GUATEMALA: Guatemalan Femicide: The Legacy of Injustice

Friday, June 29, 2012
Toward Freedom
Central America
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

One generally overlooked feature of the Guatemalan government and military's 36-year (1960-96) genocidal counterinsurgency campaign against the country's Mayan population is the strategy of targeting women with violence.

Rape, mutilation, sexual slavery, forced abortion, and sterilizations were just some of the sadistic tools used in a systematic practice of state-sponsored terror to crush the surviving population into submission through fear and shame via the suffering of their mothers, sisters, and daughters.

In 1999, UN-backed truth commission, the Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH), declared that during the war, “the rape of women, during torture or before being murdered, was a common practice aimed at destroying one of the most intimate and vulnerable aspects of the individual's dignity...[and] they were killed, tortured and raped, sometimes because of their ideals and political or social participation...”

Glen Kuecker, professor of Latin American History at DePauw University, said that the gender specific violence was and continues to be part of the government's counterinsurgency program aimed to destroy the fundamental social fabric of Mayan communities.

“The goal of counterinsurgency is to undermine the cohesion of a community that is needed for resistance,” said Kuecker. “Gender violence not only terrorizes women in the community, but it also disrupts traditional patriarchal gender relations by sending the message to men that they are not capable of protecting women.”

According to Emily Willard, Research Associate for the Evidence Project of The National Security Archive writing in Peace and Conflict Monitor this April, “The military's strategies of targeting women reached such a large portion of the male population, normalizing rape and violence against women. The residual effect of these genocidal policies and strategies can be seen in the rate and type of violence in Guatemala today.”

In 2010, 685 women were assassinated in Guatemala, compared to 213 in 2000. And while there were more than 40,000 complaints of violence against women filed with the Guatemalan Public Ministry, only 1 percent of those registered by the Judicial Department resulted in sentencing, according to a report published June 1 by the Nobel Women's Initiative and the Just Associates (JASS), “Caught in the Crossfire: Women on the frontlines in Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala.”

The report, co-authored by Nobel Peace Laureates Rigoberta Menchú Tum and Jody Williams, was the result of a fact-finding mission led by them in January 2012 to investigate violence against women in these three countries.

In Guatemala, the report singles out the civil war's legacy of violence and impunity, the increased militarization resulting from the War on Drugs, land and resource conflicts, and the influence of foreign governments and businesses – specifically from the United States and Canada – as major contributing factors to the ongoing violence directed at women, and the targeting of women as a tactical and deliberate tool of political repression. The report states that the phenomenon of femicide has “reached crisis dimensions.”

Guatemala's Civil War: No Justice, No Peace

“The crises in Guatemala are not internal crises,” Grahame Russell, co-director of Rights Action, a community development and anti-mining solidarity organization, told Toward Freedom. “They are global struggles.”

Guatemala's Civil War serves as a perfect example. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, in an uncharacteristic moment of historical honesty, apologized to the Guatemalan people back in 1998 for the U.S.'s role in overthrowing democracy in the country and contributing political, military, and financial support to genocidal counterinsurgency programs which successive dictators carried out on the Mayan population.

“It is important that I state clearly that support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression...was wrong,” said Clinton.

The war left over 200,000, mostly indigenous civilians, murdered, while tens of thousands were raped, tortured, disappeared and displaced. But in the wake of the war, as many an estimated 98 percent of those responsible for war crimes and genocide (both Guatemalan and American) remain free.

“In Guatemala, the surge in femicides demonstrates that peace is not just the cessation of war,” the JASS report states. “The lack of justice for crimes of the 1980s has left victims without redress, and culprits in power.” Amnesty International noted that in the last 10 years as many as 5,700 women have been murdered.

The position of recently elected president Otto Perez Molina that there was no genocide in the country is a perfect illustration of how impunity persists. However, Perez Molina, a former general and CIA asset who was trained at the infamous School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, is taking a position that is self-serving, not just racist and revisionist. He led a military battalion in the early 1980s in the country's northwestern highlands where some of the bloodiest massacres occurred. In addition, as Annie Bird, journalist and co-director of Rights Action pointed out in a profile of the president this year, Perez Molina ran a “secret torture center” for political prisoners while serving as head of the country's military intelligence in 1994. One of Perez Molina's past bosses, former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, unleashed a scorched earth campaign against the country's Mayan population between 1982-83, wiping out entire villages in the process. Thirty years later Rios Montt, who was a very close ally of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, is just now standing trial, and is accused of being responsible for “1,771 deaths, 1,400 human rights violations and the displacement of 29,000 indigenous Guatemalans.”

Sandra Moran, a Guatemalan feminist, lesbian, artist and activist working on women's rights and human rights in Guatemala City, is a member and co-founder of Colectivo Artesana and Alianza Politica Sector de Mujeres. She lived in exile in Canada for 14 years after participating in the country's student movement in the early 1980s. After working tirelessly abroad to build transnational solidarity, Moran returned to Guatemala to participate in the Peace Process and to help rebuild a more peaceful, just and humane country.

"During the war it was State Policy to target the bodies of women as part of the government's ‘Counterinsurgency Plan'. Although the war ended, this violence against women has continued," Moran told Toward Freedom. Her office has been targeted and broken into in the past, with spilt blood left, and she has received numerous death threats as a result of her work. "The way some murdered and mutilated bodies have appeared [in recent years] are the same way they appeared during the war," added Moran.

Amnesty International submitted a briefing on Guatemala to the UN's Human Rights Committee in March, voicing concern how “female victims often suffer exceptional brutality before being killed, including rape, mutilation and dismemberment.”

Moran added that these misogynistic forms of violence and torture are social problems that have been taught at both institutional and individual levels. Many of the teachers of this violence are working with the government, military and police, and are often those same people who committed these types of crimes during the war. Moran also singled out the heads of private security industry, which according to the JASS report, has ballooned to an estimated 28,000 legal and 50,000 unregistered private security agents in the country.

In 2007 Amnesty International issued a report noting the presence of “clandestine groups” in the country, comprised of the “the business sector, private security companies, common criminals, gang members and possibly ex and current members of the armed forces," who were then, and continue to target human rights activists in order to maintain impunity and an unjust and patriarchal social order.

“Guatemala's peace-making process never moved into a necessary peace-building process that could assure strong institutions and practices,” the report states. “The government typically fails to conduct investigations or prosecute the perpetrators of women's murders.”

The Guatemalan government's embrace of ex-war criminals and current criminals, combined with the support of international political and business actors, sustains what Rights Action's Russell calls, “an unjust, racist, and violent social order” and “maintaining business as usual and politics as usual.”

Business as Usual

In 1954 the CIA, at the behest of United Fruit Company, coordinated the coup which overthrew democratically-elected president Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. Reasons behind this act include the fact that he rewrote the country's labor code and initiated land reforms, acts deemed unacceptable by United Fruit Company and Washington. The idea of Guatemala being solely a source of cheap labor and a place to extract resources with low costs and even lower oversight has been a continuum in the country's history. The lack of justice and weak governance appears to be seen as a comparative advantage for the country. For example, Amnesty International, in its briefing to the UN this past March, also pointed out how “[t]he failings of the state continue to be relied on by companies, in particular mining companies, who prefer the lower national standard to international human rights standards.”

One example the JASS report points out is Perez Molina's refusal to respect the 55 community consultations held throughout the country in indigenous communities, which overwhelmingly rejected so-called development projects involving mining, oil and hydroelectric dams. According to ILO Convention 169, the international law which Guatemala is a signatory of, indigenous communities must provide free, prior, and informed consent to any projects that would impact their land and communities. Other “failings of the state” include the refusal to investigate and prosecute those responsible for violence against activists who challenge the status quo by demanding that their human rights, such as those enshrined under ILO 169, are recognized and honored.

The JASS delegation led by Menchu and Williams listened to testimony from women who shared stories about the violence during the war and the violence associated with what might be described now as low intensity conflicts surrounding land and resources. Their report stated, “They described that today's intent is subtler: to force communities out of areas where mineral and other types of resources are coveted. But the methods are very similar: rape, murder, imprisonment, division and harassment...Women presented testimonies and evidence of many cases where army and private security presence is associated with putting down local protests against mining operations and other development projects that displace and disrupt communities to exploit natural resources.”

Less than two weeks after the report was released, Yolanda Oqueli Veliz, a community leader from the municipalities of San Jose del Golfo and San Pedro Ayampuc working against the widely unpopular Canadian gold mining project owned by Radius Gold, was shot by assassins and is now in the hospital in critical condition.

While criticism of the Guatemalan State is necessary and warranted, the Canadian government deserves the same treatment. Lawmakers in Ottawa have consistently aided and abetted such behavior by their industry due to what at best could be considered indifference, but is more likely a deliberate disregard for the human rights and environmental rights of communities affected by Canadian mining companies.

A perfect illustration of this was the failure to pass Bill C-300, a modest, if not flawed piece of legislation, which would have empowered the Canadian government to investigate human rights complaints and strip guilty companies from taxpayer subsidies through the Canadian Pension Plan and Export Development Canada. Apparently murder and gang-rapes linked to Canadian mining projects in Guatemala (not to mention similar acts throughout the hemisphere and around the globe) are not enough to encourage lawmakers in Canada to pass legislation that would hold their country's companies accountable for these crimes and human rights abuses.

While women are being targeted for their social justice leadership roles in these conflicts, it is modest progress in the realm of rights and empowerment that has allowed women to assume such roles.

“Since the war ended women's leadership in their communities and with community struggles have increased. More and more women have realized that they have rights and that they must defend their rights. And this is part of the reason why violence against women has increased,” said Moran. “An act of violence against a woman is not just an act against the individual, but against all women. It is a message that if you leave your house, if you continue to organize or raise your voice, that this can happen to you.”

The War on Drugs: Militarization and the Criminalization of Dissent

Nobel Peace Laureate Jody Williams suggested in the JASS report that in Guatemala, “The war on drugs and increased becoming a war on women.”

The report suggests that there is a direct correlation between increasing U.S. military aid and regional security strategies that seek to export the “Plan Colombia” model through Mexico and Central America via policies such as the Merida Initiative and its increasing and disproportionate impact on women.

“Drug-trafficking is being carried out in Guatemala, now, by organized crime. However, many of the people involved in organized crime are also ex- and current politicians, members of the economic elite, high-ranking officers in the Army and Police, members of the judiciary, etc.,” said Russell. “These are some of the same people and sectors that planned and carried out the campaigns of State terrorism and repression against their own population, in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s, in the name of ‘fighting communism' during the Cold War.”

But just like the Cold War wasn't exclusively about fighting communism, the war on drugs also has alternative motives: it serves as a counterinsurgency strategy that seeks to quash any dissent that challenges Northern geopolitical and business interests.

Mario Godínez, university professor, member of the MNR (New Republic Movement) and of the environmental organization Ceiba, which works with mining resistance in Guatemala, told Uruguayan analyst Raul Zibechi last year that this increased “militarism [is] at the service of big multinational firms.”

For example, in May, Perez Molina sent the military and police into the town of Santa Cruz Barillas, Huehuetenango, declaring a “state of siege” after protests, sparked by the murder of a local community leader in the resistance against a hydro-electric dam, resulted in violence. Perez Molina accused the protestors of being narco-traffickers, and recently accused communities resisting mining and dam projects of being part of a conspiracy involving international organizations and the mob. This parrots the strategy of his former superior Rios Montt, who while president dismissed any criticism of his barbaric “counterinsurgency” as being part of an “international communist conspiracy,” with organizations such as Amnesty International being singled out.

The increase in the number of women being targeted is as much a brutal legacy of the past as it is a reaction to the subtle progress being made for women's rights and roles in society.

Walda Barrios-Klee, a former guerrilla who currently is a professor of social sciences and a social investigator at the Latin American School of Social Sciences (FLACSO) in Guatemala's told Toward Freedom that, “In Guatemala it has been proven that as more women participate politically and socially, it brings out more repression. An example is the recent attempt on the life of [the aforementioned anti-mining activist] Yolanda Oquelí.”

The JASS report provides concrete recommendations on how governments and countries can work to address and fix this crisis. “We must try to have an effect in the places where the decisions are made so we can at least have a more humanitarian and responsible way of treating the environment and the people,” said Barrios-Klee, who was also a participant in the JASS fact-finding delegation.

But if history is any indicator, expecting institutionalized changes in Guatemala, as well as in the United States and Canada, may be a fool's errand. DePauw's Kuecker said that this is the legacy of Guatemala's truncated flirtation with democracy and building civil society between 1944-54.

“The 1954 coup meant that Guatemalans would never have the chance to build the institutions and political culture necessary for preventing such atrocities from happening today and assured the continued domination of foreign economic interests,” said Kuecker. “The genocide of the civil war followed by the peace without justice leaves Guatemala with little capacity for exiting this contemporary social crisis, and makes Guatemala exceedingly vulnerable to further domination, manipulation and expropriation by transnational corporations and elites.”

This leaves a colossal task for Guatemala's social movements, which are increasingly led by women. Yet struggling for such justice and peace is necessary for building a democratic and humane social order in Guatemala.