Heriberto Valdez Asij
Heriberto Valdez Asij was a military commissioner during the 36-year civil war in Guatemala. As a military commissioner, he responded to the army commander, despite being paramilitaries.
Asij commanded the civil self-defence patrols (PAC) in the municipality of Panzós and was deployed around the Sepur Zarco military base in eastern Guatemala from April 1982 onwards.
The Sepur Zarco military base was set up in late 1981, during the presidency of Efraín Ríos Montt, when local landowners complained about Mayan Q’eqchi’ peasant leaders trying to acquire legal titles to the land on which they lived and worked. During a military operation in Sepur Zarco, at least 15 Q’eqchi’ men were killed or disappeared.
Shortly thereafter, in 1982, at least 15 Q’eqchi’ women – wives of the deceased and disappeared men – were subjected to prolonged violence at the Sepur Zarco base. The women were required to report to the base every two or three days for their ‘shifts’, during which they were forced to cook, clean and were subject to sexual violence. Whilst the ‘shift’ system ended after about ten months, some of the women continued to be exploited and subjected to violence at the base for up to six years, until the Sepur Zarco military base closed in 1988. The children of some of the women involved who tried to escape into the mountains with their families, died from hunger and exposure.
Heriberto Valdez Asij was a military commissioner during the 36-year civil war in Guatemala. Military commissioners responded to army command and were integrated into the military structure, despite being paramilitaries. Valdez Asij commanded the civil self-defence patrols (PAC) in the municipality of Panzós and was stationed around the Sepur Zarco military base in eastern Guatemala from April 1982. Before he became a military commissioner, Valdez Asij was a municipal police officer in Panzós.
The Sepur Zarco military base was set up in late 1981, during the presidency of Efraín Ríos Montt, when local landowners complained about Mayan Q’eqchi’ peasant leaders trying to acquire legal titles to the land on which they lived and worked. The military repeatedly attacked the village and seized at least 15 Q’eqchi’ men, who were then killed or forcibly disappeared.
Shortly thereafter, in 1982, soldiers forced at least 15 Q’eqchi’ women – wives of the murdered and disappeared men – into sexual and domestic slavery at the Sepur Zarco base. The women were required to report to the base every two or three days for their ‘’shifts’’, during which they were forced to cook and clean and were systematically raped. This ‘’shift’’ system ended after about ten months, but some of the women were enslaved at the base for up to six years. Some of the women were able to escape into the mountains with their families, but many of their children died from hunger and exposure. The Sepur Zarco military base closed in 1988.
On 30 September 2011, a criminal complaint was filed to the Izabal Prosecutor’s Office in relation to crimes committed against Q’eqchi’ women in Sepur Zarco between 1982 and 1983. In September 2012, pre-trial evidentiary hearings were held to allow the aging victims to testify.
On 14 June 2014, Asij and Esteelmer Francisco Reyes Girón, a former Lieutenant Colonel of the Guatemalan Army, were arrested in connection with the Sepur Zarco crimes and held in pre-trial detention from the date of their arrests.
On 14 October 2014, Asij was charged with the crime against humanity of sexual violence, and of enforced disappearance against seven men. The Prosecutor requested a prison term of 340 years.
On 1 February 2016, the trial commenced before the High Risk Tribunal (Tribunal) of Guatemala City. Valdez Asij maintained his innocence and denied his role as military commissioner.
On 26 February 2016, the Tribunal found Asij guilty of all charges, and sentenced him to 240 years in prison: 30 years for crimes against humanity and 210 years for the seven forced disappearances.
The Tribunal additionally ordered reparations to the victims of the Sepur Zarco crimes in the form of health and social programs, and over $1 million in damages.
After the verdict was read, the defendants were remanded to prison.
Asij appealed the Tribunal’s conviction complaining that:
- the Tribunal lacked jurisdiction as an amparohad been filed questioning the impartiality of two judges;
- the Tribunal violated his right of defence by refusing to accept new evidence in the proceedings, by failing to establish a protocol regulating the chain of custody of the remains of the victims, by admitting 20 pre-recorded witness testimonies despite the fact that the witnesses were present at the hearings, and two witnesses who were not fit to testify;
On 19 July 2017, the High Risk Appellate Court (Appellate Court) rejected the appeal and upheld the first instance conviction and sentence.
The Appellate Court found that trial court followed the law in its decisions about the admission of witness and expert testimony, and the pre-recorded testimonies were properly evaluated as there is no law which prohibits witnesses who testified during the pre-trial phase of a case from attending the trial hearing. The challenge on lack of impartiality grounds was declared unfounded as the enmity between the judges and defence counsel did not originate in the judgment handed down by the Tribunal, and the Appellate Court was not competent to hear the issue.
The Sepur Zarco trial marks the first time in Guatemala that anyone will face justice for sexual violence committed during the civil war, and the first time that sexual slavery perpetrated during an armed conflict had been prosecuted in the country where the crime took place.
THE CIVIL WAR (1960-1996)
Between 1960 and 1996, Guatemala was embroiled in a civil war that resulted in 250 000 victims (deaths and disappearances). The war ended following a peace signing on 29 December 1996.
The civil war, which would last for 36 years, began in 1960 when young defiant officials and countrymen revolted against the dictatorial regime. Until 1982, there were a series of military or pro military governments.
In 1978, General Fernándo Romeo Lucas García became the president of Guatemala. It was during his presidency that the first large-scale massacre against the Mayan population took place.
In 1982, General Efraín Ríos Montt took control following a coup d’état. He set up Civil Defense Patrols (PAC) made up of 900 000 militia who the army had recruited by force to fight against the guerrilla. He unleashed a scorched earth policy that included torture and forced disappearances. More than 45 000 people fled to Mexico where they stayed in refugee camps in Chiapas and Tabasco. In response, 6000 soldiers from the four main guerrilla groups (EGP, ORPA, FAR and PGT) unified to form the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG). From this point onwards, the conflict truly became a civil war.
Ríos Montt’s brief presidency (from 1982 to 1983) is considered to be the most violent period of the conflict. During this period, 440 Mayan villages were completely destroyed and 200 000 Mayan people were killed in attacks of extreme cruelty (such as; amputation, impalement and torture). Although the (left-wing) guerrilla forces and the (right-wing) death squads had committed summary executions, forced disappearances and had tortured civilians, the majority of human rights violations (93%) were committed by the Guatemalan army and by the PACs that it controlled.
In 1986, free elections were at last organised and were won by Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo of the Christian Democratic Party. It was not until 1996, however, that a peace agreement was signed between the government and the guerrilla, putting an end to a conflict that had lasted for 36 years.
THE COMMISSION FOR HISTORICAL CLARIFICATION (CEH)
In June 1994, the Oslo Accords ordered the creation of a truth commission called the Guatemalan “Commission for Historical Clarification”; its aim was to investigate human rights violations in relation to the armed conflict and to prepare a report covering these violations and their causes. The Commission also aimed to establish specific recommendations to “encourage national peace and harmony in Guatemala”. After having listened to thousands of accounts and having unearthed several clandestine burial sites, the Commission published a final report in February 1999, titled “Silent memories”.
In its report, the CEH accounted for 200 000 deaths, 50 000 disappearances, one million internally displaced refugees and more than 600 devastated communities. The majority of crimes (91%) were committed during the regimes of General Romes Lucas García (1978-1982) and General Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-1983).
The facts established by this report have been used on a number of occasions during the trials of perpetrators of human rights violations, particularly that of Felipe Cusanero Coj. A former paramilitary officer, he was the first person to be tried for the forced disappearances of civilians during the civil war.
The CEH was supported by another report, “Never again”, published on 24 April 1998 as part of the inter-diocese Recovery of Historical Memory project (REMHI).
THE INTERNATIONAL COMMISSION AGAINST IMPUNITY IN GUATEMALA (CICIG).
On 12 December 2006, an agreement signed between the United Nations and the Guatemalan government established the CICIG. It is an independent body that aims to assist the Guatemalan office of the prosecutor, the national police and other institutions involved in the investigation of sensitive cases, as well as working to dismantle illegal security groups. The CICIG has the right to initiate investigations proprio motu.
The CICIG’s investigations have led to the issuance of 18 arrest warrants, notably for Javier Figueroa and Erwin Sperisen.