LA MESA, California — Since March 2007, the U.S. Secretary of State has honored various women from around the world with the Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award (IWCA). This annual award honors women who have shown great courage, strength, and leadership to bring positive change to their communities, often at personal risk and sacrifice. These women have advocated for the protection of human rights, promoted the advancement of the status of women, and fostered peace and government transparency around the world.
This year, 14 women from various countries, including Afghanistan, Belarus, Burma/Myanmar/Cameroon, China, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Nepal, Somalia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Venezuela were honored, along with a remarkable judge from Guatemala, Judge Erika Lorena Aifan. Judge Aifan has presided over high-profile corruption and war atrocity cases, leading to defamation and threats of violence against her. Despite these challenges, Judge Aifan has persisted as a Guatemalan judge independent of political influence. She has demonstrated determination and fortitude in upholding the rule of law in Guatemala.
In April, the San Diego Diplomacy Council hosted Judge Aifan through a series of virtual meetings with San Diego leaders, including Judge Tamila Ipema, Genevieve Jones-Wright, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of California.
Interested in finding out more, the San Diego Jewish World arranged for a Zoom interview with the judge. During the interview, Judge Aifan looked much younger than her years and proved to be as nice as she was strong and smart. Her position in Guatemala has been an inspiration to others, but has come with a cost to her personal life.
Judge Erika Lorena Aifan was born and raised in Guatemala City and currently lives there today. The daughter of a lawyer, she had wanted to be a chemical engineer in her youth, but later decided to study law as a means of fostering change in her country, encouraged by her father and her school friends who felt she had a gift for fighting injustice, and she eventually became a criminal judge. She also went on to get two masters, one in labor law and one in business administration, and a PhD in criminal law.
The calling she has felt to serve her country has been so great that it helped her to move ahead in her career and become a successful and sometimes controversial judge, one who survived not only the machismo she encountered from male counterparts and superiors, but the life threats due to her judicial resolutions. She has never married and has no children. The one constant in her life has been her strong Christian faith, and having close family ties to lean on. What struck me in my interview with her was how nice and calm she was in spite of all the threats she has received as a judge.
Here is an excerpt of our interview:
SDJW: Could you please share with us some of your biography? What led you to law and the judiciary?
Judge Aifan: When I was a little girl, my mother was my best friend. At that time, I wanted to be a chemical engineer and she encouraged me. In fact, the last gift my mother gave me was a microscope. Unfortunately, she had a bad heart and she passed away when I was nine. I then became very close to my father. I went to a prestigious catholic high school and that is where I began to learn about justice and standing up for others when I felt an injustice had been done. In my vocational tests, I placed first in law and second in engineering, so I was still a bit undecided, but I had begun helping my father with his law practice and decided to follow in his footsteps and study law.
After law school, I wanted to become a judge and took an exam to enter the School for Judicial Studies. I earned third place in the exam amongst the 800 who applied. However, my father and family were afraid for my personal safety in this field, so they encouraged me to be a corporate lawyer instead. Once I graduated, I became the corporate lawyer my family desired me to be, but was not very successful. Because I looked so young, clients thought I lacked experience. Although I graduated from the School for Judicial Studies in first place, I was not appointed as a judge, nor were the women who got third and fifth place as machismo still ruled.
I found out from one of my clients that the president of the court had said that that the students that had won first and third place had unclear circumstances in their files and that was the reason we had not been appointed. I responded that was not true. The client then asked what I had done to defend my rights and that if I was not able to defend them, what guarantee did he have that I would be able to defend his. This changed my point of view.
After careful consideration and consulting with my family, who explained the threats and sacrifices I would have to endure if I chose to be a judge, I finally decided to seek the place I had earned in the judicial system and asked the court why they had not named me, but received no answer. I took the case to the constitutional court and after a year-and-a-half process, they gave the court five days to go through the paperwork to name me. I won the suit, but was reprimanded for it by being sent to a very remote area of the country to work, 300 kilometers (186 miles) away from my home and on the border to Mexico. I worked hard, initially working in civil, labor, and commercial cases because it was a project court which encompasses all branches of law and where the majority of the population were Mayan Mam.
After some time, there was a change in the supreme court and they then sent me to the border with El Salvador, to a department that had many corruption problems and criminal suits against the court. I decided to try to put some order to the processes and make them more transparent. Not a month into the job, the court assigned me personal protection. Two months into the job, they doubled my personal security and gave me an institutional armored vehicle because the threats had become very strong.
The most difficult case in that department involved a national congressman who was implicated in participating in the death of a congressman who had been assassinated. This congressman was a candidate for mayor for that department which is the reason the suit was being held there. That is when the security threats increased, and the day before the report was to be aired, there were gunshots in front of my home.
I faced several high-impact cases in that department which led to criminal structures trying to find ways for me to be dismissed or transferred to a different department. They were finally able to arrange my transfer to a department in the capital where I also started to teach at the State University in postgraduate international studies.
In this last transfer, I was not dealing with high impact cases anymore, so the court wanted to withdraw my personal security. I had to take the case to the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations and they helped in assuring my personal security would not be withdrawn. As I had not agreed to be transferred, I again sued the court; however, in the middle of the suit, high impact cases started to be tried in the capital. They created a temporary court to take care of backlogged cases because of the time it took to resolve the case that involved the president and the vice president. This was a high risk court for which I postulated and won. It was however a temporary position which involved less salary and a lower position.
Eight months into this job, the court decided to revise my work and established this court as permanent. Again I postulated and got the job. To this date, I have had administrative problems with this court because it is understaffed and we lack enough space to work in. I have remained in this court, and the majority of my cases have involved criminal structures and transnational complex crimes.
I have been able to withstand all of this pressure because of my Christian faith, my family’s support, as well as the support of all the good people around me. I believe in acting within the boundaries of my faith and the rule of law, and learning to be calm and prudent, no matter what the circumstances.
SDJW: Why do you believe so many Guatemalans are leaving your country and migrating to the United States?
Judge Aifan: Well, I believe that it is the result of a breakdown in the country’s social system; it is a social failure, where people don’t care about each other or their outcome even in the prevailing circumstances. Most people want to stay put, and they do not want to abandon their home, family or friends. They don’t want the hardship and challenge of a new start, with everything before them being unknown, moving to a new country, learning a new language and way of life, and leaving all that they know behind.
It is not easy for a person to expose their children and we have seen an increase in this irregular migration. There are profound reasons in order for parents to expose their children to the known dangerous risks of trying to reach the United States, that is where we see the failure of our society.
If my country would be giving its people the opportunity to develop fully, I believe no one would go live abroad. The poverty and lack of opportunity has been aggravated by the hurricanes that have struck our country leaving the country devastated. COVID-19 and the sanitary emergency it brought posed new challenges, as well as the economic consequences increasing poverty and lack of opportunities.
Injustice, corruption, and impunity are all strong reasons to migrate. We do not have optimal educational services for our citizens, which imply lack of opportunities. We don’t have hospitals with the capabilities or technology to meet our people’s demands. Food needs are not being met, there is a high malnutrition index in the country. The resources the state has to invest in social and economic development are being diverted by acts of corruption.
In addition, many young people and unaccompanied minors are coming because their parents feel they have no other choice, especially when violent gangs are trying to recruit them. Unfortunately, we also see many women who are fleeing domestic violence as men take out their frustration on them as a result of the inadequate social and economic systems. There are also extortion and murder threats that lead people to migrate.
We are also seeing a dangerous mix of this irregular migration with criminal gangs. Criminal structures see an opportunity to expand their human and drug trafficking operations through the irregular migration that is taking place. Furthermore, the government has not given appropriate answers to problems that a multicultural society faces.
SDJW: U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris has been meeting with officials from your country, including your president. In what ways do you believe the U.S. can be helpful?
Judge Aifan: I believe the United States and the international community can be helpful by continuing to have high-level meetings and talking to people who can bring about real change in helping to find long-term solutions to so many of the long-standing problems. It definitely won’t be easy; one must get to the root of each problem and find workable ways to get ahead. I also think that having interchanges between our countries, especially with independent judges, prosecutors and public officials, in training and technological support as well as exchanges in experiences in similar circumstances could help us grow professionally as well as help solve the many difficulties in the justice system. Several entities or institutions in the U.S. and internationally have helped in voicing our problems, projects, and needs which may establish the possibility of learning about possible solutions.
SDJW: How has your life changed as a consequence of your judicial resolutions?
Judge Aifan: Being a high-impact criminal judge has changed my life in several ways. I am not married and have no children. The first thing I needed to do was get used to having personal security designated by the Supreme Court for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The security men that work with me have been with me for many years and rotate for vacations or other matters, but they don’t rotate much. The first thing you need to adapt to is a loss of privacy.
I had a friend with a romantic interest in me who said that he could not continue being my boyfriend because he did not feel comfortable having a personal guard beside me at all times. He said that we did not have a place where we could be private. He offered to continue the relationship if my personal security decreased, but that did not happen as it increased over time.
I have had to sacrifice many things in my personal life, including with my family. There have been instances where the Director of Institutional Security has asked me to limit my personal or professional gatherings and at times, has ordered me to not visit my family. There was a case where there was a possible leak among my personal security agents. The mole was found, but it still implied a risk to me and my family.
There have also been legal attacks, spurious allegations before courts, including criminal suits, immunity withdrawal claims before the honor lawyers court and the board of judicial discipline. This implies that I have to spend time defending myself instead of being able to have any leisure time in order to comply with my defense in terms of writs and hearings.
I belong to three associations of judges, one of which is for women judges. Only one has supported me throughout, the Association of Judges for Integrity. Another advantage is that my father is a lawyer and he has been my best defense presenting writs and being present in hearings. Fortunately, to this date, none of these attacks have gone forward.
SDJW: Are there any thoughts you would like to share with our readers in the U.S.?
Judge Aifan: I would like to thank all the citizens of the United States for their support. I here take the opportunity to thank the State Department in granting me the International Women of Courage Award which I consider not to be individual but as a collective acknowledgement to all those who are doing their best in trying to build a better country. I would also like to thank all the good people who have contributed so that the justice system in Guatemala can be more modern, democratic, and able to work within the true rule of law.
I would also ask you to understand that the citizens of my country who emigrate irregularly do so in order to save their lives for many reasons, including poverty, threats of violence, or injustice. There are many powerful reasons as to why they emigrate.
I would like for us to continue working together, and coordinating in order to find solutions to all of these problems, including irregular emigration. I reiterate my personal commitment to continue working responsibly and independently within the legal system and society in Guatemala to bring better opportunities for all people in my country so they don’t have to emigrate.
I remain optimistic about the future of my country and that the many obstacles we face will provide innovative ways of finding solutions. The personal ties between people will provide solidarity in searching to solve our common problems.
SDJW: Were you congratulated by other judges or Institutions in Guatemala for having been awarded the International Women of Courage Award?
Judge Aifan: Some people and institutions have congratulated me personally and publicly. There were, however, notable silences which have been questioned. For instance, there was no pronouncement from the Supreme Court of Justice, the judicial organization to which I belong as the award was granted in my capacity as judge. The Association of Women Judges and the University of San Carlos in Guatemala, where I teach, also remained silent.
Those who did congratulate me were some human rights entities, the Guatemalan Association of Judges for Integrity, several civil associations, as well as several human rights international entities. I have personally been congratulated by fellow judges, family, and friends.
Republished from San Diego Jewish World
Mimi Pollack is a retired ESL teacher from Grossmont College and San Diego Community College Continuing Education. Born in the United States, she moved as a child with her family to Mexico City, where she learned Spanish and lived for over twenty years. She is particularly interested in immigrant and refugee issues, animals, and reporting on different cultures and ethnicities. She writes for various publications.
Marcela Roel is Mimi’s niece. She was born in Mexico City. She received her BA from Sarah Lawrence and her MA from Columbia University. She also has a JD from Mexico as she comes from a long line of lawyers, but does not practice. She lives with her husband and four dogs and enjoys political discussions, rescuing stray dogs, and practicing Tai Chi.