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Victory for Indigenous Women Raped During Guatemalan Civil War

Five men were sentenced to 30 years each in prison in a ruling hailed as vindication for survivors who have spent years fighting for justice

By Sandra Cuffe

Five former paramilitary patrolmen have been sentenced to jail for the rape of Maya Achi women during Guatemala’s civil war. Photograph: Johan Ordóñez/AFP/Getty Images

Indigenous women raped by paramilitaries during Guatemala’s brutal civil war have triumphed in court, when their aggressors were sentenced to 30 years each in prison.

In a verdict hailed as a vindication for survivors who have spent years fighting for justice, a tribunal convicted five former paramilitary patrolmen of crimes against humanity for the rape of five Maya Achi women in the early 1980s.

“We are very happy, very satisfied with the outcome,” said Brisna Caxaj, a sociologist and gender programme coordinator for Impunity Watch Guatemala, who accompanied the women during the trial.

“The tribunal recognised the use of sexual violence during the armed conflict because it was systematic, and it also established how the army used the [paramilitaries] to commit those crimes,” Caxaj told the Guardian.

The verdict is also slightly bittersweet. A group of 36 Maya Achi survivors initiated the legal proceedings that eventually led to Monday’s verdict, but three of the women died in the intervening period, including one just last week.

Pedrina López, one of the five women whose cases were directly included in the trial, was only 12 years old when she was raped in Rabinal, 80km north of Guatemala City. She testified during the trial and took the stand again Monday morning to call for justice.

“What happened never leaves us,” López told the courtroom on Monday morning prior to the verdict. “My body has been left with everything that happened.”

López also called for paramilitaries to return the remains of her parents, who were taken away and forcibly disappeared. Other Maya Achi survivors of sexual violence witnessed massacres of relatives, including children.

Guatemala’s 1960-1996 civil war left an estimated 200,000 people dead and 45,000 people disappeared. Many of the worst atrocities occurred in the early 1980s.

The 36-year armed conflict was between leftist guerrilla groups and the military, but the military’s counterinsurgency campaign, which included paramilitaries, was also deployed against indigenous civilians.

Maya Achi women await the verdict of a court on the case of five paramilitaries accused of sexually assaulting 36 indigenous women during Guatemala’s civil war. Photograph: Esteban Biba/EPA

More than 80% of victims of atrocities were indigenous Maya civilians, according to a United Nations-backed truth commission, which also documented more than 600 massacres carried out by the military and paramilitaries.

State actors committed acts of genocide in some regions of the country, including the Achi region, the truth commission concluded. A domestic court concurred in 2018, and high-ranking former military officials are facing trial for genocide.

“Sexual violence was part of the war,” the three-judge tribunal affirmed in its verdict on Monday, noting sexual violence was generalised and systemic against Achi women, who were also subjected to domestic slavery.

Nearly six years ago, two former military officers were convicted of crimes against humanity for the systemic rape and enslavement of 11 Maya Q’eqchi’ women in the 1980s in eastern Guatemala. That landmark case helped Achi survivors advance their own.

In 2019, however, a judge originally on the Achi women’s case acquitted three paramilitary patrolmen and provisionally acquitted another three, releasing them all from custody.

The men are also indigenous and some are from the same villages as the female survivors. The army recruited, often forcibly, local men into paramilitary “civil defence patrols” during the civil war.

“The women were challenged by relatives of the accused, and they faced taunts and insults when the men got out,” said Lucia Xiloj, one of three indigenous female lawyers who represents the Achi women joint plaintiffs.

“They have faced so many difficulties,” she told the Guardian, noting the women faced stigma in court as well as back home.

The conviction is a victory for the women, and their communities will see they were heard and believed, said Xiloj.

“The tribunal highlighted in its arguments the importance of the testimonies of the women,” she said. “It vindicates all those years of struggle during their search for justice.”

© 2022 Guardian News & Media Limited or its affiliated companies.

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