Major step forward in Paraguay’s investigations into sexual slavery of girls

Investigations into girls subjected to sexual slavery in Paraguay during the Stroessner dictatorship have taken a major step forward thanks to one woman’s testimony.

This in turn has encouraged other women to come forward and testify about their experiences of sexual slavery, giving greater weight to the Truth and Justice Commission’s investigation.

Julia Ozorio Gamecho was the first woman to come forward and talk to the Commission about how she was subjected to sexual slavery by the military during the dictatorship.

The Commission is investigating thousands of human rights violations which happened while Stroessner was in office, from 1954 to 1989.

These violations include sexual violence against women. Girls as young as seven are believed to have been snatched from their homes and “groomed” to serve high ranking military officials.

Ozorio’s testimony helped the Commission to confirm details about a location where girls were taken after they had been snatched from their families. There they were forcibly prepared for their sexual enslavement to high ranking members of the military.

Yudith Rolón of the Commission said: “We value and admire her courage in telling us what happened to her, events which have left her with irreparable trauma, from both the physical and psychological torture she suffered”.

“She corroborated events that the Truth and Justice Commission had already been investigating. We had heard of many cases but no-one had wanted to give testimony, as she has done”.

These testimonies had previously been almost impossible to collect due to fear of reprisals. Some of the officials to whom the women were enslaved are believed to still be linked to the military.

A former military official who helped Ozorio to survive while detained, also came forward to present his account of the case to the Truth and Justice Commission on Tuesday 12 August.

Ozorio’s case will be included in the Commission’s final report which will be presented to the government and civil society on 28 August. Her testimony will be one of over 2,000 detailing human rights violations committed during the Stroessner dictatorship.

The report will also cover the period from Paraguay’s transition to democracy, to the enactment of the law that created the Commission on 6 October 2003.

Ozorio was 13 when she was snatched from her home in the town of Nueva Italia in Paraguay’s central department.

She was taken by a colonel (vice-commander of the Presidential Escort Regiment) and two other soldiers. For the next two years she was held in captivity and subjected to sexual slavery by the colonel.

According to Ozorio, girls who cried a lot or who were no longer of use – for example when they reached 15 or 16 years of age and were no longer considered desirable – were sometimes killed.

Ozorio was freed by her captor because she had reached the age of 15 and he was no longer interested in her. Ozorio said her life was spared because she reminded her captor of his dead daughter. She went to Argentina to seek safety and has lived in Buenos Aires ever since.

Thirty-seven years later she returned to Paraguay to present her book, A Rose and a Thousand Soldiers (Una rosa y mil soldados), her story of what happened to her during the two years she was subjected to sexual slavery.

In the book, Ozorio writes about the night she was abducted: “He said these words to me: ‘many girls have passed through here. Some left alive, others weren’t so lucky’…he looked at me for a long time and said: ‘you are a very pretty girl – please don’t make me kill you’…

“The first night was horrible. No human words exist that can express the pain of that night…my body was covered with bruises and bite marks. A deep wound bled from my breast.”

After her testimony to the Commission, Ozorio reported receiving two anonymous threatening telephone calls. The Commission has offered her protection as a result of these threats.

As well as telling her painful story and raising awareness of what she and many other young girls experienced, Ozorio now also hopes to set up a foundation to protect girls who have been victims of sexual violence.

General Stroessner came to power by overthrowing civilian president Dr Federico Chávez in 1954.

During his rule, thousands were victims of grave human rights abuses including arbitrary detentions, torture, “disappearances” and forced exile.

Some of these abuses were committed as part of Operation Condor, a plan coordinated by the military governments of the Southern Cone – Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay – to eliminate their “opponents” during the 1970s and 1980s.

Stroessner died on 16 August 2006 in Brasilia, where he had been living in exile since 1989. He was 93.