A young girl’s year of trauma culminated in a violent attack in broad daylight. Her family wanted justice.
Originally published by International Justice Mission, April 2016
Story and photos by Andy Olsen
GUATEMALA CITY—Belinda* stood alone in front of her classmate’s house and clutched her notebooks. The 10-year-old waited at a large steel gate for the reassuring click of a door opened by a trusted friend.
But the door didn’t open, at least not soon enough.
Instead, a man watching Belinda from a white delivery truck opened his door and stepped out. He left the vehicle at the curb, walked toward her, and asked some casual questions.
On that afternoon in 2009, Belinda’s biggest worry was homework. She was brand new to her school in Mixco, a vast suburb outside Guatemala City, and was already struggling to keep up when she fell ill and missed a day of class. A friend invited her to her house to copy the assignments the teachers had given.
But now, as her friend was inside that house searching for keys to let her in, Belinda’s preoccupations with school suddenly faded in the shadow of the truck driver staring at her. What look crosses a man’s face when he resolves to violate a child? Belinda looked at his eyes, and her heart raced.
“The eyes say everything,” Belinda remembered later. “His said, ‘I’m going to do something bad.’”
‘A very painful year’
In the first decade of her life, Belinda had met plenty of dangerous men.
Belinda, her parents, and her three little sisters scratched a living from the dirt in a small indigenous community a few hours from Guatemala City. They grew just enough corn and beans for themselves, washing them down with coffee they picked and ground by hand.
The little they had would all be left behind as they ran for their lives.
In the type of violence endemic to much of Guatemala, the family’s community erupted when local political groups began clashing over whether to allow a concrete company to open a factory in town. A group of thugs beat Belinda’s uncle to death and threatened to kill her father. So her family fled with little more than the clothes on their backs, taking shelter in a small rented room in a nearby town.
But the agitators found them there. The family escaped again, this time seeking refuge in the sprawl of Guatemala City as what governments refer to as “internally displaced persons.”
“We came to the capital and didn’t have beds or a blanket to cover ourselves with,” Belinda said. “We felt so isolated.”
The family started over from scratch, sleeping on the cold concrete floor of a tiny home. As Belinda’s father, Luis, looked for work, she helped her mother care for her three young sisters and sell produce on the street.
Belinda nervously met new friends and navigated a new school. The homework was overwhelming, and her friend’s offer to help her catch up was a glimmer of hope.
But the day Belinda went to her friend’s house became a terrifying nightmare.
Belinda remembers that the driver got out of the truck, asked her some unremarkable questions, and started touching her. Then he grabbed her and forced her toward his truck. Belinda clutched the metal bars of a nearby window, screaming, and the man forced his hand under her skirt.
Seconds can feel like eternity. Finally, a woman came running to the window and saw them. The man dropped Belinda and ran back to his truck, leaving her wounded and shocked.
“That day I hurt so much that I couldn’t sit or lie down,” Belinda said, her voice shaking under the weight of recollection. “My eyes were swollen from crying so much.”
Belinda’s parents were devastated, still reeling from the recent murder of her uncle. “It was a very painful year,” said her father, Luis. “The only thing left for me to do was look for justice.”
Belinda’s status as a poor girl and a Mayan—the largest indigenous group in Guatemala, one often subject to discrimination—made her especially vulnerable to violent crime. Families like hers often have little access to the justice system.
“The majority of crime victims belong to the most vulnerable social strata, those with no way to defend themselves and with no knowledge [of the justice system],” said Carlos Rodas, a Guatemalan federal judge. “This includes the elderly, the disabled, young boys and girls—and today, migrants.”
Criminals know this so well that they would brazenly attack someone like Belinda in broad daylight, with little fear of being caught.
Against the odds, Luis immediately reported the assault to the police and began working with authorities to find the perpetrator. The Public Ministry, Guatemala’s public prosecutor’s office, referred the case to IJM.
No one knew the truck driver’s name. As IJM investigators followed the trail, neighbors led them to a discovery: The man had sexually assaulted another girl in their community, just 7 years old.
Someone else saw the man driving a motorcycle. Investigators tracked the motorcycle to man’s workplace, where the white truck was parked. Police arrested him while he was standing in front of it.
Finding justice and healing
IJM Guatemala’s legal team provided free legal support to Belinda’s family and to the other assault survivor. During the trial, IJM staff walked alongside Belinda and helped her find the strength to testify in court.
Nearly two years after the attack, the truck driver was sentenced to 12 years in prison, six years for assaulting each of the girls.
“In part, I felt good because at least he would be in a place where he couldn’t do anymore harm,” Belinda said.
Belinda’s case is an exception in Guatemala, where most victims of sexual assault do not receive justice. Of the 36,425 cases of sexual violence opened in 2008-2014, only 6.3 percent ever reached a sentence during that time. Her case is now an example, a glimpse of hope in a broken system.
Despite her victory in court, Belinda struggled with the shattering effects of what psychologists call an adjustment disorder—a stress-related mental illness caused by trauma. She had missed a year of school, was afraid to leave her house, and couldn’t bring herself to talk to men.
“I had nightmares where his face appeared,” Belinda said. “It was always the same nightmare—that they would force me to go back to that person.”
But little by little, IJM’s counselors and therapy sessions helped Belinda recover her strength and confidence. Today, she loves to study and is succeeding in school. She laughs easily, writes poetry, and is fascinated by mysteries like the Bermuda Triangle.
“Every day I wake up and thank God for giving me another day,” Belinda said. “God gave me another opportunity to be with my family.”
Through aftercare partners, IJM also facilitated counseling for Belinda’s parents, helping them sort through the rubble of a murder, their daughter’s pain, and their new life as a displaced family.
“IJM helped me not just with Belinda’s case, but also with everything that happened to me and to my family,” Luis said. “The counselor helped me find my way in life.”
Luis today farms a small piece of land and recently finished training as an electrician. Belinda’s mother, Cristina, runs a small-but-growing produce stand on a street corner near the family’s home.
Belinda is preparing to enter college and hopes to find a job in business computing–at least, she said, until she can afford to pursue one of her dream jobs like cooking or becoming a child psychologist.
“I tell [Belinda] that now she can help others who have passed through the same thing because there are so many others that don’t have anyone to help them,” Cristina said.
*A pseudonym. IJM’s policy is to not reveal the names of minors who are victims of sexual crimes.