Guatemala: Indigenous women celebrate historic ruling on war-time sexual violence
25 January 2022: Guatemala's highest court has sentenced five former paramilitaries to 30 years in prison for raping indigenous Maya Achi women during the country's civil war in the 1980s.
The case shows the incredible courage and perseverance of the women victims in the face of years of legal obstacles and racial discrimination.
The historic Achi Women trial acknowledged the women as victims of violence and sexual slavery during the internal armed conflict in Guatemala (1960-1996). The court, presided over by Judge Yassmin Barrios, stated:
“The judges consider that in the case of the Achi Women, they were subjected to consistent sexual violence and domestic slavery”.
During the 12 days of trial in Guatemala City, 18 testimonies and 20 expert opinions were presented demonstrating how the army and the PACs used sexual violence as a weapon of war, being a tool of control over communities in Rabinal, north of the capital, in a planned and deliberate manner.
The court recognised the responsibility of the State:
"We firmly believe in the testimonies of the women who were raped".
Pedrina López de Paz, who was 12 when she experienced the violence, said:
“They raped me more than once, my waist, body, and head hurt; the pain in my heart does not go away, I always remember.”
The court also stressed that the violence left physical and emotional scars on the survivors at a cultural and personal level. According to expert witness María Juliana Sis Iboy “through rape, the social and spiritual world of women was destroyed, they were broken in every way."
Haydeé Valey, one of the lawyers representing the women, and Coordinator of the Victim Participation Program at Impunity Watch, said the criminal process was very important because the testimonies and expert opinions presented support the accusations made by the Achi Women. She added that this verdict is very representative since it gives the Achi women and their testimonies the place that they deserve:
"The fact that today we have a guilty verdict is a way to dignify the strength and courage that these women had in breaking the silence”.
For the Achi Women, this guilty verdict is a form of dignity and reparation, as it recognises that their suffering matters.
Now, the Achi women must await reparation for the suffering they have experienced.
Haydeé Valey points out:
"It is expected that most of the reparation measures will be approved in order to rebuild the social fabric that has been affected."
The Maya Achi lawsuit (or Caso Mujeres Achi), which started in 2011, showcases the incredible courage and perseverance of the women victims in the face of years of legal obstacles and racial discrimination.
The lawyers representing the case were also indigenous women. The ruling is therefore a victory for the fight against long-silenced gender based violence, and shows the agency of indigenous women, both survivors and their lawyers.
Sexual violence was a key instrument within the wider strong military control that the army and its civil defence patrols had over the population of Rabinal. It also illustrates the strong racism which has been endemic in Guatemala.
The Achi women were represented by the Rabinal Legal Clinic (ABJP).
Find out more about the Maya Achi women's struggle for justice here.