Guatemala – Indigenous Women Abused by the Military at Last Get Justice in Court – Convictions & Reparations

May 10, 2018

22, 2017 – Demecia Yat de Xol was just 28 years old when she was forced into
sexual slavery in the small village of Sepur Zarco by the Guatemalan military.
On 26 February 2016, at age 61, Doña Demecia sat in Guatemala’s High-Risk
Court, waiting for a verdict. She was accompanied by ten other
survivors—respectfully referred as “the Sepur Zarco Grandmothers”.
look on during the trial in Guatemala’s High-Risk Court in February 2016.
Photo: Cristina Chiquin
at last

years later and after 22 hearings, Judge Iris Yassmin Barrios Aguilar,
President of the High-Risk Court of Guatemala announced the verdict that the 11
surviving Q’eqchi’ women would finally receive justice. The court convicted two
former military officers of crimes against humanity on counts of rape, murder
and slavery in Sepur Zarco. Esteelmer Reyes Girón and Heriberto Valdez Asij received
a sentence of 120 years and 240 years in prison respectively. Importantly, the
court ruled in addition, on reparations to be granted to the Sepur Zarco
Grandmothers and to their communities as a whole.
the backdrop of Guatemala’s 36-year-long conflict, which killed more than
200,000 people, mostly indigenous, the bucolic village of Sepur Zarco was the
scene of systematic rape and exploitation of indigenous Q’eqchi’ women, from
1982 until 1988. The women of Sepur Zarco were used as domestic servants, raped
and made to live in slave-like conditions by the Guatemalan military. Their
husbands, who were claiming land, had been forcibly disappeared, detained or
In her
closing statement to the court, Doña Demecia, representing all the Sepur Zarco
victims and survivors, thanked the judges and emphasized: “We have come to tell
the truth and have said the truth. We have heard the accused do not want to
accept what they have done, but we ask, where are our husbands then?”
Zarco was the first case of conflict-related sexual violence challenged under
Guatemala’s penal code. It was also the first time that a national court
anywhere in the world had ruled on charges of sexual slavery during an armed
conflict—a crime under international law. In its path-breaking judgment, the
Guatemalan court noted that sexual violence against indigenous Maya Q’eqchi’
women was part of a deliberate strategy by the Guatemalan army.
In a
recent interview with UN Women, Judge Barrios Aguilar talks about the important
role that justice sector actors play in ensuring peace: “I am convinced that peace
can be achieved through justice. As judges, we need to be change agents within
our society,” she says.
UN Women
partnered with an alliance of civil society organizations—the Alliance Breaking
Silence and Impunity (UNAMG-MTM-ECAP), , as well as with other women’s human
rights defenders, national and international actors, including the Public
Prosecutor and UN organizations, in supporting the survivors in their pursuit
of truth, justice and reparation.
the last step of justice
On 2
March 2016, the court issued a wide-ranging reparations decision that addressed
past denials of the right to health, education and access to land that
indigenous communities in Sepur Zarco had endured. The decision directs the
Government of Guatemala to install a health centre in Sepur Zarco, improve
primary school infrastructure, construct a secondary school and provide
scholarships for women, girls and the entire community. It also asks the
Government to reopen land restitution cases.
Barrios from Mujeres Transformando el Mundo, (Women Transforming the World) an
organization assisting the Sepur Zarco Grandmothers, is convinced that
transformative reparation is the last step of justice, and critically important
for survivors. “The Grandmothers have always stated that they are taking this
path to justice not only for them, but to ensure that other women do not live
through what they had to. That is the essence of transformative reparation,”
says Paula Barrios.
More than
a year since these historical decisions, the 11 surviving Sepur Zarco
Grandmothers have created the Jalok U Association to promote the
empowerment of women and girls from their communities. The Public Prosecutor
has created a process to monitor and facilitate compliance of the reparation
order, where all responsible State institutions participate. To respond to
urgent health-care needs, and pending the construction of a permanent health
centre, a mobile clinic was installed by the Ministry of Health; and the
Ministry of Education is developing educational materials on the Sepur Zarco
sentence. The organizations of the Alliance Breaking Silence and Impunity have
also developed communication materials in the local language to raise community
awareness about the sentence and to facilitate the implementation of the
reparation order.
UN Women
sees the Sepur Zarco sentence as a major step forward for indigenous women’s
access to justice, an integral aspect of peacebuilding in Guatemala and in
other countries. “The Sepur Zarco case shows how, by breaking the silence and
pursuing justice, the Sepur Zarco Grandmothers are restituting their rights and
those of their communities, and breaking the cycle of violence against women.
They have shown what empowerment by women and for women looks like,” says Adriana
Quiñones, UN Women Representative for Guatemala.
justice to work, and peace to sustain, survivors must be able to define and
experience justice.
With the
support of the UN Peace Building Fund, and in partnership with national
authorities, Guatemalan civil society and other UN agencies, UN Women is
leading joint actions to develop local and national policies and reparation
standards to fully implement the Sepur Zarco sentence.