Celebrating and Supporting Guatemalan Women Anti-Corruption Fighters and Champions of Democracy

Women activists in Guatemala are fighting against the corruption and sexism entrenched in their government.

Traveling to Guatemala last month, the juxtaposition of situations was striking. The depth to which corruption has become entrenched in the government, driven by the perniciousness of wealth inequality, is despairing; the lack of viable solutions nearly hopeless.

Yet, the strength of the advocacy and legal community, led by the heroism of scores of women who are in many cases putting their own lives and livelihoods on the line to relentlessly beat forward a path to justice is deeply motivating. It impels us to do all we can to support their cause.

As mother and daughter, this was one of the first delegation trips we’ve taken together since Cara joined the board of directors at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights—in doing so becoming the third generation of Kennedy women fighting for a more just and peaceful world at the organization founded by our mother and grandmother, Ethel. 

“Here’s to strong women. May we know them, may we be them, may we raise them,” is one of our family mantras. Such strength was fully personified in the dedication, brilliance and fearlessness of the female activists, attorneys, prosecutors and judges we met in Guatemala. They fight as champions of democratic ideals, as defenders of the rule of law and of human rights, as the frontline against those who attempt to weaponize wealth inequality to manipulate the political and economic system to their favor. They are true patriots. 

There were many who were so immediately inspiring that you could almost envision their profiles emblazoned on a Shepherd Fairey-style poster. Their leadership has brought key victories in challenging elite interests and fighting gender norms in a patriarchal society, as well as persecution for their work.

Our trip coincided with hundreds of women taking to the streets in the capital and other cities across the country for International Women’s Day. We joined these women in demanding an end to sexism, violence and corruption, all forces that have been on the rise in Guatemala in recent years.

The country’s backslide began when former President Jimmy Morales terminated the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG by Spanish acronym), the U.N.-backed body established in 2006 to prosecute corruption, combat impunity, and transform the institutions undermining the democratic gains made since the end of the internal armed conflict in the 1990s. 

While CICIG was in place in 2010, Claudia Paz y Paz was elected the country’s first female attorney general, making unprecedented strides in prosecuting organized crime, members of the military who had committed genocide against the indigenous population, and the former head of state Efrain Rios Montt. Under her successor, Thelma Aldana, some of the most perverse corruption schemes were uncovered and landed President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti in jail.

But soon, the forces of criminality fought back.   

Powerful forces that had been threatened or exposed by the effective collaboration between CICIG, the attorney general’s office, and independent and honest judges formed a coordinated alliance to coopt the justice system. They started with the highest courts, and are now going after every single person who played a role in fighting their corruption. 

At least 131 investigators, lawyers, judges and prosecutors involved with CICIG were immediately targeted. A majority were women. 

UDEFEGUA, an organization established to protect human rights lawyers in Guatemala, has reported that there are now more than 17 Guatemalan prosecutors and justice operators in exile—among them Paz y Paz and Aldana.

For those who stay, the situation continues to rapidly devolve.

During our trip, we met with Judge Erika Aifan, one of the lead judges trying cases of corruption, abuse of power, organized crime and impunity, just before she was scheduled to appear in a hearing to have her immunity as a judge removed. Seven of the 13 members of the Supreme Court decided on her immunity removal were under investigation in cases before her—a clear, unchecked conflict of interest. Aifan in recent days has announced her retirement and fled the country

We joined defense attorney Claudia Gonzalez at the detention center where her clients were being held in retaliation for their work. All five women who were former prosecutors or staff at CICIG. 

Claudia is one of the band of patriots bravely defending democratic institutions, trapped by the cyclical culture of impunity and corruption.

We asked Claudia why she does this work, knowing she’s more than likely to find herself in that very same jail cell. “I have to do it, for my country, for my colleagues,” she said. 

As mother and daughter, both committed to human rights, we are proud to witness such strength, and prouder still to help disseminate the truth about their story.

Last month was Women’s History Month. Part of how we renew our commitment to celebrating the role of women in our society is recognizing those women who are champions of their fields and supporting them with our time, resources and willpower. In Guatemala, those women are not just champions of their chosen fields in advocacy and the legal arts, they are champions of democracy and dedicated to preserving the rule of law: the very bedrock of sustainable development and a better, more just and peaceful world. 

Yet, to truly celebrate the courage of these women is to do more to support their cause. The window for upholding civil society is closing.  We cannot let acts by courageous Guatemalan human rights defenders and investments from the United Nations, United States and European countries to combat Guatemala’s corruption and impunity go in vain and be destroyed. We must, together, push for the Guatemalan government to stop the persecution of human rights activists and justice operators and guarantee their independence.  

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About and

Kerry Kennedy is president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.
Cara Kennedy-Cuomo serves on the organization’s board of directors.