Dianne Post: In Guatemala, women at the fore in seeking genocide justice & defending their land Print E-mail

Women in Resistance:  Seeking justice for genocide and defending our lands

By Dianne Post 6 September 2013

“Cuando se llega lo peor; cuando la situacion es tan deseperante y tan irrespirable que ni siquiera se puede pedir a los heroes que sean heroes; cuando toda Resistencia es un suicidio, entonces, justo entonces, en fin, en el filo de la aniquilación, son sobre todo las mujeres quienes dan un paso hacia adelante.” Rosa Montero – escritora Espanola

When it gets worse, when the situation is so desperate and so unbearable that you can’t ask the heroes to be heroes, when all resistance is suicide, then, just then, finally, on the edge of annihilation, are mostly women who take a step forward.
That certainly seems to be the situation in Guatemala today.  After a 36-year-long civil war that ended in 1996 with the signing of the Peace Accords, the country is experiencing a frightening slip back into militarization.  The U.S. backed war from 1960-1996 sought to eliminate the leftist insurgency through the military’s “scorched earth campaign” that ordered more than 626 massacres of Mayan villages across the country between 1978 and 1984. More than 200,000 people were killed or disappeared at the hands of the military and paramilitary forces. Not until 2010, when a woman prosecutor was appointed, Claudia Paz y Paz, did trials start for war crimes.  

But since January 2012, when Otto Perez Molina, a retired military officer and former Director of Military Intelligence, became President, violence has now reached levels higher than those during the country’s civil war and impunity continues to reign.  Violence against women in Guatemala has increased exponentially over the last several years, with a 339% increase between 2000 and 2008.  Women are often found tortured, mutilated, raped, and dismembered. Yet more strikingly, 98% of those cases remain unsolved.

Recent trends indicate the beginning of a return to violent rule by military and commercial interests. Attacks on human rights defenders, including prosecutors and journalists, have increased 681% from 2000 to 2011.  Only 2% were prosecuted.  The groups most attacked are indigenous people, especially those protecting the environment.  

When Yolanda Oqueli, a 43-year-old business woman with a husband and two children, heard that Kappess, Cassiday and Associates, a U.S. mining company, intended to open a gold mine on indigenous property, she and a few friends drove their cars to the entry and blocked it – eighteen months ago. An assassination attempt was made against Yolanda and she lives today with a bullet lodged near her spine.  The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) granted her precautionary measures and the government has to provide her with round-the-clock armed guards.  
After a monthly mass at the mining site, La Puya, we asked Yolanda why so many human rights leaders in Guatemala are women.  “People think our culture is machismo.  We think it’s machista,” she laughed.  


The K’iche’ People’s Council led by Lolita Chavez Ixcaquic, who also has precautionary measures because of an attempted assassination against her, represents eighty-seven Mayan communities in a very democratic process.  They have unanimously rejected mining and hydro-electric projects.  The companies offered to pay them a higher percent of profits, failing completely to understand that the reason for the rejection is not money but the refusal to allow destruction of the earth both for religious and survival reasons.  

Battered Women
Juana Baca Velasco, the leader of La Red De Mujeres Ixiles is also under precautionary measures because of threats. La Red has grown to a network of nine organizations and 352 women since 2006.  They run a battered women’s shelter that consists of mattresses thrown on the cement floor of a large meeting room in Nebaj. The women have a talk and information radio program on the Catholic station called “Peeling Potatoes”. They feel that women listen to other women when they are doing normal, household tasks i.e. peeling potatoes.

At another battered women’s shelter, Association of Women Generating Equality, Leadership and Opportunities, in Chimaltenango, the office was robbed in 2012, but the police have done nothing about it.  The director, Donessa Ortiz, told us that because of attacks, they have had to build a wall and install gates.  


The Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH) was a co-prosecutor of General Efrain Rios Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity. The Montt trial was extremely important and received international attention because it was the first time that a military leader was prosecuted for war crimes in his own country by his own courts.   

Holding the book that contains all the trial testimony and the verdict.  

The prosecution had 101 witnesses, including forty forensic experts, and more than a dozen Mayan women who testified about systemic rape as a war crime.  The defense attorneys asked no questions of the women.  But when a military officer, testifying from hiding, mentioned the current president, Otto Perez Molina, as involved in the genocide, things came to a screeching halt.  The Constitutional Court intervened and ordered the trial stopped.  The five-judge panel hearing the case refused because the order was not only jurisdictionally incorrect, it was unlawful.  

After rendering a verdict of guilty and sentencing Montt to eighty years, the Constitutional Court invalidated the verdict. The chief judge, a woman, and two other judges who voted for guilt have since been granted precautionary measures by the IACHR because of threats against their lives.

CALDH and Movemiento de Victimas had worked in the Mayan communities and organized the testimony of genocide and rape survivors.  We were privileged to listen to the testimonies of five of the women. The women told us how their life had been before the military came, what it was like during the war, what happened to them and their families, how they felt today, how they felt about the trial of Montt, and whether testifying had been positive or negative.  

All of them had had what they called good lives before the military came.  All of them were chased further and further into the mountains by the military who burned their houses, killed their animals and destroyed their crops.  The first woman outlined the sixteen members of her family that were killed or died of starvation or privation in the mountains.  She was angry about her testimony now that Montt has returned home, a free man. The second woman lost three children but felt calmer after her testimony regardless of the legal reversal.  The third watched her two daughters starve in the mountains and remained bitter about the trial.  The fourth woman, a very tiny person probably half my size, watched the military burn two children alive inside a home.  She was captured twice and tortured but said her husband was dead and refused to give any information.  The last woman who spoke was captured, tortured and raped and then made to serve the military commander because she was so pretty.  She is still pretty today but her pain is written on the scars on her leg, the scars under her fingernails where they stuck needles, and the scars in her heart.  She, and some of the other woman, had never told their current husbands that they had been raped.  The husbands first learned of it by listening to testimony at the tribunal.  As in every culture, men do the raping but women bear the shame.


At El Cotzel we talked to Juana Sanchez of the group Flor de Maguey, a group of widows from three towns. Ten of them testified in the Montt trial. Her husband was murdered, her mother tortured and herself captured.  The soldiers said they were to, “get rid of the trash in these towns” or  “you are (to be) taken out with the trash.”  The woman are getting too old to work the fields, if they have any, and want their reparations which they have never received.  Every woman we spoke to repeated the failure of justice theme.

Human Rights Organizations
Women also are the leaders in the human rights organizations. The National Union of Guatemalan Women was founded in 1980 but the founders were kidnapped, tortured and murdered and the members fled to Mexico during the war.  In 2010, they organized a Tribunal of Conscience that was a mock trial of the genocide against Mayan women.  Today, they are focusing on exposing the issue of sexual violence as a weapon of war, reparations and resistance to mining.

The Human Rights Defenders Unit, also run by a woman, investigates abuses, accompanies the victims, trains others and keeps statistics to educate and support legal cases.  They documented an increase in the number of women murdered from 213 in  2000 to a high of 720 in 2009.  Since then, the numbers have slightly decreased to 560 in 2012.   Unfortunately, it looks like the numbers might increase again in 2013.

A woman also heads Security in Democracy, a group that focuses on police and military reform.  While the constitution separates military and police, it allows for a procedure for them to patrol jointly with a judicial decree – which the current president requested.  Seeing soldiers patrolling their streets terrifies the Mayan population who were targeted by that same military for thirty-six years. 

On our last day, we had lunch at Casa Artesana, the first feminist cooperative founded in 2006 by Andrea Barrios and Sandra Moran.  They work with women in prison and re-entry and do art therapy.  Because of police harassment, they were forced to close the café to the public, install gates, locks and a security camera.  

The café was a good choice for our last stop.  While recognizing the pain and problems, Sandra Moran gave an impassioned presentation that we should not just remember the pain.  She said that the people’s strength in Guatemala is rising, they have the spirit, hope and strength to defend their land; people act on sadness but on joy too.  She emphasized that “we are not overcome, we are rising, especially young women”.

Your turn 
 I’m not sure that facing what they do, I could be so positive.  But as feminists, we know we can never stop.  What can you do?  You can sign up for email action alerts from GCHR (http://www.ghrc-usa.org). You can write to the mining company, Kappess, Cassiday and Associates, , and tell them to stop their efforts to build a mine on indigenous territory. A Canadian company, Hudbay Minerals, is being sued by Mayan Qeqchi plaintiffs for systematic rapes of women by their security guards that occurred near El Estor. Write them at If you are in the United States, you can tell our government not to give any military aid to Guatemala because it is using it to suppress the citizens.  Each of us can do one thing.  It means a lot.

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Dianne Post is an attorney who has spent eighteen years working with battered women and children and fifteen working on international human rights.  She was a participant in August 2013 with a delegation for the Guatemala Commission for Human Rights (GCHR), a non-profit, grassroots, solidarity organization dedicated to promoting human rights.