Guatemala: Those left behind

The women seeking justice for enforced disappearances

On the morning of February 13, 1982, Emil Bustamante López left his home to attend a meeting. Meanwhile, his wife Rosa Maria Cruz, a few months pregnant, decided to stay home with their eldest daughter and finish a cake for a family birthday celebration that the three of them would attend once Emil returned home. He would pick them up later to join the party. But he never showed up. Rosa María rushed to the family party to meet him, but she couldn’t find him there either.

"That’s when my mother became breathless, my father wasn’t there, he didn’t arrive that afternoon, he never arrived. As a child I dreamt that he was still alive, that he must have lost his memory and didn’t know how to get home."

Ana Isabel tells us this story from exile. Her mother was pregnant with her when her father disappeared. Long ago she decided to leave the country responsible for her father’s arrest and disappearance. A country that never even gave a response for its actions, despite the years that have passed and the family’s multiple complaints and efforts. Ana Isabel counts the years that have passed with her own life: 38 years and no answers.

Little has been said about women survivors of State violence, little about what women like Rosa María, her older daughter Flora Mercedes, and Ana Isabel had to face and continue to face. To live in fear for the one who is no longer there, to live in fear of having the same fate, and to live in a permanent state of alert. Suppressing feelings and words, hiding emotions, blocking everything related to intimacy or physical contact, experiencing anxiety, insomnia, having your mind in the clouds and sometimes being too active, almost obsessive. Little is also said about the suffering caused by the State, that owes them so much, but does not respond, investigate, or punish those who have so terribly damaged these women’s lives.

Unfortunately, this case is not unique, but rather emblematic of a situation of widespread and persistent impunity. The numbers are clear: more than 40,000 cases of enforced disappearance were identified in Guatemala, and it is believed that there were many more. Of all of them, only six cases have received criminal sentences in the country. The have been a few international convictions from the Inter-American Human Rights System, which the State has failed to fully implement.

Impunity for crimes committed during Guatemala’s civil war (1960-1996) also includes most of the surviving victims of serious and widespread human rights violations such as torture, arbitrary detention, forced disappearances, sexual violence, crimes against humanity, and genocide. The lack of investigation, prosecution, and punishment of the perpetrators creates an environment of impunity that sends a perverse message that violence can be tolerated, constituting tacit permission for violence to be repeated.

Guatemala was and continues to be one of the most violent countries in Latin America and the world. Despite great efforts made by some sectors to strengthen the rule of law since the peace accords, impunity and a return to State repression is the current rule. The justice system is being weakened by its key institutions: the national civil police, the public prosecutor’s office, and the judiciary. Some officials still try to carry out their work ethically and efficiently, but they face attacks and a lack of State protection, especially those heading processes related to the armed conflict and crimes committed by public officials involved in criminal networks. This serious problem has been highlighted by the Committee Against Torture in each and every one of its periodic reports to the State of Guatemala, most recently in November 2018.[1]

The repression exercised by the Guatemalan State has marked my family, says Rosa María. It has caused many years of pain and loneliness. At first it was hard to think that Emil was being subjected to torture and suffering, then to deal with the fear, stigmatization, discrimination, and the State blockade. My daughters are those who have kept me going, and to be able to educate them accordingly, to educate them and love them so they would honour their father’s memory. However, only the truth can heal the pain of not having Emil with us.

Rosa María, Flora Mercedes, and Ana Isabel have been denied justice by the Guatemalan State for more than three decades. Today, supported by many other people who have contributed their grain of sand to the struggle for justice, they have filed this case with the UN Human Rights Committee. They hope that the members of the Committee will take this opportunity to send a clear message to Guatemalan authorities that they must respect their international obligations and respond promptly and adequately to the demands for justice of the victims of serious human rights violations.


Evelyn Recinos Contreras is a Guatemalan lawyer, former CICIG (International commission against impunity in Guatemala) criminal lawyer and former advisor to the attorney general in Guatemala.

Teresa Fernández Paredes is a human rights lawyer and advisor at the OMCT.

[1] Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Concluding observations on the seventh periodic report on Guatemala, document number CAT/C/GTM/CO/7, December 26, 2018.