Kimberly Bautista originally went to Guatemala to make a documentary about domestic violence and the under-reported issue of femicide (the violent killing of women). But that was just the beginning.
Her award-winning film Justice for My Sister, which started out as a proposed project on a graduate school application, has propelled her on a Central American-wide movement to demand an end to gender-based violence.
Justice for My Sister tells the story of Rebeca, a Guatemalan woman desperate to seek justice for her sister, who was beaten to death by her ex-boyfriend, in a country where the rule of law is weak and impunity reins.
One in every five women will be sexually assaulted, and in Central America more than 90 percent of domestic violence or murder cases are never solved, according to the film’s official website.
For Bautista, the eradication of gender-based violence is a personal subject — she herself was targeted and raped at gunpoint during a home invasion while producing Justice for My Sister in Guatemala.
“I realized then that the film had to be much more than an advocacy piece,” says Bautista. “It needed to be part of a larger solution to actively prevent gender-based violence through leadership development, so that participants are trained to become resources to their peers.”
So, while on a regional tour with the film, Bautista and the Justice for My Sister Collective launched 16 short documentaries on their YouTube channel to address the issue of domestic violence and chronicle the stories of survivors to encourage others to break the silence.
“Every time we screen [the documentary] audiences come forward and share their own stories. In 2013, I decided I wanted to document some of the other stories to highlight the far-reaching impact of gender-based violence and bring more visibility to other cases as well. Many of the stories in our web series are of survivors that had seen Rebeca’s story in the feature documentary and decided they also wanted to share their stories,” says Bautista.
The team has also produced materials and trainings in domestic violence prevention tailored towards a variety of audiences, including police, judges, lawyers, indigenous communities and men who work in male-dominated industries.
“Entire communities need to empower themselves by understanding how to identify the different forms of violence, as well as how to offer solutions, which is why we develop local resource guides (many audiences otherwise don’t know where to go for help) and it’s also why we emphasize the importance of healthy relationships,” says Bautista.
On Valentine’s Day, the Justice for My Sister Collective plans to host an English and Spanish web chat with different activists on their YouTube channel about self-love and smashing patriarchy. The following month, Justice for My Sister will be screened at the United Nations in New York City as part of the Commission on the Status of Women.
“In the case of a documentary that deals with human rights issues, getting an audience to see a film can be a question of life or death. I ultimately hope to affect real change in people’s lives by educating audiences about these unsolved and sometimes unreported murders. I hope that audiences will be inspired by Rebeca’s unwavering determination to bring justice to light and will question how they can contribute to diminish violence against women and rework the way they think about gender power dynamics in their own lives,” says Bautista.
The small village of Horcones sits at the end of a pot-holed road in Jutiapa, south-eastern Guatemala. Around 40 percent of the population is dedicated to producing livestock, earning an income that is not reflected in the wealth of the white-washed, Grecian columned houses that decorate this farming community.
The majority of people here seem to know someone who works abroad and sends money home, a situation that is replicated around the region and accounts for affluent properties springing up in less than affluent areas.
Remittances, money sent by expatriate workers to their home countries, have been steadily rising in Guatemala, despite increasing deportations, and now account for around 10 percent of the country’s GDP, according to 2012 data from the World Bank.
In 2013 Guatemala received more than $5.1 billion in remittances – the second highest amount in Latin America after Mexico – and Guatemala’s Central Bank predicts the figure will grow by around five percent this year.
Griselda Toj lives in Sacatepequez, 40 kilometers from Guatemala City. Each month she receives, on average, $330 from her husband who works on a dairy farm in Idaho.
“The money he sends back helps us a lot to buy food for the children, send them to school and buy them medicine if they get sick. If he wasn’t there we wouldn’t be able to cope because over there he’s got a lot of work.”
Poverty, violence and family reunification are among the main driving forces behind Guatemalans deciding to make the journey north.
“Our life is difficult here. My husband left three years ago because my son became ill – he had asthma and bronchitis,” says Griselda. “The medicine is expensive and he had to use a special apparatus. We could hardly afford to pay for it.”
In October, more than $500 million was sent back by Guatemalans working abroad, predominantly in the US, which represents an 8 percent increase compared with the same month last year.
Like many people who receive remittances, Griselda is saving to build a house – an example of the effect that Guatemala’s Construction Chamber says money sent from abroad is having on reducing the country’s housing deficit. However, others say it is pushing up the price of land, which adversely affects non-migrant households.
Experts highlight that while remittances enable some people to save, invest in education and contribute to the local economy, it is an unstable source of income that is often squandered due to a lack of financial information for recipients on how to manage the money.
“Yes, remittances can reduce poverty,” says Beatriz de Azurdia from the National Council of Migrant Services (CONAMIGUA). “But we need to take into consideration the risks migrants face and the abandonment kids feel, which can cause families to disintegrate and children to lack guidance. Also, the senders have little say over how the money is invested.”
To combat this, a Guatemalan company recently introduced an electronic remittances gift card, which allows migrants to specify where the money they send back is spent.
In July, the Guatemalan government launched a campaign outlining the risks of exploitation and death that illegal migrants face on their journey north. However, the lack of employment opportunities in Guatemala and many people’s desire to emulate the improved lifestyle of their remittances receiving neighbor, is keeping the American Dream alive.
Israel Castillo came to Guatemala City when he was 23 years old. For more than five years he has stood on guard outside small supermarkets and malls in the Guatemalan capital, brandishing a .38 revolver, 12 bullets and a billy club. Before moving to the capital, Castillo had never even held a firearm — he harvested coffee and maize in his native Jalapa, a mountainous region 175 km from where he now stands.
“I don’t really like living in the city,” he says. “I grew up in the countryside so am more used to that. But I had to come here; there is money to be made and you can always find work as a security guard. This way I can support my family better.”
Castillo is just one of thousands employed by the private security industry, which has exploded in Guatemala over the past decade. According to research by Dr. Otto Argueta, an investigator at the GIGA Institute of Latin American Studies in Germany, in 1990 there were around 75 private security companies operating in the small Central American nation. By 2010, this number had quadrupled.
Although exact statistics are unknown, security analysts estimate there are between 100,000 and 150,000 private security agents working in Guatemala, outnumbering the country’s 30,000 police officers by almost four to one.
Many of these security guards earn minimum wage, carry dangerous weapons and often lack proper training: a lethal combination that at times threatens, rather than protects, the country’s citizens.
More crime, more security guards
According to the United Nations, Guatemala has one of the highest levels of violent crime in Latin America, reporting an average of 99.5 murders a week in 2012. In Guatemala City, entrances to fast food restaurants, hair salons and coffee shops are lined with armed guards – a reaction to a crime rate so high that even the smallest of businesses seek extra protection.
Many argue that crime is worse now than it was during the bloody civil war that ended in 1996, leaving 200,000 people dead and displacing an estimated 50,000. One explanation for the spiking crime rate is the rising influence of drug trafficking cartels that have infiltrated Central American society and stunted the region’s development, allowing criminal gangs to grow, violence to intensify and corruption to penetrate at the highest level.
Decision Ejecutiva is a private security company with approximately 500 employees that has been operating in Guatemala since 1996. They offer clients everything from patrol cars to night watchmen and even personal courses on how to fire a gun.
“Ten years ago security was not as necessary in Guatemala as it is now,” says the company’s Director-General, Ohad Steinhart. “But as a result of the need that has been manifesting in the country, our business and services have grown.”
Wealthy residents and the business elite say that, in a country where mugging, carjacking and extortion are rife, private security companies can offer protection that the police cannot. So they take personal safety into their own hands: hiring bodyguards and chauffeurs to drive them around the city in bulletproof vehicles. At the end of the school day, the gates of top private schools swarm with bodyguards waiting to escort their employers’ children back to their gated communities. Inside the city’s lavish malls, men in dark suits follow families around, eyeing passersby and muttering about potential threats to invisible colleagues through their Bluetooth headsets.
An “arms sweatshop”
The majority of people living below the poverty line in Guatemala are concentrated in rural, majority-indigenous areas where access to education and jobs are limited. Because few private security companies require their employees to have prior experience or a high level of schooling, many unemployed people from the rural areas flock to the capital to seek work as a security guard, allowing them to earn a salary without the need for credentials.
“Private security has become a labor option for a large section of society – namely displaced agricultural laborers,” says Dr. Argueta, the German researcher. “It works like an ‘arms sweatshop’: offering low wages, evading taxes and labor responsibilities, and contracting casual staff that lack qualifications.”
In 2010, in an effort to reign in the industry, the government passed a law requiring all private security companies to obtain a license in order to operate in the country, and gave them two years to do it. The Private Security Services Department (DIGESSP) was established to create a database of all private security agents working in the country, with the aim of monitoring companies and ensuring all the weapons they use are registered.
“It’s been a big challenge and I applaud the work,” said Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla in a recent DIGESSP statement. “We’re working hand in hand with the security companies to be able to help them comply with the law and certify their services.”
However, two years after the closing date for applications, only 15 of the hundreds of security companies in Guatemala have obtained the official license, while most continue to operate with little or no oversight.
Rain is gradually returning to Guatemala after an extended drought in the middle of rainy season brought tragedy to some of the poorest regions of the country. But many agricultural workers say it’s too late to save their harvests.
“We usually cultivate maize and beans, but this year we’ve lost everything because of the drought,” said Lázaro Martínez, who lives with his wife and four children in Chiquimula, a department in eastern Guatemala already known for its high levels of poverty and malnutrition.
“It started raining again a couple of days ago, but the problem is that there’s no money to buy seeds so we can’t plant anything again now. I don’t know what we’ll do next year,” he said.
More than 165,000 Guatemalan families have been affected by the recent lack of rain – which lasted more than a month – and are in need of humanitarian assistance, according to a nationwide government survey carried out last week. Officials estimate the economic consequences of the drought at Q450 million ($57.4 million).
The majority of those affected live in the so-called “Dry Corridor,” an eastern region of the country where access to health care is low and economic marginalization is high. Many of the men from Martínez’s village dedicate themselves to seasonal work: going across the border to Honduras to labor in coffee plantations in the dry season and selling produce from their own harvests in rainy season. However, this year’s ruined crops are pushing people to migrate to other places in search of employment.
“I have to find work somewhere – even if they just pay me in maize or beans it’ll be something. At the moment we’re eating tortillas and salt as there’s no money to buy anything else,” Martínez said.
The Guatemalan government recently announced measures to prevent a spike in maize prices and promised to deliver food bags, seeds and fertilizer to affected families.
“We’re anticipating the failed harvest,” Vice President Roxana Baldetti told reporters at a press conference. “This means the land will be treated so that agricultural workers can plant a second harvest. We calculate that between September and October would be the most prudent period to deliver [food] rations.”
But this isn’t the first time that rural Guatemalans have faced food shortages, and many are calling on the government to invest in long-term solutions rather than short-term handouts.
“Last year the harvest was low but not as bad as this,” said Celfido Asmen, a father of six. “If there was a watering system or something we wouldn’t have lost out, but we don’t have anything like that.”
Asmen usually harvests 20-23 kilograms of maize, but predicts that this year he’ll get two or three.
“It’s been a huge loss for us,” Asmen said. “We’re thinking of migrating to other farms to look for work, but it means I’ll have to be farther away from my family. I hope we have a good harvest next year.”
Guatemala City isn’t known for its beautiful skyline. Recently voted the world’s ugliest city, the Guatemalan capital is often described as a sprawling chaos that conjures images of crime, fumes and slums on the verge of collapse.
However, there are glimmers of hope.
In 2001, frustrated by the city’s disorganized expansion and the degeneration of certain zones, a group of local entrepreneurs embarked on an ambitious restoration project to revive an area that lay in the heart of the capital – and it nearly worked.
Long forsaken after a former president attempted to transform the area into the Paris of Central America, zone 4 fell into disarray in the early 1900s as the city developed around it and companies opted to invest in other corners of the capital.
The businessmen decided to tackle just a couple of streets and turned them into a traffic-free public space called ‘4° Norte’ (Four Degrees North). Their objective was to encourage people to use the city rather than pass through it behind a steering wheel and tinted windows.
By pedestrianizing the streets and hosting cultural events, 4° Norte became a popular meeting place and a way for families to explore an area that had been out of limits for so long. However, keen to capitalize on the zone’s new appeal, bars and restaurants moved in to cater to the new passers-by. Soon the cultural space was taken over by drinking spots and dissolved into a dicey neighborhood known for drug deals, gangs and noise.
“It was pretty when it started, but then it became a mess – it got kind of ugly,” says local resident Fernando Montoya who has lived in the area for more than 20 years.
It seemed as though the project had failed, but the entrepreneurs behind it were determined to try again. They renamed the area ‘Cantón Exposición 4° Norte’, expanded its coverage beyond the two initial streets and focused on giving the space more of a community feel.
“More people on the street generates a more secure environment so apartments were built to encourage people to live there and take care of the area,” says Ninotchka Matute, Executive Director of Fundacion Crecer, a public-private organization that works to improve urban areas in Guatemala.
“Now there’s a combination of housing, offices, university buildings, cafes and restaurants so there are always people about and the neighborhood is less likely to regress as it did before.”
On the surface it appears to be working: a recent urban art event injected colour into what were grey and depressing streets and encouraged people to explore the results of the revival. But the zone 4 of the past still lurks on certain corners: robbers on motorbikes prey on the influx of young hip Guatemalans who visit the area to take photography classes or grab a coffee.
To counter the thieves, Fundacion Crecer is working with the municipality to improve citizen security and install video surveillance in the area.
Local people like Fernando fear it won’t work, the current appeal will soon fade and the area will relapse into the conditions of before when it was just boarded up buildings and drug deals.
“Security is what the area needs and we haven’t seen much of an improvement there,” says Fernando.
There is still a way to go to restore 4° Norte to its former glory and convince people to return to what was once the place to be. But for now the renovation project is a start at bringing a neighborhood back from the brink and making it livable once again.
With so many heading north, now seemed the time to reunite. The teens filled a single backpack with three days’ worth of clothes, and their mother paid a coyote, or guide, to take her daughters and a 10-year-old girl from the village to the U.S. border nearly 2,000 miles away.
Crossing the Suchiate River into Mexico on an inner tube and traveling mostly by bus, they seemed to be among the lucky ones. They avoided the extortion, rape and other crimes so prevalent along the route — up until the moment an immigration agent pulled them from a bus in central Mexico.
Held for a week in a shelter near Mexico City with dozens of other girls and boys, they ate pizza and watched telenovelas until they were dispatched back home.
“I cried and cried and cried,” said Karen, 15. “Only when I finally saw all the other girls did I calm down.”
Sindy, a year older, has memorized her mother’s phone number in North Carolina, and said she just wanted to get to know her.
“I know her only by photos,” Sindy said.
Some Central Americans feel encouraged by rumors that children who cross into the United States will be allowed to stay. But other fundamental reasons fueling migration have remained unchanged for decades: family unification, hometown violence, inescapable poverty and lack of opportunity.
Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America, are among the poorest and most dangerous countries in the hemisphere. Plagued by ruthless street gangs and a growing presence of Mexican drug traffickers, the countries have seen homicide rates grow by 99% over the last decade, with the current rate five times that of the United States, according to a new study by the British-based Action on Armed Violence.
Karen and Sindy’s father and grandfather were shot to death in unsolved killings. The family can no longer afford to pay for Sindy’s schooling. The town where they live, Horcones, in Jutiapa state near the border with El Salvador, can’t pay its electricity or water bills to the federal government.
The homes, by contrast, reflect the wealth of remittances, money sent back by those who have migrated to the U.S. Many are well-constructed, with solid sheet-metal roofs and fancy Greek-style columns. In the Laucel house, the kitchen has a sparkling new Whirlpool refrigerator, although it is nearly empty, and a matching four-burner range, which is not plugged in. But the money arrives sporadically and lends itself to big-ticket purchases rather than steady sustenance.
Karen and Sindy’s mother, Mirna, is one of five siblings; all but one are in the Southeastern United States, sending money home and frequently calling the children they left behind. Mirna has never been back to visit.
The Obama administration says it detained more than 50,000 “unaccompanied minors” trying to cross the border in the first half of this year.
In fact, the smuggling of people to the U.S. is big business. Coyotes, who in Mexico are often descendants of some of the country’s most vicious drug cartels, can charge $7,000 or more for a single migrant. These networks may in fact be stimulating the current exodus by lying about the difficulties of the journey and giving false promises about what lies ahead, experts say.
The United States has repeatedly asked Mexico to take stronger steps to block passage by Central Americans heading toward the U.S. border, but enforcement has been spotty. The Mexican immigration department says the number of minors apprehended has increased by about 7% this year.
Those making the journey often try to pass themselves off as Mexicans, learning the vernacular and wearing fancy sunglasses.
In El Carmen, a Guatemalan city on the border with Mexico, scores of adults and children were arriving in buses one day last week and hurrying over to rafts waiting to take them across the river.
The route was under the same bridge where Mexican immigration authorities were posted. The migrants would land a few feet away and scramble up a bank, largely undetected — perhaps deliberately — by the agents.
Among the relatives was Soila Salazar, Karen and Sindy’s grandmother, who was relieved to see them. “I was desperate when they left, so worried,” she said. “But there are so many problems here.”
Ludvin Lima Gonzalez, 15, was there as well, waiting for his mother, Aura.
Back home a couple of days later in Nueva Concepcion, in the gang-terrorized state of Escuintla, south of Guatemala City, Ludvin said he wanted to go north to help his impoverished family. He has 10 siblings, ages 7 to 32, and a sick father who can’t work. The family lives off meager corn crops.
“It’s very dangerous here,” Ludvin said under the almond trees shading his home’s dirt patio, his father languishing in a hammock.
Some of his friends have been killed for refusing to join the gangs, and members of the family could tick off a series of recent slayings. “You look at them the wrong way and they kill you,” Ludvin said.
“It is painful” to see a child leave, said Aura Gonzalez, 49. “You ask God to protect them. But that’s the necessity.”
As in neighboring El Salvador and Honduras, street gangs — some whose roots are in Los Angeles — have occupied large parts of Guatemala. The three countries have been trying to recover from civil wars and other conflict in the 1980s and ’90s.
The choice for children is bleak, said the Rev. Gerardo Salazar, a priest in the Nueva Concepcion parish.
“You dedicate yourself to drugs and violence, or you grab the road to the United States, as complicated as that is,” he said.
At every Sunday Mass, Salazar said, he is asked to pray for young people killed in town, where about $12 is all it takes to hire an assassin.
Back in Horcones, Sindy and Karen arrived home on Saturday. They went straight to their rooms, where all their belongings were packed in boxes, since they hadn’t been expected to come back.
Karen, thin and compact, seemed withdrawn, reluctant to talk much. Sindy, her full face surrounded by a bouquet of dark curls, vacillated between chatterbox and shy teenager.
Sindy said the camaraderie of the other children tempered her fear on the perilous journey through Mexico.
“I was going along happy, with all the other kids, and thinking I was finally going to get to know my mom,” she said. She said she was told to surrender to U.S. immigration officials when she reached that border and that all would be well. But she didn’t get that far.
She thought perhaps the Mexican immigration authorities zeroed in on her because she was “shaking so much.” Most of the other minors were Honduran; she, her sister and the 10-year-old were the only Guatemalans on the bus.
Now, back home, all she wanted was to take a bath and to sleep. And then, maybe, to try again.
A year-long study by world heritage organisation UNESCO found that adults and children in the developing world are increasingly reading multiple books and stories on their phones. In the past, access to reading materials meant buying books, which were often expensive and in scarce supply. However, a rise in low-cost mobile phones means that people all over the world can now access text.
“Mobile technology delivers education to those who have previously had little or no access to such resources. In areas where books cannot be distributed or where there has been political instability, mobile-learning is a way of overcoming these obstacles,” said Jordan Kay, of the World Literacy Foundation.
According to UNESCO, in Zimbabwe the cost of reading a book on a mobile is about 35p while a paperback bestseller would cost around $12 (£7).
The study, which was the largest ever conducted on mobile reading in the developing world, was conducted in partnership with Worldreader, a non-profit organisation that seeks to eradicate illiteracy in low-income countries. Data was collected from devices that use its Worldreader Mobile app, which allows people to access reading material on their mobiles.
Nearly 5,000 mobile users were surveyed in seven countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan and Zimbabwe). The average illiteracy rate among these nations is 20% for children and 34% for adults. Average adult illiteracy in the UK is less than 1%.
Results showed that 62% of respondents read more now that they can access materials on mobiles. One in three said they read to their children from their mobiles and 90% said they would be spending more time reading on their phones over the coming year.
UN data says more than six billion people now have access to a working mobile phone.
“As we see further technological development and an increased reduction in the price of data and smartphones, there will be greater access to this type of technology in the developing world,” said Kay.