Indigenous Woman Escapes Serious Human Rights Violations in Guatemala

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Phil Torrey is Lecturer on Law and Clinical Instructor at HLS. He also supervises the Harvard Immigration Project (HIP), a student practice organization at HLS.

Over the course of several months, Lecturer on Law and Clinical Instructor Phil Torrey, along with HLS students Sima Atri ’15 and Brittany Llewellyn ’15 represented an indigenous woman from Guatemala fleeing from gang violence and seeking asylum in the Untied States. After hundreds of hours of interviewing the client, researching country conditions in Guatemala, gathering corroborating documentation, and presenting an argument in court the client was finally granted asylum this past February. As an indigenous woman who supported equal rights for women, she and her family were targeted by a violent gang leaving her with no choice but to flee Guatemala.

Ana, whose name has been changed for confidentiality reasons, came to the United States after she was sexually assaulted by a gang affiliated with the notorious MS-13 or Mara Salvatrucha, one of the most violent gangs in the world. Known for their unrelenting retribution and punishment, MS-13 originated in California and has since become a transnational criminal organization. Gangs like MS-13 have been repeatedly cited as the most prevalent push factor forcing people out of Central America.

MS-13 targeted Ana because she was an indigenous woman, who believed in equality between men and women. As Torrey notes, “she did not conform to social norms because she challenged the machismo culture of the gang”.  In Ana’s case, her opinions about women’s rights and education put her in direct opposition to the gang’s belief that Guatemalan society should be a patriarchy in which male gang members control the country.  When an individual acts in opposition to the gang’s patriarchy, that individual is usually targeted and violently attacked by the gang.

Government officials and law enforcement have no control in Central America. In the few cases where officers rounded up gang members, these individuals were rarely prosecuted successfully. Often, gang members are released within 2 or 3 days and left to seek target whomever reported them. Police officers also frequently collude with gangs.  Thus, seeking help from the police or government officials is often futile at best and dangerous at worst.

Filing Ana’s asylum claim was not just a matter of filling out a couple of forms. As Torrey describes, “There’s a lot of interviewing. You have to get someone’s life story, you have to create an affidavit. You also need to get corroborating evidence to supplement the evidence in the applicant’s affidavit.” Thankfully, after hundreds of hours of interviewing and preparation, Ana was granted asylum. Congratulations to Phil, the students from the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program, and most importantly to Ana!