Guatemala: Building the State That Never Was

Graciela Heymann, Fordham University


In 2016, 15 pre-literate, elderly indigenous Maya women prevailed in a court of law for acts of sexual abuse and domestic slavery perpetrated against them by members of the armed forces at the Sepur Zarco military base in Guatemala. The Sepur Zarco trial marks a watershed moment in combatting the use of sex as a weapon of war. Sepur Zarco provides a model for a different sort of justice that is victim-centered and victim driven. This investigation provides new insights into a new form of justice that provides a transformative change in the lives of victims, their communities, and society at large. This research will examine in detail the contributions of Sepur Zarco for the possibilities it offers in articulating new pathways for Transitional Justice. Sepur Zarco created a blueprint for building strength and resilience in the population. By framing the individual grievances within a sociological and historical context and by firmly rooting them in indigenous culture, the lessons learned can be replicated on a national scale to create agency and citizenship in an indigenous population that continues to experience genocidal induced trauma and socio-economic violence in their every-day lives. Sepur Zarco has expanded the scope of revisiting the past as a "way to move forward" in Transitional Justice to include the need to address trauma in victims as well as the need to confront the social exclusion that leads to conflict. Becoming an actor and participating in a social movement is dependent mainly on the capacity of victims to exercise their agency. This study has demonstrated that building agency is the first step in a process that empowers victims to address their marginalization. Transitional Justice does not address multiple levels of oppression; it does not deconstruct racism, colonialism or economic exclusion. These efforts are the products of engaged citizens who can exercise individual and collective agency. The Sepur Zarco case provides some valuable strategies worthy of examining. Creating a different Guatemala where the state is engaged in a social contract with its citizens can only be accomplished if Transitional Justice mechanisms are accompanied by a robust program that addresses the presence of trauma in individuals and the community and addressing the multiple layers of structural oppression and marginalization.

Subject Area

Latin American Studies

Recommended Citation

Heymann, Graciela, "Guatemala: Building the State That Never Was" (2019). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI13901420.