by Louise Kelly
Arriving at Guatemala airport at night on my first visit to the country was a sharper culture shock than I had envisioned. No time to collect my bearings, figure out if there was wifi (there wasn’t) to contact my pre-arranged driver I couldn’t immediately spot in the crowd, I was curtly ushered out to the front entrance/exit.
I felt like I was on a Hollywood red carpet in the worst way possible. I stood out like a sore thumb with my pale Irish skin rucksack threatening to topple me over as my adoring public (the taxi men and random fare hustlers) beckoned to me. The many crime reports and safety warnings I read before my departure came flooding back.
In those fifteen minutes while I rang my hotel (positioning myself by some male Europeans while I took out the smartphone) and waited for my arranged driver to arrive, I felt like a stupid unprepared rich white person – no, woman – that deserved to be mugged, raped, disappeared.
On the approximately seven minute drive it took my lovely male companion to ferry me to my hotel, I shook myself and told myself that my fear was as a result of travel exhaustion and not ignorance. I had travelled here, after all, to explore this inherent fear felt by women in a machismo society, a place in which incidents like the below are common and the related cases are only beginning to be brought through the justice system.
In 2014, Marco Tulio Reyes Carrera (36) – from the township of San Antonio La Paz -wished to become involved in a ‘romantic’ relationship with 16-year-old ‘Marta’ (not her real name). Although Marta and her family rejected and disapproved of his advances, he continued to intimidate the young woman and her boyfriend to the extent that a harassment complaint was filed. On August 10 of the same year, he approached Marta and a little girl who was accompanying her near her home. He held a machete in his hand and Marta told the little girl to run away. In the attack that followed, Marta almost bled to death from the wounds suffered to her back, her four limbs, her face and her head.
Three long days of meetings and supervised community visits since my arrival, it is me who is anxious to be allowed to wander the streets freely.
The amiable hotel staff operate the electronic metal door which acts as our entrance, in a small neighbourhood in Zona 13 enclosed by metal gates, monitored by armed guards. The government officials, advocates, and indeed the community women themselves that I meet seem almost more interested in my personal safety than speaking to me about the issues I’ve come to report on.
I’ve been transported from door to door by ‘safe’ recommended taxi men, the word seemingly ironic when you’re in the backseat of a vehicle zig-zagging at high speed down a freeway and your seatbelt either doesn’t work or doesn’t exist.
Today, in an impromptu attempt at liberty, I decided to try to experience Guatemala for myself, as in walk the two blocks to my next meeting. Unsurprisingly I misjudged which crumbling building to turn at and found myself almost immediately lost.
Three darkened cars with beeping, whistling occupants later, I came across an institution guarded by three policia who happily interpreted my pigeon Spanish into an actual address. Two of them insisted on accompanying me on that five minute trip to visit the Office of the Ombudsman.
Deputy Ombudsman Hilda Morales was the lady I was here to meet. A powerful multiple award winning and internationally renowned lawyer, for her work in progressing human rights over the last six decades, I was awestruck before we met. And yet her quiet, even humble, demeanour when we met almost disappointed me. That is until we explored the work her office and associated women’s groups are currently involved in.
‘Sexual violence’ she replied without hesitation when I asked what she believes is most prevalent issue in Guatemala at present. Domestic or date, random or relative, Ms Morales floored me as she outlined in detail the ongoing battle to change mindsets and laws around these sort of attacks in order to protect and empower the women who make up 52 per cent of the country’s population.
Her work is ‘exhausting’ she tells me as she co-ordinates on a daily basis with groups – some of whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting – to try ‘poco a poco’ to eradicate the violence against women caused by oppression, subordination, discrimination and racism in Guatemalan society.
And as I waited in reception after our meeting for my ‘safe’ chauffeur to take me back to my fortress hotel before the sky began to darken, I wondered if I was misguided not to remain as alert when I first stepped off the plane in this beautiful country.
Louise Kelly is a journalist with the Irish Independent. She was funded under the summer 2015 round to travel to Guatemala to highlight and explore gender inequality in the country and the high levels of domestic violence against women. This is the first of two blog posts that Louise wrote in Guatemala.