Guatemala City, Guatemala – For as long as she could remember, Claudia Paz y Paz was certain she would become a lawyer. Her grandfather, also an attorney, had inculcated in her that the rule of law was the only way to guarantee people’s rights.
Today, she is the first female Attorney General of Guatemala.
Inside her office, Paz paces back and forth from her mahogany desk glaring at the computer screen. On a window open to UStream TV, history was unfolding before her very eyes. For the first time in Latin American history, a national court was minutes away from ordering former dictator Jose Efrain Rios-Montt to stand trial for genocide.
When Rios-Montt seized control of the country in a March 1982 coup, it gave way to the bloodiest period of Guatemala’s 1960 – 1996 civil war. Paz was 16 years old at the time.
“I was in school when he took power. I can’t believe this is actually happening,” Paz told Al Jazeera as she opened her personal purple copy of Guatemalan Criminal Procedure Code.
Her name may mean “Peace and Peace,” and her bookish demeanour and curly brown hair could make her pass for a university professor.
But Guatemala’s top cop is as tough as they come, even if she is soft-spoken. Since taking the helm of the public ministry in 2010, she’s beaten impossible odds, successfully prosecuting war criminals and putting several of Central America’s biggest drug capos behind bars.
“I went to study law when we didn’t even have a (democratically drafted) constitution,” Paz explains. During her youth, war ravaged the country, leaving 200,000 people dead and over 45,000 disappeared, mostly indigenous Mayan, according to the United Nations.
Now, as she gains global recognition for her achievements, the 46-year-old mother is determined to put an end to violence against women – an epidemic that has reached a crisis point in Guatemala, averaging 700 murders of women a year.
But detractors say results are not happening fast enough to reduce one of the highest rates of femicide in the world; so far, 60 women have been killed in 2013 alone.
Femicide is an epidemic
On January 16, two young girls between the ages of 6 and 12 were found dead on a street in a working-class district of the capital. Both appeared to have been strangled. One of the girls was holding rosary beads.
The unsolved murders stirred public outrage across the country with vigils and protests in front of government buildings. Newspapers ran full-page spreads for a week and the subject was a trending topic on Twitter.
“We are sending a message. such acts of violence will not go unpunished “
– Claudia Paz y Paz
According to Norma Cruz, women’s rights activist and director of the Survivors Foundation, the recent slew of homicides came at a time when the country is looking for answers. She says Guatemalans want to know why so many women and children are targeted.
“It is a situation that has become exacerbated, and the majority of these femicides remain unsolved,” Cruz said. “We’re here representing civil society, clamouring for these cases to be investigated”.
Guatemala’s leaders have long been criticised by the United States and the European Union for their inability to prosecute crime.
The Central-American nation of 14 million faces a murder rate of 39 homicides per 100,000 people, twice that of neighbouring Mexico, according to the United Nations Office of Drug Control and Trafficking.
After decades of international pressure to bring those responsible to justice, Guatemala signed a treaty-level agreement with the United Nations in 2006 to create the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, a special independent body of prosecutors known by its Spanish acronym CICIG.
The international community also backed Paz; some consider her one of the only Guatemalan officials above the country’s rampant corruption problem.
Paz, for one, has made inroads fighting femicide, creating specialised investigative units and training officials in strategic prosecution to go after criminal gangs that attack women.
“We are sending a message,” she said. “Such acts of violence will not go unpunished”.
Paz’s office has also opened up satellite bureaus in rural areas where impunity for such crimes is at an all-time high.
Last year, one of her most notorious cases included the arrest of a gang of rapists that allegedly attacked and later robbed more than a dozen women.
While Paz’s image is largely untainted, rights’ groups believe the public ministry belongs to a judicial system still considered highly inefficient and, in many ways, corrupt.
“There’s a lack of political will as evidenced by the inability to get to the root of the violence”, explained Danessa Luna, executive director of Generando, an organisation that provides medical, psychological and legal assistance to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in Chimaltenango state.
“Responsibility for solving this epidemic does not only rely in the hands of the public ministry. We need to create preventative policies that protect women and educate society to not tolerate such violence “
-Justo Solorzano – resident coordinator of UNICEF in Guatemala
Luna says one of the biggest challenges is that prior to 2008, femicides were simply compiled into violent death statistics.
Paz agreed. “What people need to understand is that perpetrators of gender-based violence do it to women, they do it to us because we are women.”
Femicide was not acknowledged as a crime until recently. Guatemalan congress first passed legislation in April 2008 officially recognising femicide and other forms of violence against women as punishable crime.
For Justo Solorzano, resident coordinator of UNICEF in Guatemala, the country has made significant inroads with the current attorney general, but he believes the major challenges ahead are mostly in the hands of other government institutions.
“Responsibility for solving this epidemic does not only rely in the hands of the public ministry,” said Solorzano. “We need to create preventative policies that protect women and educate society to not tolerate such violence”.
For Paz, changing the way women are viewed in Guatemalan society and ending violence also begins at home.
She grew up with three other sisters and says her father passed prior to her becoming attorney general.
But like most of those who work at the public ministry, she says, the hope is to leave a better Guatemala for her son than the one she knew growing up.
“We are teaching them that things can be different and we work to leave that legacy behind,” Paz said.
Unbeknownst to most, Paz won the biggest prosecutions in recent Guatemalan history while her eight-year-old son was battling brain cancer.
Paz spent five days every month travelling to the United States for the year-long period during which her son underwent surgery, countless rounds of radiation and chemotherapy.
He entered remission in late 2012.
“The important thing is that I can now say my son is here; he is here. I am proud of him and I know that he is proud of me too,” she said.