Breaking the Cycle of Impunity in Guatemala

Who will police the police?

Saturday 14 March 2009, by Fabienne Doiron, Laurence Guénette

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Juana Mendez is an indigenous Mayan
and mother of 11 children. Illiterate
and speaking only K’iche’, she lives
below the poverty line in a rural area
of Guatemala. Following the discovery
of opium plants near her home in
December of 2004, Juana was arrested
and arbitrarily imprisoned. One month
after her arrest, she was brought to
the Nebaj regional police station in the
province of Quiché, where she spent the
night before making her first statement
in court the next day. During the night,
at least two intoxicated police officers
sexually assaulted her, threatening her
life in order to keep her silent.

Despite their threats, Juana denounced
them the next day. After an investigation
marked by attacks and intimidation, the
rape trial began more than three years
later in February of 2008. A police
officer was accused of rape and abuse
of authority. On April 16 2008, for the
first time ever, an officer of the National
Police was found guilty of raping a
prisoner; he was sentenced to 20 years
in prison. The other officer accused is
still on the run. The charges against
Juana were eventually dropped for lack
of evidence.

Widespread Abuse and Impunity

Such assaults are widespread in
Guatemala: approximately three out
of four female prisoners are victims
of sexual abuse by police officers or
prison guards. Although nearly half of
the victims denounce their abusers,
prior to 2007, no charges had ever been
pressed against a police officer for
having raped a prisoner. The widespread
impunity in Guatemala applies to all
violations of women’s rights. Less than
one percent of women’s murders end in
trials and only sixty percent of cases are
investigated. Furthermore, the lack of
access to justice is exacerbated when
the victims are from Mayan, rural, and
poor communities.

For many years, Guatemala has ranked
first in the Americas in terms of feminicide.
The Centre for Human Rights Legal
Action (CALDH) defines this term as “a
combination of repeated and systematic
violations of women’s rights and a state of
misogynist violence resulting in assaults,
attacks, abuse, and in the most extreme
cases, the brutal murder of women.”
Since 2001, approximately 4,000
women have died from acts of violence.

The majority of the victims showed signs
of torture and/or sexual assault.
Feminicide and impunity are the legacy
of the country’s armed internal conflict
(1960-1996); throughout this conflict,
Mayan women were considered
enemies of the anti-insurrectionist and
genocidal Guatemalan state due to their
contributions to the physical and cultural
reproduction of Mayan society. Most
female victims suffered sexual abuse
and torture, and the majority of these
unpunished assaults were committed
by the Guatemalan army.

Juana Mendez demonstrated
uncommon strength in her 3-year
pursuit of justice. Her efforts finally
put an end to the ongoing cycle of
impunity. “I want justice to be done,”
she proclaims, “I don’t want any other
women to live what I lived, because it’s
an injustice.”

The numerous women’s organizations
that supported Juana also hope that the
trial and its verdict will help bring an end
to impunity. In a country where violence
against women is so pronounced, this
is a critical precedent. It will, however,
not lead to significant change without
the will of the Guatemalan state, which
for the time being fails to take sufficient
action to improve justice and respect for
women’s rights.

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