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In Historic Trial, Mayan Women Accuse Ex-Military Officers Of Sex Slavery

Feb. 1 marked the first day of a historic trial in which Mayan women have accused two former military officers of systematic sexual violence during Guatemala's civil war.
Moises Castillo
Feb. 1 marked the first day of a historic trial in which Mayan women have accused two former military officers of systematic sexual violence during Guatemala's civil war.

Last week, a historic trial began in Guatemala.

It's believed to be the first time any national court has held a trial to prosecute sex slavery during an armed conflict. Two former military officers stand accused of murder, kidnapping and keeping nearly a dozen indigenous women as domestic laborers and sex slaves during the country's 36-year civil war.

The war resulted in 200,000 deaths and 45,000 disappearances. Most of the genocide and other crimes targeted Mayans.

Michel Martin spoke with Kelsey Alford-Jones about the details of the trial — and as you can imagine, they are disturbing. Alford-Jones is director of the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission, which has a representative at the trial.

"When you look at the victims of the violence in Guatemala, the vast majority [was] indigenous Mayans — about 83 percent according to the U.N. Truth Commission ... and about 93 percent of the human rights violations were carried out by the military," Alford-Jones says. "So there was definitely an ethnic component."

Interview Highlights

On the women's testimonies

The women in this case are in their 70s and 80s. They speak Q'eqchi', a Mayan language. First their husbands disappeared. Their husbands were working to legalize their land in this area that was principally owned by large, land-owning families. The women that were left alone after their husbands disappeared were then targeted by the military that had set up a series of military outposts in this region in Guatemala. And they forced the women to live right outside the military base and to do shifts where they would go cook for the soldiers, clean for the soldiers and as part of that, they were also repeatedly raped during those shifts. So for some women, that repeated rape happened over a period of days or months and for some women it happened over a period of years. Four women were able to escape and one woman tells of how she fled into the mountains with her four children. Her children lived through hunger, fear, disease — and six years later ... she only had one surviving child with her.

On the defense

In this particular case, no one is denying that these women were abused. What we've seen so far is actually rather than a legal defense, we've seen the lawyers of the two accused simply try to delay the trial, to say that they don't think that the trial is legitimate. We have not seen any kind of defense presented. ...

We all have every hope that it will reach a conclusion, that there will be a verdict based on rule of law and strong evidence. However, the Guatemalan justice system still has huge challenges, so I do hope that the conditions are right for this trial to move forward effectively.

On the women's current well-being

These women have spent almost their entire lives in situations of extreme poverty. They have health implications from that violence that has not been dealt with because they have not had access to medical care. And one of the scariest things that I think I've heard from a couple of the women who I've spoken with recently, is that they fear that these types of things can happen again, and so the women want to denounce what happened and, most importantly, they don't want other women to have to go through the same thing.

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NPR Staff