Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Hope Amid Disappointment After Postponement of Ríos Montt Trial

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Magdalena Pacheco lives in Chajul in the remote Ixil region of Guatemala. She is expecting a child and was recently hopeful about the direction of justice in Guatemala after former dictator Efraín Rios Montt’s genocide sentence. But her optimism has shifted after the guilty verdict was overturned.  

“I am very bothered by this, it is very sad,” Pacheco, 30, says. “If we can’t make justice happen with one person, what can we expect?”

In May, a Guatemalan court sentenced the 86-year-old retired general to 80 years in prison for the deaths of 1,771 Ixil Indigenous people between March 1982 and August 1983— part of a counter-insurgency campaign directed at guerrillas in the region. Last week, Rios Montt’s re-trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity was postponed until April 2014.

Magdalena’s family was displaced to the mountains during the war, when she was seven years old. Her mother has physical scars and is disabled after being brutally raped by the army; her father was taken away and tortured in a military post, and her 17-day-old brother was burned alive when the soldiers set fire to their house.

When the family fled, they lived in the forest with little to no food because soldiers had burned their cornfields. All the houses were burned down—including the home of Magdalena’s aunt and those of other family members she would never see again.

Magdalena remembers being carried by her father on his back into the mountains; she remembers hearing the frequent bombs and shooting outside her home in Chajul; she remembers the many trips her mother made to the military post with the mayor of the town in tow, begging for her father, thought to be a guerrilla, to be released. He was eventually released with a fractured hip that took two years to heal—but her mom never recuperated, because she never forgot.

“We’ve all given testimonies of what we’ve lived through, but many of us feel it’s all in vain,” Pacheco said.

In the mid-1990s, the family moved back to Chajul, where Magdalena now lives and runs her own business.

When she and her family returned, the lack of employment and opportunities for women forced her and her female friends to create work for themselves. In September 2011, they formed the Association of Displaced Maya Ixil Chajulense Women (ADMICH), a group that includes 46 young women. Today, the association is led by 7 women from the community of Chajul and Magdalena is the president.  

When I met her about a year ago through our mutual friend, José Osório, Magdalena and the other women from the association had asked various nonprofits to help export their textiles. The nonprofits said they’d help as long as the women could produce the quantity needed for export—but they couldn’t do it without a sewing machine.

I remembered the Swedish Huskylock 90 machine I’d seen earlier in the day in a thrift store in La Antigua. The price tag was $400. I later told José that we could certainly fundraise $400 online through crowdsourcing and donate it to Magdalena and the group.

Within 72 hours, we had raised $550 online—including the cost of transporting the machine westward to Chajul—and coordinated with Magdalena and José to meet us halfway, in Xela, Quetzaltenango. Three buses and five hours later, Magdalena and José knocked shyly on our hotel door after traveling most of the day to meet us. We invited them in from the rain, and I brought over the box had the sewing machine inside, along with the manuals and dozen spools of string. Magdalena, dressed in a rain-soaked huipil, did not take her eyes off it.

When I handed her the box and a list of the people who had donated money to purchase the sewing machine, a big smile lit up her face, and then she gave my companion and me a long, warm hug. “Open it,” I told her. We recorded Magdalena taking the machine out and expertly plugging it into the wall.

The next morning, after writing thank you letters to those who made donations, we had set out early with Magdalena, José and the sewing machine, which rode in the small front cab to stay dry. We finally arrived at Los Encuentros restaurant and had our final lunch together.

Afterwards, we handed the machine over to José amid the downpour. Magdalena hugged us again and then they both rushed off to catch the camioneta, or bus, that was just pulling up, protecting the machine with some makeshift plastic bags.

We watched as they waved to us from the back of the bus and disappeared around the bend and into the mountains. That was the last time I’d seen Magdalena.

Almost a year later, Magdalena and I spoke by phone about her business and to brainstorm names for her little girl. I ask her if it worries her to have a child in such an unjust country. No, she tells me, it’s always been this way.

“In Guatemala, things are so difficult,” she notes. “We have laws that are written, but are not met. All we can do now is wait and hope.” We will now have to wait until at least April 2014 to see if justice will prevail in the trial of Rios Montt.


Kara Andrade is an Ashoka fellow working in Central America. She is co-founder of HablaCentro LLC and NFP which develops curriculum to help people in Latin America become more digitally literate and civically engaged; conducts trainings in the use of digital tools to create more informed citizens; and connects collaborators to opportunities for economic sustainability. She has worked as a multimedia producer and photojournalist for various publications, including The New York Times and Christian Science Monitor.


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