5 Ways Guatemala Is Safer For Children Today Than 5 Years Ago

GUATEMALA CITY, GUATEMALA – IJM has been working alongside local authorities in Guatemala since 2005. We have helped rescue more than 250 children from sexual violence, and we've secured convictions against more than 200 rapists and violent criminals. By pushing individuals cases through the justice system, we have identified key gaps and helped implement reforms that will make justice possible for the entire community where we work.

1. Guatemala now has a law that actually defines a crime of sexual violence.

The laws on the books are the foundation for getting justice. And when these laws are flawed or insufficient, it’s the poor who suffer. In 2009, after years of IJM and other NGOs advocating with legislators in Guatemala, a new law passed strengthening the definitions for trafficking and sexual assault crimes.

Before, the definitions were outdated and inadequate; rape was only classified as a crime if it was committed by a male against a female; a victim’s “honesty” (that is, sexual experience) was considered a factor in determining severity of the crime; there was little to no mention of the psychological impact from violence. The new law also increased penalties against traffickers and rapists.

2. Children are treated with respect, and kids who don’t understand Spanish get a translator.

In 2013, the Guatemalan Attorney General issued a new national policy, through a “General Instruction,” that establishes important standards for investigating and prosecuting crimes against children. These guidelines were largely developed by IJM and UNICEF, and now, for the first time, there are nationwide standards for investigating and prosecuting crimes against children.

The guidelines ensure confidentiality during a trial, guarantee a child’s right to testify (and allow that testimony to take place in a safe setting), ensure children from different cultural backgrounds can request a translator, and require prosecutors to work with social workers so children receive proper attention.

At the invitation of the Guatemalan Public Ministry (similar to the U.S. Department of Justice), IJM has trained the prosecutors in the three provinces where we work (over 350 prosecutors) on this new policy.

3. Judges understand that interviewing a child is different than an adult survivor of a sex crime.

Similar to the standards IJM and UNICEF developed for prosecutors, in 2013 the Supreme Court issued a new Protocol that mandates how judges should treat child victims during sexual assault cases.

The nationwide Protocol outlines how judges should interview a child in a way that is respectful, dignifying and safe. It also prohibits contact between a child victim and the suspect during the court proceedings.

At the invitation of the Supreme Court, IJM is partnering with local authorities to lead a training course for all Guatemalan judges on the new Protocol; nearly 150 judges were trained in 2013.

4. Children no longer have to testify in front of rapists.

The new Supreme Court Protocol encourages judges to use the Gesell Chamber, a safe and entirely separate interview room in the courthouse where children can testify.

  • The room has comfortable chairs and small toys, and the judge and lawyers stand on the other side of a one-way mirror.
  • A psychologist phrases the child questions in a way she or he can understand.
  • The entire proceeding is recorded so that the child's testimony can be used as evidence—and to minimize the trauma of having to retell the story of abuse.

In 2012, IJM reviewed 182 closed cases of sexual violence in three provinces with the highest incidence of the crime nationwide. A close analysis revealed that 97% of children were required to testify in open court, often a highly traumatic experience. A screen separating the perpetrator from the child’s view was only used in 5% of cases.

Working closely with UNICEF, IJM has helped champion the use of the Gesell Chamber. It makes a world of difference: In one brutal case, 13-year-old Griselda* was gang-raped by three men. In the trial against the first man, Griselda recounted the assault she endured, while one of the men who had raped her sat a few feet away. Although a temporary barrier was set up to block him from direct eyesight, the man’s intimidating presence filled the room.

In the next trial against the other two men, IJM advocated for Griselda to testify in the Gesell Chamber. The different environment made a remarkable difference. Her social worker said the girl “testified with such force” and was able to answer questions with greater ease and clarity without the intimidation of the rapists sitting nearby.

(In Griselda’s case, all three men were convicted for their crimes.)

5. A new police unit will make Guatemala a safer place for everyone—especially children facing violence.

The majority of sexual assault cases stall out before they ever really get started: When IJM studied all 36,166 reports of sexual violence over a five-year period, we found that only 3 out of every 10 cases actually received a full investigation. Most cases never actually make it to court.

Guatemala established a new Sex Crimes Unit to combat rape and sexual violence against women and children in late 2012. This unit could change that statistic so cases are thoroughly investigated. But, to this point, they have received limited specialized training.

In August 2014, the Guatemalan government took a major step forward that shows their commitment to fighting sex crimes and making justice possible. Government leaders signed an official agreement with IJM authorizing us to train the Guatemalan National Police on basic criminal investigations, plus offer an in-depth course to the Sex Crimes Unit.

IJM will facilitate a specialized course on investigative techniques, collecting evidence, and working with sexual violence victims for all current and future agents within the Sex Crimes Unit.

*A pseudonym

Latin America, Guatemala, Sexual Violence