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Justice Delayed But Not Denied for Indigenous Peoples in Guatemala

“Everything changed when the soldiers arrived,” said Rosa, an Indigenous Ixil woman living in the Quiché region of Guatemala. “They burned our homes, raped the women and killed many of my friends and neighbors.”

It was 1982, and Efraín Ríos Montt had just seized power in a military coup. Under his seventeen-month rule, Guatemala’s Indigenous Peoples suffered greatly: at least 1,771 people were killed, 1,485 girls were raped and 29,000 people were forcibly displaced from their homes.

Thirty years later, Ríos Montt will finally stand trial for these crimes. If convicted, he could face up to 30 years in prison.

Montt’s trial, announced just this past week, comes after decades of Indigenous Peoples’ demands for justice. Indigenous Peoples, and specifically women, were systematically targeted throughout the 36-year civil war. Montt’s reign was the bloodiest phase of the conflict.

These were not attacks carried out randomly; violence against women was a deliberate tactic used to traumatize families and destroy the capacity of communities to resist and organize. Many women were targeted because they are the pillars of their families and communities. Women were gang-raped in front of their families. Pregnant women were tortured and murdered in order to cut off the next generation.

Indigenous communities in Guatemala are still reeling from the effects of this devastating war. Despite the peace accords signed in 1996, Guatemala's Indigenous Peoples continue to face systematic discrimination and ongoing human rights violations. They constitute a majority of the country’s poor, suffer high levels of unemployment and over half of their children are chronically malnourished.

But women like Rosa are working to change this. With support from MADRE, Indigenous women in Guatemala’s Quiché region have started chicken farms to provide food for their families and generate income. They are demanding their political rights: holding voter education workshops and working to overcome the many bureaucratic hurdles to register to vote. And they continue to fight for justice for the hundreds of thousands killed, raped and displaced during the civil war.

The road ahead is a long one. Last week, Otto Pérez Molina was inaugurated as Guatemala’s new president, a man himself accused of human rights violations during the civil war. Last year, 19 human rights defenders were assassinated, targeted for speaking out for Indigenous rights. And hundreds of Maya Q’eqchi’ families from Guatemala’s Polochic Valley remain displaced 10 months after being violently pushed off their land by a sugar company claiming the territory.

I met Rosa last year when I traveled to rural Guatemala to meet with Indigenous women fighting for their families’ survival. I will be thinking of her again, and thousands of others like her, as the trial of Ríos Montt begins. She lost so much, and she deserves justice.

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Yifat Susskind

Yifat Susskind is the Executive Director of MADRE, an international women's human rights organization. She has worked with women’s human rights activists from Latin America, the Middle East, Asia and Africa to create programs in their communities to address women's health, violence against women, economic and environmental justice and peace building. She has also written extensively on US foreign policy and women’s human rights and her critical analysis has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy in Focus and elsewehere.

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