Pedrina Lopes was only 12 when a paramilitary member raped her in Rabinal, a town 50 miles north of Guatemala City. “What happened never leaves us,”, Lopez said in the courtroom. “My body has been left with everything that happened.”
“We the judges firmly believe the testimonies of the women who were sexually violated,” the judge said in the courtroom.
In a Guatemalan high court, last year, five former paramilitary members were sentenced to 30 years in prison each for the rape of several Indigenous women, which refocused attention on the victims of the protracted civil war in the country. The case was brought by 36 Maya Achi survivors, three of whom died throughout the legal proceedings.
“Sexual violence was ordered by the high command and enshrouded with impunity by official denial,” Professor Victoria Sanford at Lehman College, writes in the book Women and Genocide: Survivors, Victims and Perpetrators. Entrenched in historical prejudice against the Maya population, rape and gang rape were implemented as a weapon to dehumanize and annihilate the Maya indigenous population, writes Sanford.
In Guatemala, the framing of the enemy’s identity was embedded within a broader context to “civilize” the nation. Detailing the endemic historical marginalization of indigenous people in Guatemala, Professor Roddy Brett, an expert on the Guatemalan genocide describes how indigenous people were denied access to the legal system and experienced a severe lack of infrastructure to connect rural communities to urban areas.
The Montt regime systematically used fire as a strategy to incite terror and spark fear amongst Indigenous populations. Fire is symbolic of Mayan cosmology, Brett writes, demonstrating the racist policy of the Guatemalan government.
Considering this, the sentencing of the paramilitary personnel recalls the decades of 1960 to 1996 and the relentless campaign against leftist insurgents and Mayan indigenous people waged by the Guatemalan government, supported by the United States.
In 1960, a group of left-wing junior military officers lead an uprising against the government of Gen. Ydigoras Fuentes, supported by the anti-communist campaign forced onto countries across Latin America by Washington, which ultimately sparked the 36-year civil war in Guatemala that resulted in the genocide of the Maya indigenous population.
The trajectory of the war shifted when, in 1978, Gen. Fernando Lucas Garcia, rose to power through a fraud-ridden election. These elections, rising inflation, and a fatal earthquake that disproportionately affected poor Guatemalans drastically escalated the conflict. In turn, the support of the guerrilla base grew amid widespread dissatisfaction regarding the economic turndown that invigorated not solely leftist insurgents but also indigenous Mayans.
The 1980s initiated a weakened and increasingly insecure Guatemalan government, particularly amongst the highest-ranking military officials. In conjunction, state racism in Guatemala had reached an all-time peak from the end of the 1970s to the mid-1980s in the wake of escalating crises affecting the military regime’s grip on power. When a military regime is weakened, they shift its attention to the othering of marginalized groups within a nation-state.
“This was largely a war against indigenous people and many of the soldiers did not hold the indigenous people in high regard,” said professor of Latin American politics, Bill Ascher in a presentation to students at Claremont Mckenna College in March, last year.
Often referred to as the “invisible genocide”, it has left bitterly harmful effects on the lives of thousands of indigenous women in Guatemala caught amid war contributing to generations of trauma and subsequent poverty.
The conviction of the five paramilitary operatives marks an important triumph for the victims of crimes of the Guatemalan civil war. It also raises further questions concerning the impunity that obscures war criminals, and whether such convictions can prevent future occurrences of wartime sexual violence. “In terms of atrocities as a weapon of war unfortunately I think that is going to continue because it is also a form of terrorism,” said Ascher last year.
Despite momentous steps towards peacebuilding in Guatemala, for instance, the Truth Commission of 1994, the trial of General Efrain Rios Montt in 2013, and the subsequent imprisonment of war criminals last year, poverty and sexual violence persist in Guatemala. In certain neighborhoods in Guatemala City, International Justice Mission (IJM) reports that 1 in 4 adolescent girls has been a victim of sexual violence.
Although sexual violence is endemic and shrouded in historical injustices and impunity there is a brighter outlook for young women in Guatemala. Indeed, in 2005 when IJM began tackling poverty and sexual violence in Guatemala, the outlook seemed bleak as they relied on a broken system that did not protect vulnerable and poverty-stricken women.
However, nearly two decades on, a stricter rule of law and a dedicated Sex Crimes Unit now exist. Guatemala as a nation, alongside pressure groups such as the IJM, is intent on overcoming historical impunity that fuelled racist and poverty-related sexual violence.
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