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Human rights group marks historic convictions in Guatemala

Five men each face 30 years in prison for decades-old crimes of sexual violence

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

A cobblestone street in Guatemala. (Photo by Parker Hilton via Unsplash)

LOUISVILLE — Human rights groups including the Guatemala Human Rights Commission are marking this week’s guilty verdicts of five former Civil Defense Patrollers accused of crimes of sexual violence and crimes against humanity against 36 Maya Achí women.

According to press coverage following the trial, the so-called Civil Defense Patrol was an array of armed groups recruited about four decades ago by Guatemala’s army, prosecutors in the case told reporters.

According to a release posted Tuesday on the website of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, five defendants — Gabriel Cuxum Alvarado, Bernardo Ruiz Aquino, Benvenuto Ruiz Aquino, Damián Cuxum Alvarado and Francisco Cuxum Alvarado — are each facing 30 years in prison for crimes against humanity in the form of sexual violence.

Judge Yassmin Barrios delivered the ruling. In April 2019, Barrios met in Guatemala City with a delegation from the Presbyterian Mission Agency to discuss the work of the Guatemalan judiciary. Because of the sensitivity of the discussion, Presbyterian News Service elected not to report on what Barrios shared with the delegation.

Judge Yassmin Barrios

“We, the judges,” Barrios said, according to the Guatemala Human Rights Commission in the recent case, “find the conditions to which the women were subjected to be totally degrading.”

Over the course of the trial, the Guatemala Human Rights Commission reported, the prosecution proved that the state employed a systematic strategy of sexual violence against Achí women from 1982 through 1985 as part of a counter-insurgency campaign during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict. Survivors gave testimonies of the horrific violence they endured at the hands of the military and the former civil patrollers.

“In the face of discrimination, racism, threats and intimidation, these women and their legal team fought tirelessly to bring their truth to light,” the commission said. “Justice is the only way to ensure that these heinous crimes are never repeated.”

The Rev. Leslie Vogel, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission co-worker serving in Guatemala and the regional liaison for Mexico and Guatemala, said the case, which she followed, “brings a shining light of hope for all who seek justice.”

Judge Barrios is “known for her integrity and impartiality,” Vogel said. She’s “famed (or blacklisted) for her rulings in emblematic cases such as the Dos Erres Massacre, the Rios Montt genocide trial and the assassination of Bishop Juan José Gerardi,” and was assigned as the principal of three judges when the trial of the five defendants was reopened this year. That trial had been derailed in 2011 when a judge declared a lack of evidence.

Vogel said another case that went to trial in 2014 and reached conviction in 2016, the Sepur Zarco case, “set a new precedent when a case of sexual violence and sexual slavery used as a weapon of war against the civilian population was the first globally to be tried in the country where the crimes took place.” Nevertheless, Vogel noted, the lawyers in that case were “ladino,” or non-indigenous.

But in the recent case, “the legal team for the defense was made up of three indigenous women,” Vogel said, “two of whom speak Achí, the language of the plaintiffs, as their mother tongue.”

Thirty-six of the survivors in the case were willing to testify, Vogel said, “despite the decades that have passed since the atrocities were committed, previous legal hurdles and significant racism expressed against them.”

“We congratulate the Maya Achí women for having triumphed over the widespread impunity in Guatemala,” the Guatemala Human Rights Commission said in its release. “Their courage is a light for all.”

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