While national scandals exposing corrupt police and politicians continue to rattle Guatemala in this election year, one particular case of police abuse has less publicly shaken the lives of all those connected to it. Over the months that my co-workers and I have accompanied this case, it has affected each and every one of us in profound ways.
World Views publishes stories, reflection and analysis with an international perspective and a Minnesota connection. This story comes to us from Carrie Stengel, a Minnesotan who has spent the past year in Guatemala as a human rights accompanier.
The first time I met Doña Juana, she had just come out of a psychological evaluation with the Public Prosecutor’s Office (Ministerio Público). There in a hospital room, she had once again recounted the story of her rape in a Nebaj jail, while the prosecutor voiced doubts that Doña Juana’s interpreter was translating accurately and objectively. I sat next to Doña Juana as we accompanied her home. We didn’t say much. I just quietly offered her some of my peanuts as the smallest attempt at empathy.
Doña Juana, a 42-year-old Maya Quiché woman, the mother of 11, and a grandmother, was originally arrested in December of 2004 because her house is close to a marijuana field. On January 17, 2005, she was transferred to the detention center in Nebaj, where police officers raped her at gunpoint repeatedly through the night and then forced her to bathe. At her hearing the following day, standing before the judge in this small highland town, she publicly denounced her abusers.
In the case of her own arrest, Doña Juana’s crime was reduced to a cover-up and she was released. The case of her rape, on the other hand, is still slowly making its way through the court system. Only one of the accused is in custody, even though the police’s own disciplinary tribunal found two of the officers involved guilty of torture. Since September of 2006, the Institute for Comparative Studies in Criminal Sciences in Guatemala (ICCPG) has been providing legal assistance as part of efforts to push the case forward.
In May, the public prosecutor in charge of the case decided to officially file charges against the officer in custody, making this the first time in Guatemalan history that a police officer could be tried for the rape of a prisoner.
The precedent is concerning considering the possibly high rate of abuse in detention centers. In a recent study, the ICCPG found that 72% of women in one pre-trial detention center were victims of violence at the hands of the authorities. Last year when I met the then Vice Minister of the Interior, someone in our group asked him if this statistic could be accurate for all female prisoners. The frankness of his answer caught us off guard: “It wouldn’t surprise me,” he told us.
Impunity for violence against women committed by state agents is, unfortunately, nothing new in Guatemala. During the civil war, sexual violence was systematically used by some members of the military and civil patrols. Sexual assault was so common in certain highland areas that one official later said that it would be difficult to find a Maya girl aged 11- 15 in his region that had not been raped. No one has ever been held accountable for the vast majority of these crimes.
Confronting this legacy of impunity has not been easy and the precedent set by Doña Juana’s case has come at a high price for those involved. Potential witnesses, human rights workers supporting the case, and Doña Juana herself have all been threatened.
Over the past six months, ICCPG staff members have been the victims of increasingly serious acts of intimidation, including surveillance, wiretapping, and direct threats. In February of this year, a staff member’s house was broken into; on her daughter’s bed, she found a doll with tape over its mouth. In April, a member of the technical support staff was temporarily abducted. Before releasing him, his abductors told him that, if he and his colleagues continued, they would “start cutting off heads.” We started accompanying the ICCPG and Doña Juana in late April, about the same time that another staff member’s car was pulled over by armed men who told her, “This was the last warning.”
Not long after this incident, I accompanied the ICCPG and Doña Juana to the Public Prosecutor’s Office. I tried to imagine the psychological impact of walking into a building full of police officers, surrounded by police cars with guards at every entrance. “For a long time, her whole body would tense up every time she saw a police officer in uniform,” a woman from the ICCPG told me of Doña Juana. I wondered how it felt for Doña Juana to give her testimony yet again that day, only to have the prosecutor hesitate to press charges for lack of evidence at the time.
Less than one week later, she would identify her perpetrator in a lineup, providing evidence the prosecutor could not ignore. Immediately afterward, she described the incident in the jail where it took place, while her perpetrator watched from his cell. As a woman from the ICCPG pointed out to me, the system here re-victimizes the victim over and over again.
Watching Doña Juana, I can understand how indigenous women living in rural areas have become one of the sectors of the population with the least access to Guatemala ’s legal system. Before her arrest, Doña Juana had never left her community. Although now separated from her family and her home, she continues to struggle for justice within the very system that is responsible for her victimization. “I am not afraid,” she has insisted, “I want justice because I want to heal.” I agree full-heartedly with the woman from the ICCPG who told me, “We have learned so much from her.”
Next week will be my last as an accompanier this time around. In this full moment, I thank all those who have shown me hope and determination: the women like Doña Juana, the communities resisting the dam, the soldiers speaking out against war, my relatives battling illness back home, the migrants denouncing raids, the parents raising bad ass kids, the artists and musicians, and everyone in my life who reminds me to keep laughing and loving.