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Rules, Not Exceptions - Dr. Maria Aguilar Presents on Policing in Guatemala During Civil War

On March 31st, the Center for Human Rights and International Justice welcomed Dr. Maria Aguilar to present on her research - "Abuses are the Rule not the Exception: Counterinsurgency Logic and the Policing of Everyday Life in War-Torn Guatemala.” Aguilar is a Postdoctoral Associate at the Council on Latin American and Iberian Studies at the MacMillan Center at Yale University, and her presentation focused on Guatemala’s police system and discrimination during the Civil War from 1960-1996 and its legacy. 

Her research centers on police archives, some of which, like the administrative archives, were hidden until as recently as 2004. Explaining that the government was intensely focused on quelling crime in the cities, this meant that there was disproportionate police presence and arrests in these areas. One archive Aguilar was especially focused on was an album called “Fotográfico de Delincuentes," which displayed photographs of the people arrested with their name and crime listed above. Aguilar noted, however, that these were alleged criminals, as the police were encouraged to arrest those under suspicion of crime, robbery, immigration, or prostitution. 

The phenomenon of “othering” was on display during the Civil War as women and the LGBTQ+ community were targeted and framed as criminals. For women, many were arrested on counts of prostitution, which Aguilar says was not and still is not illegal in Guatemala, and were then further charged with counts of immigration violations. Many women who were engaged in prostitution were immigrants, so when the police combed through the city, it was women who were ultimately “doubly criminalized.” 

Gender identity and sexual orientation, though not explicitly labeled as a crime, resulted in criminalization as pages of photographs labeled alleged criminals with their sexual orientation, prompting disproportionately harsh treatment. Many could not find justice within the system. More recently, cases of improper actions thought up by the state and executed by the police have been brought up, some including women in abusive relationships reaching out for help, only to be arrested for engaging in prostitution. Allegations have been brought against police chiefs and improper conduct of other officials, none of which were adequately resolved. 

Aguilar notes that the police rampage and mass arrests are representative of a “larger picture of discrimination and abuse,” noting that today these marginalized groups are still cast as “others.” She continued to describe the role of the government and the Church in perpetuating state-sponsored violence, indicating that these groups were a “national project” to solve. 

Some archives are becoming publicly available and researchers like Dr. Aguilar are forming more complete records of the police system. Its legacy of discrimination is present in Guatemala’s modern, conservative society. Aguilar notes that the Civil War, colonialism, and Western values have, in combination, resulted in a messy, divided environment on how people view sexual identity and police justice. Aguilar’s presentation, filled with poignant images and personal stories, demonstrated that the atrocious events of the past have created shockwaves that ring into the future, opening discussion and offering reflection on Guatemala’s current society.