Category Archives: Guatemala

Longing for Justice

Report from IPJ Editor Emiko Noma


When I first caught up with IPJ Woman PeaceMaker Luz Méndez at the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York, I gave her a hug and admired her scarf (we really like scarves around the always-chilly IPJ). It was purple, black and white, and matched beautifully with her outfit — she was distinguished as always. An hour later as I watched a film on the work she has been involved in lately, I realized her accessory was the same worn by one of the 15 indigenous women in Guatemala who made history in September of last year. More on that in a moment.


There is an urgency to this year’s CSW. Perhaps because of the theme: the elimination and prevention of violence against women — a topic which has finally received much more glare from the media as of late. As many as one in three women worldwide will be victims of violence in their lifetimes — an alarming statistic. The chair of the opening session we attended, hosted by UNDP and the Huariou Commission, called attention to the “unprecedented participation” in this year’s commission, including over 6,000 NGOs and their representatives in attendance. There is the urgent sense that this is the time to make change.


But the pressing need for change has been tempered in session after session by a longer view. All week, a quote made famous by Martin Luther King, Jr. kept ringing in my mind: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”


Take the recent timeline of Guatemala and the work of Luz, who spoke on numerous panels, including the IPJ’s, throughout the week:


1960: A brutal internal armed conflict begins, hastened by the CIA-backed overthrow of a democratically elected government. Sexual violence is used as a tactic of war.


1996: Peace accords are signed.


1997: Luz leads the revival of the Unión Nacional de Mujeres Guatemaltecas (UNAMG).


Luz protesting violence against women, along with members of UNAMG

1999: The Historical Clarification Commission documents that 89 percent of the rapes committed during the internal armed conflict were against Mayan women.


2004: Several women’s organizations, including UNAMG, begin to identify and work with women survivors of sexual violence during the war. Soon, the Alianza Rompiendo el Silencío y la Impunidad is formed by UNAMG in partnership with two other organizations.[1] The alliance seeks to strengthen women’s agency through gender awareness raising and psychosocial support, as well as developing litigation strategies and providing technical support in court.


2009: A three-year research project aimed at building historical memory results in the first book of its kind, Tejidos que lleva el alma: Memorias de las mujeres mayas sobrevivientes de violencia sexual durante el conflicto armado,[2] or “Weavings of the Soul: Memories of Maya Women Survivors of Sexual Violence During the Armed Conflict.”


2010: UNAMG and partner organizations hold the Court of Conscience for Women Survivors of Sexual Violence During the Armed Conflict, a strategy to offer its participants access to “symbolic justice.”


And finally, in 2012, the long arc of history for 15 indigenous women kept bending toward justice. The women testified in a pre-trial hearing before the national court in Guatemala, charging that the military held them at a base and kept them for their “recreation.” The women were sexual slaves for six years. These were the first testimonies of their kind to be heard in a national court — an historic moment for the women of Guatemala and an initial step to end impunity for these kinds of crimes, but one that was years in the making.


For those whose lives are now being destroyed by rampant sexual violence, however, the King quote offers little consolation. As one participant remarked in a session on grassroots communities accessing justice, “If you want to make a quick change, make a law.” There is no guarantee that law will be implemented. How can these women get justice now? Is the hope of justice in the long arc of the moral universe enough?


(l-r) Elisabeth Rehn of Finland, IPJ Interim Executive Director Dee Aker, Luz Méndez, and IPJ Program Officer Jennifer Freeman at the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women

Throughout the week, our minds were also in Kenya, where ICC-indicted politicians were leading in the polls, where our colleague and our peacemaker from Sierra Leone monitored the election and count, and where three of our peacemakers were doing their part to keep the peace. For the victims of the 2007-8 electoral violence — and for those who experienced sexual abuse and rape as part of that period of violence — have they found any justice? When can they expect it? Can they assume they will get it if their next president and his running mate are wanted for crimes against humanity by the ICC?


And what does justice even mean for those survivors? “For many years sexual violence against women was the hidden dimension of the war in Guatemala,” Luz explained. “When we began to break the silence on those crimes, the group of 15 indigenous women courageously stressed, ‘We don’t want to die without getting justice.’” Justice for the indigenous women who testified was two-fold: that they could speak publicly about the crimes committed against them, and that the crimes would never happen again.
Justice means different things to different survivors, but just as long as the arc may be will be the longing for that justice. As Luz reiterates, “We all know that we still have a hard road to walk. However, it is the survivors’ tenacity, together with the alliance’s strong determination to achieve gender justice and gender equality, that is the source of our hope and strength” — which is why Luz wore the scarf of the indigenous women all week long.

[1] Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y Acción Psicosocial (ECAP) and Mujeres Transformando el Mundo (MTM).

[2] Fulchiron, A., et al (2009). Tejidos que lleva el alma: Memorias de las mujeres mayas sobrevivientes de violencia sexual durante el conflicto armado. Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y Acción Psicosocial, Unión Nacional de Mujeres Guatemaltecas. Guatemala: F&G Editores.

Celebrating International Women’s Day in Guatemala

March 8, 2012
Report from IPJ Executive Director Milburn Line


The people of San Felipe Chenla, a Mayan Ixil community in Guatemala’s Cotzal municipality, were waiting for us even though we had arrived early. The Sister Barbara Ford Peace Center and IPJ’s modest justice project in Guatemala celebrated International Women’s Day with 300 members of a village and region that has known violent conflict and discrimination all too well.


This region was one of the last to hold out against Spanish conquest in the early 1500s. When the Guatemalan Army implemented a scorched earth genocidal campaign in Mayan communities during the armed conflict (1960-1996), San Felipe was designated a “model village” — an extreme form of social control in which the Guatemalan military converted Mayan communities into concentration camps. Even today San Felipe’s residents are involved in a struggle to ensure that a local multinational hydroelectric project complies with national standards for prior consultation with the community.


Given the almost absolute impunity for crime in Guatemala, justice efforts are usually a woeful endeavor. As part of our project’s legal empowerment strategy to build grassroots connections to justice agencies, the project has worked to find ways to connect to local populations through justice festivals, programs to support Mayan restorative justice practices, public radio programs and today’s celebration in San Felipe Chenla.


Ixil women leaders addressing the community of San Felipe Chenla

Those of us who spoke in Spanish were received warmly by the community, but you could hear a pin drop during the presentations by the most inspiring members of our delegation: women leaders originally from the Ixil region, including the judge of Cotzal and the regional representative of the Presidential Commission for Human Rights, who addressed the participants directly in the Ixil language without our needs for interpretation. Together with a second female judge in nearby Nebaj, these women leaders have become part of a core group of officials working closely with our project to strengthen Mayan communities’ access to justice in northern Quiché.


Guatemalan women have long been at the forefront of efforts for peace and justice. Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchu, who spoke at USD in 2010, has probably done more than any other person to bring the world’s attention to the discrimination and genocide committed against Mayans in Guatemala. IPJ Woman PeaceMaker Luz Méndez participated in the country’s peace negotiations and has since worked to end impunity for sexual violence during the armed conflict. Helen Mack won the Right Livelihood Award, the Alternative Nobel Prize, for her efforts to obtain justice for the Guatemalan Army’s murder of her sister Myrna, an anthropologist who worked to expose the army’s mistreatment of displaced Mayan communities in the Ixil region. She has since led an initiative to reform the police.


Sister Virginia Searing, founder of the Sister Barbara Ford Peace Center, speaking at the International Women's Day celebration

Today both the vice president of Guatemala and the president of the Guatemalan Supreme Court are women. There are more than 300 female judges, and Guatemala’s first female attorney general continues to lead prosecutions of historic human rights violations and address the growing specter of crimes against women known as femicide. The challenges of gender violence and discrimination remain immense, but the efforts of women leaders in villages like San Felipe Chenla and at the highest levels of the State offer a historic opportunity to finally realize the full democratic potential of Guatemala.


Our justice project will continue to work in San Felipe Chenla on a variety of conflict issues, with a committed group of women leaders. One of the participants in this effort told us this was the first time they had celebrated International Women’s Day in San Felipe Chenla. It will not be the last.


Overcoming a Dark History of Conflict: A Guatemala Update

It’s hard to reconcile our meeting today with 59 community leaders with what I know about San Juan Cotzal. Contrasting the simple hospitality and respectful welcome of villagers with the terribly long and not so distant history of conflict in this remote town of Ixil Mayans goes to the heart of our legal empowerment project’s efforts here in Guatemala.


The Spanish subjugated this area of the Cuchumatanes mountains in 1530 after a bloody six-year campaign. Local indigenous populations were then decimated by the smallpox and pulmonary plague that the Spanish brought with them. Colonial administrators noted the difficulty of controlling this region given the dispersed populations. Following a new land titling system in 1871, the Mayans of Cotzal lost between one-third and one-half of their communal lands to Ladinos (mestizos) from other parts of Guatemala. And in 1976, Father Bill Woods, a priest from Texas who had bought land for Mayan peasants, was murdered when the Guatemalan Army detonated his plane flying over Cotzal.


San Juan Cotzal

San Juan Cotzal - photo courtesy of Poldavo (Alex)

The Guatemalan Truth Commission documents a paradigmatic case of the Guatemalan Army surrounding and annihilating the village of Chisis, Cotzal in February 1982. The army killed up to 200 men, women and children, raping the women before murdering them and then burning the houses and cadavers, as part of planned demonstration killings to impede civilian support for the insurgency. Then in March, General Efraín Ríos Montt seized control of the government and continued his predecessor’s genocidal scorched earth policy of attacks on Mayan communities. Despite U.S. State Department and CIA cables recognizing that Guatemalan security forces were not distinguishing between the insurgency and civilian populations, President Ronald Reagan told the press in December that same year that General Ríos Montt was “totally dedicated to democracy” and that his de facto government had been “getting a bum rap.”


That dark history of conflict continues to the present. Since the 1996 Peace Accords, local populations have taken justice into their own hands in thousands of cases of lynchings across Guatemala. In November 2009, the Mayor of Cotzal, who is still hiding from justice authorities, allegedly led the public torture and execution of a policeman in the town square.


Our workshop on human rights with community leaders is taking place on a patio just above that square. We are here to begin supporting a process of engaging justice authorities and local communities together on justice challenges. This will not be easy in a country where the judiciary and public prosecutors have little success and little credibility – or in places like Cotzal where the history of violence and injustice are simply overwhelming. Our little project will not transcend the understandable frustration and history of unresponsive state institutions that, far from fulfilling the rights of the local Ixil population, have worked to take away their land and, at times, exercised tremendous violence upon them. But it is a start. And we have seen other projects in Guatemala where a strategy of collaboration between civil society and justice agencies has led to resolving cases.


We are accompanied by two representatives of the State: the regional representative of the Presidential Commission on Human Rights and the Cotzal Justice of the Peace. Both are women. They are addressing a group of the kinds of local community leaders – auxiliary mayors, heads of local development councils and indigenous mayors – noted for usurping power beyond their constitutional authority and perpetrating violence on their communities. These community leaders are all men.


As our meeting proceeds, the community leaders, some who had to have been present during the lynching in 2009, ask tough questions about what the Constitution allows them to do and what has to be adjudicated by the formal authorities. The female representatives explain – one in fluent Ixil – the rights and responsibilities and constitutional roles of all present. Everyone is respectful and attentive. The community leaders insist on a more extended training process – our chance to enter into the details of conflict resolution in Cotzal.


I know we are just beginning to construct a relationship that will hopefully help build the social trust necessary to adjudicate conflict. The challenge is nothing short of historic, but giving people the tools to address violence and injustice here in Cotzal is the only way forward.


To follow the progress of our Legal Empowerment in Quiché Project, go to

Milburn Line is executive director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice at the University of San Diego and is currently in Quiché, Guatemala.


Book Review – “Escaping the Fire”

By IPJ Program Officer Elena McCollim

Escaping the Fire: How an Ixil Mayan Pastor Led His People out of a Holocaust during the Guatemalan Civil War

By Tomás Guzaro and Terri Jacob McComb
University of Texas Press, 2010

In August 1982 at the peak of the violence in Guatemala’s highlands, an Ixil leader led 200 of his people out of their village where they were increasingly in danger for their lives, through rugged mountain terrain and ultimately to safety. Another 1,700 soon followed. The village they fled was under the control of leftist guerrillas, and the place he led them to was a refugee camp under army control.

Tomás Guzaro’s autobiographical account of these events runs startlingly counter to the more familiar narrative of the war years, and deserves to be read and grappled with for that reason if no other. A deeply devout evangelical pastor, Guzaro asserts his neutrality regarding the two contending forces, army and guerrilla. Yet the de facto effect of his actions was to deprive a principal guerrilla faction of support. His account of life under guerrilla control abounds with denunciations of it. In contrast, his description of his subsequent years in the town of Nebaj, the principal of the three towns in what was then called the Ixil Triangle, is one of comparative peace, even though the town was essentially following the notorious model village/development pole pattern used by the army to forcibly pacify the highlands: service in the “voluntary” civil defense patrols required of all able-bodied men, a strictly regimented way of life and anti-communist political indoctrination.

The events chronicled in this account were briefly mentioned in David Stoll’s Between Two Armies in the Ixil Towns of Guatemala.[i] They took place in the department of Quiché, where 344 out of 669 massacres took place during the peak of the genocidal civil war in Guatemala, the majority of which were committed by the army. [ii] In Escaping the Fire, Guzaro gives us a highly personal narrative of intense emotions and collective action in search of peace and security in the midst of this horrifying conflict.

The book pivots on the question of how Mayans in one community perceived the guerrilla movement and whether their initial support of it was voluntary or forced, and to what extent their defection to the army was a product of desperation or ideological affinity. The book also touches on themes of judgment versus reconciliation, or at least coexistence; whether government legitimacy rests more on providing security or justice; the role of religion in economic advancement; and finally the validity of testimonio, that classically Latin American literary form.

The first-time visitor to the highlands of Guatemala may be startled to see the logo of the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) seemingly on every tree and lamppost. After all, the right-wing FRG was founded in 1990 by Efraín Ríos Montt, who as general from 1982 to 1983 presided over some of the worst of the genocide in those very highlands.[iii] But the choices presented to Mayans during that period were stark. The overwhelming ferocity with which the Guatemalan army responded to popular organizing and guerrilla activity forced some into the mountains, where they became part of the legendary Communities of Population in Resistance, remaining there for years. Others accepted the amnesty offered by Ríos Montt even though it meant living in model villages and serving in civil patrols. The latter was the choice made by Guzaro and the villagers who followed him.

Escaping the Fire is a compelling if in many ways difficult account of faith, survival and ultimate flourishing despite great suffering. As an alternate account of a crucial period in Guatemala’s recent history, it is highly worthwhile. It is recommended reading for anyone wishing to grapple with the complexity of responses to the war and a challenging postwar environment.

For the full book review, please contact Elena McCollim at

[i] Stoll, D. (1993). Between Two Armies in the Ixil Towns of Guatemala. New York: Columbia University Press. Stoll’s later book, Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of all Poor Guatemalans, provoked a well-known controversy when it was published in 1999. This review is not the space to revisit that controversy, except to acknowledge the contrasting political perspective and experiences of Guzaro and Menchú – differences that mirror some larger splits in a divided society.

[ii] Commission on Historical Clarification, 1999, Guatemala: Memory of Silence. Available at: [Accessed July 30, 2010.] According to the CEH report, 93 percent of human rights violations were committed by agents of the state; 3 percent by the guerrillas; and 4 percent by civilian elements or other armed groups.

[iii] Ríos Montt stands today accused of genocide before a Spanish court. The Guatemala Genocide Case. Center for Justice and Accountability. [Online] Available at [Accessed July 30, 2010].

IPJ’s Guatemala Legal Empowerment Project: An update from Quiché

Returning to Guatemala’s highlands always brings on mixed emotions – which usually end up making me want to stay here and work on justice issues for the rest of my life. Caught between knowledge of the unspeakable cruelty of the last 50 years and the vibrancy and resilience of people still working to achieve justice despite an egregious experience of repression, I find myself wondering: What can we realistically expect from our small project?

The IPJ is very fortunate to have been awarded State Department support to work with a local partner, the Barbara Ford Peace Center in Santa Cruz del Quiché. The Quiché department was the site of the worst violence during Guatemala’s civil war, and the legacies of impunity and violence are evident to this day. As we started our project in August, the regional drug lord was gunned down on the streets of Santa Cruz. The government of Guatemala has declared a state of siege in the department of Alta Verapaz, immediately east of Quiché, and deployed the army in Huehuetenango, immediately west of Quiché, to try to stem the drug violence encroaching southward from Mexico. Guatemala vies with El Salvador and Honduras for the highest murder rate in the world – significantly worse than Mexico – and 98 percent of crimes go unprosecuted. And this may get worse as we go deeper into a highly contested presidential election year.

Our legal empowerment project in Quiché has spent the first six months investing in planning and relationship building – and it is an investment because so many projects start with recipes developed in capital cities that have little to do with realities on the ground. We have been working with locals to define how best to address current justice challenges like rampant violence against women, abuse of authority and conflicts at the community level that often result in lynching.

We began with a baseline survey in August and September to define the panorama of justice needs according to the priorities of locals. The project then organized a participatory strategic planning process with key actors in the justice sector and civil society in November and December. Now we are ready to put an operational plan together.

As I sit down with the team at the Barbara Ford Peace Center, they have handed me a welcome surprise, something they hadn’t told me about beforehand: a seven-page draft of a work plan with 17 activities they have designed based on all our efforts to date. It may sound strange to be excited about a work plan, but the next few days are going to fly by as we shape an ambitious strategy into concrete initiatives. What could be more rewarding than the opportunity to accompany these people in pursuit of justice in Quiché?

To follow the progress of our Guatemala Legal Empowerment Project or see a summary of the Quiché baseline survey, go to

Milburn Line is executive director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice at the University of San Diego and is currently in Quiché, Guatemala.