By: Stacey Gomez, BTS Maritimes Coordinator

From October 26-30th, lawyer Gloria Reyes of the Rabinal Legal Clinic spoke throughout the Maritimes on the case of the 36 women from Rabinal seeking justice for sexual violence committed during Guatemala’s Internal Armed Conflict. As a member of legal team for the case, Gloria shared with us where the legal case is and about the ongoing struggle against impunity in Guatemala. The speaking tour with Gloria included visits to Tatamagouche, Moncton, Fredericton, Charlottetown, Antigonish and Halifax. 

The 36 women in the case are from all over Rabinal, Baja Verapaz. As Gloria explained, Rabinal was one of the hardest hit regions by the conflict because of its location, seen as a transit area for the guerilla. Indigenous people in the area were treated by the state as sympathizers to the guerilla and thus heavily targeted. Gloria noted, however, that most of the people killed were non-combatants, including women, children and the elderly. In total, there were 20 massacres in Rabinal in the early 1980s. 

The state used sexual violence as a tactic of genocide against the Maya Achi population. Women were specifically targeted, given their important role in society in terms of reproduction and the preservation of culture.

The legal cases emerged in 2011. Gloria spoke about the impetus behind the case: “We want what happened to be investigated and for there not to be impunity. We don’t want it to ever be repeated… The women don’t want what happened to them to happen to their daughters.” Gloria added: “Some of the women have shared that they don’t want to die without seeing justice in their case.”

So far, this case has seen 7 former members of military-controlled militias called “civil defense patrols,” face charges for crimes against humanity, including sexual violence, torture, and illegal detention. One of the men died of natural causes while in custody, leaving 6 men to face charges. 

Gloria spoke about some of the set-backs that they’ve faced in the case. In June, for instance, Judge Claudette Dominguez made the decision not to send the 6 men to trial. A recusal motion calling for Judge Dominguez to be removed from the case was put forward and granted on September 9th. That ruling cited her prejudicial questioning of victims and evidence of bias on account of her sister’s position in the military. The legal team is still waiting to hear whether Judge Dominguez’ ruling on the case will be upheld.

We heard about the challenges women have faced in bringing their stories forward, including threats and intimidation. So, on each leg of the speaking tour, we shared a message of solidarity with them. Inspired by the #MujeresAchiHilandoJusticia hashtag that the legal team is using for the case, our banner read: “We are weaving justice with Achi women.

Gloria also spoke of the ongoing attempts to reform the National Reconciliation Law, in order to provide amnesty for crimes committed during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict. On February 13, two women from involved in the case of the 36 women, Paulina Alvarado y Pedrina Ixpata, presented an injunction to the proposed amendments to the law.

Ultimately, Bill 5377 failed to pass due to a lack of quorum, the result of local and international pressure. Moreover, the country’s Constitutional Court, as well as the Inter-American Court ordered Guatemala to cease debate on the bill permanently. Nevertheless, in August, Congressman Fernando Linares Beltranena unsuccessfully attempted to schedule a third reading of the bill.

During the speaking tour, we also heard about the struggle for justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada, as well as the complicity of the state in these cases. In Halifax, lawyer Natalie Clifford spoke about her work with the National Inquiry on Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls.

Natalie shared: “During the inquiry, we heard about a history of RCMP and local police forces repeatedly abusing, neglecting and mocking Indigenous women in their care. We learned about the widely held views of this being acceptable and that its not going away any time soon. We heard about the poisonous culture that develops around mancamps in furtherance of resource development and the direct harm they pose to Indigenous women. And, as Mi’kmaq and Maliseet in our region, we remember our ancestors were given smallpox infested clothing and blankets by settlers. We remember rewards for our scalps…”

As Gloria says, “The colonial system isn’t just in Guatemala. It’s everywhere. It’s here. It’s in the US. It’s wherever it’s allowed to persist. So we have to organize and struggle so that doesn’t happen. The role of the lawyer is important in that. We also need to organize ourselves in our communities, so that we are adequately represented in political spaces. We need to be resistant, perseverant and hopeful.”

At the end of the speaking tour, Gloria shared: “It’s important to know that people here are interested in knowing about the Guatemalan context and the case of the 36 women specifically. The fact that people came to the events is an important step. Having people listen, it strengthens me. Also, the solidarity towards the women is also really important.”

In case you missed it, you can catch a video from the event here.

Thanks to KAIROS, Nancy Chair in Women’s Studies and Inter Pares for helping to make this speaking tour a reality!