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A Lenten journey to a Guatemalan prison

Mission co-worker shares a story of hope and presence while visiting a jailed prosecutor

by the Rev. Leslie Vogel, Presbyterian World Mission | Special to Presbyterian News Service

A demonstration outside the Palace of Justice in Guatemala City, where the arraignments and hearings for five women who say they’ve been unjustly imprisoned have taken place. The sign says, “Criminalization has the face of a woman and of courage too!” From left to right, the six women are Erika Aifán (a judge from one of the High Risk Courts who recently took asylum in the U.S. to protect her safety and life), Siomara Sosa, Leily Santizo, Aliss Noemí Morán, Virginia Laparra and Paola Escobar. (Photo by Mayra Rodríguez)

“I was in prison and you visited me.” — Matthew 25:36

 Author’s note: A Presbyterian woman serving on commissions to fight impunity and corruption in Guatemala remains imprisoned after she was accused of abusing her authority. Virginia Laparra, however, insists that her “crime” was fulfilling the duties of her job to bring charges against a judge.

GUATEMALA CITY — During the 32 years since my ordination as a Presbyterian minister and mission co-worker, I have engaged in many not-so-ordinary activities of ministry.

The chain of events that first introduced me to Virginia Laparra was set into motion on Ash Wednesday, March 2. What has happened since then has pushed me far outside my comfort zone. My pastoral visits with Virginia have stretched me greatly in my own lifelong journey of faith.

“Leslie, several of the women who have been imprisoned are not Catholic. Could you make a pastoral visit to them in the prison?” read the WhatsApp message on March 2 from my friend, Claudia, from the Protection Unit for Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala (UDEFEGUA for its initials in Spanish).

“The four former prosecutors and a former leader of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) are in Mariscal Zavala prison. If you can arrange a date, one of the lawyers will accompany you. The purpose would be to pray with the women in a liberating manner: apparently those who have visited so far tell the women that they are in prison because of their sins. [The other purpose would be] to bear witness afterwards.”

Claudia continued: “Could you see if anyone else could go with you? And … could your church in the USA make a pronouncement about what you saw? What do you think?”

I noticed that my heart was beating more rapidly.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, although I have remained here in Guatemala, one of my two countries of service, I have primarily been confined to my home.

I have never set foot in or near a prison in Central America. In the United States I’ve only visited migrants detained in jails by Customs and Border Patrol and being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, so I felt a bit anxious.

I responded to Claudia: “I will see who else might be able to go with me, and I’ll let you know.”

On the morning of Tuesday, March 8, I finally had two other women, both trained in pastoral care, willing to visit the women in the prison with me the next day. I reached out to Claudia to confirm. She said that one woman had been sent to a different prison and that two of the other prisoners had been released on house arrest.

So now everything was up in the air.

March 8, 9:30 a.m.: Claudia asked the two women remaining in the first prison if they still wanted a visit from us. “The warden is unhappy because many people are visiting the women, which is WONDERFUL, but the prison staff are complaining.”

4:30 p.m.: From Claudia: “The warden gave permission for your visit, and the good news is that Virginia Laparra is still there.” Claudia then put me in contact with a legal team worker to coordinate the visit. We agreed on a meeting time and place, and I contacted my ministry colleagues who would be going with me. All seemed to be arranged.

Wednesday, March 9, the first visit:  We were picked up by a driver and Jenny, a law student with the Protection Unit. We checked in and had our IDs scanned, our names recorded in large ledgers, and stamps inked onto our arms.

Jenny, wearing a light blue Protection Unit vest over her beautiful Guatemalan huipil and corte (woven blouse and skirt), spoke on our behalf at each guard point, and shepherded us through the process.

As we walked up the long dirt road through a forest of pine trees and other greenery, I found myself thinking that it seemed more like we were at summer camp than in a prison.  However, we quickly arrived at the compound for male prisoners with chain-link fences and more armed guards. Apparently, the isolation cells were located there, not in the women’s section.

Once again, we checked in, reporting the names of the three women we were there to see, although the guard said there were only two women, not three. We received permission because our visit had been pre-approved by the warden. Thanks to that permission, the one visitor per prisoner rule was also waived, and all four of us were allowed into the isolation compound.

The armed guards and male prisoners gazed at us through the fences as we approached a separate, low cinder block building with three cells, apart from the rest of the compound. Each cell had a slot in the solid metal door for sliding in a tray of food, and a metal flap that could be propped open with a stick to allow in a small amount of sunlight.

We signed in a fourth time and were ushered to the second cell, which was unlocked for us. Inside, we faced three women in their 30s.

We introduced ourselves one by one as Presbyterian women who understood that one or more of them might want a pastoral visit. Two of the three quickly described their own history with specific Presbyterian congregations in Guatemala. One of the incarcerated women had attended the same church with one of my visiting companions back in their youth. The two embraced, talked in soft voices, wept and prayed together.

We asked the others to tell us something of their stories and their situations. Paola and Aliss had previously worked with the FECI in the Guatemalan attorney general’s office. In fact, Aliss had recently resigned believing that conditions no longer allowed her to carry out her work freely or with integrity. Days later, she was notified of a warrant for her arrest. Although she was not at home when it was served, she decided to present herself to the authorities, believing that she had done nothing wrong.  She was immediately arrested, arraigned and taken to prison.

Since we had heard conflicting reports that the third woman, Virginia, from Quetzaltenango, had already been transferred to a separate prison, we were very happy to see that she was still there. She expressed gratitude for the company and solidarity of the other two women — and also a great deal of fear about being separated from them and sent on her own to another prison.

It quickly became clear that Virginia’s case was different from those of the others, and that it would be handled differently.

She had dared to bring four different sets of charges of wrongdoing against a judge in Quetzaltenango, and it was clear that her arrest was an act of vengeance on his part. In fact, she told us that on the day of her arraignment, the judge arrived with no fewer than seven armed bodyguards, while Virginia was led into the courtroom with only her lawyer. Meantime, no observers (neither the UDEFEGUA workers, nor even representatives from the United Nations) were allowed into the “private” hearing.  It seemed clear that the entire process was intended to intimidate — and it had been very effective.

We shared a psalm and prayed with the three women, cried, embraced, and also told them that we believed that they were being persecuted by a system that, as they fully know from their own lived experience, seeks to punish the just and let the guilty go free.

A liberating God who defends the righteous

Aware that other Protestant Christians who had been to visit had told them that they are in prison because they have sinned, we wanted to make clear that we understand God to be a liberating God, who desires justice and who defends the righteous. God is with them. We also affirmed that we believe that God will not abandon them and that they will be vindicated.

The women shared this brief note with their Presbyterian siblings. (Photo by Leslie Vogel)

We asked if they wanted to get any message out, and they wrote a brief note to be shared with our Presbyterian siblings in the U.S.:

“We give thanks for the support that you have shown us. We are being criminalized because of the work that we carried out. We are trusting, first in God, and also that we will have a transparent process. We request that you be alert and aware of our (legal) processes, because at the end of it all, it helps when there are no anomalies in the processes and when our human rights are respected. We respectfully request your prayers.”

As we embraced and said our goodbyes, we promised to continue praying for each of them. Knowing that my two companions would probably be unable to return for another visit, I promised that I would continue to return as long as any of them is still there.

On Friday, the judge for Aliss and Paola’s case declared that the charges against them lacked merit and thus should be dropped. They learned that it takes a lot more time and paperwork to be released from prison than it does to be incarcerated. They would still need to report in once a month, as if on probation, but they could go home to their families.

They were still there when I returned on Saturday, March 12, as part of a small ecumenical delegation. Aliss and Paola were hoping to be released by Monday.

Tuesday, March 15: Virginia is now alone; she appears shaken by having seen her four cellmates leave, while her own request for house arrest has been denied three times. Her daughters and other family members can make the four-hour journey to the capital to visit her only on Saturdays, so the ecumenical group coordinates Tuesday visits with her. We are not allowed to visit any other days of the week.

There is no cafeteria; the only meals Virginia receives are those brought in from the outside. She has fruit — apples and bananas. The weather is hot and most food would spoil quickly.  She is allowed outside for fresh air only one hour each day. She clearly feels very alone and vulnerable, and she frequently bursts into tears. I remember Claudia’s words: “She is very fragile.”

A different group visits her on March 22, and I return with another group on March 29.

On April 4, I was surprised to see an open letter from Virginia published in the Guatemalan news. Read it here.

Publication of Virginia’s letter was followed by an announcement that Judge Sergio René Mena Samayoa had recused himself from her case. His recusal is a setback for Virginia, as it delays her process until a new judge can be appointed.

In her letter, Virginia wrote that her “crime” was that, while she was a prosecutor of the FECI in Quetzaltenango, she presented administrative complaints against Judge Lesther Castellanos.

Jordan Rodas, the Human RIghts Ombudsperson, came to check on Virginia Laparra’s well-being. (Photo by Human Rights Ombudsman, Guatemala)

I asked Virginia why she would publish such a letter and risk her hearing being postponed. She said, “I’ve been trying to get that judge to recuse himself and to disconnect from this entire process for the past four years! I had no idea that he would actually do so now.”

Virginia said that just as she was finishing a journal entry, describing what is happening and expressing her feelings about now being in solitary confinement for having done her job well, an unexpected visitor appeared outside visiting hours. Jordan Rodas, the Human Rights Ombudsperson, had come to check on her well-being. He urged her to allow him to share the journal entry as a public testimony. Virginia is not one to seek out media attention; her work as a prosecutor is from inside a courtroom, but those channels have been repeatedly blocked for her. However, believing that God was present in this process, she allowed him to take the letter and publish it.

Leslie Vogel

The Rev. Leslie Vogel is World Mission’s regional liaison for Mexico and Guatemala.

A ‘stronger, more confident’ prisoner

Although the judge’s reaction and recusal has delayed her process, what I saw in Virginia’s eyes and face as she told the story struck me profoundly.  The “fragile” person I first met on March 9 has become stronger and more confident during her incarceration. While she is still emotional as she expresses her deep longing to be reunited with her daughters and family, she also embodies a fierce determination, strength and clarity that are growing with each passing day.

“I was in prison and you visited me.” Jesus Christ is being held prisoner unjustly in the person of Virginia Laparra — and in others throughout Guatemala whom I have yet to meet.  Even as I go to visit Virginia to take her a word of comfort — “You are not alone,” “God is with you,” — I also always come away with my own spirit strengthened and encouraged, for I have seen the face of God in her.

And when was it we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did to me.’ — Matthew 25:39-40

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