WMC Women Under Siege

Guatemala’s war may be over, but the battle continues to be fought on women’s bodies

The highlands of Guatemala. (Lauren Wolfe)

Guatemala City—There’s a heavy green to this place, layered. Clouds weigh on the hills and seep into the trees and grass and leaves and bushes. Every clearing we pass turns to depths, and in those reaches are thousands and thousands of bodies, and just as many memories of torture.

From San Lucas Toliman to Guatemala City, the mountains contain bones as well as the horrors of those who survived. So many stories remain untold. They are too painful, too dangerous to tell. A few, however, have come forward.

“The soldiers ambushed me,” says a woman named Maria Castro, now 59, in this video by photojournalists Ofelia de Pablo and Javier Zurita. “My little girl was with me. She was very frightened and she cried, but the soldier threw me to the ground. I remember there were three of them who raped me, but I don't know how many more because I lost consciousness.” When they returned home, Maria’s husband rejected her for surviving the indignity of rape. Her daughter had seen everything.

There are people in this country who would much rather we didn’t remember—that we would see the 1980s conflict that involved a leftist insurgency, a military-backed ultraconservative government, and the indigenous people as long ago, a war sunken into the past. These are the ones who are sending death threats to the forensic anthropologists unearthing the bones, to the journalists who captured their genocidal acts, and to the women who survived them. And it is not only the bodies and the 30-year-old stories haunting these hills; present-day atrocities are still being carried out. The living ones are whispering in closed rooms: “They’re still torturing us.”

While I have been asked not to tell you their names or show you their faces, they have pleaded with me to tell you this.

These indigenous women say their suffering has not subsided 30 years after the mass killing that left an estimated 200,000 people dead, mainly Mayans. They live with loss and the terrible prodding of memory, and often they live with the imprint of men’s bodies on their own, the pain of rape. After that, they say they are living with the knowledge that their own daughters are facing similar horrors in a never-ending war against their people, even 15 years after peace accords were signed.

“I was captured and tortured,” says a woman from the Quiché region about what happened to her during the genocide. She’s wrapped in traditional, brightly colored textiles, and her voice cracks as she continues. “Many soldiers used my body. They played with my body. They didn’t let me drink water or eat for many days. It didn’t just happen to me. And this hasn’t ended. Our bodies are still being used; we’re still being tortured.”

During a seven-hour closed meeting with more than a dozen indigenous Guatemalan women, only one said she was raped. I was told later, however, that two of the women—neither spoke Spanish, only their local language—had also been raped.

Survivors of the Guatemalan genocide who asked that their faces not be shown. (Lauren Wolfe)

A Guatemala City-based academic who studies feminism, Walda Barrios-Klee, told me that most women who were raped in the Guatemalan genocide—an estimated 100,000—didn’t report it. Not to the police, not to a doctor, and definitely not to their own husbands. They would have been shunned, even physically forced to leave their communities. So they live their lives as if the rape had never happened. They carry a secret with them every day, often blaming themselves.

But who did this to these women 30 years ago, and who is doing this to them now?

In the great sweep of the government’s “scorched earth” campaign of the Mayan people in the early 1980s, it was mainly the military that carried out rapes. The orders, it would appear, came from above. From the very top even. Evidence uncovered more than a decade ago revealed that rape was likely being used as a specified strategy of war. The UN-backed truth commission, called the Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH), reported in 1999 that it “is aware of hundreds of cases in which civilians were forced by the army, at gunpoint, to rape women, torture, mutilate corpses and kill. This extreme cruelty was used by the state to cause social disintegration.” Women “were killed, tortured and raped, sometimes because of their ideals and political or social participation, sometimes in massacres or other indiscriminate actions.”

Today the women say it is again the military as well as police and hired security forces raping women in a scattershot way as they evict indigenous families from land that is no longer legally theirs, although it is a mystery to these families how the government managed to take the land from under them. With no Spanish language or literacy, they never understood the papers being signed and the processes for land transfer enacted since the war.

The private security personnel the women allege are attacking them come from mining and other transnational corporations. While it is hard to estimate the number of private security guards in Guatemala because so many are unregistered, a number of sources, including Global Post, estimate that there are somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000.

Land is being denuded, the women say, and water drained from its aquifers. Their houses are cracked from the explosive tremors of the extraction machines, and their skin is inflamed from polluted runoff. These are all allegations, but they are alleged strongly, and with fury.

On January 26, former Guatemalan President General Efraín Ríos Montt was placed under house arrest. Lawyers have been trying to extradite him to Spain for 13 years to try him on charges of genocide and crimes of war, including rape. This is a milestone, with Ríos Montt becoming the only Latin American dictator ever indicted on genocide charges. Not a single case of rape that occurred here during the war has yet been brought to justice, according to local activists, and certainly no mastermind has ever been held to account. The mood here is now, to some degree, hopeful.

This step may give the indigenous people of Guatemala a chance to find justice on their own soil, using their own legal process, and in doing so temper the evil of impunity. Only from there can we begin to alleviate the fear and pain these women evince with their words and their tears and their dark eyes that lock onto yours. Only from there can we gather the courage to pursue whoever is raping women still in the Guatemalan highlands. The few survivors that are speaking, even in closed rooms, in whispers, have said that they are not about to stop until that happens:

“What happened to Guatemala is real—it’s not out of a scary movie,” said the woman who spoke about having been raped in the war. “Even if we have to talk about it 100 more times, I’ll do it because the genocide changed our lives. So many of our beloved have been taken from us and tortured.”

In the Mayan culture, those women are still present as energy from the beyond, watching what is happening to their children and grandchildren. “For all the women no longer here I would like to pay homage and bring their greetings,” said the rape survivor.

From the forest green darkness, their greetings hum through the mountains, asking us urgently to listen: They want their stories told.

More articles by Category: International, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Americas, Sexualized violence, Military, War, Rape



Lauren Wolfe
Director, Women Under Siege
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