Report back for Guatemala Coordinator Lisa Rankin
From October 25-28, I had the opportunity to accompany the Nobel Women’s Initiative during the Guatemala leg of their tour to Central America. The Nobel laureates and delegation members first travelled to Honduras, where they met with human rights organizations and government officials. Then on October 24, the delegation travelled to Guatemala.
The Nobel Laureates present on the delegation were:
Rigoberta Menchu Tum, from Guatemala, who won the prize in 1992 for her reconciliation and social justice work in support of the rights of indigenous peoples;
Jody Williams, from the United States of America, who won the Nobel Prize in 1997 for her work to ban and clear landmines;
Shirin Ebadi, from Iran, who won the prize in 2003 for her work for democracy and human rights, particularly for women and children; and
Tawakkol Karmen from Yemen, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her non-violent struggle in protecting women’s rights
The morning of October 25, the delegation attended a panel comprised of women experts from Guatemalan civil society organizations, facilitated by Irma Alicia Velasquez, the academic and journalist. The panelists included Ursula Rodan Andrade from the Institute for Research and Political Management at Rafael Landivar University, Claudia Samayoa, founder of the Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala (UDEFEGUA), Miriam Pixtun, member of the resistance in La Puya and professor at the San Carlos Autonomous University, and Amalia Lemus, member of the Diocesan Commission for the Defense of Nature (CODIDENA). The first three panelists gave an overview of the situation in Guatemala, touching on the structural problems including inequality, exclusion of Indigenous people and women, as well as violence. Claudia Samoyoa stated that 48 human rights defenders were killed in 2017 thus far; included within that number are the young women who were burned in the massacre of the “safe house” or Hogar Seguro Virgin de Asuncion on March 8, young women who had left only a day earlier to protest conditions in the home. Amalia Lemus, the final speaker, gave the delegation an overview of the situation in the region of Santa Rosa and Jalapa, affected by Tahoe Resources’ Escobal mine.
In the afternoon, half of the group attended a meeting with Myra Veliz, the General Secretary of the Public Prosecutor’s Office. The delegation raised concerns about the number of political prisoners currently jailed in Guatemala, including Abelino Chub who is a member of the Committee for Peasant Unity (CUC) from Alta Verapaz, Jovel Tobar from the Peten region who works in defense of the Laguna del Tigre, and four community members from San Pablo, San Marcos who are defending their communities against the construction of a hydroelectric dam. On the issue of violence against women, Ms. Veliz stated that in 2016, there were 500,000 files at the Public Prosecutor level.
The evening of October 25, the delegation met with Edgar Perez, Claudia Estrada and Miguel Mort from the Bufete de Derechos Humanos, the legal firm which has brought forward the genocide case for the massacre of Rio Negro and is now also part of the legal team working for justice for the young women massacred in the home Virgin de Asuncion.
When speaking about the Ixil genocide case, lawyer and co-founder of the Bufete, Edgar Perez, stated “This case shows who we are, as a country.” The women survivors of sexual violence chose to cover their faces, because of the continued discrimination against women survivors. He stated there was a state policy at that time against women. Perez said the sentence in the genocide case continues to live, as it has never been formally annulled.
In the case of the home Virgin de Asuncion, there is evidence of physical, emotional, and sexual violence against the young women who were kept in the home. This includes evidence of human trafficking. On March 7, the day before the fire, a number of girls left in protest and were arrested outside by police. They were held for nine hours without food or water, and in handcuffs. To the Bufete, this constitutes torture. At midnight, 56 young women were thrown into a 6.8m by 7m room with no bathroom and forced to sleep there. A fire was set the following day, March 8, in the room and within nine minutes, 19 girls were killed, and another 22 died from their injuries. 15 girls survived with severe burns. It is important to note that the President of Guatemala, Jimmy Morales was directly involved with the incident. The night before, the president ordered 100 police agents to the home to deal with the protests, police who were not trained to work with adolescents. This order intensified the already tense situation at the home, which eventually led to the massacre of the young girls. Seven people are currently on trial for the girls’ deaths.
Both the genocide case and the massacre at the home Virgin de Asuncion shed light into the systemic and state-led violence against women both during the genocide and today.
- October 26
The following day the delegation travelled to Santa Rosa and Jalapa to get a better understanding of the affects of the Tahoe Resources’ Escobal Mine. On route, I gave a briefing about the situation around the mine, and its ties to Canada and the US.
Upon arrival, we visited the Permanent Resistance in Casillas, Santa Rosa, where community members have set up a checkpoint for mine related traffic, which has effectively closed mine operations through direct action since June 2017. The delegation heard about the attempts by Guatemalan police to evict the peaceful protestors, and one woman spoke about being injured during the attack in July.
From there, the delegation marched through the community to the town square, where hundreds of people from various communities affected by the Escobal mine gathered to hear from the Nobel Women and share stories of the effects of the project so close to their home. The community leaders showed incredible strength and determination to continue the resistance despite intimidation and threats. The Nobel Women then held a press conference showing their support for the communities.
From there, the delegation travelled to Mataquescuintla, Jalapa, to meet with 3 local mayors from surrounding communities who have rejected royalties from the company. For their outspoken opposition to the project, the mayors have met with threats, criminalization and continuous audits.
Finally, at the end of the day, the delegation gathered in a hotel in Mataquescuintla for a meeting of only women. A woman from each of the affected communities present spoke about how the presence of the company has affected their lives. Irma Pacheco, mother of Topacio Reynoso, spoke about the murder of her daughter due to her outspoken opposition and activism against the project. Other women spoke about contamination, criminalization and the disruption of the social fabric in the communities. At this point, the entire group became aware of a campaign by the company claiming that the Nobel Women’s delegation to the region was paid for by the mining company. Outraged, the women from the delegation and local communities made their own statement, decrying this blatant lie and reiterating support for the community struggle.
The following morning, a conference was held with human rights defenders from numerous women’s and human rights organizations in Guatemala, including LGBTQ advocates, domestic workers, youth policy advocates, lawyers, as well as a a survivor of the Hogar Virgin de Asuncion fire on March 8, 2017 and a mother of one of the victims. The women shared powerful perspectives on the situation of women in Guatemala, which they included in a contextual report found here: Contextual Report- Women in Guatemala.
The presentation by the mother of one of the young girls killed in the fire, Silvia Vela Garcia, as well as words from Estafani Sotoj Hernandez was extremely moving. Ms. Vela Garcia stated that the hearings so far have been unfair; they don’t allow the mothers to cry in court. The law and society has criminalized their daughters. She stated, “They didn’t deserve to die like that, they were children… The moment came to take my own life. My life no longer had meaning.”
Ms. Sotoj Hernandez, a survivor of the fire, stated, “I am the voice for all of us before you. I am here to demand justice for all of our lives.” She spent 30 days in a coma, and lost 9 of her fingers. She said, “We [the survivors] aren’t well. We have changed. No one cares about us. It isn’t only this home – instead of helping us they made us worse. The state failed, and it is the state’s fault.”
Jennifer Bravo, one of the lawyers from Women Transforming the World (MTM) who are bringing the case forward against state officials said there had been extreme human rights violations occurring at the home for years, including rape and prostitution. On November 8, 2016 the organization presented an appeal to close the Hogar Virgin de Asuncion. This is a crime of the state, which includes abuse, abuse of authority, breach of professional duty, femicide, torture, and cruel and inhumane treatment.
Ms. Bravo also gave an update on the Sepur Zarco case, where two men were found guilty of domestic and sexual slavery, as well as sexual violence in May 2016. Appeals by the defendants were found unwarranted, and the sentence is final. Reparations by the state have yet to be fulfilled. Many of the reparations asked for during the trial are rights, such as access to health care and schooling.
A woman from the crowd who works on LGBTQ issues also gave a brief update on the current situation in Guatemala. She stated that 1 or 2 transgender people are murdered in Guatemala per month. Most trans people do not have access to basic services and are often refused treatment by doctors. Gay men face social exclusion, and lesbians often suffer from sexual violence from their family members. There are 2 or 3 suicides per month within the LGBTQ community in Guatemala. Within the Hogar Virgin de Asuncion, there were three trans children who were locked in cells for two weeks. Another problem is children being taken away due to the sexual orientation of their parents and placed in homes like the Hogar Virgin de Asuncion.
The last event of the delegation was a panel and working groups with women in the struggle for land and territory, including:
Argentina Osorio, involved in the struggle against PERENCO, a French oil and gas company in the Peten region and member of the Ixqik Women’s Association. The company has affected the community’s health, economy and education, and the state is not capable of responding to the issues which have arisen. May of the men in the community have immigrated, and often the women are left alone to care for the children. The community is not in agreement with the license and the evictions provoked by PERENCO.
Maria Magdelena Cuc, sister to Angelica Choc, spoke about the reclaiming of Chab’il Ch’och’, ancestral land in Izabal, as well as opposition to monoculture and mining in El Estor. There are many people persecuted in the region, where the government favours transnational companies within a corrupt political system. Ms. Cuc stated, “We are still living the armed conflict.”
Juana Pedro Diego is a member of the plurinational government in Barillas, Huehuetenango, and in resistance to 24 hydroelectric licenses in the region. The presence of these companies, including Hidro Santa Cruz in Barillas, has led to social conflict, division, family disintegration, corruption and criminalization. Ms. Pedro Diego asked for all the hydroelectric companies to leave Guatemala.
Dalila Vasquez is a leader in the National Articulation of Women, working on the rights of rural and campesino women. She is a survivor of the Internal Armed Conflict and left Guatemala for Mexico as a refugee. Ms. Vasquez shared that in the south of Guatemala communities are being left without water, which has increased the amount of work for women. There are communities living in poverty and extreme poverty which have been invisibilized. Communities are being evicted similar to what happened during the Internal Armed Conflict.
This delegation was a great opportunity to shine the light on our partners in the region affected by the Tahoe Resources Escobal mine, as well as to hear from Guatemalan civil society groups who are not partners with BTS but are working for human rights. The delegation received a lot of media attention within Guatemala and internationally as well.