By Oscar López and Jody García
A top Guatemalan court has sentenced five former paramilitary members to 30 years in prison for the rape of several Indigenous women in the early 1980s, during the nation’s long, bloody civil war.
The sentences were handed down Monday following a weekslong trial that resulted in convictions for crimes against humanity. The charges were based on the rape of five women at the hands of a pro-government militia fighting leftist rebels.
“It has been possible to establish disproportionate violence against these women, who were treated like animals, sexually violated and subjected to sexual slavery,” Judge Gervi Sical said during the sentencing hearing. “The authorities, called upon to protect them, forgot their obligation as guarantors and used physical and psychological force to its greatest extremes.”
The trial is the latest attempt by authorities and activists to seek justice for the atrocities committed during the 36-year civil war in Guatemala, which ended in 1996, during which some 200,000 people were killed or disappeared. According to a United Nations-backed inquiry, more than 80% of identified victims were Indigenous Maya.
“It’s extremely important because we’re going to be able to take this sentence and say: we are vindicating ourselves before society and before our communities,” said Lucia Xiloj, an Indigenous lawyer who represented several of the plaintiffs in the case. “Our voice was heard through the five women, our truth was heard.”
In a landmark 2016 case, two former military members were convicted of crimes against humanity for the rape of Indigenous women.
According to the plaintiffs in this most recent case, members of the group known as the Civil Self-Defense Patrols, a paramilitary force created by the Guatemalan army in the 1980s, came to their village in northern Guatemala, demanding information on the whereabouts of their husbands, whom they accused of being part of a leftist guerrilla group.
The former patrol members then subjected the women to gang rape, torture and violent interrogations: one woman said she was sexually assaulted while seven months pregnant and had a miscarriage as a result.
“We are here, we are speaking the truth,” Pedrina López de Paz, who was just 12 years old when the abuse took place, told the court Monday. “Everything that happened to our bodies still hurts us.”
In addition to the five women at the heart of the case, more than two dozen others said they were also victimized by members of the group.
Despite the significance of Monday’s ruling, the only defendants were the five men who physically carried out the abuse, and not the members of the military who may have orchestrated these and many of the horrors that took place during the war.
That part of the case is set to be tried separately, according to Xiloj, a process that could take months or even years.
“It gives me hope, but also fear,” Xiloj said of Monday’s sentencing. “Unfortunately many of the acts that were committed during the conflict are not going to see justice.”
Xiloj’s fears are well founded: While Guatemala has held more trials for the abuses committed during its civil war than almost any country in the region, most of the architects of these atrocities have avoided prison. In 2013, a court overturned the genocide conviction of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who died in 2018 while facing a retrial.
Monday’s outcome may do little to restore faith in a troubled justice system. Successive Guatemalan governments have steadily chipped away at judicial independence in recent years, stonewalling corruption investigations and publicly attacking top prosecutors.
“This trial has meaning for communities, and for survivors and victims — it carries tremendous meaning,” said Anita Isaacs, a social sciences professor at Haverford College and an expert on Guatemala. “But in the course of what this means for progress, for the rule of law and for democracy, I wouldn’t get carried away.”
Last year, Guatemala’s top anti-corruption prosecutor, Juan Francisco Sandoval, was abruptly fired as he was ramping up a graft investigation against President Alejandro Giammattei. The firing was condemned by Washington and provoked nationwide protests.
The country’s attorney general, María Consuelo Porras, one of Giammattei’s close allies, then replaced Sandoval with a prosecutor who had been accused of mishandling a previous case involving campaign donations to former president Jimmy Morales.
With Consuelo Porras’ replacement set to be chosen in the next few months, it is unlikely that anyone in the country’s beleaguered justice system would soon take on something as delicate as trying former army officers for crimes committed during the war, according to Xiloj, the lawyer.
As a result, bringing the second part of the case to trial, which would examine the role of the military in orchestrating the abuse, could take years, by which time many of the elderly perpetrators and their victims may no longer be alive.
“I don’t think anyone would risk backing this case in the next few months because of what it implies,” Xiloj said. “If at some point we’re left without people to try, well I think unfortunately the cases are going to be left without justice.”