Beyond the Courtroom:
A personal approach to justice in Guatemala

Photo courtesy of ECAP.

June 8, 2017

By Sharmin Rahman, Intern

As victims and their families in Guatemala have sought truth and justice for crimes committed during the country’s 30-year civil war, Fund grantee Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y de Acción Psicosocial (ECAP) has played a key supporting role. Founded in 1997, ECAP provides crucial psychosocial support to witnesses, victims, experts, and even judges involved in the transitional justice trials. ECAP’s role has been vital in trials like the Sepur Zarco case, which marked the first time sexual slavery during war was prosecuted in the country in which it was committed.

ECAP’s work is both “delicate” and “complicated” says Paula Martinez Vasquez, a psychologist who has worked with ECAP for over a decade and is a recipient of the Alice Zachmann Human Rights Award. This is because ECAP supports women survivors of sexual violence who, by speaking up about their experiences, often face stigma from their families and communities—and even risk retaliation from perpetrators.

Engaging Mayan tradition & working toward healing

To help victims heal from past trauma, the organization addresses the underlying causes of psychosocial trauma in victims, many of which are members of rural and indigenous communities who have suffered political violence. Accomplishing this means working far beyond the courtroom.  Sometimes, explains Paula, justice for communities is about pursuing a case in court, but other times it’s about educating survivors’ families and youth, or breaking the silence on what happened to their mothers and grandmothers.

A key part of ECAP’s strategy is training and empowering local mental health promoters; “we couldn’t do the work without these women” Paula said. Moreover, regional Mayan rituals are frequently incorporated into ECAP’s therapy techniques. Mental health promoters and ECAP staff use traditional art and handicraft, mural painting, and handmade dioramas to illustrate abuses committed during the conflict, engage in conversation around women’s rights, and build confidence and solidarity among survivors.

ECAP’s support is not just related to historical crimes. Abuses against indigenous communities, frequently fueled by conflict over environmental resources, are ongoing. For example, ECAP recently supported community members from the town of Lote Ocho where eleven women are suing Canadian mining company Hudbay Minerals for abuses including gang rape and murder, committed in 2007.

ECAP’s Cross-border Work

The organization has also begun to provide cross-regional support and training to other activists and communities outside of Guatemala. This international work comes at a critical time; activists engaged in grassroots human rights work in Mesoamerica are frequently facing criminalization, defamation and even violent attacks.

ECAP’s commitment to provide psychosocial support and the organization’s vision for promoting justice, gender equity, and a culture of peace is a source of inspiration and hope. The Fund made its first grant to ECAP in 2014.