GUATEMALA’S FORGOTTEN CHILDREN
Human Rights Watch Children’s Rights ProjectCopyright © July 1997 by Human Rights Watch.
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Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 97-73213
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This report was written by Lee Tucker, counsel to the Human Rights Watch Children’s Rights Project. It is based on research conducted by Ms. Tucker in August and September 1996 in Guatemala. The report was edited by Lois Whitman, director of the Human Rights Watch Children’s Rights Project, and Anne Manuel, deputy director of Human Rights Watch/Americas. Linda Shipley, associate for the Human Rights Watch Children’s Rights Project and Steve Hernandez, associate for Human Rights Watch/Americas, provided production assistance.
In Guatemala, we were aided immeasurably by the staff of Casa Alianza, including Mario Alvarado, street coordinator, Hector Dionicio, legal coordinator, and numerous street educators, who allowed us to accompany them in their work. Carlos Toledo of the National Children’s Movement (Movimiento Nacional de Niños) also offered valuable assistance on repeated occasions, as did his staff. Other organizations and individuals who gave generously of their time and expertise included: Sólo Para Mujeres (Just For Women); the Center for Integral Community Development (CEDIC); attorney Bonerge Mejía; the Maternal and Infant Aid Project (PAMI); and Doctors Without Borders/Guatemala. Government officials who met with us included Children’s Rights Defender Marilys Estrada; Victoria Monzón, director of the Treatment and Guidance for Minors; Minors’ Judge Mildred de la Roca; and Minors’ Prosecutor Claudia de Carrillo and her staff of lawyers - we thank all of these officials for their time and patience in speaking with us. We would also like to thank José Gómez of Rehabilitation of the Marginalized (Rehabilitación de los Marginados, REMAR) for meeting with us and allowing us to visit the boys’ detention center known as "Gaviotas."
In the United States, we extend a special thanks to Jessica Attie of Columbia University, who generously shared with us her own research findings from the summer of 1996.
Finally, our most heartfelt thanks and acknowledgment is reserved for the dozens of children who spoke with us in Guatemalan detention centers, private shelters, and on the streets. These children, forgotten and marginalized by the society around them, have suffered violence and degradation at the hands of Guatemalan authorities and others. We hope that their courage in speaking to us will be rewarded by an end to the violence against them.
This report is available in Spanish thanks to the J.M. Kaplan Fund.
Gaviotas Detention center for boys, located in Guatemala City.
Gorriones Detention center for girls, located near Guatemala City.
NGO Nongovernmental organization.
Pavón High-security adult male prison, for those who have been convicted and sentenced. Minors are rarely held in Pavón.
Pavoncito Adult male prison for those awaiting sentencing. Minors are occasionally held in Pavoncito.
REMAR Spanish-based evangelical organization, "Rehabilitation of the Marginalized" (Rehabilitación de los Marginados). Rehabilitates Spanish and Latin American drug addicts and ex-convicts by having them work with troubled youth.
San José Pinula Detention center for boys, located in San José Pinula, about forty-five minutes by car from Guatemala City.
TOM Office of Treatment and Guidance for Children (Tratamiento y Orientación de Menores). Government agency charged with administering all juvenile detention and protection services.
Zone 18 Preventive detention center. Houses adult males awaiting the filing of charges or trial, as well as post-adjudication offenders. Minors frequently held there as well. Has a separate wing for adult female offenders.
As a 1990 State Party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Guatemala was one of the first countries to commit itself to respecting the human rights of children. Nearly seven years later, that commitment has borne little fruit. Thousands of children living in Guatemala’s streets face routine beatings, thefts, and sexual assaults at the hands of the National Police and private security guards (who are under the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry). More serious crimes against street children, including assassination and torture, have lessened since the early 1990s, but still occur. In April 1996, sixteen-year-old Susana Gómez was raped by two National Police officers in Guatemala City while a third kept watch. In September 1996, sixteen-year-old Ronald Raúl Ramos was shot and killed by a drunken Treasury Police officer in Tecún Umán. More than ten other street children were murdered in 1996 under suspicious circumstances. As of April 1997, all of the perpetrators in these cases remained at large.
Three convictions for murders of street children were handed down recently, two in late 1996 and one in January 1997. These convictions, against three private security guards, two National Police officers, and a former military commissioner, were significant and encouraging news. Hundreds of other cases involving crimes against street children, however, remain stalled; most are never even investigated. Crimes against street children are a low priority for police investigators, particularly when a fellow officer is implicated.
In contrast to the impunity enjoyed by police offenders, juvenile offenders, and even non-offenders, are dealt with harshly. "Juvenile justice" in Guatemala suffers from multiple and severe defects, rendering it less than justice and little more than warehousing. Street children are arrested and locked up arbitrarily, sometimes merely for being homeless, other times for such vague offenses as "creating a public scandal," or "loitering." There are no government programs for street children, the vast majority of whom were abandoned or abused by their families.
Once children are arrested, they may spend months in pre-adjudication detention, often solely because they have no family to claim them. When they do receive their hearing, their due process rights may be ignored by the judge: several children told us that judges had refused to let them speak, or had banished them from the room while hearing evidence against them. These children are not supplied with legal assistance of any kind. Sentences vary enormously, often according to children’s economic status.
Judges send other children into detention facilities "for their own protection." Fifty percent or more of all detained girls fall into this category. Children in protective custody are incarcerated together with juvenile offenders. Thus, children who were raped or beaten by their parents, children who were found in a malnourished state, runaways, even some children with physical disabilities, are thrown into the same dreary facilities as are drug addicts, pickpockets, prostitutes, and violent offenders. What’s more, ages at the centers range from eight to seventeen. As a result, eight-year-old abuse victims and seventeen-year-old murderers may end up in the same place, together.
Children in detention are offered no meaningful rehabilitation or education, no meaningful psychological treatment, and, with the exception of one facility, no vocational training. They are crowded together in unsanitary conditions, with no privacy and little respect for their personal integrity. Detained children are vulnerable to mistreatment from staff members and from other detainees, sometimes with staff acquiescence. They are left in the hands of untrained and unqualified personnel. All of these conditions contravene international standards.
As titular head of the Social Welfare Office (Oficina de Bienestar Social), First Lady Patricia de Arzú is responsible for Guatemala’s juvenile detention centers, or "re-education centers," as some of them are known. Claiming a lack of resources and corruption among their own staff, the First Lady’s office has virtually abdicated control over the juvenile facilities by inviting in REMAR (Rehabilitación de los Marginados), a Spanish evangelical organization, which purportedly provides its services free of charge. REMAR is dedicated to rehabilitating Spanish ex-convicts and drug addicts by sending them abroad to work with troubled children. The organization now controls all three of the boys’ centers.
A touchstone of the REMAR approach is "the rod." The boys we spoke with had these reactions to the word "REMAR": "beatings," "baseball bat," "aluminum baseball bat," "broomstick," "firewood," "isolation room," "broken finger," and "broken ribs." The use of physical punishment and punitive isolation against children is strictly forbidden under international law. Despite widespread reports of these abuses, no Guatemalan authority is supervising the actions of REMAR: not the Human Rights Ombudsman, not the office of Treatment and Guidance for Minors (Tratamiento y Orientación de Menores), which is under the First Lady and is directly responsible for the detention centers, and not the First Lady herself. To the contrary, the realm of REMAR was recently expanded - until the summer of 1996, they were responsible for only one of the boys’s centers.
In addition, REMAR runs nine of its own, private centers for children. Guatemalan minors’ judges send nearly 1,000 children to these centers each year. The children remain under REMAR control until REMAR tells the judge that the child is ready to be released. There are no visits from court personnel, noevaluations of REMAR personnel, and no independent monitoring or oversight. Children who had been in these centers reported suffering frequent physical abuse, as well as religious coercion. (Religious coercion was also reported by children in the state facilities run by REMAR.)
In 1996, the Guatemalan legislature passed a new Minors’ Code, scheduled to take effect in the last quarter of 1997. The new code is a vast improvement over the existing code. It extends procedural protections to children accused of crimes, including the right to a lawyer at government expense. It forbids the placement of children in protective custody into juvenile detention centers. It also forbids the imprisonment of children for status offenses, such as running away or being homeless. The code contains a host of other improvements - if all of them were implemented, most of the abuses described in this report would come to an end. Until that happens, Guatemala remains an everyday violator of children’s human rights.
This report is based on interviews with thirty-five children and youths, conducted in August and September 1996 by a researcher for the Human Rights Watch Children’s Rights Project. We also spoke extensively with representatives of Guatemalan and international nongovernmental organizations, including several dedicated exclusively to working with street children. Government officials we interviewed included representatives of the Social Welfare Office of the Presidency of the Republic, the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, the Minors’ Magistrate, and the Public Ministry’s Minors’ Division.
The Guatemalan government refused to grant our researcher access to juvenile detention centers. A few centers were visited briefly through other means. Apart from those visits, information on the detention centers was gathered and confirmed through interviews with recent detainees.