GUATEMALA- Five ex-paramilitaries patrolling crimes against humanity during Guatemala’s brutal civil war have been convicted this week and sentenced to 30 years each in prison for raping and sexually abusing indigenous women during the early 1980s.
Brisna Caxaj, a sociologist and gender programme coordinator for Impunity Watch Guatemala, who accompanied the women in court, said, “We are very happy and very satisfied with the outcome.”
“The tribunal acknowledged that sexual violence was being used during the armed conflict because it was being committed systematically,” Caxaj told the Guardian.
Adding, “It also established how the army used paramilitaries to commit these crimes.”
Survivors of the Maya Achi massacre initiated the legal action that eventually led to Monday’s verdict, but three of them died in the interim, including one last week.
Among the five women whose cases were directly included in the trial, Pedrina López was 12 when she was raped in Rabinal, 80km north of Guatemala City. She took the witness stand again on Monday, calling for justice after she testified during the trial.
During the hearing on Monday, prior to the verdict, López said, “What happened never leaves us.”. “My body has been left with everything that happened.”
Moreover, Lopez called on 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 family members, including children.
Approximately 200,000 people died and 45,000 disappeared during Guatemala’s civil war between 1960 and 1996. Atrocities during this time period were among the worst in the world in the early 1980s.
In the 36-year conflict with leftist guerrilla groups and the military, paramilitaries were also deployed against indigenous civilians as part of the military’s counterinsurgency campaign.
An independent truth commission backed by the United Nations documented more than 600 massacres perpetrated by the military and paramilitaries, and more than 80% of victims were Maya civilians.
According to the truth commission, the Achi region has been a victim of acts of genocide committed by state actors. Former military officials are being tried for genocide after a domestic court agreed in 2018.
“Sexual violence was part of the war,” the three-judge tribunal stated in its ruling on Monday, noting that assaults on Achiwomen were systematic and generalized, and they were also subjected to domestic slavery.
In the 1980s, two former military officers were convicted of crimes against humanity in eastern Guatemala for raping and enslaving 11 Maya Q’eqchi’ women. Achi survivors used the case to advance their cause.
However, in 2019, a judge who was originally assigned to the Achi women’s case acquitted all three paramilitary patrolmen and provisionally acquitted three others, releasing all of them from custody.
Many of the men are indigenous as well and are from villages that are near those of the women. During the civil war, the army recruited local men to serve in paramilitary “civil defencepatrols.“.
According to Lucia Xiloj, one of three indigenous female lawyers representing the Achi women joint plaintiffs, “the women were challenged by relatives of the accused as well as taunted and insulted when the men got out.”
They have encountered many obstacles,” she said, noting “the women faced stigma at home as well as in court.”
According to Xiloj, the conviction is a victory for the women in their communities, which will show them that they were heard and believed.
She noted that the tribunal stressed the importance of the women’s testimony in its arguments.
“All those years of struggle during their pursuit of justice have been vindicated.”