This article narrates and analyzes the stories of the fight for justice undertaken by two groups of indigenous q’eqchí women from El Estor, in the department of Izabal, Guatemala. The first group is made up of fifteen women from the community of Sepur Zarco, who brought forward a criminal suit in the Guatemalan justice system for sexual slavery in a military detachment during the armed conflict. The second group is made up of eleven women from the community of Lote Ocho, who filed a legal suit in Canada against a transnational mining company for rapes perpetrated by their security agents in Guatemala.
The events described in this article took place in the Polochic River Valley region, which spans townships in the departments of Alta Verapaz and Izabal in northeast Guatemala. This region is rich in natural resources like fertile land, abundant water, petroleum, nickel, and other minerals. The region is currently witnessing a process of land reconcentration for the production of agrofuels such as African palm and sugarcane, and intensive mining. These activities have been carried out at the cost of the local peasant population, who have been stripped of their land, generating social conflict, violence, and a deepening of inequality in the structure of land ownership. According to the last farming and livestock census, 57% of land belongs to 2% of property owners, while at the other end, 3% of land belongs to 45% of property owners (INE, 2004).
At the end of the armed conflict, which lasted more than 30 years, the Historical Clarification Commission revealed that among the serious and massive human rights violations committed against the civil population, rape was a generalized and systematic practice carried out by agents of the state as part of the counterinsurgent strategy, becoming a weapon of terror, a serious violation of human rights and international humanitarian law (CEH, 1998: 13).
After signing the Peace Accords in 1996, Guatemala made important advances in building and strengthening democratic institutions. For social movements, this meant the opening up of spaces for civic and political participation, which has resulted in a legal framework that favors human rights. However, during recent years a process of regression has begun, particularly affecting the public safety system. Currently, one of the biggest problems facing the public is the high rate of criminal violence. This is influenced by old, unresolved socioeconomic, political and institutional problems and teh growth of the criminal economy, particularly drug trafficking. In this context, femicide and other forms of violence against women have increased.
Incidents of sexual violence aginst q’eqchís women
The women of Sepur Zarco. During the armed conflict, q’eqchí women from several villages in Izabal and Alta Verapaz were victims of sexual slavery in the Army camp set up in the village of Sepur Zarco. In August of 1982 the women were raped by the soldiers in their homes and in front of their children. A few days prior to this, members of the Army had kidnapped and forcibly disappeared the women’s husbands, peasants who had organized to obtain the titles to their land.
From that moment on, the women were subjected to sexual and domestic servitude in the military camp for periods lasting from six months to six years. Organized by “shifts,” they were forced to appear every other day at the camp, where they were systematically raped multiple times. in addition to sexual slavery, they were forced into domestic servitude, obligated to prepare food for the soldiers and wash their uniforms. The economic exploitation went to the extreme of forcing them to provide their own corn and soap for this work, which meant that the women’s children were subjected to extreme levels of poverty and hunger (Méndez, 2012).
The women of Lote Ocho. On Jan. 17, 2007, an indeterminate number of women from the community of Lote Ocho were raped during the violent eviction of their community carried out by private security agents of the Guatemalan Nickel Company (GNC) and officers of the National Civil Police and the Army. The GNC was, at that time, a subsidiary of the transnational mining company HudBay Minerals, headquartered in Canada. When the private security and state agents arrived at Lote Ocho, the men were working in the fields. The agents trapped the women in their homes or nearby when they tried to escape, and raped them in front of their children. Many of them were raped multiple times, by up to ten men.
These two groups of women were victims of multiple human rights violations. For the women of Sepur Zarzo, in addition to the sexual violence and the murder or forced disappearance of their husbands, the soldiers also destroyed their homes, harvests, and other possessions. The same happened in Lote Ocho where the GNC guards and state agents burned homes and crops. Women from both groups were forced to take refuge in the mountains to escape the repression. During the displacement, several children of the women of Sepur Zarco died due to illness and a lack of food.
The effects of rape are profound and long-lasting. Among the physical consequences, the women of these stories suffered miscarriages, forced pregnancies, an inability to conceive again, pain that has lasted for many years and other illnesses.
The impact of silence and stigmatization stand out among the psychosocial effects. The women of Sepur Zarco remained silent for 25 years about the sexual violence they endured. The women of Lote Ocho were also silent for many years about the rapes. Having to keep quiet about events with such a profound impact on their lives has been a heavy burden for them. Social stigmatization has affected both groups, and been especially severe for the women of Sepur Zarco. Rejection and ostracism from their own community, in which they have even been called “the bad women,” has caused them immense suffering.
Rape is the only crime for which, socially, shame and blame fall on the shoulders of the victims themselves but not on the perpetrators. This is the root of forced silence and social stigmatization. Rape is not interpreted as a human rights violation and social and political problem, but instead as something shameful relegated to the private sphere.
Past-present: the continuation of sexual violence against indigenous women
The present investigation into access to justice for indigenous and peasant women reveals the existence of similar patterns of sexual violence perpetrated against q’eqchís women in the past and the present. Even with thirty years between incidents, the women of both groups were atrociously raped multiple times on a large scale. To understand this continuation of violence, we must analyze the way in which gender oppression, racism against indigenous people, and agrarian conflict have intertwined in the lives and bodies of the women. For the Sepur Zarco group, this occured during the armed conflict.
Land grabs and rape of indigenous women are two structural problems that have been closely connected throughout Guatemala’s history. This link between land dispossession and rape is at the foundation of the rapes of the women of Sepur Zarco and Lote Ocho. The women of both groups note that the conditions that gave rise to the sexual violence they suffered are closely linked to the struggles of their communities to defend their lands.
The women of Sepur Zarco explain that the sexual violence they suffered resulted from repression against indigenous farmers who organized to gain title to their land. ‘Violence came because we fought for the land’, they state. (SZ. 1-9). For the women of Lote Ocho, land grabs and rape are two human rights violations that they suffered simultaneously. ‘During the second eviction was when they hurt us, it was in this second eviction that we were raped’ (L8. 3-1).
During the acts of violence against the women of Lote Ocho and Sepur Zarco, rape was used as a mechanism of control and subjugation, as a means of intimidation and punishment of the women and their communities that had organized to defend their ancestral lands. In both cases rape was a tool used to strip the indigenous peasant population of its land. Additionally, the sexual violence to which the women of Sepur Zarco were subjected was used as a weapon of war as part of the counterinsurgency policies of the state during the armed conflict.
Gender domination, or the patriarchal system, played a central role during the violent events against the two groups of women, since it contributed an ideology as well as a set of norms and social practices that assign to women a social condition of subordination, while granting men a position of supremacy. Violence against women constitutes a structural compenent of the system of gender domination. One of the distinctive characteristics of this kind of violence is that it is not only socially legitimized but normalized. In the patriarchal worldview, men have the social right to possess and control women, which is why the assortment of mechanisms used includes the use of violence. The patriarchal logic that conceives of women as the property of men was useful for counterinsurgent policies during the armed conflict. The feminine body, which is also interpreted as territory, was used to assert control and demonstrate power over other men. The same logic applies with respect to the rapes of women during land evictions in more recent years.
Racism against indigenous communities has facilitated the perpetration of sexual violence against indigenous women, by deepening their status of social inferiority. In Guatemala, 41% of the population identifies as indigenous and 59% as non-indigenous (INE, 2002). Indigenous communities are comprised of 23 ethnolinguistic groups, largely of Mayan origins. One of the greatest riches of Guatemala is its ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity. However, these communities have historically been subjected to virulent racism, which is particularly rooted in the dominant elite economy. Notwithstanding, racism has penetrated all classes and social groups, becoming so natural that even the subaltern classes use it as an element in the recreation of their own identity (Casaúz, 2008: 20).
Breaking ground in the search for justice
The women of both groups have searched for justice on different paths. On that journey the main strategies that they have used have been the organization of women’s groups – which allowed the creation of a safe space in which to speak about sexual violence – as well as the construction of alliances with feminist and human rights organizations at the national and international levels. These organizations have worked together with the two groups of women from a perspective of social transformation.
The women of Sepur Zarco, as part of transitional justice, participated in a process of historical memory construction and took part in the First Tribunal of Conscience on sexual violence during the armed conflict. Additionally, in 2011 they filed a criminal lawsuit in the Guatemalan justice system for the crimes against humanity that were committed against them by agents of the state during the armed conflict.
For their part, the women of Lote Ocho turned to Canadian courts to receive compensation and justice for the crimes of sexual violence perpetrated by private security agents of the Guatemalan Nickel Company, which was a subsidiary of the transnational Canadian HudBay Minerals at the time of the events of violence against the women. They filed the lawsuit together with the wife of a professor who was assassinated and a young man who was injured and left paraplegic by CGN’s private guards during other violent land evictions. There are, then, three suits that have been submitted to the Canadian justice system.
To date, the two groups of women have made important advances in the search for justice. A Guatemalan court agreed to initiate the criminal complaint presented by the women of Sepur Zarco and a high-risk court heard the plaintiffs’ testimonies in pretrial evidence during 2012. Meanwhile, a court in Ontario, Canada agreed in 2013 to hear the suit brought by the women of Lote Ocho and other plaintiffs against HudBay Minerals.
The two groups of women are the protagonists of unprecedented legal processes. In their struggles, these q’eqchís women are breaking new ground for women’s access to justice, both nationally and internationally. The relevance of the Sepur Zarco case lies in the fact that it is the first time that a national court has recognized sexual slavery crimes during an armed conflict. Cases from other countries are well-known in international courts. This is a valuable contribution to the struggles to put an end to sexual violence during armed conflicts, one of the most generalized and most silenced human rights violations in wartime. The significance of the Canadian Court of Justice’s ruling comes from the fact that it is the first time in the legal history of that country that a Canadian company is being tried for its conduct in other countries. This sends a strong message to keep Canadian transnational extractive companies from violating human rights in Guatemala and other countries.
The legal processes described here still have not yet come to an end. There are many obstacles and challenges that the women are facing on the path that they started to reach justice. In the first place, there is the context of violence and agrarian conflict in the region where they live. Additionally, the women of Sepur Zarco feel permanently threatened because they live in the same communities with several of the perpetrators of the sexual violence through which they lived. For their part, the women of Lote Ocho are being subjected to enormous pressure and extortion on the part of the Guatemalan Nickel Company so that they will withdraw their lawsuit in Canada.
That notwithstanding, what has been accomplished up to this point by these groups of women renews hope that it is possible to organize and build alliances to break the silence and fight to end impunity for sexual violence and other serious crimes committed against women and their communities. In the long run what is sought is to build a just society, with respect for human rights and without violence of any kind.
Luz Méndez is President of the Advisers’ Council of the national Union of Guatemala Women (UNAMG). She participated in the negotiations as a member of the Diplomatic Political Team of the Guatemalan National revolutionary Unit. She formed part of the team of Gender Experts for peace talks in Burundi, called by UNIFEM; She is a member of the Advisors Council for the Global Fund for Women and a contributor to the CIP Americas Program www.americas.org
For more information contact Luz Méndez at luzmeg(at)yahoo.com
Casaús Arzú, Marta Elena (2008). Genocidio, ¿la máxima expresión de racismo en Guatemala? Guatemala: F&G editores.
Comisión de Esclarecimiento Histórico 5–CEH– (1998). Memoria del Silencio, Las violaciones de los derechos humanos y los hechos de violencia. Tomo III, Guatemala.
Méndez, Luz (2012). No me quiero morir sin alcanzar justicia. Esclavitud sexual durante el conflicto armado en Guatemala. Americas Program. http://www.americas.org/es/archives/8127
Instituto Nacional de Estadística –INE (2002). XI Censo Nacional de Población y VI de Habitación. Guatemala.
Instituto Nacional de Estadística –INE (2004). IV Censo Nacional Agropecuario, Tomo I. Guatemala.