During the Guatemalan Civil War, indigenous Q’eqchi women were subjected to domestic and sexual slavery at the Sepur Zarco military detachment. The military forced them to cook, wash, clean, and tend to the troops without a salary, in addition to subjecting them to unrelenting sexual abuse. In 2011, fifteen Q’eqchi women turned to the Guatemalan Supreme Court to seek restorative justice, which they achieved in February 2016. The Supreme Court issued eighteen reparative measures in favor of the survivors and their community, and it convicted two former soldiers [for their crimes against them]. This landmark legal case became the first instance of restorative justice in which a national court prosecuted the crimes of sexual violence and slavery during an armed conflict.
The Grandmothers of Sepur Zarco, as they are now known, represent a milestone in the struggle of the Central American people, communities, and organizations that fight to attain restorative justice.
According to Kenny Sibrian, institutional communicator at the Central American University’s Human Rights Institute (IDHUCA) in El Salvador, restorative justice seeks to repair the harm perpetrated against victims and has four foci:
- Truth: Unveil what happened; who were the perpetrators; when, how, where, and why it occurred.
- Justice: Obtain justice for the victims and prosecute the person or persons who committed the act.
- Reparations: Issue reparative measures that address psychosocial, economic, educational, physical, and mental health issues, etc.
- Guarantees of non-repetition: What the State must do or change so that the criminal act does not occur again.
For the grandmothers of Sepur Zarco, these reparative measures include education for the girls and boys in their community, access to land, and a health clinic, among others. Attaining them, however, required believing the victims, as Judith Erazo of the Community Studies and Psychosocial Action Team (ECAP) explains. During the proceedings, one of the obstacles the women faced was smear campaigns, which pushed the idea that they were lying and that they had been paid for their statements.
But in the [Court’s] ruling, they are believed. Their testimonies, their suffering, and their truth are validated. This was also restorative for them”, says Erazo.
From Sepur Zarco to El Salvador: El Mozote, against impunity through symbolic courts
As it happened in Sepur Zarco, impunity has been prevalent in El Salvador since the Civil War, and even before. Thirty years have passed since the signing of the Peace Accords, which delivered no justice at the hands of the State in cases such as the El Mozote Massacre.
Different organizations have spoken out in favor of ensuring truth, justice, and reparation for the survivors of the massacre and their relatives. The carnage occurred in December 1981, when the Salvadorean Army carried out systematic executions against the people living in El Mozote, La Joya, Los Toriles, Jocote Amarillo, and Cerro Pando, which are located in northern Morazán, a department of El Salvador. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) held the Salvadoran State responsible for human rights violations against civilians, who were primarily girls and boys.
Despite the passage of time, people have not stopped demanding justice. According to Matilde de Espinoza, Cristosal’s transitional litigation attorney, transitional justice is the kind of justice that is suitable for cases such as El Mozote. Countries that have experienced human rights violations or armed conflicts may use transitional justice to implement solutions that benefit the victims and to ensure that society has access to the truth, reparation, and [guarantees of] non-repetition.
In response to the refusal of the Salvadoran State to dispense justice regarding the serious human rights violations that occurred in the context of the Civil War, mechanisms were created (mostly by the civil society) to accompany those affected by these crimes. Matilde says that one of these mechanisms was the establishment of symbolic courts, which emerged in 2009 and were delineated by the National Coordinating Committee of the Victims alongside IDHUCA.
Ten years later, these symbolic courts have been held eleven times, which constitutes a reparative measure that focuses on the victims, who, in turn, testify about what happened to them, and how they, their families, and their communities experienced it. During these proceedings, the victim’s testimony is not questioned, in contrast to the current justice system, in which victims are questioned with the intent to dismantle their credibility.
“In restorative justice courts, people are not discredited”, Sibrian explains.
In these proceedings, the victims are heard by international judges, who are human rights and international law experts, their community, and other members of the public. Kenny says that victims have oftentimes expressed their relief: «Now I can die in peace because I have told my version [of what happened]”.
Generally, the victims are elderly people who have not had the opportunity to be heard.
Women and El Mozote
Even though my mother and sister are gone, I keep on speaking the truth. I’m the only one left from my mother’s family. My nephews are also there, but I am the only person left on my mom’s side of the family. I feel sad; sometimes [I feel] melancholy and angry because my mother fought incessantly for this process. She fought to her dying day. She fought so justice could be done in El Mozote”.Marta Maritza Amaya (ISDEMU—The Memory of the Fireflies, El Salvador, 2013).
As victims, we hope that our voices will be heard, that the faces you see today, in this sacred place, will not be forgotten, that you can work with us toward justice, and that the horror and impunity we have experienced will never take place again”.María Dorila Márquez, President of the Human Rights Association of El Mozote (ISDEMU—The Memory of the Fireflies, El Salvador, 2013).
According to María Dorila, what happened to women in El Mozote is indicative of a pattern that was common in other Central American countries: After identifying a domestic threat, [the military] resolved to confront it by terrorizing the civilian population. [The army] instrumentalized women’s bodies in order to terrorize civilians and send a message to its opponents. This is the genesis of the sexual violence perpetrated against women [in El Mozote], an explicit act of aggression similar to the one committed against the women of Sepur Zarco.
Currently the demands of women seeking justice are manifold. One of the biggest challenges is figuring out how to grant them the kind of justice that will align with their life project, taking into account the women’s age and their particular contexts, since many of them are elderly, and the reparation mechanisms must be responsive to the victims’ realities”, emphasizes Matilde.
“The above can occur only by listening to them. That is why one of the most urgent reparation mechanisms is the recognition that reparations that protect human dignity are necessary. These are women who have fought for decades: mothers who have been looking for their children for forty years, who have been requesting information regarding the whereabouts of their grandchildren, and who at times have been deemed liars or political actors’ intent on deceiving some governments,” explains Espinoza.
Justice seems a distant possibility
Despite the similarities between Sepur Zarco and El Mozote, very little progress has been made in El Salvador, and, in the current political context, justice seems a distant possibility.
Although the ruling in the case of the Sepur Zarco Grandmothers set an important precedent, Judith Erazo (ECAP) believes the real challenge lies in ensuring compliance with the ruling. Many of the measures [issued by the Supreme Court] have not yet been implemented, and given the current political climate in El Salvador, their fulfillment is unlikely to happen any time soon.
Every day we face more and more limitations because, in terms of transitional justice, we are going backwards. The Public Ministry has completely distanced itself from the issue. The only human rights prosecutor that was truly ethical has been removed from her post […]. The Sepur Zarco ruling should be enforced in its entirety, but the conditions necessary to advance this issue and others do not exist”, she says.
In the case of El Mozote in El Salvador, the trial has stalled. Judge Jorge Guzmán, who reopened the case in 2016, resigned his post due to the judicial service reform pushed by Nayib Bukele’s government, which orders judges over the age of sixty who have served for more than thirty years to retire.
Postwar debts in El Salvador: The case of Manuela
The right to the truth is one of the foci of restorative justice, which requires that victims be given the opportunity to tell their version of events and that they are heard, but in El Salvador, instead of allowing victims to speak out, the system prosecutes them instead. This is what happened to Manuela.
El Salvador is one of the few countries in the world to have criminalized abortion in all cases. Manuela, who never had access to quality healthcare or education, fell victim to a law that negatively impacts the bodies and lives of women, especially poor women. On February 26, 2008, Manuela suffered an obstetric emergency at home. She felt severe abdominal pain and passed out while in the latrine. Her father took her to a hospital, but instead of providing medical attention, hospital personnel reported Manuela for having had an “abortion”. She was sentenced to thirty years in prison on charges of aggravated murder. The police coerced her father, who could neither read nor write, into signing a document inculpating Manuela, an action that fills him with sadness to this day.
The last time Manuela saw her two children and her mother was at the sentencing hearing. Less than two years later, Manuela’s health had deteriorated severely. She had been belatedly diagnosed with lymphatic cancer.
Mom, I won’t make it out of here. Please, take care of my children”
These were the last words Manuela said to her mother before dying in 2010, innocent of the crime she had been accused of, handcuffed to a hospital bed, and without a single family member by her side.
The organizations that accompanied Manuela’s case were emphatic in denouncing that the State had violated Manuela’s human rights. Sara García, from the Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion, stated that the harm perpetrated against Manuela’s family counts as one of the human rights violations that took place in Manuela’s case: the fact that her children will grow up without their mother and the burden that their care and upkeep represents for Manuela’s parents, who take care of the children without any assistance from the State.
Indeed, Manuela’s family was forced to sell a plot of land during the trial, which was a source of income and food. This meant fewer resources and more debts for the family, who live in an impoverished community.
For her eldest son, reparation means rehabilitating his mother’s name, that is, the right to the truth. Manuela’s mother has also stated that the State should recognize that it failed Manuela, declare her innocent, and guarantee that what happened to her daughter will never happen to anyone again.
Historic ruling: Justice for Manuela
On November 29, 2021, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights deemed El Salvador responsible for Manuela’s death following her prosecution for suffering an obstetric emergency. The ruling was handed down after ten years of court battles. The words of her eldest son were repeated:
I am happy because my mother’s name has been cleared”.
This resolution has given hope to the organizations and people who work to stop the prosecution of pregnant women who deal with health emergencies in El Salvador. The Court has ruled that El Salvador must develop a protocol to ensure that women who experience obstetric emergencies receive urgent medical care; in addition, the country must adapt its laws concerning pretrial detentions.
Manuela’s story will be told in the feminist film “I Am Manuela” , made by Violeta Productions and Asociación Ixchel. Mextli Matus, a member of the production team, explains that the film is a dream that was inspired by the stories of Manuela Santos and other Salvadorean women.
This is a tribute which we wanted to pay. All of us have worked to bring this project to light, and we want it to be known beyond El Salvador. It began with the spread of the stories of the 17 + [women who have been jailed in El Salvador for surviving obstetric emergencies]. We believe that art and cultural productions are essential if we want to reach out and raise awareness”.
Mothers continue to seek justice for femicides
Like Manuela’s mother, other women are seeking justice, truth, and reparation for their daughters. María de los Ángeles Quezada has spent the last three years demanding justice for her daughter’s femicide. On January 31, 2019, Fernanda Nájera was stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend, Michael Alejandro Castillo Murga, on a farm in Ataco, Ahuachapán.
According to a report by the Attorney General’s Office (FGR), their infant son, Matías Fernando, was found in the same area four days later, on February 4, in a state of total neglect and dehydration.
Michael Castillo Murga is currently on the run and wanted by INTERPOL. His accomplices, among them a doctor and a former prosecutor, have been released, and the preliminary hearing has been postponed five times. María de los Ángeles sees these continued delays as a violation of her right to justice, and she believes they are linked to the suspects’ economic power. Despite this, she has stated repeatedly that she will continue to fight until justice is served.
According to the Women for Peace’s Violence Observatory (ORMUSA), between January and December 2019, 230 femicides were committed in El Salvador, including Fernanda Nájera’s.
For María de los Ángeles, healing and repairing would require the State to answer for her grandson, who survived the events that ended Fernanda’s life; likewise, the people responsible for her daughter’s femicide would have to serve out their sentences.
I am fighting for the rights of my daughter, who is no longer with us, and for those of my grandson […]. This, more than anything else, is what drives me to fight during the hearings […]. Mothers do not stand idly by after having their daughters ripped away from them”, she says.
Marjorie Hernández, an IDHUCA lawyer, explains that public entities must be empathetic and willing in order to resolve these issues; however, she acknowledges that the justice system is overloaded, which may be one of the reasons cases stall.
Several organizations called on the State to strengthen the institutions that deal with these crimes, but, as things stand, El Salvador has failed to establish at least one specialized court in every department. In fact, there are only six specialized courts servicing all fourteen departments.
María de los Ángeles has asked INTERPOL and the National Civil Police (PNC) to find the man who murdered her daughter, and she has also requested psychological care for her grandson, Fernanda’s son, who is plagued by nightmares of the traumatic events surrounding his mother’s death.
Punitive justice is not meant to provide accompaniment to victims because its focus is on punishing perpetrators. This is where punitive justice and restorative justice differ. Restorative justice requires that victims receive comprehensive care. In María de los Ángeles and Matías Fernando’s case, they require psychological care and any kind of support that aids the healing process.
The Amorales Collective has accompanied María de los Ángeles, supported her as the hearings continue to be postponed, and spoken to the media about the impunity surrounding the case. They have also provided her with psychological support.
I appreciate the moral support that my comrades at Amorales have given me. If it weren’t for them, I’d be in this alone. I would feel worse”.
Commented María de los Ángeles after the preliminary hearing was postponed for the fourth time this year.
Small steps: Court rulings with a restorative justice approach
Restorative justice focuses on acknowledging the truth; it pushes for a thorough investigation of the facts so that similar events cannot take place again—in addition to bringing those responsible to justice, thereby averting impunity.
For Silvia Juárez, the coordinator of ORMUSA’s Program for a Life Free of Violence, a few femicide rulings have made some progress in terms of restorative justice. For example, the Specialized Sentencing Court for a Life Free of Violence of San Salvador found nine of the thirteen people implicated in the murder of Carla Ayala guilty. The court determined that there was civil liability in the amount of US$ 24,000 and that the PNC was obligated to provide psychological assistance to Carla’s family and academic scholarships to her children.
Another historic ruling concerns Jocelyn Abarca’s case, which issued a measure of non-repetition by requesting that the Ministry of Education establish courses to prevent gender violence in secondary education. However, this has not yet been implemented. The families have made clear that these measures do not make up for the loss of their loved ones; the pain never goes away, even with the passing of time.
Jocelyn was murdered by her significant other, Ronald Atilio Urbina, on July 5, 2018, in Soyapango. Five days after she was reported missing, her body was found. The brutality of her murder shocked the country and transcended its borders. On August 7, the Special Sentencing Court for a Life Free of Violence and Discrimination Against Women sentenced Urbina to fifty years in prison, the maximum penalty for femicide. Despite the conviction, Jocelyn’s mother continues to grieve for her daughter, whose memory lives on only in her heart and a few photographs.
I feel no emotional satisfaction, but I am relieved that these people can no longer [hurt others]. It’s a small consolation; the person responsible for [Jocelyn’s death] is behind bars and will pay for his crime, but this won’t bring her back. I sought justice, but I couldn’t find it”.
According to Juárez, to advance restorative justice in the country, the truth must be unveiled, the archives must be declassified, the missing women must be identified, and the numerous instances of rape faced by women since the Civil War must be acknowledged.
It is also important to
Understand that healing wounds from the past can help heal current ones. The State must guarantee survivors spaces for organizing, speaking out, and participating in decision-making processes. If this doesn’t happen, the families of the victims, the mothers especially, will be subject to yet another systemic violation; they will be denied swift and effective justice”.
Jessenia Juárez remembers her daughter as a loving, brave, studious, equanimous, and sociable woman. Jocelyn was a twenty-six-year-old psychology student who had helped her mother economically since she was seventeen. She paid for her education and had a steady job.
My daughter was very kind. Sometimes I think she came to this world with a mission to fulfill. Her story can help other women understand that emotional abuse always escalates”.
Mothers continue to mourn their daughters. The court system appears to provide some relief, but the loss is irreparable.
Although he is behind bars, the relief I feel is minuscule—emotionally, I feel pretty much the same. People tell me that I will see her again in the afterlife, but there is a void, and it feels like they have ripped a vital organ out of me. The void is always there. I think it will be there for the rest of my life”, Jessenia says.
Jocelyn’s mother struggles particularly with coming to terms with how her daughter was taken from her:
I have accepted that she’s gone. She’s gone; she isn’t here anymore. But the way that it happened… No. I wish I’d been there to stop this from happening”.
Although Manuela, Fernanda, and Jocelyn are gone, their families’ work and the support provided by feminist and human rights organizations have allowed their voices to transcend death.
The fight for restorative justice in El Salvador is only beginning, but the first steps have already been taken. The voices of Fernanda, Manuela, Jocelyn, and others have not been forgotten. Their families have breathed new life into them.
The Salvadoran State owes women a historical debt in terms of justice—not just any kind of justice, but the kind that brings together the elements necessary to protect human dignity, such as truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-repetition. That is why restorative and transitional justice are extremely important for the whole of society: they aim to prevent human rights violations from reoccurring.
Likewise, it is essential that all sectors support victims and survivors and that they demand the State establish mechanisms and pass legislation to respond to past and present instances of violence. It is also crucial to support and highlight the work of feminist and human rights organizations that have accompanied mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, families, communities, and other groups that have an imperishable longing for justice. One example that proves the practical implications of their hope is the recent historic ruling of the IACHR regarding Manuela, whereby her family and other organizations managed to make Manuela’s truth public and to admonish the State so it no longer criminalizes women who suffer obstetric emergencies.
In this manner, Fernanda’s and Jocelyn’s mothers as well as the women of El Mozote continue to expose instances of gendered violence and to demand justice. Their struggle is born of a longing that one day their daughters, grandchildren, family members, and themselves will live in a country in which the lives of women are a priority.
This article was written by Revista La Brújula from El Salvador for FCAM.