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Former US-Backed Guatemalan Commanders Face Civil War Murder, Rape and Slavery Charges

Mayan women in Guatemala (David Amsler/Flickr Creative Commons)

Mayan women in Guatemala (David Amsler/Flickr Creative Commons)

Two former Guatemalan army officers who served under the US-backed military dictatorship that committed genocide against Mayan peasants during a 36-year civil war will be tried for crimes against humanity, including rape and sexual enslavement.

The Guardian reports the historic trial of former base commander Esteelmer Reyes Girón and former regional military commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asij will begin on Monday. Reyes is charged with murdering Dominga Coc and her two daughters, as well as with sexual violence and sexual and domestic slavery. Valdez is charged with sexual violence and the forced disappearance of at least nine men. The trial will be the first in which a Guatemalan court hears a case of sexual violence as an international crime, and the first time anywhere that a domestic court has considered charges of sexual slavery.

Guatemalan forces repeatedly attacked the village of Sepur Zarco in 1982, killing or forcibly disappearing 15 Mayan Q’eqchi’ peasant leaders who dared demand land rights opposed by wealthy landowners and the military regime they supported. A few weeks later, soldiers returned for the women of Sepur Zarco, who they called “the widows.” According to prosecutors and survivors, the women were forced to report every three days to a local military base for “shifts” during which they were raped and forced to perform domestic duties such as cooking and cleaning for soldiers. Troops also allegedly gang-raped the women in their homes, in front of their terrified children.

The soldiers’ alleged crimes went beyond rape and enslavement and, according to prosecutors, included burning and destruction of homes, property and crops. The destruction of the Mayan peasants’ food supply was particularly difficult as the women were forced to cook food for their tormentors even as their own children starved. The alleged crimes continued until 1988, when the Sepur Zarco base was closed. However, the women faced physical and psychological consequences even after the outpost was shuttered, with stigmatization occurring in their patriarchal community. Most continue to suffer physical and psychological problems to this day.

The defendants’ alleged crimes took place during the the rule of Efraín Ríos Montt, who was convicted of genocide by a Guatemalan court in May 2013 before the verdict was controversially overturned by a higher court just 10 days later. Ríos Montt is currently awaiting retrial.

Guatemala’s brutal civil war, which was fought between 1960 and 1996, was sparked by a 1954 CIA-backed coup in which democratically elected reformist president Jacobo Arbenz, who moved to nationalize plantations owned by United Fruit Company (later Chiquita), was replaced by a military regime. The United States trained hundreds of Guatemalan officers, including Ríos Montt, in torture, assassination and democracy suppression at the notorious US Army School of the Americas.

President Ronald Reagan, who feared communist infiltration of Central American nations, counted Ríos Montt as a valuable regional ally, despite his regime’s horrific human rights record. On the same day that Guatemalan forces under Ríos Montt were raping, torturing and massacring more than 200 villagers, mostly women and children, at Dos Erres, President Reagan met with Ríos Montt and called him “a man of great personal integrity who wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and promote social justice” who had gotten a “bum rap” from human rights advocates.

By the time Guatemala’s multigenerational civil war ended, 200,000 people, mostly Mayan peasants, had been slaughtered in the genocidal violence. The United Nations found that more than 90 percent of wartime atrocities, including more than 600 massacres in mostly Mayan villages, were committed by the US-backed armed forces.

Earlier this month, 18 former high-ranking military officers, including 12 who were trained at the US Army School of the Americas, were arrested for their alleged roles in the torture, murder and disappearance of indigenous Guatemalans. Days later, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales said he wants “justice, not revenge” for the former military officials accused of civil war atrocities.

In addition to backing the genocidal Guatemalan regime, the United States also supported similar slaughter in neighboring El Salvador, as well as the repressive government of Honduras, the military dictatorship of Manuel Noriega in Panama and the Contra terrorist insurgency in Nicaragua.

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