Carol Zardetto is a Guatemalan novelist, lawyer, script-writer and diplomat, and is part of the generation of Guatemalan writers who grew up under the shadow of Guatemalan Civil War.
A story by Carol on the Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt will feature in Comma’s forthcoming anthology The American Way, a book of specially commissioned stories by authors from across the globe addressing America’s history of foreign intervention from 1945 to the present day.
For Women’s History Month, we invited Carol to write an exclusive piece for The Comma Press Blog about the impact of Efrain Rios Montt’s presidency during the civil war on the women of Guatemala. Here, Zardetto writes on the relationship between religious dogmatism and violence against women, Ronald Reagan’s complicity in Rios Montt’s crimes and the continuation of women’s suffering under the patriarchal and conservative establishment in Guatemala.
Content warning: rape, child abuse, extreme sexual violence
by Carol Zardetto, translated by Julio Barrios
“Woman, where are your accusers?”
– Jesus to woman accused of adultery
In the last few months, I’ve felt terrified by the recurring news: women disappear daily. Many never to be seen or heard of again. Others are found dead in ditches, strewn like garbage in gullies, or abandoned in different parts of the city. Guatemala has more women disappeared and dead than Ciudad Juarez. I am not alone in my fear.
Thousands of girls of ages between 10 and 14 (according to recent statistics at least 5,133 in 2019, which is roughly 14 every day), are impregnated in Guatemala, at home or otherwise, which in any case amounts to rape and sexual violence. Yet they are forced to give birth, their developing and often malnourished bodies notwithstanding, endangering their lives and sentencing them to bear a responsibility that is crushing at that age. These abuses are a swelling tendency that remains basically unaddressed by authorities and ignored by society in general, while abortion is severely penalized by law and socially judged with harshness, even in the light of the heinous plague of child rapes.
Understanding the deeply rooted violence against women is challenging and beyond the scope of this article, but the important role that religious dogmatism plays in contributing to such violence is worth highlighting, in particular the link between violence and certain fundamentalist dogma and the anti-communism/capitalism and patriarchal order it reinforces.
To understand how these horrifying tendencies became commonplace we must look back to the Cold War. The USA understood that an ideological war was not won merely by armies. It was necessary to penetrate the cultural narrative for it is what moves peoples emotionally and makes them feel deeply involved. The narrative that was needed had to ensure the moral high ground of the conservative mentality and social structure, for it was that posture that was sure to oppose communism in any way or form. It was not something that needed to be created as it existed already: evangelical fundamentalism was an alternative to wayward Catholicism that had deviated (through the Liberation Theology) towards the plight of the poor and marginalized, and was furthering the cause of the left.
Evangelical fundamentalism was the means to maintain in place the vertical power structure that fits into and holds up the capitalist pyramid. The echelons of privilege have known that the maintenance of their position is made possible by the maintenance of a solid and ample base: patriarchy and religion. Patriarchy is the oldest system of power humanity has known, it is codified in cultures as a “natural order”, it reaches people on an emotional level and permeates almost all mainstream idiosyncrasy. It is based on the violent suppression of women and it nests deep within all major religious dogmas.
In the 60s a myriad of organizations came from the United States to Latin America with the mission to evangelize, to save souls in the name of Christ and capitalism. The 1976 earthquake in Guatemala was the calling that a Eureka California organization heeded to come to Guatemala. A man with a singular destiny became their mouthpiece, their icon, and one of their elders. His name was Efrain Rios Montt, a man who had a political trajectory in Guatemala, he was a General and had been a presidential candidate. In 1981 as the civil war was raging, the military upper echelons staged a coup that put that man in power. Then-president Rios Montt (1982-1983) was endowed with ample means to execute the necessary plans that would bring about a final victory for the army, the unleashing of the most systematically violent period in modern Guatemalan history, and he did.
Thirty years later that once all-powerful man was sat on the bench of the accused by the most humble of peoples: the Ixil indigenous people. It was on the 10 of May, a Mother’s day in Guatemala, when Yassmin Barrios, a woman who was the head of the tribunal emitted the sentence. It declared that the old man who had been president, who had been endowed with all reaching powers, had used said powers to commit genocide.
When speaking of genocide, it is not readily understood to what degree this intensely narcissistic phenomenon affects women. In Guatemala’s genocide, it implied hate crimes not only against an ethnic group but against the female gender: women were denigrated for being women. In practice this meant mass rapes perpetrated by whole regiments against the women, civilian or otherwise, as a matter of combat tactics, thus such acts were obligatory for soldiers and it included even the children. The “ample means” this dictator had for executing counter-insurgency strategies had a clear purpose: destroy the “enemies” morale, destroy the social fabric, denigrate their dignity most profoundly.
In most cases, the rapes were followed by murder. But in the cases where the women were left alive, they would be stigmatized by their communities. Shame would exile them, marginalize them out of the social structure. Instead of victims, they were seen as guilty. Another tactic in the bag of ample faculties to execute the war was to force the women from army-controlled villages to serve in the barracks. Not only serving but actually providing goods such as tortillas by any means they could muster from the scarcity they lived in. They were forced to have their bodies used sexually by the soldiers as the barracks was a place for “rest and recreation”: in these breaks, the soldiers were awarded “contact with women”. The captured women were forced to service the men who just recently had murdered their families before their eyes. Pregnant women were especially targeted with extreme prejudice. In more than a few instances, their fetuses were crudely extracted and shown to them as they bled to death. These were not just acts of wanton violence, they were terror tactics, used to etch in their collective memory their inferiority, their submission to the power structure.
Ronald Reagan became an instant ally of Rios Montt. He publicly labeled him a good Christian: as fundamental evangelism is permissive of acts of extreme violence if they are deemed necessary for the cause. The Bible describes such acts of extreme violence, of razing the earth, as blessed and commanded by Jehovah, the God of armies. The cruelest massacre was condoned, even blessed if it spurred hate against the “godless” communists.
Today Guatemala, its dominant social networks, are inoculated by this ultra-conservative mentality promoted by the fundamentalist evangelists during the Cold War. The National Education Council is composed of various members of these fundamentalist churches, even when constitutionally it is a secular country with separation of church and state. Any reform about sexual education is thwarted, as is any sort of birth control or any address to the insidious sexual abuse too many suffer at home. The anti-abortion discourse is a valuable token in the barter of political favors: politicians offer ultra repressive policies against women in exchange for political posts, corruption allowance, and even cover-ups of alliances with drug traffickers. Politicians all sell themselves as good Christians who consider violence against women as a moralizing trait. Meanwhile, subjugated and denigrated women are chaffed under the weight of this heavy patriarchal and conservative establishment, and the “good Christians” continue to play well their geopolitical hand.
 Wallace, A (2020) Guatemala, el pais centroamericano donde 14 niñas quedan embarazadas todos los dias; https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-america-latina-54484133
The American Way is out on the 27th May 2021 and available to pre-order in hardback now.