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Imperfect Justice Is Still Justice for Wartime Rape Survivors in Guatemala

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by Jo-Marie Burt and Paulo Estrada

Pedrina López de Paz takes the witness stand and begins to tell the court about the most calamitous night of her life. It was Aug. 20, 1982, during the height of Guatemala’s internal armed conflict. Efraín Ríos Montt, convicted of genocide in 2013, was the de facto president.

Pedrina lived with her parents and four younger siblings in the village of Pacotzij in Rabinal, a municipality in the department of Baja Verapaz. About 80 percent of the population of Rabinal identifies as Maya Achi.

Two neighbors, brothers Benvenuto and Bernardo Ruiz Aquino, arrived at the house. Pedrina, who was 12 years old at the time, remembers that her mother offered them some food, then after a short while they left. Hours later, the Ruiz Aquino brothers returned. They were wearing military uniforms and their faces were covered in paint, but Pedrina recognized them. There were soldiers too.

They entered the house yelling. They beat her father and dragged him out of the house. They accused him of being a guerrilla and demanded that he hand over information. They did the same to her mother, after throwing her year-old infant to the ground. They dragged her parents away toward the mountains. Pedrina never saw them again.

That same night the Ruiz Aquino brothers returned to Pedrina’s house. As they approached her ten-year-old brother Agustín, Pedrina shouted at them not to hurt him. They turned to her. For two hours, the Ruiz Aquino brothers took turns raping her in front of her siblings. Then they left, taking anything of value with them: Their animals, their clothes, a battery-operated radio, a few quetzales (Guatemalan currency). “We were left with nothing,” Pedrina told the court. Herself still a child, she was forced to take care of her four younger siblings. Pedrina’s brother, Agustín, and her mother’s sister, Feliciana de Paz, who helped care for her after her rape, also testified about the events.

After four decades of suffering in silence, Pedrina found justice. On Jan. 24, 2022, a Guatemalan court found the Aquino brothers and three other men, Francisco, Damian and Gabriel Cuxum Alvarado, guilty of crimes against humanity in the form of sexual violence against Pedrina and four other of the complainants, sentencing them to the maximum penalty of 30 years in prison. Gabriel Cuxum Alvarado was sentenced to an additional ten years for altering his identity and for falsifying official documents.

A Long Road to Justice

The Commission for Historical Clarification determined that 20 percent of the Maya Achi population was eliminated during the Guatemalan armed conflict, identifying this as one of five regions where the army committed genocide. The Rabinal Law Clinic (ABJP), created in 1999, has focused on addressing the legacy of the war on the Maya Achi population, filing lawsuits, providing psychological support for victims, and seeking to rebuild frayed community relations.

During investigations into a series of army massacres in Rabinal and surrounding areas — Plan de Sánchez, Río Negro, Chichupac — AJBP researchers detected clear patterns in which soldiers and paramilitaries committed sexual violence against women, usually amid other violations including massacres, extrajudicial executions, and forced disappearance. In 2011, the AJBP filed a complaint on behalf of 36 Maya Achi women who were victims of sexual violence between 1981 and 1985.

The road to justice has been tumultuous. It was only in 2018 that the first arrests were made in the case: Seven former members of the Rabinal civil self-defense patrols (PAC) — among them the Ruiz Aquino brothers — were detained. Three men denounced by the Achi women managed to avoid capture. The seven detainees were arraigned, though one died in custody.

In 2019, during the evidentiary hearings, pretrial judge Claudette Domínguez dismissed the charges against the six men — provisionally for three of them, including the Ruiz Aquino brothers, and definitively for the other three. In the era of #MeToo, it is confounding that a female judge chose not to believe the Achi women.

But the women and their tenacious lawyers — themselves Indigenous women — did not give up. They succeeded in recusing Judge Domínguez, who they accused of displaying anti-Indigenous bias against them, and for failing to take testimonies into account as evidence of the probable guilt of the ex-paramilitaries.

The case was revived in 2020 when the new judge assigned to the case, Miguel Ángel Gálvez, presided over the arraignment hearings of one of the fugitives, Francisco Cuxum Alvarado, who was deported from the United States to Guatemala in January of that year. Gálvez summoned the three men who had been provisionally released by Domínguez in 2019, including the Ruiz Aquino brothers and Damián Cuxum Alvarado, and reinstated the charges against them. Another fugitive, Gabriel Cuxum Alvarado, was captured in May 2021. After reviewing the evidence in the case, Judge Gálvez sent the five to trial. Simeón Enríquez Gómez, Felix Tum Ramírez and Pedro Sánchez Cortez, the other three released by Judge Domínguez, are still free, but the Achi women have requested the revocation of her ruling so that they can be prosecuted as well. There is still one defendant who remains a fugitive from the law.

The January 2022 conviction of the five former paramilitaries is a victory for the Maya Achi women, but it is incomplete justice. Only five of the women were officially part of this case because the perpetrators in the cases of the other 31 women were not prosecuted in these proceedings.

In addition, only the direct perpetrators of sexual violence have been held accountable. The intellectual authors of the crimes have not been prosecuted. Nor has anyone yet to answer for the forced disappearance, or provide information about the whereabouts of their husbands, parents, and other family members kidnapped by the PACs in concert with the Guatemalan Army.

“I No Longer Feel Ashamed”

Still, it is a justice to be celebrated. Rarely have women survivors of wartime rape succeeded in charging and convicting their tormentors. In Guatemala, this is only the second time a case of wartime sexual violence against Indigenous women has been brought to trial, the first being the landmark Sepur Zarco trial in 2016, when 15 Q’eqchi women won the conviction of a former military officer and a former military commissioner for systematically raping them and subjecting them to sexual and domestic slavery for several years in Sepur Zarco military detachment. In 2018, four senior military officials were convicted of torture and sexual violence against Emma Molina Theissen and for the forced disappearance of her brother.

It is a victory for the Achi women who were able to confront the perpetrators of the horrendous crimes against their bodies and souls. They were able to break the silence that continues to obscure wartime rape and make all Guatemalans aware of the terrible things that were done to them. They were able to leave behind, as Pedrina told us after the trial, the shame she felt for years after being raped by the Aquino Ruiz brothers. “I felt ashamed telling everything that happened to us, but now, with this conviction, I no longer feel ashamed.” Pedrina and her co-plaintiffs demonstrated to other survivors of rape, both in times of war and in times of peace, that they are not responsible for what happened to them and that they have the right to seek justice.

It is also a victory that the court ordered an integral reparations program for the women, including economic reparations, health and psychological care, and educational scholarships for their children and grandchildren, to help compensate the women for the terrible emotional and physical damage they have suffered for so many years. In addition to the emotional trauma, most of the women were left in conditions of extreme poverty and forced to move from their communities, taking refuge on the southern coast, where they lived in inhumane conditions. For Guatemalan anthropologist Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj, an expert witness in the case, this process reproduced in the women’s bodies the long history of forced labor in Guatemala. Many of the women also abandoned their language and traditional clothing; in order to survive, Velásquez Nimatuj told the court, they had to “hide and erase their Achi identity.”

The trial also revealed, as did the Sepur Zarco trial before it, that wartime sexual violence is not an isolated act, but was an integral part of the Guatemalan army’s counterinsurgency strategy. Rape was a weapon of war, like a bullet or a bomb. The Guatemalan army and their paramilitary proxies deployed sexual violence to control women’s bodies and to subjugate not only them, but the entire Achi community, through terror.

Another key revelation was how the Guatemalan Army divided Indigenous communities not only through scorched-earth policies, massacres, torture and sexual violence, but also through the creation of the PACs. The five men who were convicted in the case are Achi men. The trial exposed how the military training and orders the men received dehumanized them, leading them to become the direct perpetrators of violence against women in their own community — and in some cases, their own families.

This trial illustrated, as did the Sepur Zarco trial in 2016, that the violence exercised by the Guatemalan Army and paramilitary groups often had not military but economic objectives. The court proceedings clarified that there was not a significant guerrilla presence in Sepur Zarco or in Rabinal. In the Sepur Zarco case, there was no guerrilla presence; local landowners called in the military to rid themselves of community leaders who they claimed were guerrillas but who were in fact only seeking to recover lands stolen from the Q’eqchi’ communities.

In the Maya Achi case, the army removed the Indigenous communities of Rabinal who were opposing the construction of the Chixoy dam. It was to build this so-called development project, funded by the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, that the Guatemalan army carried out a sequence of massacres against Maya Achi communities — Plan de Sanchez, Rio Negro, Chichupac — in which more than 400 were killed, some 6,000 forcibly displaced, and women and girls were systematically raped. In the words of Dr. Velásquez Nimatuj, the trial showed “a connection between the predatory capitalist system and the machista and racist system promoted by the State.”

The court, presided by Judge Yassmin Barrios, a iconic figure in Guatemala for her role presiding other high-profile cases, including the 2013 genocide trial and the 2016 Sepur Zarco trial, believed the Achi women and helped rewrite their history. With trials like this one, a part of the collective history of this suffering nation, which has been systematically negated and distorted by the military and their elites who have never acknowledged the state violence against the civilian population, has been recovered. For them, these are the “collateral damages” of war, which is justified for ideological reasons. Trials like this one are helping to recover the truth about past atrocities. This is critical so that the younger generations can understand what really happened in Guatemala: A predatory, exclusionary and genocidal state killed, tortured and raped to maintain the power and privilege of a few over the rest of the population.

This is a victory, yes. But legal victories go only so far. Pedrina says she is satisfied with the verdict, but she still experiences physical pain and post-traumatic stress. “My childhood was robbed from me,” she says. “Nothing can erase the memory of what I endured.” She still does not know the whereabouts of her parents. “My mother and father are dead, but we can’t bury them because we haven’t been able to find their bodies; they are still missing,” she says. The Ruiz Aquino brothers denied any responsibility for what happened to Pedrina and her parents. “But,” she said, “they know where they are.” True justice for women like Pedrina remains a long way off.

*This article was originally published in the Salvadoran digital medium El Faro on February 9, 2022 and republished with permission. See the original article here.

*Jo-Marie Burt is a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. *

Paulo Estrada is a human rights defender. They are co-founders and co-directors of Verdad y Justicia en Guatemala, which monitors and reports on war crimes prosecutions in Guatemala.