by Jo-Marie Burt and Paulo Estrada
The beginning of the trial against five former civil defense patrolmen accused of sexual violence against 36 Maya Achi women was frustrated today because the lawyer of three of the accused did not show up in court.
The case is being heard by High Risk Court «A», with Judge Yassmín Barrios as president of the court. She indicated that the absence of the defense attorney may be intended to delay the proceedings and if so, it would constitute malicious litigation.
The first hearing of the Maya Achi Sexual Violence Case
This is the first trial in the sexual violence against Maya Achi women case. The five former patrolmen are accused of being material authors of crimes against humanity in the form of sexual violence, events that occurred during the worst years of the internal armed conflict in Guatemala (1960-1996).
The hearing began at 8:30 a.m. as scheduled by the court. Before it began, images of the accused were projected remotely and virtually from the «Mariscal Zavala» military prison. The accused – Francisco Cuxum Alvarado, Damian Cuxum Alvarado, Gabriel Cuxum Alvarado, Benvenuto Ruiz and Bernardo Ruiz – are former members of the civil defense patrols (PACs) of Rabinal, in the department of Baja Verapaz. According to Lucia Xiloj, one of the lawyers representing the Achi women, the absence of the defendants was due to a request to ensure that the women survivors could be present in the courtroom, as well as to security and health measures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Upon verifying the presence of the parties, Judge Barrios noticed the absence of attorney Julio César Colindres Monterroso, who represents the three Cuxum Alvarado defendants. The court assured that the attorney was duly informed of the start of the public trial, but tried to contact him and granted a block of time to see if he would appear in the courtroom.
During the time granted by the presiding judge, the courtroom was filled with the women survivors, who are plaintiffs in the proceedings. After 45 minutes, the court noted the persisting absence of attorney Colindres Monterroso, and ruled that an attorney from the public criminal defense be requested to represent the defendants. She also resolved that the three Cuxum Alvarado defendants can appoint another attorney of their choice.
Judge Barrios concluded the hearing noting that the actions of attorney Colindres Monterroso were irresponsible and contrary to the professional ethics of the legal profession, since he cannot leave his clients without representation in court, and that this type of behavior was known as «malicious litigation», which is intended to delay the start of the public trial. The judge rescheduled the proceedings for tomorrow, January 5, at 8:30 a.m.
Hope for justice
Before the hearing, the Achi women survivors gathered at the Human Rights Plaza in front of the Tribunals Tower in Guatemala City for a press conference. They were joined by Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú.
The Achi women recalled that during the internal armed conflict in Guatemala, the Army and the PACs deployed sexual violence as a weapon of war, mainly against indigenous Mayan women. They noted that they began their search for justice more than ten years ago, and that in the course of this process, they faced racism, discrimination and revictimization.
At the same time, they said that «the beginning of the trial gives hope to our struggle and that of other men and women who were victims of crimes committed during the internal armed conflict. This case is one among many other transitional justice processes in the country, which are necessary to heal the wounds of the past and build a lasting and necessary peace».
Jo-Marie Burt is a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.
Paulo Estrada is a human rights defender. They are co-founders and co-directors of Verdad y Justicia en Guatemala, which monitors and reports on war crimes prosecutions in Guatemala.