Saturday, August 1, 2009

Z18 School, San Lucas Sacatepequez, Saturday, July 18

Saturday, July 18, 2009

On our last official delegation day, we got up early to go to a school in zone 18, a pilot program that is sponsored by MIA. Partially destroyed by a flood less than a year ago, much of the school was ruined. The delegates grabbed some shovels and started leveling out the land to supply a foundation where a new computer lab will be built, and met one of the female students that MIA helps to sponsor so that she can continue her education.

We then drove to San Lucas Sacatepequez, for what was the most devastating meeting of the entire week. We went to the home of Aura Suruy, whose three daughters, ages 7, 9, and 11, were all beaten, raped, and murdered this past May 29 ( In unbearable pain, the mother has got help with her case from Fundacion Sobrevivientes and also got some help of MIA’s big sister organization, the Guatemala Peace and Development Network (GPDN), to help sponsor her male children’s continuing education.

Ending the delegation on such a horrific story definitely ignited the anger in us to come back to the U.S. and work for Guatemala in whatever ways we can.

USAid, Camino Seguro, Friday July 17

Justine Reports:

As a result of our questions at the U.S. Embassy on Monday, a team from USAID gave MIA a visit on Friday morning to discuss the U.S. funds that are provided as the “Foreign Assistance Strategy” to the Guatemalan government. Aware of the blatant corruption that occurs, we were curious as to what measures are taken to ensure the appropriate and responsible use of these funds by the government.

The goal of the assistance strategy, according to USAID, is “to help build and sustain democratic, well-governed states that respond to the needs of their people, reduce widespread poverty, and conduct themselves responsibly in the international system.” The main component has been the Rule of Law program, which had a five-year contract and will end this September. The program serves to seek accountability within the justice system, works with NGO’s and the public ministry and includes a budget for non-profit organizations, sports programs, and San Carlos University. However, noting the weakness of the public ministry, USAID acknowledged that this weakness is ever-prevailing and continues to facilitate impunity. Hearing this acknowledgement by USAID, and taking into account the continuously persistent injustice for women in Guatemala that we have spent the week learning about, USAID’s visit instilled little confidence among the delegates in the effectiveness of aid in dealing with femicide and violence against women.

In the afternoon, MIA visited one of Guatemala’s largest cemeteries, which is situated next to the country’s largest dump. As soon as we drove into the gates of the cemetery, our attention was diverted to a man holding two glass bottles, stumbling along the road. Yelling and mumbling to himself as he swerved from side to side, smashing the glass bottles against the lamp posts, we developed a deeper understanding of the unfortunate manifestations of the strife and angst of the country’s troublesome past.

A guide then walked us along the cliff of the cemetery, overlooking the massive dump. Even from a significant distance away, the stench was almost unbearable. We then drove to the neighborhood of slums next to it, where neighborhoods ironically named “Esperanza” (“Hope”) and “Libertad” (“Freedom”) are nestled around garbage and are accompanied by bugs, rats, and worms. These neighborhoods have neither running water nor electricity, and people breathe methane gas on a daily basis. Most children do not attend school, but rather work with their families in the dump every day to collect recyclables, usually about .70 cents worth a day.

After the walk around the neighborhood we got a tour of the Safe Passage [Camino Seguro], founded several years ago by Hanley Denning as a “reinforcement center” and essential shelter for the people occupying the neighborhood next to the dump. Relying on donations of about $2 million a year, the center contains daycare and activities for children of all ages, a library and computer center, a playground, medical office, and a women’s literacy center. While the Guatemalan government little concerns itself with developing extremely impoverished areas such as those next to the dump, it was valuable for us to be able to see at least one glimpse of light for these adults and children. Although all the people return to their own homes at night, it is essential for them - especially the children (who reportedly often suffer incest in their packed living proximities) – to get pleasant memories of love and compassion where they can.

Friday, July 17, 2009

San Carlos U, Police Archives, and Sandra Moran / Cafe Artesana, Thursday, July 16

Justine reports:

Thursday morning, MIA went to San Carlos University where Lucia gave a presentation on MIA's Hombres Contra Feminicidio program at a gender equity conference.

We then went to the National Police Archives and got a tour from Alberto Fuentes. The archives contain approximately 80 million documents of accounts of human rights violations from the government that occurred during Guatemala’s 30-year civil war, including accounts of illegal detentions, illegal prisons, and tortures, among others. Though the Guatemalan government claimed that these documents did not exist, they were found only in July of 2005, when military officials inspected a munitions dump after an explosion occurred.

The documents, which were found in a decaying building and covered with mold, rats, and bugs, have since been moved into the National Police Archives Building.

There, they have established a system in which to clean, organize, and digitize the documents, of which we were able to witness the processes during our tour. Benetech, a nonprofit organization from Silicon Valley, California, has assisted the Guatemalan investigators through providing means by which to scan and analyze the documents. Thus far, they have found that at least 15% of these accounts showed evidence of human rights abuses. Though nothing can be done to reverse the anguish that the country suffered during the civil war, finding and

honoring the cases contained in the archives may help victims and families heal the wounds of injustice that were brought on by the war.

We then drove to Café Artesana, an activist, art, and learning center near the Palacio Nacional. It is directed by Sandra Moran, a well-known political and feminist activist in Guatemala, who was a member of the Sector de Mujeres (women’s sector) that pushed for the inclusion of gender equity in the 1996 peace accords. Though included in the accords, gender equity has yet to be implemented – that is where Moran, along with many others, comes into the picture.

The goal of Sandra Moran and Café Artesana is a world in which women and men are able to live without violence. The Café the project of a women’s collective comprised of feminists and feminist artists, and is a space for art, expression, and freedom for women and men, without any fear of racism, sexism, or discrimination.

One of Café Artesana’s current focuses is working with women in jail, helping women use art as a tool to reflect on and empower their lives.

We had a lengthy discussion with Moran about current Guatemalan and U.S. politics, the newly instituted but rarely implemented Femicide Law, and the overall situation of women in Guatemala. After days of what has seemed like a crash course in government corruption, impunity, and institutionalized violence against women, it was a much-needed breath of fresh air to hear an optimistic glimpse from Moran as our discussion ended. Reiterating that her goal for the state of women in Guatemala would probably never be reached in her lifetime, and acknowledging that despite the hardships she and other activists face, we must keep in mind that the small victories, such as the establishment of Café Artesana, are the base for the bigger, revolutionary changes. Justice and equality is a day-to-day struggle, Moran said, but with enough commitment and patience, eventually the moment will come when our work will lead to positive change.

Hunger Strike, MuJer, Carlos Ibanez, Wednesday, July 15

Katherine reports:
Wednesday morning we spent time supporting Fundacion Sobrevivientes and the hunger strike they are doing to bring home the three Guatemalan children who were sold into illegal adoptions. Norma Cruz, the founder of Sobrevivientes, is leading the strike along with several mothers of the kidnapped children, as well as Shyrel Osborn, an American who moved to Guatemala 13 years ago as a missionary and started a home for children who have no other place to go. The strike started at 9am sharp and drew a crow of reporters and supporters in front of Guatemala City’s courthouse. We all received t-shirts with the phrase:

Enterremos Juntos
La corrupcion
La impunidad
Y La injusticia

Which translates into English as,

Together we will stop
The corruption
The impunity
And the injustice.

While wearing our shirts we held the banners for Hombres Contra Feminicidio (MIA’s chapter of the universal White Ribbon Campaign), and the Guatemala Peace and Development Network, which was also co-founded by Lucia and is the proud big sister of MIA.

Two of the three families that have illegally adopted the children have been notified of the circumstances under which they received the children, and one has vowed to fight until the very end to keep the child, while the other has gone into hiding so as not to lose the baby.

Lots of pictures were taken throughout the morning and several crews filmed us. Many people walked trough our demonstration on their way to or from the courthouse, so we hopefully got the message across. We were able to use the restrooms in the courthouse, but we had to take the t-shirts off before they would let us in.

After the day’s activities we went back to the strike for a few hours to show our support. The demonstration had been moved to a tent under an awning on the concrete square in front of the Palacio de Justicia (Plaza of Justice), a very ironic title given the state of justice in Guatemala. The media was gone, as were many of the supporters from the morning. People gathered in small groups to chat or make a trip to the Burger King across the square to use the restrooms.

Human trafficking is not a new issue for Guatemala, especially the illegal adoption industry. We hope for the sake of the people not eating and for the families involved that these children will be brought back to their home where they belong. Bringing these children back would be a great start to fighting this illegal industry and asserting the basic human rights of the Guatemalan people to the world.

Marlene Reports:

The MIA delegation met with Ana Moraga, the director of MuJER, a non-profit organization that aims to empower sex workers in Guatemala City. Ana gave an overview of the different services that MuJER provides. For instance, the organization puts on workshops that address several critical issues, such as self-esteem building and protection from violence. Furthermore, MuJER offers classes that provide skills training for sex workers in several areas. These classes include cosmetology, computers, English, and primary education. One of the more popular classes shows the women how to make jewelry that they can sell to supplement their income.
In addition to discussing MuJER’s activities the group also addressed sex workers’ current situation. Three women that have benefited from MuJER’s work were part of the discussion and graciously answered our questions. Among several themes that emerged from the discussion was sex workers’ vulnerable status in the country. The Department of Health regulates the sex work trade, although sex work itself is illegal. A recent human trafficking law meant to protect children and youth prohibits sex work in bars and brothels, which had previously offered a minimal level of protection. Therefore, sex workers are in a precarious position due to the clandestine nature of their work.

Another theme that came up and that demonstrates another level of vulnerability is the fact that about 60% of sex workers that MuJER works with are not Guatemalan citizens. Most are migrants from Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. These women often lack documentation that allows them to remain legally in Guatemala. Furthermore, officials continually demand to see a work visa which migrant sex workers cannot obtain since their trade is illegal. Therefore, officials subject sex workers to arbitrary and discriminatory policies since they do not have any kind of legal protection.

In a country where women as a whole have a subordinate position in society, sex workers are among the most marginalized group at both the social and economic levels. Two of the women who visited us were single mothers. They were forced to take sole responsibility for their children’s welfare after their husbands abandoned the family. One of the women emphasized that she had tried to work as a waitress but simply could not make ends meet with the dismal salary that the job provided. By choosing to work in this sexual commerce, these women engaged in one of the more economically viable options available to them, which brings us to one of MuJER’s key objectives, which is to provide skills training that simultaneously empowers women. MuJER emphasizes that sex work is a choice. The women, due to a range of circumstances, weighed their options and decided that sex work was the choice that worked for them at these particular moments in their lives. Therefore, while the organization teaches them skills that could eventually lead to alternative employment strategies (all three women brought jewelry they designed and the delegates went on a mini shopping spree!), it simultaneously promotes the development of self-awareness and stresses women’s autonomy.

Katherine reports again:

Wednesday evening before dinner, Carlos Ibanez, an expert on human trafficking in Guatemala, joined us at our hotel to give a brief overview of the trafficking infustry in Guatemala.

There are three main characteristics of human trafficking: 1) loss of freedom and liberty, 2) others gaining from one’s exploitation, and 3) the trafficked person is taken from their native culture and home. Currently, 7,000 Guatemalan children are being trafficked and sexually exploited.
The laws and justice systems of many countries have not caught up to this issue of modern day slavery, and Guatemala is no exception. Only recently have they adopted a law against trafficking, and there is yet to be a case taken to court using the new law. Many people in Guatemala, as well as the anti-trafficking community, agree that it is not the law itself that will make a difference, but rather the enforcement of the new law that will being an end to trafficking.

Because of Guatemala’s unique location, sharing borders with four other nations and between two oceans, Ibanez emphasized that it is an ideal place for traffickers to target their victims.

Many people play a role in the trafficking of humans, so cracking down is often a long and sometimes complicated process. Understanding the various roles and how we as U.S. citizens benefit from the trafficking is crucial to understanding how to fight smugglers and end human trafficking.

Rosa Franco, Jorge Velasquez, and USAC, Tuesday, July 14

At the beginning of the day, MIA received visits from two surviving parents of murdered women. The first parent who visited us was Rosa Franco, whose daughter Maria Isabel was killed in 2001, at age 16. Maria Isabel worked in a clothing store and noticed a man that seemed to have been stalking her on numerous occasions. One night, leaving from work, she was abducted and forced into a car, and was severely beaten, raped, and left in a ditch to die.

Maria Isabel, a beautiful young woman, enjoyed wearing makeup and cute clothing. This, according to the public defense attorney, meant that she must have been a prostitute. After over a year of frustrating attempts to further her daughter’s case, Amnesty International helped Franco get her case into the InterAmericas Court. While Franco says that Amnesty International was helpful pushing her case, she said that that the IAC had its own special political interests connected to Guatemala and thus failed to push a legitimate investigation of her daughter’s murder. As a result of Franco’s determination to obtain justice for Maria Isabel, she has been subjected to various threats and the IAC has provided her family with its own security. Without any satisfactory progress to note, Franco is still trying to push her daughter’s investigation, much to the displeasure of the Guatemalan government, she noted.

Shortly after, Jorge Velazquez met with MIA to discuss the murder of his daughter Claudina, who was raped and murdered while walking home from a party. In a similar fashion to Maria Isabel’s case, Claudina’s murder was delegitimized by the police and the public defense attorney. They insisted that she must have been a prostitute due to the facts that she was wearing sandals, a choker necklace, had a navel piercing, and her body was found in a middle class neighborhood. Consequently, as a “prostitute,” her case was not worth investigating.

Claudina’s fingerprints were not taken at the crime site or at the morgue. The police immediately covered her body, even before the crime scene investigators arrived. There were also major discrepancies surrounding her time of death. Velazquez has been trying to push his daughter’s investigation for several years to no avail, but believes that his daughter’s brutal murder is a result of the reality that narcotic traffickers often use women as tools in their transactions, what is believed to be a major factor of violence against women in the country. While Velazquez and his family have not been able to obtain justice to perhaps ease the healing process, he aspires for a Guatemala in which impunity does not exist to further the pain that families of victims of violence must endure.

The personal testimonies of Rosa Franco and Jorge Velazquez left a heavy air in the room; several of us were in tears. Such tragic accounts, however discouraging as we realized the magnitude of impunity that too often overpowers women’s cases, gave us even further inspiration for the cause to which we have become dedicated.

MIA then visited San Carlos University, the last public university in Guatemala. Randi and Jenny, who are long-time friends of MIA, gave us a presentation along with the rest of their on-campus activist group, Collectivo Rogelia Cruz. Giving a thorough and accurate history of the country, they discussed the military coup in 1951 that was aided by the United States and put Jacob Arbenz in power, leading to the 30-year old civil war that began in 1960 and, despite the signing of peace accords in 1996, continues to haunt Guatemala. The group also presented on the student movement that arose in the 60’s and 70’s as a result of the massive inequalities that ensued as a result of war and contributed to society’s overall resistance to the political climate. As the student movements began at this very university, Collectivo Rogelia Cruz gave us a tour of the incredible murals around campus that serve as both intricate works of art and heartfelt accounts of the country’s history.

U.S. Embassy, the FIrst Lady, and Sobrevivientes Monday, July 13

MIA’s first meeting of the day was an 11am appointment at the United States Embassy with the U.S. Embassador to Guatemala, Stephen McFarland (“The Unusual Diplomat,” in the July 13 issue of El Periodico Guatemala, Accompanying us was Gladys Monterrosa, the wife of the ombudsman, who was recently a victim of horrific rape and violence. In demonstration of Guatemala’s system of severe injustice for women, Gladys testified her experience and the extremely flawed investigation that followed.

During the investigation, no efforts were made to gather information or evidence from Monterrosa regarding her experience. An investigator, however, visited Monterrosa’s office and interviewed her assistant. He asked questions about Monterrosa’s salary, money spent, and call history, among other irrelevant inquiries. Additionally, the investigator asked about the office assistant’s marital status, which at the moment was single. Later in the investigation, this information was used against her to build the defense against Monterrosa’s case – the office assistant had since married, yet because she had previously stated that she was single, she was considered a “liar” in order to discredit Monterrosa’s case. Since the investigation began and was picked up by the CICIG Rincon, all of the questions asked of Monterrosa have to do with personal matters instead of details of her assault. Monterrosa noted that there has been no investigation of any potential suspects – the only one being investigated is Monterrosa herself.

As her husband was suspected to eventually run for office, some believe that successful prosecution in Monterrosa’s case would amount to sympathy for the family and result in an increase in women’s votes. Monterrosa’s brave testimony gave MIA an important opportunity to show that impunity, especially in cases of violence against women, affects even the upper class.

Embassador MacFarland commended Monterrosa’s courage and says that he has faith that the CICIG will eventually lead her to justice. Keeping in mind that Monterrosa’s tragic case is all too familiar in Guatemala, McFarland said that the solution to the profound problem of violence against women must be recognized and dealt with from within the justice system, as well as changes to the overall mindset of society. He noted the implementation of USAID to the Guatemalan government to combat impunity, as well as potential police reform – both of which, provoked by questions from two of the delegates, resulted in two more related invitations for appointments for MIA later on in the week.

MIA’s next meeting was with the First Lady of Guatemala, Sandra Colom. As we had been learning a great deal thus far about the impunity system, it was helpful to learn more about what Colom believes to be the major factors that add to such violence in the first place. She asserted that femicide and other violence is not only a problem of law, but that it is a social systemic problem that starts at home, facilitated by “machismo” culture, poverty, poor health, and lack of education.

Colom was candid in her responses. Admitting her regrets that she has been so overwhelmed with the seemingly infinite problems that plague Guatemala, she admits that she has not been able to focus a significant amount of time and energy to the issue of femicide. She discussed the new series of social programs called “Consejo de Cohesion Social,” which, according to Colom, do address what she considers to be factors that contribute to violence – particularly poverty and education. Addressing the high illiteracy rate among indigenous women, financial dependence of women on their husbands, domestic violence, the overall malnutrition of society, and intergenerational poverty, Colom hopes that as long as these programs generate results, they will continue in the coming years. She noted that the economic elite, however, will likely be the main obstacles to the success of these programs, as interruptions of the cycles of poverty and violence are contrary to their political agendas.

MIA’s third meeting of the day was with Fundacion Sobrevivientes (Survivors Foundation), an organization that works to ensure justice for women in cases of rape, sexual violence, illegal adoptions, and other crimes, as well as provides a shelter when necessary. It was founded in 1999 by Norma Cruz and her daughter, Claudia Maria Hernandez Cruz, and plays a vital role in intervening in women’s legal cases that would otherwise be subjected to the injustice of impunity. Norma, pictured above, was awarded the "Women of Courage" award this year by the Obama administration.

They essentially “make a system work that doesn’t want to work,” according to Eugenia, the assistant to Norma Cruz who spoke with us. Aside from the improbable circumstance that a woman would be able to find justice in the Guatemalan system on her own, most women with whom Fundacion Sobrevivientes works cannot afford the high cost of legal systems – so the organization provides its services for free.

Currently in the center of the foundation’s heart is the issue of illegal adoption, for which Norma Cruz told us she was planning a hunger strike. At the subject of the strike are three different cases whose scenarios are all too familiar for Guatemala. In many cases, a young child or infant may be abducted and declared “abandoned,” yet when a mother may come forward, the defense facilitating the illegal adoption claims that the mother is too impoverished to provide a decent life for the child.

In one of the cases for which Sobrevivientes is protesting, a woman had left her infant with a relative while she went grocery shopping. While she was gone, someone entered the house claiming to have been told by the mother to pick up the child, and kidnapped her for a lucrative illegal adoption in the United States. Because illegitimate procedures were followed in each three cases, Sobrevivientes is calling for legal procedure both in Guatemala and in the U.S. to void all three adoptions.

Norma Cruz, along with Sheryl Osborne – an American working with orphans in Guatemala – have both said that they are willing to starve to death in the hunger strike if all three children are not returned home. Learning about the important work that Fundacion Sobrevivientes does for women in Guatemala and the amazing strength of Norma Cruz, we gained tremendous inspiration for the rest of our delegation and for our work in the U.S. in the future.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Market in Chichicastenango, Sunday July 12

With no meetings scheduled for the day, the delegation was able to enjoy the scenery while driving from Xela to Chichi. We got to shop during the day at the most famous market in Guatemala, eyeing and buying blankets, accessories, and clothing – all of which are beautifully intricate and will help us sustain our memories of this precious country once we return home. On our way back to Guatemala City we stopped at the home of Lulu, a longtime friend of MIA, who fed us home-made tamales, Guatemala style, while we prepared for the busy week ahead.