On February 1, 2016, the landmark Sepur Zarco trial began in Guatemala. The case involves two military officers who are accused of committing sexual violence and domestic and sexual slavery against 15 Mayan Q’eqchi’ women at the former Sepur Zarco military base during the armed conflict in the 1980s. Other charges include homicide and enforced disappearances. Prosecutors are treating these crimes as international war crimes. The case is being heard before High Risk Tribunal A, and is being presided over by Judge Yassmín Barrios.
It is very uncommon for the perpetrators of sexual violence to be held accountable, especially in conflict contexts. While Guatemala has made important strides in addressing war crimes committed in the past, this is the first time the courts are hearing a case of sexual violence, and it is the first time ever that a case of sexual and domestic slavery is being prosecuted in a domestic court.
Breaking the silence for these kinds of crime is of the utmost importance for the victims, who have been waiting for justice for more than three decades, and for society, to acknowledge the terrible crimes committed by the state against vulnerable populations. In this sense it is of great important to highlight the valor and perseverance of the survivors. Their willingness to speak publicly about the terrible crimes committed against them—repeated rapes, gang rapes, among others. It is also important to highlight the work of the Breaking the Silence Alliance, a coalition of organizations that have worked closely with victims to heal individual and collective trauma and seek truth, justice and reparation for the victims, and the work of the Guatemalan Public Ministry, in bringing the Sepur Zarco case forward.
The Sepur Zarco trial is an important litmus test for the Guatemala justice system. Will it be up to the task of meting out justice for these terrible crimes? Or will it fall victim to the pressures of powerful elites unwilling to harbor any challenge to their claims that they did no wrong?