during the war; the Commission for the Historical Clarification of Human Rights Violations in Guatemala found that 83.3 percent of human rights violations were committed against the Mayan people, particularly women, and that rape was used as a weapon of terror.
Sexual violence is rampant in conflict, but when conflict ends, it often becomes invisible, forgotten. The Sepur Zarco case is a crucial step toward attempting to end the widespread impunity for sexual violence in conflict.
Three women’s organizations—Women Changing the World, Community Studies and Psychosocial Action Team and the National Union of Guatemalan Women— are largely responsible for bringing the trial to court. The three organizations, which form the Alliance for Breaking the Silence and Ending Impunity, worked with the women survivors of Sepur Zarco for years in order to build the case. The alliance then filed a criminal suit in Guatemalan courts in 2011.
The trial is expected to last 40 days; you can follow along on Twitter by searching the hashtag #SepurZarco.
“Guatemalan soldiers to answer civil war sexual slavery charges in historic trial” The Guardian, 1 February 2016.
“Sepur Zarco Trial: Guatemala Women Seek Justice for Sex Slavery”, TeleSur, 1 February 2016.