Example of Systemic Oppression: An Unjust Legal System in Guatemala

The Guatemalan census claims that 16 million people live in this country. In reality, it is closer to 18 million. Indigenous groups under-report in the census because they are afraid the government is trying to control them. For example, if ten people live in their home, they will state that only six people live there. Approximately 78% of all people living in Guatemala are indigenous. They are the majority, but they are the most oppressed. They are also divided into 23 different indigenous communities, all with different languages, customs, food, dress, and traditions. For some of the indigenous groups, Spanish is their fifth language. Unfortunately, the majority of them live in extreme poverty and when you visit their home, it often looks as if you have gone back into time to the 1950s of 1960s.


There is a lot of racism and discrimination in Guatemala against the indigenous population. They typically stand out as being short, darker skin, black hair, less educated, wearing traditional dress, and sometimes don’t speak Spanish very well. They typically don’t know their rights, when they move into the city, they often continue to live a very indigenous life, rather than converting to a more Western lifestyle, and they are frequently considered “less than” by other Guatemalans. If they do decide to adapt to a more Western way of life, they typically begin to experience less discrimination. According to the Constitution in Guatemala, all people have the right to legal access. This is a lie. Frequently, if an indigenous person needs a lawyer, they will sell their house and all their possessions to be able to afford it, then their case will not always work in their favor, and they are sometimes left with nothing. In Guatemala, it is extremely difficult for an indigenous person to obtain access to a lawyer for the following reasons:

There are a variety of different types of lawyers in Guatemala:

  1. Abogados privados: If a private lawyer decides to change or waiver his fee to help an indigenous person, another private lawyer can sue him or her for not abiding by the tarifa, and people can lose their license. Therefore, it’s much easier to just say, “I can’t help you.” The tarifa is fee list that is agreed upon and shared by all the private lawyers in Guatemala.
  1. Defensa Publica: These are state lawyers that are paid for by the government in Guatemala. There are 800 state lawyers in the country now….for 18 million people. This is obviously not sufficient. Therefore, if an indigenous person goes to a state lawyer, they will likely be told that they can wait 3-6 months to be seen. Sicty-two percent of all prisoners in Guatemala are awaiting a sentence. Sometimes they wait in prison for 5-10 years because they are sentenced just to find out that they were declared innocent.

There is one story of a man in Guatemala that spent 14 years in jail awaiting trail just to then be declared innocent and sent free. This man sued the Guatemalan government and lost. The President said to him “it doesn’t matter because you are free now. You should be happy. There are many other people in Guatemala much worse off than you with much bigger problems.” Therefore, many people with legal problems in Guatemala keep their legal issues to themselves.

  1. Bufete popular: Also known as “Office of the people” – these are law students that help you. Many people do not like to utilize this service because the law students are inexperienced and many people do not trust the law students with their case. Additionally, if they decide to utilize this resource for free or low cost, see the below information under La ubicación for details as to why this still may not be an affordable option for them.


  1. ONG: There are hundreds of NGO’s that exist in Guatemala to help the people. But, there are only four NGO’s that help with legal rights.

Lets pretend that you are indigenous and are lucky enough to obtain a lawyer, there are still many barriers that you face in the process:

Otras barreras (Other Barriers):

  1. La ubicación (Location):

There are seven different types of courts depending on how much money you need to pay for your case. There is a certain number of each type of court within each region of Guatemala. Often times the majority of the courts exist in just a few of the largest cities within Guatemala. Therefore, if you are an indigenous person that lives in the countryside, it could take you 3-8 hours to drive to your courthouse for your case. It is required for you to be there for your case. In order to make this trip, you cannot work for a day or two. Often times, for an indigenous person, a days worth of work is a days worth of food. Plus you have to pay for transportation, food, and possibly a hotel on your travels. In addition, you may arrive and your case is postponed. Therefore, they have to ask themselves, can I afford this. Is it worth it?

  1. El idioma (Language)

In Guatemala currently, only 2% of judges speak indigenous languages. The public schools in Guatemala demand that people learn either English or French, in addition to Spanish; not any indigenous languages. Therefore, if the indigenous person doesn’t speak Spanish, then they need to find an interpreter, and pay for one. They have two options:

  1. The Institute of Interpreters program, which is government funded. However, there are only 482 interpreters from that program for 18 million people, so they frequently have long wait lists and aren’t always available on your specific court date or appointments time.
  2. The other option is through niños. Many people have their children or others children help. However, this is conflicting because they are not properly trained and frequently don’t interpret correctly. Secondly, they view this position as a job and frequently charge people 100Q per hour. They are also usually needed for much longer than one hour, so it becomes very expensive. Additionally, sometimes the men, such as in a domestic violence case, will prep the child interpreter in his favor to help him win the case. Therefore, the corruption begins with the children.
  1. La discriminación (Discrimination)

For this topic, I will share a story/example. When people go to an office to see a lawyer, they typically arrive to the office at the beginning of the day and then wait in line for their turn. If an indigenous person is third in line (for example), when it’s that persons turn, the secretary will frequently tell them that it’s actually the 5th person in lines turn (who is not an indigenous person), and that they need to wait longer. The secretary will tell them, “he works and you don’t, so you can wait a little longer.” At the end of the day (around 3pm), there will only be indigenous folks left in the line. Then, the secretary will say, “It’s getting late, we have to drive far to go home, and the office closes soon (usually at 4pm), so please come back tomorrow instead.”

Then, if the indigenous person does happen to make it inside the judges office the next day and they go to sit on a chair with a cushion, someone in the office will often times make them get up and sit in a plastic chair instead. The reason is because many people believe that indigenous people smell bad and they don’t want that smell to be absorbed into the cushions. They don’t smell the same as the people in the city, so they are treated less than.

Mayan Law

As a result, many indigenous folks try to resolve their issues through Mayan law, which is very different than Western law. The purpose of Western law is to punish. The goal of Mayan law is reparación (repair) and reconciliación (reconciliation). During these sessions, they try to listen to people’s cases (that the victims themselves present). Then, they seek indeminzación, which translates to “paying for the damages.” After listening to the case, the victim is asked: What do you want or need to feel good about resolving this issue? Then, the perpetrator is asked: Are you willing to give them these things? Then, a bargaining process begins and is sometimes resolved. However, the problem with this method is that the solution does not stand in the Guatemalan government courts. Therefore, for example, if someone inherits a home from their grandmother, they shake on it in court, and that seals the deal. But, if the Guatemalan government knocks on their door asking for proof, the Mayan might say: “I don’t have any papers. My grandmothers gave this house to me 25 years ago.” As a result, the Mayans frequently need to go to modern courts, to get modern paperwork, to protect their land and property. But, if the government could find a way to respect the Mayan laws, would there be more peace and justice in this country? Is it possible to respect the laws and customs of the oppressed or is it always necessary that the oppressed convert to the dominant group?

– Kelly Dent

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *