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The Emaciated Children Who Successfully Sued Guatemala

Five malnourished children took the Guatemalan state to court in 2011. They won, but the landmark case has had limited real effects.
March 18, 2014, 4:20pm
Photo by Joanna Sweeny

Six-year-old Bryan couldn't tell you who the president of Guatemala is, but three years ago he took his government to court and won.

Alongside four other emaciated children, Bryan was part of a lawsuit that Nuevo Día, a local NGO, launched against the Guatemalan state in 2011 for failing to protect its kids against malnutrition. The judge found the government guilty in a landmark ruling in Latin America, but that doesn't mean the president's party cares.


Bryan still lives in a straw hut, high up in the mountains of Eastern Guatemala, in a town called Camotán that is synonymous with famine. He gets tired easily, doesn't speak much, and doctors say he has a growth disorder — possibly a result of a genetic condition, or from a lifetime of poor nutrition.

Guatemala is one of the most malnourished and unequal countries in the world. The richest commute to work by helicopter, while the poorest slave for less than a dollar a day. According to the World Food Programme, the chronic undernutrition rate for children under five is 49.8 percent, the highest in the region and the fourth highest globally. Around 90 percent of Camotán’s population lives in poverty, with over 38 percent in extreme poverty, so ingesting sufficient calories is the main concern.

During the trial, four-year-old Mayra received a hip operation, enabling her to walk properly for the first time in her life, and medication to combat the diarrhea that a doctor had previously predicted would kill her. But these are one-off measures, which may have only bought her a little more time.

With the aim of producing long-term change, the judge ordered various ministries to create food and employment programs to stop Mayra and Bryan’s conditions from continuing as the norm. Both the families and the surrounding communities were ecstatic. Nothing much has happened, however. The only major change is that each of the children now receives an extra bag of rice or packet of beans.

Jorge Castillo is the project coordinator of Nuevo Día, the NGO that took the government to court. Here’s what he has to say about the case.

VICE News: How did the trial come about?
Jorge Castillo: The idea to sue the government came from a nourishment campaign. In 2010 there was a food shortage. We lost crops and famine struck, so the whole world turned to help. Nuevo Día said: Yes there’s hunger, malnutrition, and poverty, but we’re not looking for pity. They’re human beings and they have a right to food, health, and education.


What was the main objective of the trial?
To tell the state to modify its policies — this is the only way to stop poverty and malnutrition. The state has to see and recognize that we’re a country where our rights are constantly being violated.

When did the trial begin and how long did it last?
Around 18 months. The lawsuits were presented on November 17, 2011.

What type of publicity did it generate?
The counselor had the view that we shouldn’t make it very public. Firstly, because we were talking about children. Secondly, the state has a lot of legal influence and could have influenced the judge.

What conditions did the kids have?
Very serious conditions, very serious malnutrition. If we hadn’t intervened, Mayra could have died of malnourishment. Even Leonel, who’s 13, now he’s a teenager, he [still] has stunted growth, [problems with his] hair and skin, and [other] physical conditions. Mayra had a lot of diarrhea, as did Dina and Mabelita.

What were your concerns during and after the trials?
That the judge [wouldn’t] be impartial. That he would state there weren’t any violations. That the state would take the kids away and institutionalize them — that was one of our strongest fears.

What did you do to prevent the children’s institutionalization?
In one of the hearings the state representative said: “The solution is simple: we can institutionalize all the kids.” Then our lawyers said: “That’s fine, let’s institutionalize all the kids from Tisipe and all the kids from Lelá Chancó because they all live under the same conditions.”


What was the result of the trial?
We saw the sentences as very positive. That the judge stated that there were violations is of course a result, but the bigger result is [what] this process [taught] the officials. The goal right now is that these lessons reach more Guatemalans.

What does the government have to do?
Reformulate public policies. [The judge] mentioned 12 institutions and [ordered them to carry out] 28 actions.

What’s the government done?
The Ministry of Agriculture gives monthly food, the health center gives more visits, [and] sometimes evaluates the water quality. What they’ve done is intensify their programs [and] their visits, but without any results as they don’t have a coordinated work plan.

Have the children’s lives changed?
The families are being monitored more and the kids have learned to interact because of all the visits. The families and the mothers talk more about rights — they know what they’re doing.

Has the result of the trials had any impact on the community?
There hasn’t been a positive impact. Sadly there’s been a negative impact because of the state’s non-compliance.

Do you expect the government to comply?
We are betting on the verdicts being complied with. Our goal is that the families change their lifestyle substantially but gradually.

Has there been a change of power in Camotán since the trial?
The four families have learnt to empower themselves. We hope the community learns from them and also claim their rights.

Have the changes been institutionalized?
Rights are still being violated, but worse as now they’re violating the sentence.

Will you take more cases to court?
Not at this time. We want the verdicts to be complied with and a new protocol established.

Photo via Flickr