Guatemala's judiciary experienced an unprecedented event on February 1: the beginning of a
trial against two former military officials accused of committing
international crimes, including sexual violence, sexual slavery, and domestic
crimes against humanity. The case is believed
to be the first in history in which a national court has taken on a case of
wartime sexual slavery, the sort of case typically heard by the International
Criminal Court in Den Haag, Netherlands. By
trying this case in a national court, Guatemala has the
opportunity “to address its [own] historic failure[s]” and give its citizens justice.
This is the first prosecution relating to the sexual violence to come
out of the county’s thirty-six-year internal armed conflict. Most
of the alleged crimes were committed in the 1980s, during the worst part of Guatemala’s
land-title conflicts. The crimes took
place during the presidency of José Efraín Ríos Montt, whose
government had a policy of eliminating the Mayan citizens protesting and
demanding property rights. The
military was summoned, killing and “disappearing” Mayan men and forcing many of
their widows to move near the military bases.
Guatemala's Supreme Court, whose building is shown here,
established a system of "high-risk courts" in 2009 for
prosecutions in which witnesses, attorneys, and judges are
thought to be at risk of violence or intimidation.
(Via Wikimedia Commons)
Although social stigma forced many of these women into
silence, grassroots organizations helped the survivors speak out at the
“Tribunal of Conscience” on violence against women in 2010. In 2011, criminal
charges were filed against base commanders Lt. Col. Esteelmer Reyes Girón and Heriberto
This case is being presented before the Guatemalan High-Risk Court A. High Risk Courts in Guatemala “have
the authority to hear cases that pose a serious risk to the judges, the
prosecutor, the defendant(s) and the defense attorney, or anyone else involved
in the case.” Many
international diplomats were in attendance, including U.S. Ambassador Todd
Robinson, who tweeted “I congratulate
Guatemalan society and the Guatemalan justice system for confronting these
issues. It is important that the justice and government institutions work
The Attorney General’s representative, Hilda Pineda García, read the
allegations against Reyes Girón and former military commissioner Valdéz Asig. The
prosecution argues that certain rural Mayan women were forced to provide
military men at their nearest military outpost with domestic services, such as
washing, cooking, and cleaning. These
women were also subjected to sexual assault and rape.
As a signatory of the U.N.
Convention Against Torture (“Convention Against Torture”), which it ratified on January 5, 1990, Guatemala
has a legal obligation to punish acts constituting torture “by appropriate
penalties which take into account their grave nature.” “Torture”
act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is
intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as . . . punishing him
for an act he or a third person has committed . . . or intimidating or coercing
him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when
such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the
consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an
official capacity . . . .
If the allegations against the accused are
proven, both may face punishment for international crimes. Reyes Girón is facing
charges of “crimes against humanity in the form of sexual violence, sexual and
domestic slavery against eleven women; the murder of Dominga Choc and her two
small children; and cruel treatment of two children.” The charges against Valdéz Asig include the “forced
disappearance of six men, who were the husbands of the female victims of sexual
violence; and crimes against humanity in the form of sexual violence against
one woman.” The Guatemalan prosecutor
stated in her opening statement “that these crimes were violations of
international humanitarian law, and as such, constituted war crimes.”
Leonor Arteaga, a program officer with the Due Process of Law
Foundation, expressed that “[t]he Guatemalan judicial system
has been a pioneer in investigating complex crimes, demonstrating to other
countries that confront similar challenges that it can be done.” 
 The case is often
referenced as the “Sepur Zarco” case, named after the hamlet in eastern
Guatemala where the alleged crimes were committed. Roht-Arriaza, supra note 1, paras. 1-3.
 Int'l Ctr. Transitional Just., supra note 1, para. 2.
 Roht-Arriaza, supra note 1, para. 2.
Id. para. 3 (internal citations
omitted); see Gómez, supra note 4, para. 8 (“The Breaking the
Silence and Impunity Alliance (Alianza Rompiendo el Silencio y la Impunidad),
which consists of three grassroots organizations, came together . . . to
accompany the legal proceedings of the women survivors.”).
 Roht-Arriaza, supra note 1; Gómez, supra note 5,
para. 11. Valdéz Asig was a military commissioner, a former soldier who
maintained some military duties and authority. See Guatemala: Information on military commissioners and human rights abuses, U.S. Bur. Citizenship & Immig. Servs. (Jul.
29, 2002), available at http://www.refworld.org/docid/3f51f6a64.html [https://perma.cc/9VML-YHMX].
 Burt, supra note 12, para. 2 (internal
quotation marks omitted).
 Roht-Arriaza, supra note 1, para. 1.
 Burt, supra note 12, para. 5.
 Int'l Ctr. Transitional Just., supra note 1, para. 2.
Posted by Melodie Pellot-Hernandez on Mon. February 22, 2016 5:15 PM
Human trafficking, Insurgency, International Criminal Court, International Human Rights, Latin America, Refugees/Asylum