Tag Archives: Guatemala

Luis Fernando Carrera: “Drug Trafficking Needs to Become Subject of the Public Debate”

25 Jun

Latin and Central American states have been displaying newly gained self-confidence when it comes to addressing a very pressing issue, that is, International crime related to drug trafficking and consumption, to the detriment of this region of the world for the past four decades. The recent political pathway demonstrates the will and the capacity to find solutions within the Latin and Central American context, and with it the political and ideological departure from the War on Drugs. The latter, a campaign waged under the aegis of the U.S. government over the last four decades. The present campaign is based on a combination of prohibition, military aid and military intervention in alliance with participating countries. Unfortunately it has generated often questionable results, and has become a larger target for external, as well as internal criticism.

Virgin Group founder and investor Richard Branson wrote in an Op-ed piece for CNN in December last year, “About 40,000 people were in U.S. jails and prisons for drug crimes in 1980, compared with more than 500,000 today. Excessively long prison sentences and locking up people for small drug offenses contribute greatly to this ballooning of the prison population. It also represents racial discrimination and targeting disguised as drug policy. People of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than white people — yet from 1980 to 2007, blacks were arrested for drug law violations at rates 2.8 to 5.5 times higher than white arrest rates.”

Today, Latin American countries face more severe problems related to drug trafficking than before the U.S. initiative began. The prisons are overpopulated with small-scale drug offenders, meanwhile high-level traffickers roam free due to lax law enforcement or corruption.

A recent panel at the United Nations, organized by the Permanent Mission of Guatemala and the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), disclosed a number of new insights on possible future guidelines. Guatemala’s Foreign Minister Luis Fernando Carrera analyzed the status quo of the movement and presented fresh experiences in the field by Human Rights Watch.

A report in 2009 by the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, and a regional meeting in Columbia in April 2012, defined the political U-turn, or the new approach of taking-matters-into-own-hands. The meeting included President Barack Obama, the presidents of Guatemala, Colombia, Costa Rica, Argentina, Brazil, and Ecuador. For the first time in history the violence and the misery brought to Latin and Central American countries by the War on Drugs was openly criticized.

“There is an urgent need to bring drug policy to the international public debate,” Guatemala’s Foreign Minister Carrera explained. He referred to the recent Declaration of Antigua from June this year, adopted by the Organization of American States (OAS). The declaration recognizes the complexity of the world drug problem, its effects on  health, social relations and the integrity of democratic institutions, and urges for individual approaches, tailored to the different needs member states face. “A few weeks ago, we had a real discussion on drug policy for the first time,” Carrera explained, “But the declaration still needs adjustments, and I clearly can’t tell you where we are going to be with this debate in ten years from now.”

Rebecca Schleifer, Advocacy Director at the Health and Human Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, presented a disturbing fact, related to Guatemalan handling of drug addicts. She explained, “The treatment provided in some states often violates basic human rights standards.” At the moment around 6000 people that are charged for drug violations are detained in evangelical prayer camps. “They can’t leave voluntarily, they are behind barbed-wire and are absolutely at the mercy of some pastor who might release them at his good will.”

It is much hoped that once more rhetoric is turned into action, rather sooner than later.

Lia Petridis Maiello

Profile of Activist Luz Mendez: Legal Case on Sexual Enslavement of Indigenous Women in Guatemala

15 Mar

Women’s rights activist from Guatemala Luz Mendez has been presenting her legal case on the sexual enslavement of women during Guatemala’s civil war at the 57th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) this month.

Luz Mendez was 15 years of age when she decided to become involved in her home country’s political course of action. Guatemala had been torn by a civil war for nine years at the time Mendez decided to no longer simply accept the status quo. “The numerous years of political oppression and the lack of liberties were the call to action for me”, Mendez explains retrospectively.

Mendez became the President of her High School’s Student Association creating “a small democracy within my school”, Mendez states. It was the year 1969 when the world was shook up by a politicized, international youth that was not willing to accept military dictatorships, questionable wars and the ongoing, and further growing, already vast economic imbalance between nations and entire continents.

Her position in high school put her in touch with many more student leaders from other schools. “That really opened my eyes and I understood how much power we have, when we organize for a good cause and start advocating for our rights.” She moved on to become a noteworthy activist, soon to establish international recognition, by participating in the peace negotiations as the only female member of the delegation of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (UNRC), contributing to the incorporation of unprecedented commitments for gender-equity in the accords. In 1996, she was the only woman representative signing the peace agreements for socioeconomic development and democratization in Guatemala.

Mendez joined this year’s CSW in order to present comprehensive details about the legal case she is trying to establish for indigenous Guatemalan women who have been victims of sexual violence during Guatemala’s civil war. It would also be the first trial of this kind brought to a national court.

The extraordinarily bloody civil war in Guatemala lasted thirty six years total, from 1960 to 1996. All this time the government was fighting left-leaning rebel groups that were supported by Mayan indigenous people. About 50,000 Guatemalans disappeared and up to 200,000 were killed or went missing. According to a UN report released in 1999, called “Guatemala: Memory of Silence”, 83 percent of those Guatemalans killed were Mayan. The Guatemalan government to this day is hesitant to acknowledge the commitment of genocide, although it has been internationally condemned in the past. According to UN resolution 260A, genocide is defined as follows: “In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life

calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group”

A truth commission that had been installed in Guatemala after the civil war and was supported by the United Nations stated that “over 80 percent of the atrocities were committed by the army”. Current Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, to the contrary of his predecessor Álvaro Colom, has also promoted the view that genocide did not take place in Guatemala. Only in 2009 the former Military Commissioner Felipe Cusanero was sentenced to receive a 150-year jail term, for the disappearance of six farmers in the years of 1982 until 1984. “This was hailed as a landmark prison sentence in Guatemala,” Reuters wrote back then.

In February this year, the news that former General and Guatemalan Head of State Jose Efrain Rios Montt would be on trial at home for the crime of genocide, found great international support and positive acknowledgement. It is the first time in history that a domestic court is sentencing a former chief-of-state for genocide. “The Rios Montt trial also marks an important development in an evolving arena of international human rights,” comments News Network Al Jazeera.

Although several international courts established in the past 20 years have prosecuted individuals involved in genocide, the events in Guatemala are exceptional because the trial has been brought “home” and also because no ranking officer of the former totalitarian Guatemalan government has been held responsible thus far. The first public hearing will be held on 19 March.

Furthermore, the brutal victimization of indigenous women in Guatemala has not been rectified in any noteworthy manner as of now. Activist Luz Mendez wants to change that. In September of last year, fifteen Guatemalan women from the indigenous q’eqchí people testified before the High Risk Court in Guatemala City, with their testimony establishing the first criminal trial for sexual slavery and rape during an armed conflict in front of a domestic court. Moreover, as it applies to indigenous women, this testimony is ultimately helping thousands of women victims all over the world.

Mendez describes in her article, “I don’t want to die without seeing justice’: Sexual Slavery During Guatemala’s Armed Conflict,” the atrocities committed against indigenous women during the civil war:

“The history of Dominga Coc made a profound impression on the enslaved women in Sepur Zarco. Dominga, a twenty year-old woman went to the military camp with her two little daughters, Anita and Hermelinda, in search of her husband who had been captured by members of the army in 1982. After arriving at the base, she was captured and raped repeatedly by soldiers in front of her husband and her daughters. After several weeks of being brutally raped, she and her daughters were forcibly disappeared. Her body was found, in early 2012, on the edge of the river and exhumed. Dominga’s husband survived. He presented the testimony in the court. The story of Dominga Coc resonated for years among the women enslaved in Sepur Zarco and became a permanent warning of what could happen to any one of them at any time.”

According to the International Indigenous Women’s Forum, a “general pattern” exists that holds for indigenous women worldwide—that they have a particular “vulnerability to sexual violence.” In areas of conflict, indigenous women have often fallen victims to abuse by members of the military and are often subject to sexual enslavement, forced pregnancy, gang-rapes, sexual mutilation and killings. The International Indigenous Women’s Forum points out that “Historically, violence against women was used as a weapon in colonial conquests of indigenous lands, but as recently as the 1980s and 1990s, 1,400 indigenous Samburu women of Kenya were raped by British soldiers on their lands. In the 1980s, indigenous women were targeted for rape as a weapon of war in Guatemala.” In the 1990s, indigenous women in Chiapas, Mexico were subject to compulsory servitude in paramilitary camps. In times of crises, indigenous women are often forced to leave their communities and search for shelters and jobs elsewhere, which results in cultural and spiritual isolation as well as their exposure to sexual trafficking and prostitution as well as exploitation as domestic workers.

Nevertheless, Mendez is optimistic about her case. “We have any reason to be,” she explains. She is naming several groups of Guatemalan society that have been teaming up and are actively supporting the process. “Not only are the survivors strong women who have been waiting for public recognition for more than a decade, but women lawyers, psychologists and last, but not least, my group the Advisers’ Council of the National Union of Guatemala Women (UNAMG) have been closely working together to try and achieve justice for Guatemala’s indigenous women.” Mendez also points out that Guatemala has undergone a shift in dealing with its own history. “The fact that Rios Montt is now standing trial is giving me a lot of hope to also achieve public recognition and justice for indigenous women in Guatemala.”


–Lia Petridis Maiello

Gender Issues in the Human Rights Committee– From Guatemala to Yemen

3 Apr

Joining the Arms Trade Treaty Preparatory Committee, the annual meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women and the Programme of Action on Small Arms Preparatory Committee as major, recent UN activities with direct implications for GAPW’s mandate, the Human Rights Committee (HRC) also convened to review select state performance in the human rights area. As it has done in the past, GAPW monitored the HRC as it posed often difficult questions to high level representatives of states parties regarding the fulfillment of their commitments under the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The HRC is a treaty body consisting of eighteen non-government experts and is designed to assess gaps and inconsistencies in states reports submitted as part of treaty obligations. The impact of HRC’s recommendations on the states under review has been a subject of debate. What is not debated is the commitment and skill of committee members as they interrogate official interpretations of performance – in this cycle of the Dominican Republic, Yemen, Guatemala, Turkmenistan and Cape Verde – while supporting states that agree to come to New York (or Geneva) and submit themselves to this type of review.

Particularly alarming aspects of the HRC’s discussions with these states – especially in the case of Yemen and Guatemala – were related to both violence against women and discrimination that impedes women’s participation in social and political life. Given Guatemala’s current membership in the Security Council as well as the heightened attention to women’s contributions to the so-called Arab Spring, the HRC’s dialogues with these countries were particularly relevant reflections of some of the core issues under discussion within the UN on how to hold governments accountable to their obligations to promote participation of women and end impunity for violence.

Cultural diversity, protecting legal pluralism and assurances of greater accessibility were some of the key issues for Guatemala. Similarly, violence against women was also addressed, in particular the ‘femicide law’ and the specialized courts that were established to enforce the provisions of the law. Guatemala was specifically asked for details on how cases of violence against women are prosecuted, as well as how police and prosecutors are trained on these issues to ensure that formal charges are filed and pursued for all crimes related to femicide. In this context, violations of the rights of the indigenous women were also emphasized. Guatemalan officials gave details about the national legal framework that has been enacted to ensure equality, end discrimination against women, improve accessibility to justice, and increase response to the particular needs of indigenous women. To what extent any of these law and provisions have positive outcomes for ending violence and promoting participation was an open question.

Violence and discrimination against women are critical human rights issues for Yemen as well. The responses by government officials to committee questions highlighted government efforts to promote women’s rights in the constitution and increase the representation of women in politics and the judiciary. Enacting a quota system to increase women’s participation in political affairs was specifically mentioned. Yemen also responded to questions about women’s limited access to education and the high illiteracy rate by noting that young girls are transitioned from school into marriages at a young age. While secondary education of young girls is encouraged, there is limited opportunity in Yemen’s many rural communities. On some of the Sharia-governed practices, such as polygamy or early marriages, Sharia requires equal treatment for women so women must be consulted before marriage and have grounds for divorce if they are treated unfairly. Yemen also highlighted proposed legislation to withdraw weapons from armed groups as well as efforts to control the flow of weapons into the hands of non-state actors, situations which pose unique risks for violence against women.

Overall, it was helpful for committee members to keep their focus on women’s participation and the state’s accountability regarding violence against women. It will be important to follow how these issues will be developed and, in particular, to what extent the recommendations of the HRC will be implemented. Clearly, there was some skepticism on the part of Committee members that concerns they raised in response to national reports from these and the other countries on this docket (including Turkmenistan and Dominican Republic) would lead to significant and lasting changes. Especially the case of Yemen, women’s issues seem to be adjudicated on the basis of three distinct and at times contradictory principles – the ICCPR, the national constitution and Sharia law, the latter of which still permits stoning and amputation as suitable punishments for transgressions including adultery. Only women are eligible for stoning. 

There is a tendency in these meetings for governments to respond to allegations of neglect or abuse with affirmations that appropriate constitutional provisions are in place, the assumption being that if the right laws exist, the right behavior ensues. Clearly this not always the case, and committee members are wise to insist, as best they can, on practical policy responses to their practical human rights concerns. Moreover, despite their heavy case load and report backlogs, members are wise to insist on diretrct engagement by relevant UN agencies within the countries under consideration. It is important that states respond to evidence-based concerns with evidence of their own, rather than recourse to constitutional or other texts.

– Dr. Robert Zuber and Melina Lito