‘Nobody Remembers Us’: The Widows of Murdered Men in Guatemala
Men are killed on the streets of Guatemala City in broad daylight, yet the women left behind are silently suffering. In one of the most violent countries in Latin America, ELLE speaks to three widows about the grim reality of life – and how they’re coping.
Guatemala is one of the most violent countries in Latin America. In 2015, 91 murders were reported every week. This is fuelled by a number of things: rampant gang violence, a pervasive illegal drug trade, and worryingly high homicide rate. On top of this, there’s easy access to weapons, lenient gun laws, and a long history of arms and drug smuggling.
Gang members regularly target transport workers such as bus drivers, bus conductors and taxi drivers because of easy money. Extortion (obtaining something, especially money, through force or threats) sustains thousands of gang members – it’s colloquially referred to as ‘mara’.
And it happens in broad daylight. Men are murdered on the streets of Guatemala City, the country’s capital, for all to witness – children included.
‘We are the most vulnerable, and hence have to support and look out for each other,’ Max Figueroa, President of De Asociación De Taxita Guatemala says. ‘We receive no help from the government. We raise funds and provide immediate help and support to any driver’s family who has been killed’.
Yet these murderers are rarely held accountable for their actions. Poor law enforcement, a compromised judiciary, and low conviction rates means the cycle of terror keeps on turning unabated. Furthermore, since most of the perpetrators are minors (gangs often recruit boys as young as 12), they face reduced repercussions even if they get caught, and are sometimes let out in a few years or even months.
One group of people most harmed by the violence also happens to be one of the most silent – the widows of the murdered transport workers. They are subjected to discrimination, marginalisation, and seen with pity within their neighbourhoods and community. Other women also discriminate against them out of insecurity because they are seen as threats who might steal their husbands.
Being left widowed in a poor country like Guatemala with multiple children is a harrowing experience. The frequent loss of family breadwinners coupled with country-wide poverty and low income means children are forced to drop out of school. It also encourages trafficking in persons, illegal labour, and begging on streets.
This is a problem in many countries across Latin America. More and more women are being left behind as widows and children without a father. They receive no education, and are doomed to live their lives in poverty while the cycle of violence keeps on spinning.
On International Widows’ Day, ELLE UK spoke to the three women brave enough to come forward and talk about the grim realities of the lives they lead. These are their stories.
Ana Maria Ramos, 35
My husband was a taxi driver, and he was killed in November 2017 when I was eight months pregnant with our third child.
He would come home every afternoon to have lunch with us. I called him that evening at around 9 PM to find out how he was doing and when he would be home. He sounded a bit weird, and told me that he would be home by 11pm. When I asked him why he was sounding different, he just said he was tired.
When he didn’t come home by 11pm, I started to worry and kept calling him. At around 2 AM, I started feeling sick out of nervousness as he was still not answering his phone. The baby was moving, and I thought that I would be giving birth alone at home. I must have called him more than 25 times and went to sleep with the phone in my hand.
I didn’t want to believe it. I thought that he may have gone to a bar to drink and fell asleep in his car. His friend came back again and asked me to go with him to the police station. By then, the taxi drivers association was circulating his photograph. I saw the photo, but still refused to believe it was him and went to the police station.
The police told us they had no evidence of the crime or details of what happened. We then went to the crime scene where we met a few eye witnesses and then spotted the car. It is then I knew without a doubt that he had been murdered.
I will never be able to forget that night. It gives me the chills whenever I think of it. I am in a desperate situation now, and unable to work with such a small baby. I am borrowing money from neighbours to feed my family. My two older daughters are going to school but I am not sure how long I will be able to afford their education.
Greys Bernal, 28
I was married twice, and both my husbands died the same way – they were murdered because they were bus drivers.
My first husband was killed in May 2010 when my daughter was two and a half years old. He was only 22, and was killed right in front of our house. He used to park the bus in a parking lot a couple of blocks away from our house. He used to work for my uncles who were the owners of the buses.
That night, he called me after parking and told me that he was on his way back home. I said to him that I would go out and meet him there as I wanted to buy juice for our daughter. He told me not to worry about it, that he would go and get it for her on his way home. Soon after that I heard some gun shots.
My uncle was home with me and we immediately crouched on the ground hearing the gun shots. He asked me to grab my baby and go inside the other room. Just then he peeked out of the window and screamed Fernando’s name. I ran out of the house hearing my husband’s name and saw him lying in a pool of blood. He was shot 12 times. There were 10 bullets in his head and two on his shoulders. He was still alive and kept repeating our daughter’s name. He died on the way to the hospital.
The gang members had taken not only his money, but also the money that he had collected from other bus drivers. He was in charge of collecting the money at the end of each day, which he would hand over to my uncles.
Life became very difficult, but I decided to give myself a second chance. I fell in love again and remarried. I had another daughter with my second husband. He was just 24 when he was killed. It was right before Christmas in 2013, and we were preparing for the occasion.
My husband was back home after parking that afternoon, and he asked me to give him food as he was very hungry. We were supposed to go out shopping together when he remembered that he forgot a bag of cash in the bus. He ran out to bring it and said, ‘I will be right back. You’ll be waiting for me, right?’ The bus was parked just two blocks away.
When my husband went out, the gang members followed him and stole all his money. My husband ran towards the market while being chased by the gang probably thinking that the crowd might be able to help him. He suffered from asthma, and collapsed on the sidewalk while trying to escape. The members then shot two whole rounds into him. He begged for help, but people were too afraid and they just stood there witnessing his murder.
There were two police officers just two blocks away, but they only reached the spot after my husband died and the gang members ran away. This is very typical of Guatemala police. They always reach the scene of crime after everything is over. The police here is one of the most corrupt and inefficient. In Guatemala, dirty money is valued more than the lives of poor people.
Claudia Lorena, 32
My husband was a taxi driver and he was the only bread winner in our house. We were never rich but had enough and were happy with our humble existence. I have only studied up to the fourth grade and got married while I was a teenager. Right after our marriage, I got pregnant with our first child. My life became entirely about raising our six children and my husband.
Our lives changed on 11th May, 2017, when my husband was shot at point blank range. He was driving in the city along his usual route, picking up and dropping passengers when a man hailed him, posing as a customer. He then shot my husband after robbing him of all his money. To this day, I don’t know how much money was taken and why he shot my husband after taking the money.
People are looking for easy money, and the most convenient option is to target bus and taxi drivers because they always carry cash.
I didn’t even have time to mourn him properly. I was in shock for a few days, and couldn’t accept the fact that he had been killed. It was in broad day light, in front of many people, and no one helped him or came to his rescue. I still shudder at the thought of that phone call from the police asking me to come to the hospital. He was already dead by then, but I was hoping against hope that he might have still been alive.
I have to take care of six children now. I suddenly feel a weight over my shoulders and nowhere to turn to for help. I can’t even afford a proper education for my children. I make a living by making tortilla bread at home and selling it on the streets of Guatemala City.
There is no option for me to find a job because of my lack of education. Life has been very hard for us after my husband’s death – his family has completely abandoned us. No one ever helps out. No family wants to get involved. The bus owner never gave us any compensation. They just shut their doors on us the moment my husband was killed.
I often feel lonely and long to hear his voice, I want to talk to him. What can I do, where can I find him? He is gone.
Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation as part of its Adelante Reporting Initiative.