Juanita es libre

A cry for liberty and justice for Juana

María José Longo

On the morning of March 8, a group of women walked 2.5 km from Quetzaltenango’s central park to the Mexican consulate. It was International Women’s Day, and they had come together to fight, demanding the freedom of Juana Alonzo, a migrant who has been detained in Mexico for 7 years. Lacking a strong grasp of the Spanish language and without the aid of an interpreter, she was forced to sign a declaration that incriminated her.

In 2014, Juana left San Mateo Ixtatán, Huehuetenango. Her goal was to make it to the United States. The coyote, or trafficker, brought her to a house where together with two other women she was forced to work, until one of the women complained to the authorities. The Mexican police detained Juana and labeled her an accomplice to the kidnappers. Juana didn’t understand what was happening because she could only speak Chuj, her native language.

Since then, Juana has been in jail in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico. Organizations and people in Guatemala have united in their mission to not forget her and to demand her freedom. The UN Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined that Juana’s arrest was arbitrary and recommended that she be freed. However, as of March 25 when this article was written, she is still in prison.

Ana Gómez, Juana’s aunt, spoke while holding flowers in one hand and a banner with the message “Freedom for Juana” in the other. She joined the women and men commemorating International Women’s Day by protesting Juana’s imprisonment.

“They have to let Juanita go. They discriminate against her, torture her, and don’t even have evidence to keep her there. There’s so much injustice. We women have rights and have come to demand these rights for Juanita. I hope she’s happy with the support we’ve come to give her. She can be proud, not sad, for being a woman and that we are here to fight for her,” said Ana.

The women commemorating International Women’s Day with a show of solidarity with Juanita, as they call her, put their regular daily lives on hold to join the protest. The majority came by bus on a journey of 10 hours from their community to Quetzaltenango.

“Juanita has lost her youth. These days, no woman should suffer like this. We’re all united in this cause. This case truly shows how in Guatemala and other countries indigenous Mayan identity and languages are not given visibility nor recognized. We must be able to access services in our own languages, not forced to speak Spanish or Castilian. Juanita isn’t alone,” said a resident of San Mateo Ixtatán, Huehuetenango.

According to Guatemala’s 2018 Census, in San Mateo Ixtatán, Juana’s hometown, 88 out of every 100 people speak Chuj, 9 out of every 10 are indigenous, and 60% of Mayan women do not know how to read nor write. Juana now has an interpreter who will travel to Mexico to accompany her through the proceedings.

The women walking to the Mexican consulate held up posters and flowers as they shouted “We are with Juanita! Women fight and the world changes! We want justice for Juanita!”

Why the consulate?

Paula Barrios, coordinator of Mujeres Transformando el Mundo said that by being in prison in an unknown country where she cannot express herself in her native language, Juana is suffering physically and psychologically.

“What we hope is that the consulate opens its doors to foster communication between the family and Mexican justice system, especially with authorities in Reynosa, so that the family can contribute to and have first-hand knowledge of what is happening in the legal process. Law is very formalistic, and Juana could face some difficulty if she isn’t clear about which steps to take,” explained Paula.

Until March 8, 2022, Mujeres Transformando el Mundo clearly saw three possibilities for Juana: the first is that her case be brought to trial, since she’s been accused of kidnapping. The second possibility is that the defense and Mexico’s Public Ministry ask the case to be dismissed, putting an end to the process. The other option is that she be immediately set free on the basis of being under illegal detention.

A virtual family reunion

Juanita’s family had not seen her face since she emigrated in 2014, but in February 2022, organizations supporting her case set up a video call. Once again, through a screen, they saw each other.

Community members who participated in the protest told EntreMundos that they understand Juana’s family because they too have family members who have emigrated and know about many more cases of Guatemalans who have disappeared or died while trying to reach the United States. What they all have in common is leaving Guatemala to be able to give a better future to their families who live without opportunities.

From January 2019 to December 2021, 31,307 people who had tried to reach the US from Huehuetenango were returned to Guatemala. In the last year, 2021, 22 out of every 100 people returned were women. This information was released by the International Organization for Migration’s Informational Unit for Northern Central America.

The family of Juana Alonzo Santizo told Prensa Comunitaria that they have spent more than 150,000 Quetzales on the fight for her freedom, but the response so far has been negative. Pedro, Juanita’s brother, migrated to the United States in 2015 and was there for six years supporting his family with the dream of seeing his sister free again. As of yet, that dream has not become reality.

“I migrated to be able to financially support her case. My father works in the field and doesn’t make enough. Furthermore, he is separated from my mother, and so works to support himself, too,” Pedro told Prensa Comunitaria.

In addition, he says that 10 years ago, their mother, Catarina Santizo, suffered a burn, which today still complicates her health. “We’ve invested money in medicine for my mother, but she doesn’t get better. We also spend money on household expenses and Juana’s legal expenses,” said the 27-year-old brother.

Beyond legal action and demonstrations, the organization Promotores de la Liberación Migrante launched a campaign on social media inviting people to post with the hashtag #LibertadParaJuanita. In Guatemala and other countries, people have joined the call for justice.

Women and men from different lands, ethnicities, and social classes who have demanded Juanita’s freedom call upon the Mexican justice system to speed up the process so that she can return home. They also hope that this never happens again and that access to justice in all countries be available in our native languages. That is our linguistic human right.