Mariela Castañón: «I still believe in human journalism»

Mariela receiving the 2017 National Journalism Award from the hands of journalist Carolina Vásquez Araya

Translated  by Marvin Najarro 

Mariela Castañón is a journalist committed to the children and youth of the impoverished areas, she’s one of the few Guatemalans who wholeheartedly denounce the systematic abuse they suffer. She gives voice to those ignored by human rights but perfectly visible for abuse. I had the opportunity to briefly interview her about the case of the Safe Home, and her investigation into the allegations of torture and sexual abuse suffered by the girls and adolescents housed in that state-run place. It’s worth noting that Mariela was the first journalist to denounce from the newspaper La Hora what was happening there, had the relevant authorities listened to her, the femicide of 41 girls on March 8, 2017 would never have happened.

You could have chosen another profession, why human rights journalism?

Because my intention has been to give voice to those who do not have it, maybe it is a romantic way of seeing reality, but I still believe in human journalism, with a focus on rights. This journalism can contribute to societies, bring to light a reality that nobody wants to see, understand the context of what human beings experience, and try to change realities.

In Guatemala, where it is still a challenge to know about our human rights and empower them, this journalism is necessary.

Should a journalist be impartial in the face of abuse or should he always manifest which side he is on?

In my opinion, a journalist can not, and should not be impartial in the face of abuse, violence, injustice and inequality. Being a journalist is a privilege, because you can interact with people who can make decisions to change the lives of your fellow citizens. I believe that this opportunity also becomes a social and moral responsibility and obligation.

The Guatemalan society is one of double standards and totally insensitive, what is it like to be a journalist fighting for human rights in a country like Guatemala?

I believe that those of us who practice journalism play an important role in our societies. If people are insensitive, it is also partly our responsibility, for failing to educate, and touch consciences. That is why our work must be increasingly human and respectful, so that our societies follow our example.

I have followed you closely and your publications are always focused on the subject of Guatemalan children and youth; systematically abused and excluded. What is redeemable about them?

The glue sniffers, the gang members, the sexually abused girls who live in the peripheries, what can they contribute to society? Why your insistence on giving them a place if the easy thing is to treat them like most of the people does; like scum?

Because if we opened our eyes and our hearts we would see the greatness that exists in these sectors of the population. Nobody is born sniffing glue, or wanting to be part of a gang, it is the circumstances and conditions that lead a person to this. If Guatemalan children and youth had the opportunities that many of us have had, they would be something different. I have interviewed young detainees, or who are at social risk, girls who have been abused and violated, and I have realized that their lives are so different from ours by the time we were their age. It is easier for someone to come into a marginalized community, recruit children and teenagers and give them an AK-47, than to come and give them a scholarship, a plate of food, sweets or a gesture of respect and love. It is easier to judge than to understand contexts of life.

Is your life at risk when covering issues of government and police violence towards children and youth, what is it that keeps you active in reporting?

I believe that nobody in Guatemala is free from harm, not only journalists, but also bus drivers, small merchants, policemen, people of diverse sexual orientation, women, children, youth. What keeps me active is the commitment and responsibility I assumed when I studied this career. From the moment I took the decision to study journalism my father warned me of the risks, and he panicked when I conveyed to him my decision, but I knew that if I studied another career I would not be happy as I am now. I love journalism, and I believe I took on this commitment and this responsibility by my own decision and this carries its risks. The day I can no longer report, or have no option to do so, I will better retire from journalism, because I would not be fulfilling my role.

How does a teenager end up in a juvenile detention center?

There are many reasons: lack of opportunities, domestic violence, dysfunctional families, rejection and social stigma.

How is life for an average teenager, locked up in a juvenile detention center? What does the state provide for its reintegration into society? Does the government comply with the basics for this to take place?

It is tough because there is overcrowding, violence, lack of programs for their reintegration, abuses, and stigma. The state does not respond to the needs for support and reintegration, because it is not prepared for that, for example, just to mention one aspect, the space available in the four correctional facilities is limited, and there is bureaucracy to implement new projects. Historically, the improvisation of governments has been an obstacle when it comes to appointing the most qualified people; to promote broad policies in order to help the childhood and adolescence; or to establish a system of broad protections and prevention, and attend to the children and youth at risk and in conflict with the criminal law.

Why do adolescents escape from these juvenile detention centers? What do they denounce, what do they demand and how does the Public Prosecutor’s Office react?

They don’t usually escape especially from juvenile detention centers where there are young people in conflict with criminal law. They do escape from safe homes. What they denounce is physical, sexual and psychological violence. For example, from a house in San Cristóbal City attached to the Safe Home Virgen de la Asunción, they reported that their «educators» beat them with a tube; a boy after being hit several times ended up having seizures, or that they threw their caps in the trash. In another house attached to the Home, in zone 15, they said that an «educator» threw bread in the face of a child, and on another occasion a teenager said he was fleeing because they wanted to sexually abuse him. It is assumed that the Public Prosecutor’s Office already has some reports and it is investigating them.

Have you followed the cases of young people who regain their freedom or escape, how is their life outside the juvenile detention center?

In the case of young detainees, and due to lack of opportunities, stigma and rejection they often relapse. A few years ago I met a young man who after being convicted of drug trafficking got his freedom back, when he got out of prison he started selling sweets, but the income he got was not enough to eat and nobody wanted to employ him because he had been in the jail. One day he was arrested in a taxi for illegally transferring a firearm.

In the case of young people who escape from safe homes I have also known some cases. There are kids who, after fleeing from the Safe Home, preferred to remain on the streets, today they sleep under footbridges on public thoroughfares. But there are also other different stories. I know a young girl who now is enrolled in an adult program because in the Safe Home she could not advance much in her education; she is looking for a job and trying to rebuild her life with her mother.

The case of the girls and adolescents of the Safe Home Virgen de la Asunción was made public on March 8, 2017 when they were burned alive. But you had been denouncing the sexual abuse they were living since 2015. Which entities paid attention to your denunciations and the girls’ accusations? What was the follow-up?

In 2016, for example, the Mutual Support Group (GAM), without being a children’s organization, filed a complaint with the Public Prosecutor for human trafficking as did the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (PDH). The denunciations of these entities were taken into account by the Public Prosecutor’s Office (MP), but they continue investigating in this regard.

What happened after March 8, 2017, as far as I know the Safe Home was closed and the girls placed in private homes? In your August 4 report in the newspaper La Hora you talk about sex trafficking. Could you share what the surviving girls have reported?

Of course, after the decision of the Chamber of the Court of Appeals for Children and Adolescents, the children of the Safe Home were moved to residential houses, others were in private homes. Those who are in private homes under the care of the Social Welfare Secretariat of the Presidency, continue to denounce the same thing as when they were in the Safe Home: mistreatment and violence.

About the report published on August 4, teenagers (former internees) and their mothers have reported that minors were trafficked in the form of sexual exploitation in two ways: they were moved to closed houses and others were assaulted inside the Home, on top of that, and in order to calm them down, they administered drugs by means of «vaccines”, called «cow vaccines», and «la dormilona» – for the sleep that it caused them. The case is still under investigation by the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

What have been the reaction and the course of action taken by Public Prosecutor’s Office in the face of these denunciations?

The investigation is underway, for the moment it has not found any evidence that sustains the adolescents’ allegations. The Prosecutor’s Office against Human Trafficking says it will close the investigation until it finds three girls who disappeared from the Safe Home before the fire on March 8, 2017.

What does society need to know about the issue of sex trafficking in the Safe Home?

It needs to know the reality of what happened since the Safe Home opened in June 2010.

What did you experience when you heard the news of the femicide in the Safe Home, was it something that was coming?

I never imagined that they would die, let alone in such circumstances. I hopped they would close the Safe Home after the National Council of Adoptions, which is in charge of verifying public and private safe homes, recommended its gradual closure. I thought there would be another alternative for the lives of girls and boys, but it did not happen.

What I felt was frustration, impotence, pain, because no one listened to the allegations of abuse, physical, psychological and sexual violence in time. It was hard because fifteen days before the fire I had published another report that we titled, «The Drama of the Childhood and Adolescence of the Safe Home Doesn’t  Resonate Within the State», where the passivity of the state to act with so many accusations is explained.

What does a journalist like Mariela Castañón expect from the corresponding authorities and society?

In the case of the Safe Home, I expect an independent investigation. Recently, Otto Rivera, of the Ciprodeni organization, explained to me that an investigation could be undertaken by international organizations with a focus on children’s rights, with the support of Guatemalan civil society, to clarify what happened and to deduce responsibilities, and that no crime goes unpunished.

Why to continue working on issues of human rights, safety and justice, why insist on something that will not awaken a lethargic society like Guatemala’s?

Because I believe that the commitment to give voice to those who need it merits it.

Is there any hope? Do you expect your denunciations to cause those guilty of so much abuse to be punished even if they are overseeing the terror groups from the government of the country?

In spite of everything, I do have hope. The Safe Home was a lost battle for me, but in other cases something has been achieved, for example, in cases of rape of girls and women in the Preventive Detention Center of Zone 18, and in the investigations about the illegal transfers of inmates. Other small details that do not make me lose hope, are the solidarity and empathy of many people who have helped at least to solve the basic needs of those families hit by violence. 

Are the Preventive’s and the Safe Home’s cases similar? What happened to the girls and women you mention?

In the case of the girls of the Safe Home, some of them, now of age, are trying to rebuild their lives with their families. I know a mother of one of these girls who has been the support of her daughter. About the cases of the Preventive, I did not know much of the victims because of the risk for them and for me.

And in the case of the inmates, could you provide more details?

In the case of the inmates, there was a guilty verdict against those who had participated in mass rapes. Some of them had already been sentenced to many years in prison for other crimes.

Ten years as a human rights journalist, what does Mariela dream for the near future? What are your plans in journalism?

I would like to write a book that contains all the coverage I made about the Safe Home, in it I do not want to just denounce, but to contribute. Covering the Safe Home case allowed me to learn about the rights of children, the risks of institutionalization, and the irreparable damage of violence in the lives of children.

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Ilka Oliva Corado @ilkaolivacorado

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