How Guatemalan Women Are Taking the Endemic of Gender Violence Into Their Own Hands

Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla

Latin America is home to 14 of the 25 countries with the highest rates of femicide, the systematic killing of women based on their gender, in the world. Among the countries in the region with the largest number of gender-based murders is Guatemala. According to a report by the National Institute of Forensics, an average of 62 women are murdered in the Central American country every month. With impunity and government inaction surrounding the killings, disappearances and abuse of women, there is an undeniable war against women and girls in Guatemala.

There is an undeniable war against women and girls in Guatemala.

This struggle was made visible to the rest of the world on March 8, 2017. That morning, on International Women’s Day, 41 girls between the ages of 14 and 17 years old were burnt to death at Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción, a state-run group home outside Guatemala City, the country’s capital. 

The previous night, the girls, alongside several teenage boys who were also housed at Hogar Seguro, staged a mass escape from the center in protest of violence, including sexual, physical and emotional abuse, experienced at the orphanage. Many of the youth housed at Hogar Seguro, abandoned by their families or coming from extreme poverty, were survivors of violence who were retraumatized in the facility.

“Their lives were disposable,” feminist K’iche activist Andrea Ixchíu tells Remezcla.

The night of March 7, 2017, most of the children and teens who escaped were apprehended by police and returned to Hogar Seguro. Then-President Jimmy Morales ordered the dispatch of 100 police officers to the group home, where 56 girls were locked in a small classroom. After sunrise the following day, the girls remained captive without permission to go to the bathroom. Desperate to pressure police officers to unlock the doors, the youth lit a mattress on fire. Officers didn’t let the children out.

The fire went on for hours as their screams drowned in the flames. Forty-one of the girls were killed, while 15 others suffered severe burns that they’re still recovering from. Since then, these same survivors have repeatedly been criminalized and even blamed for the Hogar Seguro deaths.

This is Guatemala: a country that burns its girls alive. 

This is Guatemala: a country that burns its girls alive. 

Since 2016, some 2,500 women and girls have been violently killed in Guatemala. The National Institute of Forensic Sciences reports that in the past three years, there have been more than 27,000 cases of sexual assaults and nearly 17,000 pregnancies among girls between the ages of 10 and 14, all products of rape. Guatemala is among five countries in Latin America and the Caribbean with the most alarming levels of violence against women and girls. In 2018 alone, 794 women were killed and there were 8,694 reports of sexual violence, roughly one every 60 minutes.  

For Ixchíu, the memories of Hogar Seguro are especially vivid as she was one of the first women to arrive to a local morgue to help the girls’ mothers identify the remains of their daughters. 

“It was very desolate to see the ambulances arrive with the bodies,” Ixchíu says. 

It was later known that the children held at Hogar Seguro were also subjected to sex traffiking

“We had to witness horrific things, but we also saw and felt that sorority among our women. After Hogar Seguro, it was mostly women taking to the streets. In a country like Guatemala, [our] mobilization is constant,” Ixchíu says. 

The Indigenous activist’s thoughts always trail back to the aftermath of the Hogar Seguro massacre and the community that was built from pain, including the Nos Duelen 56 movement that has led battles on the streets and in the courts on behalf of the girls.

After the Hogar Seguro fire, Carmen Chutan, the mother of one of the victims, placed 41 wooden crosses in the Constitutional Plaza in honor of the girls, which were later replaced by white metallic crosses. A red sculpture of the number 56, representing 41 victims and 15 survivors, was placed in the middle of the memorial. For months, Chutan, other mothers and members of Guatemala’s Colectivo 8 Tijax, took care of the shrine, which stood directly across from the Presidential Palace. 

“Their lives were disposable.”

In September 2019, the Morales government ordered the shrine for the 56 to be removed, just in time for Guatemala’s Independence Day celebration on September 15. The Minister of Culture and Sports defended the decision, saying the plaza “is not a cemetery.” 

However, within weeks, another shrine was lifted. 

“The act of these women who have constantly pronounced themselves … that for me truly confirms what’s happening here [in Guatemala],” Pia Flores, an award-winning journalist with the online newspaper Nómada who has written about gender violence in Guatemala for years, tells Remezcla. “These shrines are like anti-monuments that remind us of events that are too difficult in history and that we need to be reminded of so that they don’t repeat again.”

In November 2019, a group of grassroots women’s rights organizations came together to instill an even larger memorial with 2,500 red crosses to honor every single femicide victim in the country from 2016 to 2019. 

“The spike in femicides [in Guatemala] is completely alarming,” Ixchíu says. “There have been very few actions to fortify women’s rights here. To the contrary, the government of Jimmy Morales made constant misogynistic declarations, often referring to the feminist movement as a public enemy. It [was] an administration plagued by hatred toward women.”

But women continue to organize. Even U.S. movements like Me Too have made their way to Guatemala. Flores has been at the forefront of narrating these testimonies, from a gynecologist in the town of Panajachel, Sólola, who drugged and raped several women, to reports of the director of Guatemala City’s municipal music school’s persistent sexual abuse and harassment against female students. 

“Each of us resists in any way we can, every time we leave our homes.”

Recently, the founder and director of Nómada himself, Martín Rodríguez Pellecer, was accused by at least a dozen women of sexual misconduct, harassment and abuse. Two separate investigations into the accusations were published in December by Colombian journalist and former Nómada reporter Catalina Ruiz-Navarro. Rodríguez Pellecer is currently suspended from Nómada. 

“Each of us resists in any way we can, every time we leave our homes,” Flores says. “And there are layers on top of this general violence that exists in Guatemala, layers that certain people have to deal with aside from this general violence. Being a woman. Or if you’re LGBTQ, you are exposed to this general violence and the normalized violence from aggressors who don’t agree with your gender identity or sexual orientation. But the resistance is there.” 

On the last Saturday of November, as an echo of Chile’s Colectivo Las Tesis, the feminist hymn #UnVioladorEnTuCamino resonated through the voices of hundreds of women in Guatemala City’s Human Rights Plaza. They took to the streets of the capital’s historic center and marched to the Guatemalan Congress where they lined up and staged a performance. 

“And the blame wasn’t mine, or where I was or how I dressed. The rapist is you. They are the cops. The judges. The state. The president,” the women chanted as they pointed at the congressional structure. Just five days earlier, hundreds of women also protested on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women

This mobilization kept alive the memory of the more than 2,500 women and girls who’ve been violently killed under the presidency of Morales, whose last day in office was January 1, 2020.

While President Alejandro Giammattei has since taken office, many in the country fear that the conservative politician will be more of the same. For instance, in 2010, Giammattei was arrested for allegedly orchestrating the executions of seven inmates detained in Guatemala’s largest all-male prison, Pavón, while he was the director of Guatemala’s penitentiary system. Giammattei was incarcerated for nearly a year before a judge in 2011 dismissed the case against him.

Despite his own political history, ties with controversial figures and conservative vision for the country, women remain activated and ready to take on a new regime. They have not given up their fight for the girls of Hogar Seguro, a case that remains open.

As the women said of the victims and survivors in November, “They weren’t silent, and you didn’t like that. They demanded rights, and the State burned them” — and now they and their movement, too, are blazing.