‘Textures of Terror’ Traces a Father’s Quest for Justice for His Murdered Daughter in Guatemala

June 14, 2023

Professor Victoria Sanford’s new book depicts the precarious state of human rights and the dangers of being a woman in Guatemala.

Victoria Sanford headshot and her book "Textures of Terror"
Professor Victoria Sanford and her new book, “Textures of Terror: The Murder of Claudina Isabel Velásquez and Her Father's Quest for Justice” (Photo credit: Audrey Tiernan)

In 2006, Professor Victoria Sanford (GC/Lehman College, Anthropology) returned to Guatemala with her 1-year-old daughter and her daughter’s father for what she expected would be a peaceful semester of academic leave.

After years spent years tracing the Maya genocide carried out during Guatemala’s military dictatorships from the 1970s through mid-1980s, she was planning to write her next book about peace communities in Colombia.

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Instead, at the urging of a friend and human rights advocate, she took on a new case: helping a father investigate the murder of his daughter, a 19-year-old law student in Guatemala City and one of over 500 women murdered in Guatemala in 2005.

In her new book, Textures of Terror: The Murder of Claudina Isabel Velásquez and Her Father's Quest for Justice, Sanford describes the gruesome murder and a father’s decade-long effort to solve it despite a callous, even hostile, criminal justice system. Sanford also weaves in the stories of other murdered Guatemalan women to depict the widespread feminicide, or institutionalized killing of women, in the country.

She spoke to us recently about her book and the state of human rights in Guatemala.

The Graduate Center: Why is feminicide so prevalent in Guatemala?

Sanford: It’s not the only place that it’s very prevalent. It’s prevalent in countries with high levels of impunity and with authoritarian structures. The killing of women is extraordinarily high in places like Russia where there’s a lot of drug trafficking, where there's a lot of organized crime and criminal behavior — countries with patriarchal societies. This is a story about Guatemala, but it’s really a story about the conditions that women live in throughout the world. Because if you live in a country where there isn’t rule of law, women always come up on the short end of the stick, especially when there’s a patriarchal structure, like there is in Guatemala.

In the case of Guatemala, because of the violence of the genocide of the past, patriarchal structures were never completely dismantled. Within all of this movement of the military, the oligarchy, and organized crime and drug trafficking, human trafficking, etc., you have this extraordinarily patriarchal society. So when powerful men are angry with one another, they don’t generally go after each other, they go after one another’s property, and your woman is your property. So women also end up being victims, not just in the domestic sphere, but they are the targets of the enemies of the men in their lives as well.

GC: Why did you take on this case?

Sanford: I was asked by my friend and colleague Amílcar Méndez, a human rights leader, who I respect tremendously. Amílcar asked me if I would accompany Claudina Isabel’s father Jorge Velásquez to the prosecutor’s office. And so I assumed because all the work Amílcar had done had been in rural Guatemala, and in Quiché, that I would be accompanying someone who was Maya. And instead, I met this very white man. He’s very distinguished. He has blue eyes. He’s wearing a suit and a tie. And, and he’s an auditor and upper middle class from Guatemala City. And I thought, why does he need me to go with him? He speaks Spanish better than I do.

I really had no idea about what was happening in terms of violence in the city, because all my work on the genocide had been in rural communities. I thought, I’ll humor Amílcar, and I’ll go along with him because I’m sorry his daughter was murdered, but he’s going to try to evangelize me because he is evangelical. And this just seems silly. And it wasn’t.

His daughter was murdered. The police didn’t do their investigation. The prosecutors didn’t do their work. The forensic folks in what was the morgue at the time, they didn’t do their work. No one did their job correctly in his case, and Jorge didn’t try to evangelize me. He was really committed to that case. He was relentless in seeking justice for his daughter, and he compelled me.

GC: In the book, you describe the bittersweet outcome of Jorge Velásquez’s quest for justice. Can you talk about that outcome?

Sanford: First, I want to say it never was solved. So there never was justice. In her case in Guatemala, the police completely failed to do the investigation. The medical examiner failed, the prosecutors failed. And as they do, in all cases, they treated Jorge as an annoyance, that if he understood better, he would know there’s nothing that could be done. They have no interest in resolving these murders. There’s a 98% impunity rate in the murder of women in Guatemala.

Carlos Pop, who is a Q’eqchi’ Maya lawyer and one of the few lawyers of his generation who was Maya, was the only person — the only lawyer — willing to represent Jorge in his search for justice for Claudina Isabel. And he took the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

The court ruled against the state of Guatemala and ordered reparations and different types of remedies, some of which have been completed, some of which have not. But it doesn’t bring Claudina Isabel back. Her murderer is still running loose in Guatemala if he or they are still alive. So it’s a tough story. But I also think that it’s a story of love because that’s what moved Jorge through all those years — his love of Claudina Isabel and his belief in the righteousness of justice. And it’s also one of the things that I’ve noticed in the communities where I’ve worked doing exhumations, or in the families I’ve worked with where there have been people who’ve been disappeared, is that ultimately what keeps you going year after year — because in a certain way, it would be so much easier to set it aside, dissociate and move forward, that’s what most people do — but what I’ve noticed is that people who won’t do that, their driving force is love.

GC: What advice do you have for doctoral students and scholars who are interested in conducting human rights–related research?

Sanford: If you want to do human rights research, listen to people in the communities, not just the people in the city, not the international folks, not the elite-trained lawyers, but the community members who are seeking justice, and accompany them. Because I think that’s where you can make the most difference. I also think that’s where you can learn the most, particularly as an anthropologist, that’s where you can learn the most about the structures of violence. I also think it’s the safest way to do this research, because people in those communities understand where the lines are — what’s safe and what’s not — and they’ll take care of you.

The other thing is that you need to listen. Most of our job is listening. It’s not talking, and if you talk a lot, they won’t because they’ll be afraid that what they tell you, you will tell someone else.

Also, you have to take care of yourself. You can’t believe that you’re the only one who can make a difference. You can’t let it become only your “burden” because if you do, you won’t be helpful. You can’t be helpful if you lose your anchor in your own world. One of the things that can happen is you feel like there’s so much work to do, you kind of set aside everything else in your life. So you’re not sleeping enough, you’re not eating properly, you’re not properly rested. And the most important thing you can do, I think, to do this work for the long haul, is take care of yourself mentally, physically, emotionally, and socially.

GC: Is there anything else that you wanted to mention about the book?

Sanford: I do really want to say that I think that the book is a story about a father’s love and his struggle to seek justice in a country where justice is simply not available. But I think that story, and the other stories of migrant women that are in it, explain why women and children are at the border, because people will say, “Why are they dragging their children on that dangerous trip?” It’s because they know that they or their kids are going to get killed in Guatemala. That’s why, because that’s their only means of survival. That’s their hope. And in this country, if we want to decrease the number of immigrants at our southern border, we need to have better policies in Central America to make rule of law happen. We should have supported the Commission Against Impunity much more strongly than we did. We should have supported the United Nations more strongly than we did in Guatemala. And we shouldn’t be supporting these criminals who are currently running the governments in El Salvador and Guatemala.

Sanford spoke about her book on CUNY's Indoor Voices podcast. Listen in! 

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