Witness to a War Crimes Trial: My Heart is Sepur Zarco

A frail, elderly woman, covered from head to toe in bright, colorful clothing approaches the witness chair.  Her face is almost entirely covered.  She is no more than five feet tall, and under all that clothing she can’t weigh more than 100 pounds.  She sits next to her translator.  She speaks only Q’eqchi, one of Guatemala’s 24 officially recognized languages – no Spanish.

The witness speaks quietly into a microphone, and her testimony is harrowing.  She tells of how her 20-year-old daughter and two grandchildren, ages four and seven, went down to the village river to wash clothes and didn’t return.  The daughter was abducted and pressed into slavery, for purposes of labor and sex, by soldiers from the army barracks in her village of Sepur Zarco.

The daughter came home once during her enslavement and she showed signs of severe beatings.  And then she vanished altogether.  Years later the witness identified her daughter’s clothing beside partially decomposed and unidentifiable human remains.  No trace of the witness’s grandchildren has ever been found.

This was the scene last month in a Guatemala City courtroom as a groundbreaking war crimes trial known as Sepur Zarco unfolded.  Never before had soldiers anywhere in the world been tried for wartime sex crimes by a domestic, national court – only by international tribunals.  And I was there.

Another witness told of being raped by five different soldiers every day for six months.  Nine hundred rapes, one woman.

Another witness told of fleeing into barren, uninhabited mountains with nothing but her children and the clothes on her back after the Guatemalan army torched her home and all her belongings.  And murdered her husband.  She stayed in the mountains for years and watched her children die of hunger and exposure.

It all began when local, indigenous Maya Q’eqchi men in and around Sepur Zarco started resisting the systematic theft of their lands by Guatemala’s rich and powerful.  It was the height of Guatemala’s 1960-1996 civil war, and entire villages were being massacred and burned to the ground.  Sometimes the men’s resistance amounted to nothing more than registering deeds to their lands, where previously no such effort had been needed.  But even that was too much for Guatemala’s land-hungry elites.  The army was called in and all hell broke loose.

The men were called to seemingly innocent meetings in a local school and elsewhere, to discuss the land disputes.  And one by one they disappeared, leaving their wives, daughters and grandchildren that much more vulnerable to what was to come.

It took a long time for justice to run its course for the victims of Sepur Zarco.  Thirty-three years.  But finally someone was being held accountable.  Two defendants were convicted of crimes against humanity.  One got 120 years, the other 240.

Security was tight for the four-week trial.  To get in one had to pass through three security checkpoints – three metal detectors, three searches.  And on February 26, the day of sentencing all three security perimeters unexpectedly shut down and were sealed off a half-hour before the scheduled 4 p.m. sentencing.  I got to the first checkpoint at 2:29 and was told by a helpful cop I had one minute to make it through the next checkpoint.  I ran to the next perimeter and was the last person let in – they closed the door right behind me.

When the verdicts were announced, the Guatemala City courtroom – packed with hundreds of observers, media, human rights activists from as far away as France, and even two Nobel laureates – erupted into chants of “Justicia!”  Judge Yassmin Barrios managed to regain control of the courtroom, but she rushed the rest of the court’s sentencing statement, and the moment she finished more chants broke out. “Mi corazon es Sepur Zarco!” (my heart is Sepur Zarco) and “Si se pudo!” (yes, it could be done).  There was crying, and singing.

It was an historic moment in human rights history.  A precedent was set.  No longer would countries have to wait – perhaps forever – for the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, to take action on wartime sex crimes.

Throughout the trial, 12 Sepur Zarco survivors sat behind the long prosecution table dressed in brightly colored traditional Maya Q’eqchi dress.  For four weeks they sat there with their faces almost completely covered with bright, colorful scarves.  Thirty-three years after the events that shattered their lives and 20 after the end of Guatemala’s civil war, they were still afraid to reveal their identities.  Throughout the proceedings their presence gave the courtroom an air of drama that was heightened when the verdicts were read and all twelve silently raised their hands in joy and to thank the court.

On the other side of the courtroom were the accused.  One looked like a school janitor who didn’t take very good care of himself, the other like a middle school assistant principal.  They reminded me of Hannah Arendt’s controversial book “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” a first-hand account of the 1961 Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann, the architect of Hitler’s extermination of seven million Jews, radicals, intellectuals, gays and lesbians.  Arendt caused an uproar by suggesting that such vast evil is carried out not by fantastic monsters such as Adolf Hitler, but rather by normal, everyday people, like Adolf Eichmann.  Arendt’s thesis was on grand display in Sepur Zarco.

As if to drive home the ordinariness of the criminals of Sepur Zarco, Military Commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asig, the lower-ranking of the two defendants, said in his closing statement that he had to sell his house to pay for his defense.

Guatemala’s right-wing took a keen interest in the trial, but it was apparently nowhere to be found when it came time to pay defendant Asig’s legal bills.  At the sentencing, Ricardo Mendez, founder of the right-wing Foundation Against Terrorism, stood almost alone in an aisle the middle of the audience, surrounded by seated observers, his legs spread apart and arms folded in front of him.  He stood out like a sore thumb, and his presence was a stark and chilling reminder that not all Guatemalans agreed with the Sepur Zarco verdicts.

Mendez’s group denies that genocide ever took place in Guatemala, and it supports former dictator Rios Montt, who oversaw some of the worst savagery of the civil war.  In the opening days of the Sepur Zarco trial the wrought iron fence surrounding the court building was adorned with a big banner that denied there had been any genocide in Guatemala and blamed everyone from Canada, Norway, Cuba and the Vatican for funding Guatemala’s “terrorism” perpetrated by guerrillas during the war.  No one laid claim to the banner, but its message was in keeping with that of Mendez’s “foundation.”

The Sepur Zarco case was tried before one of Guatemala’s three-judge “Courts of High Risk” created specifically to handle war crimes from the civil war.  Judge Barrios and defense attorney Moises Galindo had faced off before in the war crimes trial of former dictator Rios Montt, who was in power during the events of Sepur Zarco.  It was Montt whom Reagan famously said was getting a “bum rap.”  Montt was convicted, but his conviction was overturned on appeal.

Judge Barrios had little patience for Galindo asking questions that had already been asked and answered.  She reprimanded him time and time again, and it was impossible to tell whether the sharp-dressed, well-spoken Galindo was trying to rattle witnesses or just wasn’t paying attention.

Much of the victims’ testimony was videotaped in advance, for fear witnesses might die before the case reached court – and one did.  Galindo attacked the videotaped testimony, saying he had no chance to cross-examine.  But the court ruled against Galindo, citing expert testimony that repeated testimony by the victims would be highly traumatic for them, especially given the sexual nature of the charges and the victims’ cultural backgrounds.

Unlike the United States, Guatemala does not have jury trials; and the case was prosecuted by a public-private team of lawyers representing state and three private NGO’s: Women Transforming the World, the National Union of Guatemalan Women and Colectivo Jalok U, an indigenous women’s collective.

The Sepur Zarco court denied defense attorney Galindo’s request to call current U.S. ambassador to Guatemala Todd Robinson to testify about U.S. support for, and training of, Guatemala’s military before, during and after the events of Sepur Zarco.

“The Public Ministry said this happened within the politics of National Security implemented by the Guatemalan army in which the people were considered an internal enemy,” Galindo told me in a post-trial interview.  “So we asked that ambassador Todd Robinson come here, because if the Guatemalan army was guilty here, it was at the instruction of the United States, so the government of the United States should be seated here.  The ambassador should explain what is the national security policy that they (prosecutors) say was applied here, and was that policy to do this, as they say, to systematically and massively rape?”

In another a post-trial courtroom interview, Guatemalan Nobel laureate and human rights activist Rigoberta Menchu told me the U.S. bore some responsibility for Sepur Zarco.  “They (the U.S.) supported the army; they knew what was going on here (in Guatemala); and they did nothing,” Menchu said.

It was fascinating to sit there in the Supreme Court of a small country with one seventh the per capita financial resources of the United States and watch that country come to grips with the horrendous crimes of its past.  Surely if Guatemala can come to grips with its dark side, so too can countries with much greater resources.

In the end, the court granted much of  the compensation package asked for by the prosecution.  The women of Sepur Zarco were awarded about $100,000 each, in a land where the minimum wage of about $5,00 a year is often ignored.  The women’s shattered community was awarded a health clinic and a school.  The court ordered the government to construct a Sepur Zarco monument, and to declare February 26, the day of the verdicts, a national day for victims of sex crimes and sexual violence.

In Guatemala land is often all that stands between rural populations like that of Sepur Zarco and abject poverty, but the Sepur Zarco court did not act on a prosecution request for return of stolen lands.  Given the financial condition of the Sepur Zarco defendants, it’s unlikely the women of Sepur Zarco will ever collect any of the awarded monetary damages, and without the return of their ancestral lands it’s unlikely their lives will improve substantially.  “That was very disappointing,” Rigoberta Menchu told me, “because that is what started all of this in the first place.”

After 10-20 minutes of post-sentencing celebration, the ever-silent women of Sepur Zarco filed out of the courtroom to a steady chant of “Sepur Zarco!’  I’ll be lucky if I ever again lay eyes on people that brave.


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Lawrence Reichard lives in Belfast, Maine, and can be reached at lreichard@gmail.com.

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