Last September, we held a webinar together with the Association of Family Members of the Detained and Disappeared of Guatemala (FAMDEGUA) with the objective of hearing updates directly from the families and lawyers of the Military Diary case and discussing some of the gender-differentiated impacts for women.

FAMDEGUA was born in 1992, from the integration of mothers, daughters, sons, sisters, fathers, wives and other relatives of people who were detained-disappeared during the Internal Armed Conflict, in a climate of impunity to demand that the State conduct an exhaustive investigation into the more than 40,000 kidnappings and forced disappearances that were committed during that period.

FAMDEGUA is a non-governmental, humanitarian and solidary organization, of social, cultural and educational service, with legal status, which directs its work to:

  • The search for people who were victims of forced disappearance during the Internal Armed Conflict. – Denouncing the violation of the fundamental rights and freedoms of any person or community.
  • Promote exhumation, identification and burial processes for the dignification of victims.
  • Accompany legal processes of lawsuits with the relatives of the victims of forced disappearance.
  • Socialize life experiences with other relatives and society.

This event was also supported by: SOAW – School of the Americas Watch, IFCLA – The Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America, GHRC – Guatemala Human Rights Commission, Colectivo Guatemalteco en Los Angeles, CRLN – Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America, GuaSa – Guatemala Scholar-Activist Working Group and Guatemaya L.A, Mujeres en Resistencia.

We transcribe below the conversation, in the form of an interview, with Jovita Tzul and Carmen Gómez.  Jovita Tzul is a renowned Mayan K’iche lawyer with a long history of work in human rights and women’s rights, currently part of the legal team of the Center for Legal Action on Human Rights (CALDH).  Carmen Gomez, a survivor and family member of victims of the Military Diary case, was held in a clandestine prison. On March 29, her uncle Hector Orlando Gomez Calito, spokesperson for the Mutual Support Group (GAM), was kidnapped and murdered, her family went into exile because of the danger.

Can you tell us where the Military Diary Case is legally and what are the demands of the relatives, victimes, and survivors?

Currently, there are 9 people who have been sent to trial for various crimes including forced disappearance and crimes against humanity. We are awaiting the start of the oral, public debate. There are another 5 people tied to the process and are awaiting the beginning of their intermediary hearing to take place, which is to say to decide if these people will face an oral, public trial with the other 9.

However, the process has been surrounded by dilatory actions and malicious litigation. An important situation has been the health of the defendants; due to their health or advanced age, they had to wait several weeks to await their legal status.

Jovita Tzul

It is a pleasure to be able to share a little about this life experience, which still moves me a lot to talk about, but I know it is important and necessary to know what happened.

As a survivor and friend and family member of people who are registered in Miliary Diary, I want to take a moment of recognition and appreciation for these women who appear in the Diary, these sisters who in their time were sisters of pain, torture and clandestine incarceration. They are present today, they wanted to transform this country and their example gives us motivation to continue forward.

The demands we have in this case are to know the truth and to have this truth lead the processes that are being carried out. It does not do anyone any good to deny what happened and hide information.

Also, we want businessmen just as we want legal quasi paramilitary organizations to stop operating, intervening, and hiding information.

If the advancement of these trials is not guaranteed and the truth is not known, this will happen again. Therefore, on the principle of avoiding repetition we want to know the truth so that other generations do not go through what happened to us.

Also, we ask for the guarantee that every state agency operates as it should, as is mandated in the Guatemalan political constitution, because the cooptation of these agencies is evident and is an antidemocratic regression that is doing a lot of harm.

Stop the criminalization, the persecution, I’ve done follow up for three months now and it’s been so blatant and open that they don’t care. Therefore, it’s a very complicated situation because all of those fears return, everything we have experienced, situations that damage legal processes.

Carmen Gómez

What are some of the impacts that differentiate by gender that have been observed in the cases of the women registered in the Military Diary?

This is a fundamental theme in the policy of counterinsurgency, repression, persecution: to analyze differentiated circumstances and patterns of how this counterinsurgent violence found in women’s bodies a useful mechanism for instilling generalized terror as part of its strategy.

Throughout history, wars in diverse territories have used the body of a woman as a weapon and a spoil of war. AndGuatemala was no exception, on the contrary, it was part of the strategies implemented to break the organized resistance, the resistance that at that time was raised by collectives, groups and organizations that existed at that time.

In the trials, we have always demanded rights for the victims in the Military Diary, by whom I mean the people who disagreed with the dictatorial regime, who disagreed with the form of government based on the violence and repression that was alive at that time. This is why we are saying to think differently is not a crime, and if it had been a crime or an illegal act at that time, it was because their views did not position them in the judge’s favor.

Meanwhile, in the case of the women, the circumstances were even more intense because their hardship was two-fold.

The founders of FAMDEGUA a great majority of them are women who were searching for their children, their husbands, their friends, their siblings, their parents. This demonstrates what we call the multiple effects of abuse of forced disappearances that have impacted women: while the victim is affected, so is their family and in this instance particularly the mothers, sisters, wives, female friends, and daughters.

What is more, while these actions directly relapsed on women, there were also distinct patterns in the treatment of women, using their bodies: sexual violence, inhumane, cruel, and degrading acts specifically targeted at women. The use of children as a psychological torture was also a mechanism that was used against women, as was the subjection to domestic servitude; documented in this case and other investigations, is the subjection of captive women into forced domestic slavery, including sexual slavery.

There are really serious cases, if the politic of the State enforced at that time was a politic with which they intended to rule, without a doubt it was a profoundly violent politic that was deliberately misogynist and violently targeting women’s bodies.

The women at that time who dedicated their bodies and lives to the defense of social rights and the defense of ideals of a better country were victims of actions intentionally established to  denigrate not only their human dignity, but also their dignity as women, mothers, and all of the societal spheres in which women lived.

The conditions in which women lived at that time continue today, and that is why we talk about the lasting effects of forced disappearance. The women who we represent in the trials and those who we do not, those living victims and survivors, all of us hope for justice and dignity because as women we should all condemn facts such as these. We not only hope for justice but also that these survivors find their relatives. And that is the fight, to know where they are, because this continued waiting generates serious repercussions on the lives of women.

Jovita Tzul

Our experiences in the struggle have been painful but extremely necessary. It has involved several generations, because one of the situations that should be mentioned is that in this case we are the women who appear, there are their photos, in some cases their names or pseudonyms, that demonstrate their decision to participate politically, to do something to change this country. But there are thousands of others who do not appear in the Military Diary and all of the women who surrounded them, daughters and mothers as well as men, their families, sons, a series of people who have been harmed. And so, hurt as they were, the struggle for the search had to go on for many years.

So, on many occasions there have been people with relatives who were disappeared who have grown sick. There is so much anguish, pain, the breaking up of families because of what happened, and in the midst of these ruptures, women have had to continue walking.

Womens’ roles as caretaker in many cases increased and they had to take on additional relatives who, for example, were left without a mother. So these same situations have made the struggle a complex one, with fears, especially now that we look at all this that is happening, even after so many years there is no clarity, at times we see that progress is being made and then there is a setback and this is another situation that also hurts all the people in this search, because there is no certainty that the families will not suffer again the repression, the violence that was experienced in the past. So it is a search full of fear, but what is done is moved by love, love for the family, for the country, for the ancestors.

Additionally, we have been able to see that in some ways, all of the torturous objectives to maintain women in a clandestine incarceration — a specifically gendered violence, which sought to invalidate women as political subjects — we see that this very pursuit is what converted these women into political subjects, despite fear, despite the whole situation.

It is swimming against the current, but with the conviction that a missing person makes us incomplete, as a family, as a person, as a country. We feel their absence, and in the midst of all the difficulties of all kinds, the psychological and emotional oppression is another problem, but in the midst of all that we must continue walking because this is a just fight and this country demands that the facts are known, that the justice agencies are taken to the courts and that they serve sentences if that is what is appropriate, if they are guilty that they pay, because that is why there are processes and a whole body that should know what to do.

Carmen Gómez

What reflections do each of you have about the militancy and political participation of the profiles found registered in the military diary?

Everything that was done against us as women to a large extent had the objective of returning women back to the private sphere, and they did not forgive us for having made the jump into the public domain and that is why all of this has happened to us. Fortunately, currently, we see many men and women, youth as well, opposing what is happening and there we are able to see the principles and objectives of the fight of the women who are in the Military Diary and many other people. This has to change, there is no process that can be stopped, no matter how much they co-opt the state, no matter how much they say it is not true. This has to change, it will change.

Carmen Gómez

I agree with what Carmen said, I believe that women’s struggles have existed in various phrases of this history. Nowadays, they are present in the demand and pursuit of justice. And their energy is composed of all of the women who have fought and demanded for a more dignified life for everyone in their time.

We vindicate the memories of the victims, of the disappeared. The fight for land, the fight for health, the fight for life, the fight for education, these were the stakes that the comrades demanded at that time and they are struggles that are still valid today. But also the fact that these struggles still exist means that these efforts have had repercussions in the new generations, who upon learning the truth, knowing what happened, we also organize ourselves, we rethink, we join these struggles, these efforts to continue these legacies of memory, to continue these claims for what is just.

I believe that just as there has been a continuum of aggression and violence, there has been a continuum of resistance, of struggle, of vindication and I believe we must maintain this continue through love and hope for the families of the victims and for the survivors.

Jovita Tzul

What parallels exist between the context of the eighties and the current context in terms of democratic deterioration and regression?

It’s a bit difficult to name the situations one by one, but they are very similar. In that time, for example, I participated in a protest about the public transportation rise, and they arrested us, which then led to a series of human rights violations, just the same as now: they arrest people for protesting, they violate their rights.

As well, the practice of persecution continues: in those times, it was armed people in private, unmarked cars. All of these practices were implemented in the past. And there are selective accusations directed toward certain people, now even on social media, but before it was paramilitary organizations —  like the Secret Anti-Communist Army, in the case of Oliverio Castañada de Leon — that published in Prensa Libre and in many places the lists of people who they were going to kill. Now, too, things like that happen — with a much lower profile, but they happen.

Carmen Gómez

These parallels that Carmen has shared are definitely present today. Maybe these days we call them something else, because we talk about the criminalization of social protest, the criminalization of human rights defenders, the violation of judicial independence and other situations that we analyze, but the effects and the objectives that they have are the same as they were in the time of the Armed Conflict, and so it is an extension of that same counter-insurgency strategy that they are looking to apply through different channels now.

In those times, social media didn’t exist, just like Carmen said, but all of the smear campaigns, all of the generation of hateful discourse, all of these aggressions against the victims and against human rights defenders, it’s a context just like the one we lived in during those times. Unfortunately, again we find ourselves falling into those same actions that are done with the consent of the government.

The outlooks are very similar, and there has been continuity in those aggressions — they have transformed but it’s worrying that they may again become more clear and violent actions like in the past. It isn’t a secret for anyone that human rights defenders are being assassinated, Indigenous and community leaders are being jailed, all of these actions that are present today to defend the partisan political and economic interests.

I believe that just as there has been a continuum of aggression and violence, there has been a continuum of resistance, of struggle, of vindication and I believe we must maintain this continue through love and hope for the families of the victims and for the survivors.

Jovita Tzul

How can the US population and the international community support your fight?

Human rights organizations can support us through the accompaniment of the victims, survivors, and people who are bringing court cases, as well as the other people and organizations involved — and not only for the Military Diary case. Because the fight and the gamble for justice for the atrocious crimes of the Armed Conflict in Guatemala are really many fights. The Military Diary case joins a long line of cases seeking justice, but there are even more, like the Achí women who are survivors of sexual assault, the Ixil genocide case, and other processes of transitional justice that are in the courts or in some other stage within the justice system.

I would ask for accompaniment, advocacy to guarantee that these processes of justice can take place without pressure on the parties involved, that judicial independence be respected, and the financial independence in those cases as well. And of course that the integrity of the plaintiffs, victims, survivors, and witnesses throughout the whole process be respected, because only then will justice be possible. Only then will we be able to ascertain the truth and know what it was that happened, to know where [the disappeared] are, that is what we all want to know.

Jovita Tzul

From the governments, in this specific case the government of the United States, it is difficult for them to support much given the history that exists there. But I have absolute confidence that the US population can choose to act differently. I think that one of the actions that you could take is to inform the population about what happened and what continues to happen, so that that information reaches as many people as possible.

We know that people in the US want to support, I remember in the seventies and eighties that there was a lot of support from the US population. I don’t doubt that at this moment there are also lots of people who would like to support. I think in more concrete terms, it would be good to support organizations of Guatemalans living in the United States, so that they can help us here. Because they, as dual citizens, can intervene in a more direct way with solidarity activities between the US and Guatemala — a lot can be achieved that way.

Carmen Gómez

Would you like to share some closing words?

I would like to add my solidarity with the survivors and the victims of these horrible acts. I am in solidarity with their cause, their family, their fight, and I want to thank them for their strength, for their bravery and for continuing in this fight, in this path. And we are going to continue supporting and accompanying the victims in this difficult and complicated path, but it is a path that has a lot of strength and dignity.

Jovita Tzul

I would like to thank all the people who accompany us, because it makes us stronger. I’d also like to thank the families who are directly involved in the cases, confronting this perverse system.

The last thing I want to say is that in Indigenous communities, the women always plant flowers of all different colors, and no matter what happens, the women are always seeding and cultivating flowers, and the colors make life happy. For me, this is an example of historical resistance, and we have a lot to learn from it — I think that the fight is fought with dignity, what they wanted more than anything was to crush us, to eliminate us, but we have to keep moving forward with all of our dignity, all of our strength, with the certainty that they are the ones who have been doing wrong, and we have to keep doing the right things, which add up, which make people happy. And we can’t lose hope even in spite of everything. Because just like when it rains, the next day the sun comes out, if it is our turn to cry, the next day we will laugh. Thank you.

Carmen Gómez