Category Archives: Guatemala

Woman PeaceMaker Reflects on the Historic Trial on Sexual Slavery in Guatemala

Mendez, on left, with Nobel Peace Laureates Jody Williams and Rigoberta Menchu

Mendez, on left, with Nobel Peace Laureates Jody Williams and Rigoberta Menchu at the trial in February

On February 26, 2016, two former military officials in Guatemala were convicted of sexual violence and domestic and sexual slavery during the armed conflict in Guatemala. The case was brought by 15 Mayan Q’eqchi’ women from the region of Sepur Zarco. This is an historic judgment — the first time the state of Guatemala has prosecuted a case of sexual violence related to the war.

Woman PeaceMaker Luz Mendez and her organization Unión Nacional de Mujeres Guatemaltecas   (UNAMG) have been involved for more than a decade to achieve justice in this case.

Mendez spoke by Skype with IPJ Interns Ariel Leuthard and Sophia Shetterly on Monday, March 7, to discuss the case.

Q: How long has this fight for justice for the survivors of Sepur Zarco been going on?

A: Well, this road to justice began in 2003. When some women from women’s and feminist and human rights organizations — I was part of that small group — decided to act against the silence surrounding sexual violence against women during the war. The truth commission reported that rape and other forms of sexual violence were used in a generalized and massive way against mainly indigenous women. A deep silence came after that. The truth commission reported atrocities committed against women, but the same report recognized that sexual violence against women was underreported.

We decided to do something in order to bring those horrible crimes to the public, first of all, to render a type of recognition to the women survivors but also as a way to avoid those crimes being committed in current times. So that was the beginning of a long process of women organizing in groups made by women only, groups made by survivors of sexual violence in the war. That was the beginning for them to break the silence.

It was also a space in which they could receive support from social organizations, in terms of psychosocial support and gender equality training. This training gave them the opportunity to think about rape and sexual violence in general terms, not as something that happened for any reason to them, but as a huge human rights violation that was very much rooted in the patriarchal system, in the Guatemalan military’s counterinsurgent policy and also in racism against indigenous women.

The women began to ask for formal justice and the organizations that accompanied them were hesitant in the very beginning because we couldn’t find the political conditions to achieve that justice so we had to wait for some time. But finally, we were all able to begin the formal demand of penal justice. This is just in general terms how the road was. Of course, there is much more that needs to be said, but this is just to give you an idea that the road to the sentence we got a few days ago wasn’t easy.

Q: What does the Sepur Zarco case mean for other cases of this nature in Guatemala and even in other countries, especially in Latin America?

A: The sentence we got in this case was meaningful. First of all, through this legal process, not only did the Sepur Zarco women achieve justice, but also it meant that we were able to break the total impunity for sexual violence during the war. This is the first one in the country’s history. And, as far as we know, it is the first one in Latin America as well. So it will give hope to other women in Guatemala and Latin America that it could be possible to achieve justice in other cases.

This is important because the Sepur Zarco case is only a small sample of what happened in the whole country during the war in Guatemala. There are some cases that have been presented in Guatemalan court, not as advanced as the case of Sepur Zarco. So, there is a sense of hope for many, many women in the country, in Latin America, and, as far as we know, also in many other countries, especially those countries affected by wars right now.

Mendez demonstrating with UNAMG on International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, in 2006

Mendez demonstrating with UNAMG on International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, in 2006

Q: You and your organization, Unión Nacional de Mujeres Guatemaltecas (UNAMG), were heavily involved in this case. Could you elaborate on the role UNAMG played?

A: Yes, the UNAMG has been part of the alliances that have been built to support the Sepur Zarco women. And, not just these women but also all women that have been victims of sexual violence in war time in other Guatemalan regions. We are part of the alliance called Women Breaking Silence and Impunity, made up of three organizations: UNAMG, which I am a part of, has been working in gender equality training and supporting women to create alliances; Mujeres Transformando el Mundo, which is made up of lawyers and they have been leading the legal strategy; and the third organization called Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y Accion Psicosocial has been providing the psychosocial support to these women.

UNAMG as well as Mujeres Transformando el Mundo have been plaintiffs in this case. Another plaintiff is an organization created by the victims themselves called Jalok U, it’s a Q’eqchi’ name. So there are three plaintiffs to this legal case.

Q: The testimony of the survivors was so important in this case, especially due to a lack of much physical evidence. What did these women do to prepare to give their testimony in a court where they don’t speak the language?

A: They were very much prepared for their testimony, because the legal part of this whole process is the last part. They have gone through a lot of activities, and they have been giving their testimonies for a long time. For example, they gave their testimonies in 2010 in a Tribunal of Conscience, as a symbolic justice mechanism. That paved the way for them to be able to speak in a formal tribunal. So they were very much prepared.

I would also like to mention that, in 2012, we asked the court to listen to the women’s testimonies in advance — the formal trial had not begun yet. As the women are elderly and many of them are very sick, the judge accepted to hear the testimonies in a preliminary way. So this year, when the formal trial took place, the women were not obliged to testify again. The videos of the testimonies were presented in court. That was very important for them, because one of the victims died three years ago, and the ones that were there in court knew they did not have to repeat the same story. So that was really important.

Q: There were more perpetrators than just the two men in this case, Esteelmer Reyes Girón and Heriberto Valdéz Asig. Will others be charged as well in relation to the events at Sepur Zarco?

A: Well, you are right. Many other people were involved as responsible in this case. And the names came forward in the trial — names of soldiers, names of officers, names of owners of the farms and people who helped the army perpetrate those crimes. However, as this particular trial is over, now it is the responsibility of the federal prosecutor’s office to continue investigating.

Q: What is next for you and these survivors?

A: We will continue supporting them because we are very aware that the political atmosphere is very insecure for them. These women live in very remote communities that are very hard to get to. They are beautiful places, full of lakes and rivers and mountains, but without the proper infrastructure to get there. To get to these communities, we have to pass through rivers without bridges. The car has to go through the river — actually it’s really dangerous and risky to do that.

In addition, several of the perpetrators live in the same communities [as these women]. So, we will continue to accompany them after the trial. There are many things to do. For example, some of the consequences of the sexual violence, especially the consequences of the sexual slavery of those women, were that the women were stigmatized and ostracized in their own communities. So we, as an alliance, are working to explain to the populations of these communities that these women are not guilty, that they were victims. And now we have the sentence issued by the tribunal in our hands to show them.

So, we, together with the women, have to continue working to educate the communities, and especially the younger generations, the grandchildren of these women and many other women who have survived sexual violence need to be educated. We have a lot to do concerning this group and concerning many other communities in Guatemala.

Mendez with her fellow Women PeaceMakers from 2004, Christiana Thorpe, Shreen Saroor and Zarina Salamat

Mendez with her fellow Women PeaceMakers from 2004, Christiana Thorpe, Shreen Saroor and Zarina Salamat

Q: For these women, justice meant telling their stories publicly and ensuring that something like this could never happen again. Do you think that justice has been achieved in this case and that crimes like these will be prevented from happening again?

A: Justice was achieved, of course, as two of the perpetrators were sentenced to more than 200 years of jail. But, to really advance toward avoiding repetition of these crimes in the future, a lot of work must be done — especially from state institutions.

The verdict has a legal part but also a reparations part, in general terms. Part of the reparations was the obligation of some state institutions to build a monument in memory of the women of Sepur Zarco, to build a school, to build a health center. It is also part of the sentence that they disseminate the verdict in the indigenous languages of Guatemala. This is part of the state’s obligation. But, we know very well that in Guatemala in order for the state to comply with its obligations, a lot of social pressure is needed. So, in order to achieve the goal of avoiding repetition of these crimes in the future all this work has to be done.

Q: How important are larger coalitions in transitional justice and lasting peace? What role have coalitions played in getting justice for survivors of sexual violence?

A: Well, in getting justice for survivors of sexual violence, first of all I have to value the bravery and perseverance of the victims. Then, in the Guatemalan context, we have to analyze some aspects that contributed to achieving this verdict. In the peace accords, the prohibition of granting amnesty for people responsible for crimes against humanity was included. Of course, the accords included amnesty for political crimes to those parties involved in the conflict, but it was made very clear that crimes against humanity and war crimes could not get any type of amnesty. This is very important.

There has been a human rights movement that has been working for transitional justice. This larger coalition has been able to achieve some justice in cases. Though it is necessary to say that for many years, human rights organizations didn’t include sexual violence as a specific crime to be addressed in transitional justice. It was only when feminists and women’s rights organizations asked for it to be addressed in transitional justice we began this whole process.

Efforts have begun to transform the judicial system. The system in Guatemala has for a long time been very much controlled by the military and by illegal groups. However, there are brave and honest people in the judiciary, including judges and prosecutors who have played a very important role. In order to value all the factors needed to achieve justice in this particular case, many people in the civil society and the judicial system were involved.

Q: The priority theme of this year’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is on women’s empowerment and sustainable development, and the review theme is the elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls (from the 57th CSW). In your experience with Sepur Zarco, have you found these to be interconnected and, if so, in what ways? Now that these women have gotten justice, do you think they have been empowered?

A: There is a strong link between women’s empowerment and access to justice for violence against them. In this particular case of Sepur Zarco, this whole process of organizing and creating awareness of their rights as well as getting justice, has empowered the women a lot. Not only the end — the verdict — but the whole process has empowered them.

I must say that the verdict is not enough. Those women live in socioeconomic conditions of extreme poverty. So, it is necessary to address those root economic causes of violence against women together with the political causes, meaning that in speaking about a comprehensive process of women’s empowerment justice is not enough. It is necessary to promote changes in the economy. In that sense, we very much hope that one of the measures included in the reparations sentence could be accomplished — meaning that the perpetrators should provide some amount of money to the women, and if they are not able to do so, the state should do that. To speak about women’s empowerment, we need to ask about changes in Guatemalan society and the whole world.

Three years ago, when one woman from the group of survivors passed away, we went to her house to accompany her family. And it was so shocking. Of course we had been there with them several times, but it was so shocking to see the extreme poverty and conditions in which the whole family lived. It was a tiny house made of pieces of mud, and there was no coffin. The family and the neighbors were building a coffin at that moment. So, I have in my mind the memory of being there, surrounding the body of this brave woman and watching her family and friends cut and build the coffin on the patio. (Just to give you an example of the poor conditions they live in.) We need to advance toward deeper socioeconomic changes in order to really achieve women’s empowerment.

Q: Are the women or yourself experiencing any backlash after the case or have you been receiving a lot of popular support? Is everyone safe?

A: Well, during the whole process we have been receiving a lot of threats, but at the same time a lot of support. During the trial we received a lot of support from university students, from high school students, from the media, and even from conservative people we didn’t expect to get support from. Many people were shocked hearing the women’s stories.

Q: The women involved in the case were present in the courtroom, wearing their traditional shawls. What was the effect of their presence?

Mendez wearing a scarf similar to those of the Sepur Zarco women, at the 2013 UN Commission on the Status of Women

Mendez wearing a scarf similar to those of the Sepur Zarco women, at the 2013 UN Commission on the Status of Women

A: The shawls actually have been an issue. Some of the women don’t like to wear it while others in the group think they are safer if they wear it. Again, in their communities, they have to live with some of the perpetrators, so the majority of them believe it is not yet time for them to uncover their faces. Finally, after the sentence was issued, some of them uncovered their faces as they left the courtroom, so a picture of their faces circulated. They really want to stop wearing the shawl — they are very brave and committed to achieving justice. But much of the group decided that they should wait a little bit longer before uncovering their faces.

Q: It sounds like these women are incredibly connected to each other through their experiences, but also through their culture. Do you think this sense of community has helped them through this process? If they didn’t have each other, do you think they would have been more reluctant to share their stories?

A: It’s a good question. The sense of community played a very important role in the strengthening of this group and in keeping them together. It has to do with the fact that all of them experienced those horrible crimes and that they are part of various women’s groups. But, of course, it mostly has to do with the indigenous culture they are a part of, especially the Q’eqchi’ people, which they belong to.

For the Q’eqchi’ people, the community plays a very important role. The majority of their decisions are made collectively. So, for them, knowing that they are part of a collectivity and that they support each other was so important. They have supported each other in a very deep way. If a woman is sick, the rest of them are supporting that woman. If one women has a problem, the others help. And even if a woman behaves in a way that the rest of the group doesn’t like, they are so careful in speaking with that woman, in a very warm way. That sense of collectivity as an indigenous people has helped these women achieve justice.

For more information on the Sepur Zarco case, please see Clamor for Justice: Sexual Violence, Armed Conflict and Violent Land Dispossessionco-authored by Luz. 

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.

IPJ Assessment Trip to Guatemala

Assessment Trip to Guatemala, June 15 – 23, 2008

“Impunity remains the rule.” [1]

“Guatemala is among the four countries in the world with the biggest gap between rich and poor.”[2]

“Abre la oportunidad de plantear al Estado recomendaciones que deberían ser acatadas.”[3]

A number of challenges and opportunities face the Guatemalan state and its citizens over a decade after the signing of the historic 1996 Firm and Lasting Peace Accords. As a new government took control in January 2008, many still questioned the strength of the state to overcome historic discrimination and address lingering consequences of the 36-year internal armed conflict that ravaged the country.

To assess the current windows of opportunity and analyze potential mechanisms to support a just peace in Guatemala, IPJ program officers Elena McCollim and Laura Taylor will conduct a series of interviews and consultations with diverse sectors of society. Informed by this broad engagement with a range of actors at various levels, the institute will build on existing relationships with individuals and organizations within Guatemala to better understand the peacebuilding needs of the country and its people.

Relation to University of San Diego’s mission

Undertaking a new country project would advance the university’s international mission while also fulfilling the mission of the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies to create new knowledge in peacebuilding. As a community of practitioners in peace and conflict studies, the IPJ is positioned to support the school in this mission and thus further more broadly the university’s goal to grow as a globally competent institution. With the IPJ as a laboratory for the School, it could eventually integrate graduate students and faculty from the School in its projects and programs.

[1] “Universal Periodic Review of Guatemala” Human Rights Watch, 5-5-08, accessed on May 21, 2008.
[2] “International Human Rights Day” Nonviolent Peaceforce, December 2007, accessed on May 19, 2008.


[3] “ONU examinará al país en DD.HH” Prensa Libre, Feb. 7, 2008, accessed on May 19, 2008