Guatemala: An opportunity for gender justice?

First published in Thomson Reuters Foundation on May 1, 2013

Author: Viviana Waisman, Women’s Link Worldwide

When pre-trial Judge Carol Patricia Flores ordered on Thursday April 18th that the trial against Ríos Montt be suspended and for the proceeding to start at square one due to the supposed need to rule on a number of motions that were left unresolved since 2011, the human rights community was thrown into a flurry of confusion, rage and feeling of impotence.

Indeed, the investigation and prosecution of former general Efraín Ríos Montt is a historic event and an opportunity for justice. The world watched as the world’s first trial in a domestic court for genocide and war crimes committed in that country’s national territory unfolded.

Former general Ríos Montt led a coup in Guatemala on March 23, 1982. After he took power, he perpetuated the Guatemalan genocide with the goal of destroying the Mayan population. In Guatemala, as in all conflicts and wars throughout history, sexual violence and rape of women was used to carry out genocide.

This setback is outrageous for all the survivors and their families and puts in peril an opportunity that must not go unmentioned: the opportunity to prosecute gender crimes committed for purposes of carrying out genocide.


We often hear that women are the spoils of war, and now we have the chance not only to take a moment to reflect on what that means, but also to prevent these crimes from going unpunished. For women to be the spoils of war meant that in Guatemala, Mayan girls and women young and old were systematically raped.

That is, not in isolated cases, not by some soldier who got carried away—they were raped repeatedly by many men after the massacres of the community, when they were taken to military posts, when they were running through the mountains to flee certain death. Thousands of women were subjected to sexual violence in front of their partners, in front of their family, in front of soldiers who missed no opportunity to rape them too after watching their comrades.

The bodies of girls and women were used to spread terror. The rapes did not stop there. Soldiers cut and mutilated women, placed objects in their vaginas, impaled them, cut open the bellies of pregnant women to kill the fetus.

The mutilated bodies of women were displayed on the road in communities to send the clear message that the Mayan population should be afraid because this could happen to any woman. Finally, as in other conflicts, the bodies of women were destroyed, and with them, the social and cultural fabric of the Mayan indigenous people.


The Guatemalan genocide went down in history as one of the greatest horrors of our times, and this trial too should go down in history as one of the greatest achievements for justice in the world. This according to Justice Miguel Ángel Gálvez of the Guatemalan Supreme Court, who investigated the case and ordered in January that Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez be brought to trial for genocide and war crimes.

During the month that the trial took place before the suspension, women survivors came forward to tell the horrific stories of rape and torture. Then on April 12, attorney Paloma Soria, from the organization Women’s Link Worldwide, gave expert testimony on gender and international criminal law. The survivors present in the court room heard for the first time in an official space that the violations they suffered were note mere “collateral damage”.

The testimony was given to provide the court with the elements necessary so that the bravery of all those girls and women who experienced sexual violence and did not keep quiet would not be in vain, justice will be done, and the day will draw closer when these crimes can longer be committed with impunity, in Guatemala or anywhere else in the world.

For the girls and women in Guatemala, for all the victims of the genocide, for all the survivors, for all those that are working for the respect of human rights, we hope that the justices in Guatemala will allow the trial to go forward.

Viviana Waisman is founder and Executive Director of Women’s Link Worldwide. She is an expert in women’s rights and international human rights law. She leads and participates in investigations, litigation and trainings in numerous fields such as: international gender crimes, intersectional discrimination, trafficking, among others. She is now a member of the European Commission Third Group of Experts on Trafficking in Human Beings.


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