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¡No fue el fuego, fue el estado!

Justice for the Fifty-Six Guatemalan Girls

June 18, 2024

Photo taken during International Women’s Day in Guatemala City on March 8, 2024, by feminist groups.

The popular chant Not the fire; It was the state” was heard multiple times on March 7 and 8, 2024, in Guatemala City and around Central America, criticizing the state for evading responsibility for the murder of forty-one girls on March 8, 2017. The slogan has become an anthem among feminist groups. The chant reminds us that seven years ago, fifty-six Guatemalan girls were abused by the state for speaking out against the state-operated shelter, Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción, where they were raped, given rotten food, and abused by the shelter’s authorities. Locked into a small room where a fire broke out, the authorities left the screaming girls inside for nine minutes. At the hands of the state, forty-one girls, ages twelve to seventeen died, and fifteen survived with physical and emotional trauma.

International Women’s Day

As history has shown, the story of the fifty-six girls is not an isolated case. On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City burned, killing 146 workers. It is remembered as one of the most infamous incidents in American industrial history, as the deaths were largely preventable—most of the victims died because of neglected safety features and locked doors within the factory building. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire came to indelibly shape the commemoration and significance of International Women’s Day. Over a century later, on International Women’s Day, fifty-six girls—also resisting brutal conditions uncannily similar to those women in New York— became victims and martyrs of the capitalist and patriarchal systems.                 

Since 2018 my role has been to accompany the continual struggles of GuateMaya feminist groups, both in Guatemala and in the diaspora, to forge a memory against the state’s hegemonic remembrance of the Thirty-Six-Year-War (1960–1996) and contemporary feminicide cases.1Instead of Civil War I refer to Guatemala’s armed conflict as the thirty-six-year (1960-1996) war. Civil war limits our understanding of geopolitical U.S. sponsored armed conflict. Other scholars refer it to proxy wars or the third invasion. Giovanni Batz, “Military Factionalism and the Consolidation of Power in 1960s Guatemala” in Beyond the Eagle’s Shadow: New Histories of Latin America’s Cold War, ed. Virginia Garrard-Burnett, Mark Lawrence, and Julio Moreno (University of New Mexico Press, 2013), 51–75. GuateMaya is a popular concept used by activists in the diaspora to critique the homogenization of Guatemalan people and center the Maya population. GuateMaya is a capacious, fluid concept, and I use it to resist state-imposed categorizations like Hispanic or Latino/a/x that exclude Indigenous populations. One of the groups, 8 Tijax,  is a collective of the families of the girls and concerned citizens that formed after the terror of March 8, 2017. Since then, they support the families by spreading awareness of the case through art, protests, poetry, and the legal process. The groups identify with feminism’s critique of patriarchy and gender-based violence. However, the groups align with decolonial Indigenous feminism, also known as a feminism from below, which centers on the body, autonomy, and feminist solidarity away from hegemonic feminism After seven years, the state finally approached the mothers and publicly apologized. However, feminist collectives clearly stated that “we do not want an apology. We want justice!”

For the families and survivors of this massacre, justice will prevail if the former Guatemalan president, Jimmy Morales, is imprisoned for his wrongdoing. The postpeace era (from 1996 to the present) in Guatemala has been full of contradictions. The Guatemalan government and the UNRG signed peace accords in 1996. However, signing a peace accord and ending the armed conflict have proven far different from achieving a stable semblance of peace.2Beatriz Manz, “The Continuum of Violence in Post-War Guatemala,” Social Analysis 52, no.2 (2008):151-164. While the state of Guatemala apologizes to the families, it continues its geopolitical relationships with its allies in counterinsurgency, Israel and the United States. 

For example, Guatemala has moved its embassy to Jerusalem. Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales (who is responsible for the murder of forty-one girls at Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción) was the recipient of a Friends of Zion Award on January 18, 2018. Dr. Mike Evans, founder of the Friends of Zion Museum, granted him the award in Jerusalem. Morales is also an earlier recipient of an honorary doctorate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. According to Sussan Garcia (2024), Israel, in partnership with and in proxy with the United States, supported, armed, and trained fascist dictators in Central America for decades.3Sussan Garcia, “Central American and Palestinian Liberation Struggles are Intertwined,” Contra Corriente, March 15, 2024, In Guatemala, Efraín Ríos Montt, a military general who orchestrated a coup in 1982 to become president, recognized the instrumental role of Israeli training for its success; his chief of staff observed that the “the Israeli soldier is the model for our soldiers.” Israel continues to export their “combat-tested” technologies to Central America through military and intelligence partnerships and arms exports.

Israel, with US support, has been waging genocide in Palestine, murdering and displacing thousands, as if history repeats itself for the gains of a settler colonial state. The war on women’s bodies in Palestine and Guatemala is synonymous with the illegal occupation of Indigenous land. Therefore, to understand the intricate connections between bodies, memory, and healing, I employ the emancipatory framework of cuerpo-territorio. Cuerpo-Territorio is a decolonial Indigenous feminist position and concept that declares the body as our first territory and advocates for a communal subject agency. Inspired by Xinca feminist Lorena Cabnal, this theory asserts that: 1) Our bodies are systematically affected by oppression (extractive industries, domestic violence, poverty, sexism) and are a product of it; and 2) body and territory are spaces of vital energy that must work in reciprocity collectively with other oppressed bodies. Therefore, oppressed bodies can become autonomous through a collective healing process. While, the war in Guatemala has produced intergenerational trauma among the population, using frameworks like cuerpo-territorio allows us to center on our bodies and initiate a healing process by using Maya cosmological technologies like spiritual altars, collective ceremonies, and embodied emotional practices. 

Photo taken by the author on March 7, 2024.

Gender-Based Violence as a Weapon of War

During the war in Guatemala, the army systematically deployed sexual violence as a counterinsurgency weapon to instill fear among villages. Rape was perpetrated against Indigenous women during colonization and the Thirty-Six-Year War (1960–1996) in Guatemala. Indeed, Native scholar Sarah Deer stated, “the damage to self and spirit that rapists cause has some of the same features that colonial governments perpetrated against entire nations.”4Sarah Deer,  The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), xvii. Decolonial Xinca feminist Lorena Cabnal analyzed how colonial violence against Indigenous land connects to the violence against Indigenous women’s bodies and spirits.5Lorena Cabnal, “Acercamiento a la construccion de la propuesta de pensamiento epistemico de las mujeres indigenas feministas comunitarias de Abya Yala” in Feminismos diversos: el feminismo comunitario (ACSUR-Las Segovias Catalunya, 2012), 1–33. Additionally, “gender violence was used en masse against Indigenous Maya women who were seen by the Guatemalan army as the progenitors of future guerrillas and future rebel Indians.”6Alicia LeDuc “Strategic alliance as an impact litigation model,” Willamette Journal of International Law and Dispute Resolution 25 no. 2 (2018): 163; Victoria Sanford, Sofia Álvarez-Arenas, and Kathleen Dill, “Sexual Violence as a Weapon during the Guatemalan Genocide” in Women and Genocide: Survivors, Victims, and Perpetrators, ed. Elissa Bemporad and Joyce W. Warren (Indiana University Press, 2018), 207–24.

In a 2009 report, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women reported that studies of wartime rape “conclusively demonstrate that sexual violence is not an outcome of the war, but that women’s bodies are an important site of war, which makes sexual violence an integral part of wartime strategy.7Sanford et al, “Sexual Violence as a Weapon,” 209. A report by Consorcio Actoras de Cambio: La lucha de las mujeres por la justicia explained that sexual violence was directed mainly against Indigenous women during the war years (1960–1996). Thus, 88.7% of the victims of sexual violation identified by the CEH (Historical Clarification Commission) were Maya, 10.3% were mestizo, and 1% belonged to other groups. The most affected ethnic groups were the K’iche’, Q’anjoba’l, Mam, Q’eqchi,’ Ixils, Chuj, and K’aqchikeles.8Historical Clarification Commision (CEH), Guatemala: Memory of Silence (Guatemala City, 1999),, 39. The Guatemalan military raped, abused, tortured, and left women naked with sexual mutilation and hemorrhage; others were executed and disappeared. Many girls and boys were transferred to other towns, lost in the mountains, or given up for adoption illegally. The military also exterminated babies outside and inside the mother’s womb.9CEH, Guatemala: Memory of Silence, 34. Therefore, the torture and abuse experienced by the fifty-six girls is not new, as it has manifested throughout Guatemala’s nation formation, leading to an extreme number of feminicide rates. 

Femicide refers to the murder of women by men because they are women and points to the state’s responsibility for these murders, whether through the commission of the actual killing, toleration of the perpetrators’ acts of violence, or omission of State responsibility to ensure the safety of its female citizens.10Victoria Sanford,  Textures of Terror: The Murder of Claudina Isabel Velasquez and her Father’s Quest for Justice (University of California Press, 2023), 14. A whole set of violent misogynists constitutes acts against women that involve a violation of their human rights, represent an attack on their safety, and endanger their lives.



The rage, solidarity, and organizing of multiple colectivas in the Global South addresses the need for autonomous organizing without state cooptation and performative apologies. Amidst state violence and repression, small-scale colectivas are autonomously organizing and seeking justice in postconflict Guatemala.

Violence against women pervades all sectors of Guatemalan society. The violence takes many forms, including intrafamilial (or domestic) violence, sexual violence, incest, human trafficking, and, at the end of the spectrum, femicide. The numbers are high and on the rise.  According to Guatemala’s National Center for Judicial Analysis and Documentation, in 2011, 20,398 complaints of violence against women under the 2008 Law Against Femicide in Guatemala were filed with the courts, up from 19,277 registered cases in 2010. According to the Mutual Support Group (GAM), between January and May of 2021, 254 women were murdered in Guatemala, but in the fifth month of 2022, the figure increased to 376. These complaints involved femicide and other physical, sexual, psychological, and economic violence. 

In comparison, Paraguay, where violence against women is an increasingly severe problem and which is similar to Guatemala in many respects,  recorded only 2,424 cases of violence against women in 2011.11Ministerio de la Mujer, Republica del Paraguay, Estadisticas: Direction de prevention y atencion a victimas de violencia, Adjusting for differences in population size, Paraguay’s rate of cases of violence against women is about one-third that of Guatemala.12Karen Musalo & Blaine Bookey, “Crimes without Punishment: An update on violence against women and impunity in Guatemala” Social Justice 40, no.4 (2014): 107.

Revisiting Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asuncion

Although, the case of the fifty-six Guatemalan girls is connected to global structural issues, it is also not a new strategy of criminalizing, suppressing, and marginalizing subaltern subjects. In Guatemala, the institutionalization of minors is punitive, so its effects have nothing to do with prevention, reintegration, or resocialization of behavior.13Walda Barrios-Klee & Dina Mazariegos, “Identidades, cuerpo y territorio: caso de las 56+una niñas incendiadas en el “Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción,” in Cuerpos, territorios y feminismos: Compilacion latinoamericana de teorias, metodologias y practicas politicas (Bajo Tierra ediciones, 2020), 121–41. The punitive aspect not only exists within Guatemala’s social culture but also in the family because many of the youth are identified as mareros (gangsters), and to discipline them, families end up institutionalizing them at shelters like Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asuncion. 

Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asuncion is two hours away from Guatemala City. According to the government, six hundred boys and girls were detained at the Hogar Seguro facility, although previous reports indicated that this number could have been as high as eight hundred.14Priscila Rodriguez, Laurie Ahern, and Eric Rosenthal, “Still at Risk: Death and Disappearance of Survivors of the fire at Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asuncion,” Disability Rights International, October 13, 2021, 4, A few months after the fire, a detained sixteen-year-old teenager in Virgen de la Asunción was murdered, allegedly by criminal gangs. Instead of providing support to ensure that the former detainees met their emotional safety and healthy development, the state allowed 160 former detainees to be placed in other congregate facilities all over Guatemala. Girls, boys, and teenagers with disabilities have been disproportionately institutionalized, given the lack of alternatives and support in the community.15Rodriguez et al., “Still at Risk,” 4. The state has also failed the families who lost their daughters in the fire at the institution. Families have received no support and face tremendous risks as they seek justice for their girls. Two mothers were murdered after their daughters were killed by the fire at Virgen de la Asuncion. Another mother, along with her children, received threats and was physically abused. The story of the fifty-six girls and their families reflects Guatemala’s violent conditions and cruel punishment in facilities like Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asuncion. This specific shelter was flagged by the state and even the United Nations as unsafe for youth. The question arising is: Why did the state continue to administer the shelter?

On March 8, 2024, at 6:30 a.m., the mothers of the girls and five survivors met at Casa Qanil Cultural Center in Guatemala City to take a bus organized by 8 Tijax to revisit the shelter where the massacre occurred seven years ago. As a community educator and supporter of the fifty-six girls case, I wanted to be there with the families and meet the survivors because I have been involved in the research for the past five years and in the gender-based justice process in Guatemala. I met some of the girls’ mothers a year ago when I cofacilitated a body-mapping workshop about memory, intergenerational trauma, and healing for our generational healing. Most of the mothers identify as victim-survivors of the Thirty-Six-Year War (1960–1996). During the war, women’s bodies were also used as a weapon of war to justify rape and sexual assault.

La Plaza de las Niñas—Guatemala City

Plaza de la Constitucion has been renamed to Plaza de las Niñas by feminist groups in honor of the 56 girls and to reclaim a space to discuss gender-based issues.

Despite the immense violence women continue to face in Guatemala, feminist groups are organizing against gender-based and state-sanctioned violence by reclaiming and renaming the Plaza de la Constitucion to Plaza de las Niñas. One of the collectives behind the care and reconstruction of the altar is Colectiva 8 de Marzo. The collective has organized ceremonies, workshops, and now an escuelita, a school for marginalized children. These efforts are all volunteer-run, autonomous, and not funded by state institutions. The altar in a public space reminds the Guatemalan population and visitors about the massacre of March 8, 2017. Remembering is a rebellious act in a society that continues to deny and forget the fifty-six girls. 

In Maya cosmology, altars usually have tools like candles with different colors representing the four directions: Red for East, Black for West, White for North, and Yellow for South. Mayan League, a group of Maya elders and professionals in Washington DC, expresses, “The four colors of the corn represent the four nations, the diversity of all people on earth, and the white bones represent the ancestors, that they are grounding us and always with us.” Therefore, ceremony and remembering are forms of activism. Visual storytelling is a vital form of spiritual consciousness or spirit work, where medicine and prayer are offered as visual and visceral protest. Visual storytelling and oral traditions are part of Indigenous histories.16Susy Zepeda, “Xicana/x Indegena Futures: Re-rooting through Traditional Medicines,” Feminist Formations 35, no.1 (2023): 89. The altar honoring the fifty-six girls is visual storytelling that also connects to all gender-based violence in Guatemala and stories that are not allowed to be told or be public due to a system rooted in patriarchal ideology.

Future organizing, grieving, and remembering

The rage, solidarity, and organizing of multiple colectivas in the Global South addresses the need for autonomous organizing without state cooptation and performative apologies. Amidst state violence and repression, small-scale colectivas are autonomously organizing and seeking justice in postconflict Guatemala. It has been impressive to be in a community with the colectivas. They demonstrate strength, cariño, and rage to protect women’s bodies, territory, and autonomy, creating and preserving a countermemory and narrative of our stories and perseverance. 



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