Silenced Femicide

Victim, witness, and survivor of the femicide the Guatemalan military committed during the dictatorship of Ríos Montt. Jacinta. Photo by Ofelia de Pablo and Javier Zurita.

María Toj
María Toj, victim and witness of assaults, with her daughter. Photo by Ofelia de Pablo and Javier Zurita.

Genocide in Guatemala
Silenced Femicide
More than 100,000 women were raped during 36 years of conflict in Guatemala. That aggression has shaped the present, in which gender violence is habitual.
El País: Feminicidio silenciado
Ofelia de Pablo and Javier Zurita, October 16, 2011

Guatemala continues to be hostile territory for a woman: 685 murdered in 2010, 120 in 2011 to date. The country’s statistics for rape and torture supersede those in any other corner of Latin America. Including Ciudad Juárez. This data is the consequence of the darkest period of the conflict visited upon this country for 36 years (1960-1996), when more than 100,000 women were raped and tortured as part of a program to exterminate the Mayan ethnicity. All this has shaped a culture of unpunished violence against women, who have only a 1% chance of seeing their case brought to justice. Given this environment, a hearing before the National Court of Spain has become the only possibility to change the fate of Guatemalan women.

The civil war between the government and guerrillas resulted in more than 200,000 deaths, the majority of them indigenous Mayans. Rape, mutilation, sexual slavery, and feticide (the killing of fetuses) were used as methods to exterminate the Mayans: destroying the women was the means to destroying the people. It was a perfectly organized plan for which the military was carefully trained, according to reports from the Historical Clarification Commission of Guatemala.

One of those victims was Teresa Sic: “when they found me, the soldiers grabbed me by force, took me close to the river and raped me. There were more than 150 of them. That day they were also raping other women of the town. They were all burned. They tied me up, but I managed to escape with my five-year old daughter. I looked for help. I was hungry and afraid, but no one put us up.”

In 1999, the National Court of Spain formally admitted a lawsuit presented by the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation, in which for the first time the former chief of state, Ríos Montt, along with seven other officials, were accused of terrorism, genocide, and systematic torture. Five years later, the Court announced a committal for the trial of eight generals, but Guatemalan authorities refused to extradite them. For them, the mass rapes which occurred during the conflict were considered “simple collateral damage.”

“Days later, they forcibly took us to the military outpost in El Chol,” Teresa Sic’s account continues, “Where I was violated by several soldiers for 15 consecutive days, and they only let me briefly rest in order to sleep…they gave us bulls’ blood to drink and raw meat to eat.”

In Quiché, an area north of the capital of Guatemala, the green sowing fields and colorful markets hide one of the macabre secrets of the country’s history. This is the area where the violence from the conflict was extreme during the eighties. The women who survived the genocide have decided to break their silence and stand up to the government to accuse those culpable. “We have to clarify what was done and make the government recognize the truth. That is my greatest desire,” says Feliciana. “We are voiceless. It’s as if the rape during the armed conflict didn’t happen.”

The women speak of the rejection they suffer from their communities when they speak the truth. “They point at us; they insult us; those who raped us even laugh at us,” testifies María Castro, who cannot keep herself from falling apart when she speaks of how, after she announced herself as a witness to the National Court in 2008, her son was killed.

Patricia Yoj, a lawyer for the Mayans who is contributing to the denunciations, affirms that “even the representative of the National Reparations Program (the state program charged with granting reparations to victims of the conflict) said that he didn’t believe in the rapes, and that was made public through the media. It was humiliating.”

Rejection by their husbands is the most painful thing for women who have suffered the worst torture. María Castro doesn’t want to recall it, but she knows that doing so could save many lives: “The soldiers ambushed me and took my daughter from me. My daughter was terrified; she cried; she screamed, but the soldiers threw what I was carrying and they threw me to the ground. I remember that there were three who raped me, but I don’t know how many more there were because that was when I lost consciousness. When I awoke, I saw them hastily pick up their weapons and march to another area. My daughter helped me carry her little brother, but she was crying so much. She’d seen it all.” She paused, and her eyes filled with tears when she said that, when she returned to her home and told her husband what had happened, her husband denied it, saying that she’d returned home alive because she’d let the soldiers abuse her.

María Toj is inseparable from her granddaughter, who is her most precious treasure and the only thing keeping her alive. Her granddaughter and also her fight for recognition of what happened; “They tortured both me and my son. They burned everything I had. They left me with nothing, only with my dead husband and my pain.” The criminals walk freely in the streets now, and even live in the same town as her, and the worst thing is that violence continues every day. María Toj said that one week ago, “A woman’s breasts were cut; she was tortured and raped and burned alive, right over here on this side.”

Spain will give a voice to these women. Judge Pedraz has just formally admitted and expansion on the 1999 lawsuit to consider the violence from the conflict an international crime of gender violence. The expansion, presented by the NGO Women’s Link by the hand of its lawyer Almudena Bernabeu, the only Spanish women who works Universal Justice cases at the National Court and in the United States (in the Center of Justice and Accountability), will for the first time address the horror that these women were submitted to.

One expert for the case will be Patricia Sellers, the first woman who managed to have rape declared as a weapon of war, during the special international tribunals over the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. “When you rape a human being, you convert her into a living corpse; you rob her of her most precious intimacy and kill her future. If you want to annihilate a people, rape is the best way to do it. Sexual torture is more destructive than weapons,” says Sellers. She adds that “this is the first time that rape will be tried as genocide in a national tribunal, and this I believe is a historical precedent. It sends a clear message to the culprits: there is nowhere to hide; nations do not need special tribunals.”

“This case will open a debate because failure of justice is what makes gender violence increase,” says Almudena Bernabeu. Paloma Soria, a lawyer for Women’s Link, says that “Guatemalan society accompanied the rape and torture of these women by robbing livestock and burning crops. This state of affairs must be changed so these women will no longer be invisible before society.”

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2 Comments on “Silenced Femicide”

  1. Ofelia Says:

    i´m Ofelia de Pablo (photojournalist) We did this story with Javier Zurita. Thanks to give light to the silence of these women

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