The Changes From Within: Maya Women’s ‘Journey of Hope’

Eso es lo que es nuestro sentir como mujer.”

“That’s how we feel as women.”

Doña Teresa,

Zacualpa, Guatemala

Doña Teresa, a Maya K’iché woman, relaxed and pensive on a mountain slope in Zacualpa, (1) reflects upon her life-changes and transformations from the last three decades. She was a teenager when the state military forces’ violent confrontations of terror and chaos shocked her community and thousands of others, causing death and destruction at a unprecedented scale. Historians compare the 36-year catastrophic Armed Conflict in Guatemala with the near-total devastation during and after the conquest of 1524 by the Spanish conquistadors. (2) Doña Teresa and her family grew up subsisting in the mountainous part of Zacualpa, an area deemed excessively impacted by the military forces as reported by the United Nations report, Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico (CEH). (3) Zacualpa, where Doña Teresa grew up, and two other, K’iche’-speaking pueblos – Joyabaj, and Chiché, constituted one of the four geographical areas that the state military had reportedly identified the inhabitants as the “internal enemies,” based on their tactical assessment. (4

Doña Teresa’s healing practices are rooted in Mayan spirituality and the cosmovision, which together, encompass every aspect of her life. She learned the Mayan way of life through the cultural transmission process within her extended family and community. But when the Internal Armed Conflict erupted violently, the cultural and social foundations of life became fragmented and weakened. (5) As a result of the tragic devastation of so many lives, as well as the loss of physical property, Doña Teresa turned her attention toward mere survival, for herself and her family. 

Several decades later, her long, arduous journey of self-healing has closed a circle, and Doña Teresa’s vibrant and positive outlook on life is a testament to her determination to regain her Maya spiritual strength, and to help others realize their journey of self-healing as foretold by their ancestors. The effects are far-reaching, beyond the rewards of basic health and well-being. At the core of the principles that she espouses is the belief that a cultural reconstruction of the Mayan culture as gifted by her ancestors is the best antidote for the affliction that many people continue to suffer, especially the women survivors of the Armed Conflict. As a member of a woman’s organization devoted to using native plants for alternative medicine, Doña Teresa is a change agent in the cultural reconstruction process.  

Doña Teresa’s reflection video:


The Reports: Women as Victims and Protagonists During and Post-Periods of the Internal Armed Conflict

Women were violently targeted, specifically during the genocidal events between 1981 and 1983. The CEH, the United Nations report on the Guatemalan 36-year Armed Conflict, concluded that at least 25 percent of the human rights violations and acts of violence were directedly attributed to women. However, children were also impacted as a result of the violence that women experienced; the CEH reported that a “large number” of children were also victimized directly, citing atrocious acts of torture, rape, and forced disappearances. Another document detailing the Armed Conflict, the REMHI investigative report supported by the Archdiocese Office of Human Rights in Guatemala, includes first-hand accounts of several massacres in which the state military forces, in direct knowledge of villages whose male members had left for work in distant labor jobs, descended upon pueblos of innocent families of women and children and proceeded to torture, rape the women and young girls, murder, and destroy their entire farms – homes, crops and farm animals. (6) Several hundreds of mostly women and children were killed or died from related illnesses, and many more hundreds fled to the mountains for refuge. Disturbing images of graphic violence perpetrated against women and children are included in the internet version of the REMHI document. (7) But these massacres of mostly women and children were not isolated instances of violence, including the brutal massive sexual assaults on the women. The conclusions in the CEH report makes reference to the systemic genocidal operations as deliberate actions inherent in a policy that could only been executed with specific mandate(s) by the highest governmental institutions. Indeed, the CEH includes statements regarding their investigation’s conclusions that the State of Guatemala is undeniably responsible for “human rights violations and infringements of international humanitarian law.” (CEH, p.41) The violations perpetrated against women are underscored in the CEH report, and argues the case of genocide committed by the State, i.e., the official military plan, (“Victory 82”), part of the overall state’s National Security Doctrine. The report emphasized that the mission was to “annihilate the guerrillas and parallel organizations,” of which the “internal enemy” had been identified as the inhabitants or civilians of the specified locations. (CEH, p. 40) The State acted to intentionally destroy as many groups of Mayans as it could, and to cause damage to women as a whole and specifically targeting their reproductive capabilities. The data reveal that 89 percent of sexual assaults were committed against the Maya women, and mostly in the massive sexual violence during the massacres or invasions. (8)

Documenting Women’s Experiences

The documentation of the horrendous acts of crimes against women in violation of their human rights impels investigators to use extensive research methods and analytical lenses by which to study these actions. 

            Two recent published reports that highlight the women’s traumatic events as well as their recovery from their perspective are Mujeres indígenas: clamor por la justicia: violencia sexual, conflicto armado y despojo violento de tierras by Luz Méndez Gutiérrez and Amanda Carrera Guerra (2014); and Tejidos que lleva el alma: memoria de las mujeres mayas sobrevivientes de violación sexual durante el conflicto armado by Amandine Fulchirone (2011), (and her team: Olga Alicia Paz, Angélica Lopez, María José Pérez, Patricia Castañeda, & Luisa Cabrera).  

             Luz Méndez Gutiérrez and Amanda Carrera Guerra’s study includes two groups of women: 1) the survivors of the Sepur Zarco invasion during the Armed Conflict which occurred between 1982 and 1986 (the government’s military base closed in 1988); and 2) the survivors of the massive sexual assaults that occurred in Lote Ocho in 2007 during an invasion by the Policía Nacional Civil and Military (government) forces and security units employed by the HudBay transnational mining company, a subsidiary of Compañía Guatemalteca del Niquel (CGN). Both groups of women reside in Q’eqchi’ communities of el Valle del Polochic (El Estor, Izabal, bordering Alta Verapaz) in the towns of Sepur Zarco and el Lote Ocho. The authors interviewed almost 60 women all together, either individually and/or in focus groups. Their pre-established premise forms the basis of their study, i.e., in Guatemala’s institutions the indigenous populations are systematically discriminated against, and that racism against the indigenous people is at the root cause of inequality. In their stories, many of the women subjects gradually gained a consciousness of understanding the injustices they experienced as women. Thus, the patriarchal system that dominated their lives was integral to their understanding of how they were (and continue to be) systematically and socially excluded, and discriminated against. The investigation sought to document the human rights violations perpetrated against the women, and how the women pursued justice for the crimes committed against them. 


Lote 8 and Sepur Zarco

The Lote Ocho Case (2007): Justice in the Court of Law as a Form of ‘Healing’

            The Peace Accords document was signed in 1996, purportedly ending the devastating 36-year Armed Conflict. Yet, eleven years later, in January of 2007, the war had not ended, at least not according to the inhabitants in the remote community of Lote Ocho. 

An incendiary land dispute between the Q’eqchi’ community members and owners of the HudBay Minerals and HMI/Skye mining company in charge of the Fenix mining project came to a halt when the corporation ordered the eviction of the residents they claimed were blocking the construction of their mining project. The Fenix project security guards (the Campañía Guatemalteca del Níquel or CGN), the police, and army took charge of the violence and destruction on January 7th and 8th, according to the lawsuit summary filed by the legal counsel representing the affected Q’eqchi’ women. A week later, the same kind of force was repeated by the three enforcement units, however, the level of violence became extreme. In the January 17th eviction, the uniformed soldiers attacked viciously, and the terror and destruction tactics they used were strikingly similar to those used by the state military units during the Armed Conflict. According to the survivors’ description of the events on that day, the armed guards and soldiers surrounded the homes, and everyone took cover, paralyzed with fear. After the soldiers broke down the front doors, they asked the women, many with their children, the whereabouts of their husbands. The women bravely stood steadfast against the armed soldiers that had surrounded the entire community. They believed that since their husbands were all gone to work in the distant fields, the soldiers would not harm them. But, the commanding officers knew that the men were absent, and strategically targeted the community in their absence. As they ordered the inhabitants to leave their homes, they were doused with tear gas; soldiers with powerful guns sprayed bullets everywhere, barely sparing the lives of family members as they frantically escaped their homes. Before their homes were completely torched, the soldiers destroyed their essential belongings such as the grinding stones, dried corn in storage bins, their beds, clothing, tables and chairs. Then, they destroyed their crops and killed their domestic animals. They stole food and any materials they found of value. 

Just as they had terrorized the families and destroyed their possessions and valuables, the uniformed soldiers proceeded to torture the women and girls. The sexual assaults were massive. The women suffered long-term consequences; pregnant women miscarried; internally injuries caused infertility; and psychosocial, emotional trauma left permanent scars. (9

An excellent documentary titled, Defensora, includes an explanation behind the three lawsuits brought against the Canadian mining company by 1) Angelica Choc, whose husband, Adolfo Ich Chaman, was murdered in 2009 by a security guard with the mining company; 2) Rosa Elbira Coc Ich, speaking on behalf of herself and the women that were sexually assaulted during the unlawful eviction of 2007; and 3) German Chub Choc, shot and paralyzed by a security guard in 2009. The film is produced by 6Kidsproduction, Girl Edge Films and the Right Actions Organization. Included are interviews with the three plaintiffs. 

The You Tube video Defensora can be viewed here;

For more information please consult their website.

The Sepur Zarco Case (1982-1988)

The women in the study, known as the Sepur Zarco abuelas (grandmothers) from the aldea (the town) of the same name, endured a six-year, torturous imprisonment during the Armed Conflict. The state military and paramilitary forces had established a number of army bases near their community on the fincas (large plantations) of owners (finqueros) who welcomed the military. The women’s husbands were “disappeared,” a term commonly used to indicate that they were murdered and buried in a clandestine grave. The military told the women that as widows they were obligated by law to work as servants for the soldiers. They were threatened with death or those of their children if they didn’t comply. The women endured an inexplicable emotional, physical, debilitating pain while the men physically abused and sexually assaulted them. The women were forced to labor as domestic workers, cooking and cleaning for the men while their own children were left unattended. Not only had the military assassinated their husbands, but had also kidnapped their teenage sons, and burned their homes to the ground. Everything they owned had been destroyed. The women had to build simple, makeshift shelters near the military base for themselves and their children. They worked twelve-hour shifts without pay and all of the women were sexually assaulted at gunpoint. The six-year reign of terror and imprisonment ended when the military bases were finally shuttered. 

Many of the women believed that the reason they were targeted was because their husbands (the campesino leaders who were “disappeared”) had filed formal complaints with government officials about their land claims and titles. The large landowners (the “finqueros”) were eager to collaborate with the government on any strategy to quash the campesinos’ efforts to pursue their rights to their ancestral lands. The finqueros felt threatened because their land titles were fraudulent or illegal as was the “widow’s” law that the military imposed on the women to coerce them to acquiesce in their criminal activities. The military base in Sepur Zarco where the women were enslaved bore the United States trademark in most of everything that was used: weapons, ammunition, vehicles, communication devices, etc. Even the well-equipped army personnel had received training that originated from the United States. The army was well-prepared for combat of any scale. But, the military base was used as a transitional station for their soldiers, and faced a minimum amount of threat, if any, from counterinsurgency attacks. The explanation for using extreme military tactics was to keep the guerrillas from infiltrating and contaminating the indigenous population. The state relied on the rhetoric that best suited the interests of the United States: to keep the communist from taking over and keeping Guatemala  “safe and secure.” 

El Consorcio de Victimas a Actoras de Cambio: From Victims to Change Agents

The Collective

Although the 1996 Peace Accords opened up a space for women’s rights advances, the government lacked then, and as is the case presently, the resources or the will (or both) to initiate mechanisms by which to appropriate justice for human rights violations committed against the women. (10

However, autonomous feminist organizations began to propose actions that addressed the critical need of women whose human rights had been violated during the Armed Conflict. In 2003, feminists Yolanda Aguilar and Amandine Fulchirone sought the collaboration of four organizations to develop a project of support, development, and investigation related to the human rights violations committed against the indigenous women. (11) These associations were 1) Mamá Maquín (see Entremundos Organization); 2) Mujeres Petén Ixqik; 3) Union Nacional de Mujeres Guatemaltecas (UNAMG); and 4) Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y Atención Psicosocial (ECAP). The key goals and objectives of el Consorcio revolved around breaking the silence (“romper el silencio”) and recovering the history (of human rights violations), and guiding and supporting women in transcending the complex psychological and social obstacles in order to develop self-validation, self-affirmation, and self-esteem. These were extraordinary goals considering that the women initially felt unable to share their utmost intimate and private tragic experiences. Additionally, they refused to subject themselves to social backlashes like the types they had experienced in the wake of the violations when they felt stigmatized, of no fault of their own, for having been sexually assaulted. The women had lost their place of dignity and respect in the social realm of their communities and as widows, they were left without the prospects of land ownership. But as members of a collective, the women courageously seized the moments of challenge and opportunity and reached out to other women that sought their help, sharing their journeys of self-healing.

The Formation Stage of el Consorcio, 2004-2008

The Consorcio de Víctimas a Actoras de Cambio program involved sixty-two women from four different Mayan pueblos: Chuj, Mam, Kaqchikel and Q’eqchi’. The group leaders consisted of Guatemalan feminists who served as facilitators, supporters, and confidantes, and their first and foremost task was to build trust between and amongst each other. From the outset of the  formation period, the women shared their stories and gradually, they began to feel confident enough to talk about the worst parts of their experiences: the sexual assaults. Clearly, the women’s successful participation was largely due to the group’s dynamics that eventually engaged everyone to support each other and learn from one another, creating a consensus-building spirit with intentions of overcoming the individual tragedies and developing solidarity and sisterhood.

As a part of their investigation, the Consorcio (or Colectivo) helped the women develop biographical profiles and personal narratives, and then, published them on their website. (12

The women’s understanding of their role in helping other women who had similarly suffered during the Armed Conflict influenced the way they shaped their responses. Their voices are powerful, not only because they speak from the heart, but they signal to other women the importance of re-birth and self-validation. It serves as a testament to the incredible journey of courageously strong women.

The Women’s Voices:

“Estoy aquí, sobreviví, estoy viva.”

“I am here, I survived, I am alive.”


Doña Julia

Doña Julia resisted the move to a refugee camp in México, but it was the only option she had in order to stay clear from the violence triggered by the Armed Conflict of the 1970s and 80s. Once she and her family fled from her home, the Maya Chuj aldea of Subajasum, near Nentón Huehuetenango, they were unable to return until after the violent skirmishes subsided, but by then, their home had been completely destroyed. 

Doña Julia’s childhood and adolescence was “normal and typical” of females in her pueblo.  At birth, she was disdained by her father who preferred a male child, and the extreme poverty that they experienced caused the usual predicaments of hunger, malnutrition, lack of education, etc. But in her community, her father had the option of “selling” his daughter, as was the custom, to a man that would eventually carry her off as soon as possible. Doña Julia refused this arrangement and left home to live with relatives. 

Doña Julia discovered that fleeing a “problem” was the best solution. She suffered serious physical, emotional, and psychological abuses, but the worst one was the sexual assault by a guerrilla soldier. Although she survived the attack, the resulting psychological and emotional scars were deep and long lasting.  

At the Mexican refugee camp, Doña Julia became involved with the women’s organization, Mamá Maquín (see below for information on Mamá Maquín). This experience proved to be life-changing; she believes that by participating in the organization she became a very different person. She acquired literacy skills in Spanish; she learned about human rights, and her legal right to own land, and how the justice system operates. She thought she didn’t have any rights because of her gender. She continued to participate with the organization for six years. She’s proud of her accomplishments and feels confident that she can overcome the obstacles to achieving her goals: 

“Yo era una persona dormida, inconsciente, pero gracias a Mamá Maquín aprendí cosas buenas y a dejar atrás todos esos obstáculos que no nos permiten hacer muchas cosas.” (Colectiva, p.32)

At first, Doña Julia was afraid to talk about her sexual assault. But then, she realized that many of the women in her group had had similar experiences. The women had remained “silent” for so many years and Doña Julia understood their pain and sadness. Gradually, she convinced the women of their “rights” to denounce the crimes committed against them, and to seek justice. She explained that the men that raped them have always escaped punishment, while the women victimized by them are left with the social repercussions and psychological scars. 

In expanding her role from student to teacher in the Mamá Maquín organization, Doña Julia  acquired a kind of re-birth that she had not expected: a genuine sense of self-validation, confidence, and self-esteem. Her empathy toward women who have been sexually assaulted or physically abused was sincere; in every case she felt as though she was the victim. But, she’s not running away from the “problem” anymore because she has learned how to cope and resolve. 

Her spirituality is at the base of her strength, “ I pray with candles and incense; I ask for strength from the heart of water, the earth, the air, and nature; I burn my candles for everything that exists….. when I do this, my heart feels so happy.”

Me pongo a rezar con candelas, veladoras y pom, pido por el corazón del agua, de la tierra, del aire y de la naturaleza, enciendo mis velas por todo lo que existe en la naturaleza, yo misma voy a buscar el copal y lo enciendo, cuando hago eso, me alegra mucho el corazón. (Colectiva, p. 36)

Doña Dorotea’s Inner Strength

            When Doña Dorotea was taken by force and sexually assaulted by the soldiers along with numerous other women in the Q’eqchi’ pueblo during the six-year period in the early 1980s, she lost everything of value. Apart from her home, her possessions, and of course, her dear family members, Doña Dorotea felt empty and lost without the spiritual practices that she had known since childhood. 

The Maya Q’eqchi’ people attribute their existence to a special relationship with the land and the mountains. They believe that the mountains are alive, and each one is a sacred dwelling for a spirit akin to a personhood which is central to the relationship between the mountain and the people. They are known as Tzuultaq’a, spirits in the form of human beings that are imagined as members of their community. Caves are spiritual spaces for the traditional Q’eqchi’ that perform rituals of sacrifice, giving thanks and offering food in return for what the spirits have given them. The bond between the Tzuultaq’a and people must be maintained for good health and prosperity. For the Q’eqchi’, using the land to plant and harvest is considered a religious event as they perform their rituals; in their prayers they ask the Tzuultaqa’a for permission and offer their undying gratitude. 

Anthropologist Richard Wilson explains that “so long as the Mayans are alive in the mountains, each community claim to be the rightful owner of the land remains alive too. (Wilson, 1995, p. 85) 

Doña Dorotea survived the Armed Conflict, but after her community was demolished she joined the thousands of people as refugees in search of a new life. (13) Without her community, the respected elders and the collective traditions and customs of spiritual manifestations, Doña Dorotea relied on her own strength and beliefs as part of the healing process. She alone summoned the Tzuultaq’a in her dreams and interpreted their words for guidance. She found her inner strength in the ancient traditions of her culture to resolve the painful lingering problems that impeded her ability to live her life to the fullest. As an integral member of the Colectiva, Doña Dorotea is known for spiritual devotion, believing that everything in our natural world has life, and the need to show our appreciation by offering our positive energies. Her inner strength and self-respect is well-noted in her leadership abilities, and as a dutiful, passionate advocate against domestic violence.  (Fulchirone, p. 349.)  

Doña Carolina: “Soy fuerte, no tengo miedo.” 

  Doña Carolina’s story begins when she embarked on journey of grief, searching in clandestine graves for the eight members of her family killed violently during the Armed Conflict, and concludes with the beginnings of a journey of hope.

Doña Carolina, a Maya Kaqchikel “war widow” from Chimaltenango, spent many years after the 1996 Peace Accords demanding to know where her loved ones were buried. But the government would not lend assistance to war widows’ demands, and Doña Carolina had no other choice but to assume the responsibility on her own. She had lost her husband, tortured and then murdered; her father and two-year-old son were killed in front of her; her sister and her brother-in-law; her mother-in-law; her sister-in-law; and her husband’s brother. She and her mother survived – miraculously. During the entire search process she was stricken with grief, sadness, and a broken heart. She was among the organizers in the exhumation of 35 corpses, where she recalled she almost died, then and in numerous other occasions. 

Doña Carolina’s indefatigable determination to find the graves of disappeared loved ones became her life’s work. She began to work with human rights organizations like CONAVIGUA (The National Association of Guatemalan Widows), and was asked to share her inspirational story of grief and service with others (see Rosalina Tuyuc below). Her work evolved into a mutually supported effort focused on the recovery of collective memory and in seeking the truth and justice. She was also involved in organizing the war widows of San José Poaquil and helped them denounce the sexual assaults committed by the army, and demanded that the government remove the military base from their municipality.

The processes of self-validation and self-affirmation are evident in Doña Carolina’s overcoming the immense pain that she managed to control, and in becoming a strong, passionate supporter and advocate on behalf of women and others that clamor for justice and reparations. She is fearless and courageous: “Soy fuerte no tengo miedo. Aunque me vaya en la cárcel puedo salir adelante.” (Fulchirone, 2011, p. 327-329) 

In their long journey of hope, the women relied on their collective strength to attain unity as well as self-reflection, and engage in a process of accompaniment (“el proceso de acompañamiento”), clearly a collaboration between the women and the feminists, blending their support and guidance throughout the stages of the women’s development. 

The Healing Process and Seeking Justice 

The road toward recovery for the eleven Maya Q’eqchi’women survivors of the Sepur Zarco sexual assault case was excruciatingly painful, explains Luz Méndez Gutiérrez, moderator in a documentary film about the Sepur Zarco case. The women felt shame and guilt; they kept this “dark” secret to themselves which further exacerbated their emotional, psychological, and physical injuries. Twenty-five years later, between 2004-2011, the women began to share their heart-wrenching stories publicly, eventually marking the end of a difficult “metamorphosis” transformation, enabling them to acknowledge their life as victims in the past, and their newfound freedom as change agents (“actoras de cambio”) in the present. 

The women’s decision to demand justice for the crimes committed against them was remarkable. Once they had taken this important first step, the national and international human rights and feminists organizations were more than willing and able to lend their assistance and support. A support network was organized in 2010, called the Alliance to End Silence and Impunity, specifically to address the human rights and gender inequality (UN Women) and Mujeres Transformando el Mundo (MTM); to lend psychological and social support to the women -Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y Atención Psicosocial (ECAP); and to establish political precedence at the national and international levels – Union Nacional de Mujeres Guatemaltecas (UNAMG). The fifteen women asked the court to punish those responsible for the crimes, to reveal the truth of the events and the consequences, and to establish that the crimes would not be repeated; that no other woman or girl would be subjected to such violence as they experienced.

The Court of Conscience was formed to serve as a symbolic form of justice, called “el tribunal de consciencia contra la violencia sexual hacia las mujeres durante el conflict armado de Guatemala.” (14) The Court of Law was yet to be formed by the Guatemalan legal system, nevertheless, the Tribunal Court served the purpose of allowing the case to go forward.

A three-year investigation yielded substantial evidence to charge two former military officers: Lt. Col. Esteelmer Reyes Girón and military commissioner Heriberto Valdéz Asij. Both men also faced additional charges of murder

Then, on February 26, 2016, presiding judge, Yassmin Barrios Aguilar, the president of the High-Risk Court of Guatemala, handed over the verdict of guilty for both men, including a prison sentence of 120 years for Reyes Girón and 240 years for Valdez Asij. Reparations that address the health and education needs of the community were also included. (15) The Sepur Zarco case brought to justice those responsible for the crimes of sexual slavery committed against the women during the course of an armed conflict. It was the first of its kind in Guatemala and the world. (16

For many women that experienced sexual assault during the Armed Conflict, the Sepur Zarco case advances their pursuit for justice. Although the State of Guatemala has formerly agreed upon certain declarations that function as laws to protect women and prevent crimes of violence against them, many human rights advocates are dismayed over the lack of adequate enforcement that renders these protection measures as meaningless. Resolution 1325, adopted by the United Nations Security Council on October 31, 2000, declares that the government has the responsibility to end impunity and prosecute those responsible for “genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes including those relating to sexual and other violence against women and girls.” In a communiqué by Immunity Watch, a statement of support is mentioned concerning the Sepur Zarco case, however, it also reiterates the need to specify reparation measures for the victims, to “overcome the structural conditions that allowed the public security forces to perpetrate sexual violence against women.”  

On February 21, 2018, two years after the decisive verdict, the Ministerio Público de Guatemala and the United Nations Women (UNO) awarded the 14 surviving abuelas a special recognition, including a Medal “Naxjolomi,” signifying their courageous leadership –  “aquella que lidera,” in Q’eqchi’. The (remaining) survivors are: Matilde Sub, María Ba Caal, Felisa Cuc, Margarita Chub, Cecilia Xo, Catarina Caal, Manuela Bá, Candelaria Maaz, Rosario Xo, Carmen Xol, Antonia Choc, and Demesia Yat. María Ba Caal’s main concern is that because of her advanced age, she may not see the reparations that were included in the verdict.  


The “success stories” of women who participated in the Colectiva and whose narratives are presented herein, are imbued with a unique significance when analyzed from the historical and social perspective of survival. Guatemala’s 500 year-old history of conquest, colonialism, and armed conflict is replete with countless stories of struggle for justice, which often seemed untenable for the majority against a backdrop of institutionalized racism and discrimination. The women’s stories in the Colectiva are representative of their journeys of hope, not only because of their singular accomplishments, but for the powerful messages they emit to the world. As a whole, they share a story of profound sadness, tragedy, pain, anguish, and frustration. But they also demonstrated to the world how each one overcame their multiple near-death experiences, and resisted what could have been a life sentence of extreme psychological and emotional debilitation. Instead, they radiate with a keen sense of love for life and the natural world around them. There is no greater hope than that, especially for women.  


Luz Méndez Gutiérrez

“Que todos sepan lo que sufrimos las mujeres. Sufrimos destrucción de nuestras cosas, violación, nos dejaron sin tierra” (17)

In Defense of the Indigenous Women’s Rights’

Luz Méndez Gutiérrez’ prior experiences in the counterinsurgency movement during the Armed Conflict and in the post-conflict, peace accords process were instrumental in the development of key aspects of the investigative report, Mujeres indígenas: clamor por la justicia: violencia sexual, conflict armado y despojo violento de tierras. In the 1970s, Méndez was an activist with the Guatemalan Labor Party (el Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo or PGT), which became part of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (Unidad Revolucionario Nacional Guatemalteco or URNG) in the 1980s. In 1991, she was appointed Political Diplomat by the URNG as a representative in the Peace Accords process. As the only female in the committee, she began to understand her vital role in representing women, and in particular, the indigenous women, for whom she had deep regards for the suffering they had endured during the Armed Conflict. However, understanding that her depth of  knowledge about their experiences was insufficient, she became a dedicated researcher, collecting data from multiple sources, including first-hand information from the affected women, and the organizations that supported the women. As part of the peace negotiators, Luz Méndez played a vital role in the inclusion of an “Office for the Defense of Indigenous’ Women’s Rights” in the Peace Accords’ official document. (18) Included in her research were feminist organizations, such as the National Union of Guatemalan Women  (Union Nacional Asociación de Mujeres Guatemaltecas or UNAMG) and human rights authorities such as the United Nations Women (UN Women). Her leadership, along with others, was instrumental in assuring that the Peace Accords include the substantial advances on the rights of indigenous women, especially their rights to demand justice against all forms of violence against women. (19)       

Mamá Maquín: A community leader that fought for land rights on behalf of the Maya Q’eqchi’ becomes a legend and serves as an inspiration for women in the Colectiva  

María Maquín and a photo of her grandmother, Mamá Maquín

At the time that Mamá Maquín joined the march of Maya Q’eqchi’ protesters in the heart of Panzós, Alta Verapaz on May 29, 1978, she was known as a respected leader and spokesperson for the campesinos fighting for their rights to procure land titles that they had inherited from their ancestors over a century ago. What was unknown to her and the rest of the large group of unarmed, peaceful protestors of men, women and children, was that the army awaited for them at the end of the street. In a surprise attack, the soldiers opened fire on the crowd, and although, everyone scurried to safety, there were hundreds killed or injured. Some of them, including women and children, jumped into the Río Polochic, and drowned in their desperation. This was later known as the “Panzós Massacre.” 

María Maquín, standing by the photo of her grandmother, Mamá Maquín, recounts her experience on the day of the march. She was twelve-years old at time, alongside her grandmother when they were fired upon; her grandmother was shot and killed but she managed to dodge the bullets, and pretended to lay dead until she was able to escape with the others to the mountain. 

The soldiers ordered to quash the rebellion were trained as assassins at the Zacapa military base, headed by a former military president, Carlos Arana Osorio (1970-74), known as the “butcher of Zacapa.” (Stoll, 1993, p.108). Approximately, 140 to 150 unarmed, peaceful protesters were killed and later, buried in clandestine graves by the soldiers. (20

Mamá Maquín, whose real name was Adelina Caal, earned the title Mamá, which denotes respect and admiration, and was so honored because of her leadership in the fight for the campesinos’ rights to land titles that had been revoked or stolen by the government. The May 29 March was part of a series of protestations enacted by campesinos (farmers, activists, community leaders, etc.) from various Mayan pueblos, all of whom share similar grievances, e.g., lack of land, discrimination, forced conscription, and low wages, to name a few. The land that the campesinos used for their livelihood had been illegally transferred to wealthy landowners who claimed to have bought the titles. These titles were issued under the auspices of the government agency, the Guatemalan Agrarian Transformation Institute, administered by Hans Laugerud, the brother of the Guatemalan president, Kjell E. Laugerud García (1974-78). The fraudulent titles were given to wealthy landholders on a regular basis, many of whom had high-ranking positions in the military and/or the government. The area for which they had personal interests, called the “zone of the generals,” had extensive oil and nickel deposits and was amenable to raising cattle. (21) The small number of wealthy landholders (2 percent) laid claim to more than 57 percent of arable land, which the Mayan pueblos considered extremely unfair and unjust. They were unable to sustain a living under the circumstances without resorting to migratory work as field hands. (22

Campesino leaders and activists began to build a support base in 1974, after the fraudulent presidential election of the military-supported Kjell Laugerud García. However, the spectacular success of the 150,000-strong, nine-day Ixtahuacán Miners March in November of 1977 compelled the  Committee for Campesino Unity (CUC) to take the affirmative steps in becoming an organized, liberally-oriented, organization dedicated to the struggles of the rural Maya pueblo campesinos. (23)  It was against this background of peaceful protests that the Panzós May 29 March was organized by the community leaders, including Mamá Maquín.   

In a historical panorama, the “Panzós Massacre” was a crucial event that propelled and accelerated forward the Armed Conflict. Two years later, in January of 1980, a group of K’iche’ and Ixil men peacefully occupied the Spanish embassy in the hope of garnering international attention of the killings of civilians, especially in the north Quiché pueblo communities. (24) The government, presided by President Fernando Lucas García (1978-82), acted with brutality and burned down the embassy, killing everyone inside, including the protesters. Just a few weeks later, the Committee for Campesino Unity (CUC) organized a leadership conference that introduced a document known as the “declaración de Iximché,” or as author Arturo Arias asserts, was actually a declaration of war against the state forces. (Arias, 1990, pp. 230-57) 

As an organization, Mamá Maquín originated in México where hundreds of Mayan families were refuged after fleeing the violence in Guatemala. Amongst these groups were the inhabitants of Santa María Tzejá, a K’iche’ community that had been devastated by the violence. In her book, Beatriz Manz describes their journey through the horrendous years of the Armed Conflict. Although hardships and tragedy dominated their lives, Manz makes the concerted effort to focus on the strengths and accomplishments of a people that lost everything but also, had an opportunity to apply fresh ideas to a new start in life. (25) Mamá Maquín promoters offered post-conflict workshops to help women learn a broad and deep perspective of the chaotic and complex Armed Conflict, and to understand, protect, and defend their rights. Rosalía Hernández was a founding member of Mamá Maquín in México and took great lengths to help women in all aspects of self-help, including the use of birth control. Of course, some of the women were in opposition to what Hernández proposed, but many others benefitted from the organization, such as Doña Julia. (26

Rosalina Tuyuc Velásquez

Coordinadora Nacional de Viudas de Guatemala


Rosalina Tuyuc Velásquez is a human rights activist and the (1988) founder of CONAVIGUA (The National Association of Guatemalan Widows), dedicated to seeking truth and justice on behalf of the women whose husbands and other loved ones were assassinated or disappeared during the Internal Armed Conflict. Rosalina Tuyuc’s father and husband were killed during the early 1980’s of the Armed Conflict, and soon after, she began the painful ordeal of searching for their remains. Since then she has devoted her time to helping women, the “war widows,” in not only finding the graves of their loved ones but in seeking justice. (27)  


1.   Zacualpa is in the department of El Quiché, Guatemala, about 100 kilometers northwest of Guatemala City. This excerpt is based on a You Tube video, Doña Teresa.

2.   The official investigations concurred that during the armed conflict, from 1960 to 1996, at least 440 rural massacres (other reports estimate 669 massacres) took the lives of 200,000 people, 83.3% were Mayans; in Quiché 45.5% of violence with the most victims, the perpetrators consisted of 93% State forces (Army, Civil Patrols, Commissioners). Additionally, 45,000 people, mostly civilians, have been reported “disappeared” and over a million inhabitants, mostly Maya, were forced to flee their homes.  (See CEH: Report for Historical Clarification, 1999, the English language summary version.)

3.   The Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico (CEH) is a comprehensive report that chronicles the Armed Conflict from its beginnings in 1960s to the 1996 Peace Accords; the investigations yielded detailed information regarding human rights violations, deaths, massacres, forced disappearances, physical destruction, etc. A trove of evidence was acquired from direct testimonies of survivors and witnesses. See CEH, the English language summary, p. 39. 

4.   CEH, P. 23.

5.   See information about the torture tactics used by the military posted in the webpage: ZACUALPA CHURCH Parish of Espiritu Santo.

6.   See “main page” – Informe del proyecto interdiocesano de recuperación de la memoria histórico Guatemala: nunca mas (un resumen), (1998), pp.113-114.  

7.   See TOMO 1, p. 91. 

8.   Luz Méndez Gutiérrez and Amanda Carrera Guerra, Mujeres indígenas: clamor por la justicia: violencia sexual, conflict armado y despojo violento de tierras, (2014), p. 78.

9.  Similar violent evictions that occurred in the Lote Ocho, Q’eqchi’ community had been repeated throughout the Armed Conflict. The military committed hundreds of massacres and killed and injured thousands of innocent people, mostly among the indigenous population, and thousands of women were sexually assaulted. In the Izabal/Alta Verapaz region, 9 percent of the 1980-1983 genocide victims were Maya  – or at least 18,000. This information is recorded in both the CEHand the REMHI reports.

10.  In the 2017, the CEDAW report includes the following statement that underscores the government’s lack of attention to this matter: “(22.)  The Committee is concerned, however, about the significant delay in the implementation of the Agreement on a firm and lasting peace, especially with regard to reparations for the crimes perpetrated against women during the internal conflict and the pledges relating to the advancement of women.” 

11.  See Actoras de Cambio document.

12.  The publications listed as “Publicaciones propias” include nine women narratives and a collection of documents that serve as guides and manuals on the development of the Consorcio project. See actoras de cambio here.  For specific information about their methodology see “Metodología de formación sanación con mujeres sobrevivientes de violencia sexual y de la guerra en Guatemala” on their website. 

13.  Over a million people and mostly from indigenous communities, were displaced due to the Armed Conflict; the process of return or relocation took place between 1993-95 (CEH).

14.  See the story in Guatemala Human Rights Commission.

 15.  See UN Women article. ALSO watch You Tube video featuring Judge Yassmin Barrios discuss the two trials that she has presided over: the Rios-Montt genocide trial and the Sepur Zarco case.

16.  Information about the ongoing trial filed by the MUJERES ACHI can be found here.

17. This is a quote from one of the women in Méndez and Carrera study, p.65. “Everyone should know what went through… we suffered the destruction of our personal belongings, sexual assault, and we were left without land.”

18.  Luz Méndez Gutiérrez was selected as the  2004 Woman Peacemaker awarded by the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice. See video with Luz Méndez interview by Nobel Women’s Initiative where she discusses her work with the Peace Accords process.

19.  See Rachel Sieder’s article, “Reframing Citizenship: Indigenous Rights, Local Power and the Peace Process in Guatemala,” which is part of a manuscript,  Negotiating Rights: The Guatemalan Peace Process, 1997.

20.  FOOTNOTE See the Walls of Hope, an international art and human rights project:  “TZUULTAQ’A Earth and Valley, High and Low, Woman and Man Good and Evil, the opposites that hold the Universe.”

21.  See Guatemala: Peasant Massacre,” Sept. 25, 2007, NACLA. 

22.  See Méndez and Carrera, p. 28. Additional information: 84 percent of land is owned by men; 16 percent by women; nickel increased 164.4 percent annually 2002-2012.

23.  See Arias, pp. 248-249.  The CUC led the preparations for the May 1, 1978 demonstrations, which were hugely successful, and large, unexpected numbers of protestors participated.

24.  In 1972, the guerrilla organization, Ejército Guerrilla de los Pobres – the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP) settled in the northern part of Quiché, close to the Maya pueblo Ixil (Nebaj, Chajul, and Cotzal) and the Christian base communities. In the Spring of 1976, the military began its repressive operations upon the request of Sebastian Guzman, a ladino landowner who had the names of men “presumably” collaborating with the guerrilla (the “blacklist”). Three thousand army troops were stationed in the region. The repression resulted in the deaths and injuries of thousands of civilians, later determined as a genocidal event. See Winds of Change in Ixil Country, in this website.

25.  See Beatriz Manz, Paradise in ashes: A Guatemalan journey of courage, terror, and hope.

26.  Manz, pp. 200-203. Additional information: Rosalía Hernández succumbed to cancer and died at the age of 36.  

27.  FAFG: Fundacion de Antropología Forense de Guatemala. See “Los huesos son buenos testigos, aunque hablan en voz baja, nunca mienten y nunca olvidan.” Y Mapa de exhumaciones.

Over 3500 human remains have been identified from the Armed Conflict; over 8200 have been recovered but not identified.

See also, Centro de Analisis Forense y Ciencias Aplicadas —- investigacion antropológica forense


Mujeres Achí – Five ex-PACs Found Guilty and Sentenced (Guatemala Solidarity Network, January 25, 2022)

In Guatemala, Ex-paramilitaries Face Trial for Wartime Rape of Indigenous Women (the Maya Achi women), NACLA, Jan. 11, 2022.

Hope Amidst the Darkness: Victims Continue to Press for Justice for Wartime Atrocities in Guatemala, by Jo-Marie Burt and Paulo Estrada – Dec. 2, 2021

Police Brutality Surges Against Defenders and Their Families in El Estor

Guatemala Human Rights Commission: Cases from the Armed Conflict

GHRC and Various Organizations Release Joint Statement Condemning Human Rights Violations Occurring Under the Siege in El Estor

El Estor: las dos caras del estadio del sitio (RUDA Mujeres Territorio)

Guate cracks down on Q’eqch’i in El Estor  NACLA, Nov. 16, 2021

VIDEO: Doña Teresa

VIDEO: Defensora

VIDEO Reparación Transformadora: El caso Sepur Zarco

FOLLOW-UP Article: Sepur Zarco: In pursuit of truth, justice, and now reparations

Demesia Yat 2019

Dianna Ortiz Memorial

REMHI Main Page






1.  Arias, A. (1990). Changing Indian identity: Guatemala’s violent transition to modernity. In C. Smith (Ed)., Guatemalan Indians and the state, 1540 to 1988 (pp. 230-57). Austin: University of Texas Press.  

2.  CEH (Comisión para el Esclarecimento Histórico). (1999). Guatemala Memoria del Silencio 

 (Guatemala Memory of Silence. Conclusions and Recommendations. Guatemala City: United 

 Nations Office for Project Services.

3.  Fulchirone*, A. (2011). Tejidos que lleva el alma: memoria de las mujeres mayas sobrevivientes de violación sexual durante el conflicto armado. Guatemala: ECAP and UNAMG.

   *Note that spelling varies: Fulchiron or Fulchirone.

4.  Manz, B. (2005). Paradise in ashes: A Guatemalan journey of courage, terror, and hope. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

5.  Méndez Gutiérrez, L. & Carrera, Guerra, A. (2014). Mujeres indígenas: clamor por la justicia: violencia sexual, conflict armado y despojo violento de tierras. Guatemala: ECAP and UNAMG. 

6.  REMHI (Informe del proyecto interdiocesano de recuperación de la memoria histórico Guatemala: nunca mas) Recovery of Historical Memory ProjectGuatemala Never Again.  Official Report of the Human Rights Office, Archdiocese of Guatemala. (1999). Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

7.  Stoll, D. (1993). Between two armies in the Ixil towns of Guatemala. NY: Columbia University Press.

8.  Wilson, R. (1995). Maya resurgence in Guatemala.: Q’eqchi’ experiences. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma.

Gracias, Doña Teresa!

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