It could have been me

Jenni Murray on Marielos Monzón

A courageous radio presenter puts her life on the line to draw att

Marielos Monzón rises early at her home in Guatemala City, gets her children ready for school and leaves for her job as a radio presenter. There any similarities with my routine end. While I may suffer the occasional brickbat, Marielos's reporting on human rights and the treatment of women puts her and her family in danger.

She tells me how in the past six years almost 2,500 women and girls have been murdered. Most were found mutilated - without arms, head or legs. They had been tortured and most had also been raped. Terrorising women is a tried and tested formula, effective in frightening communities and suppressing dissent.

When in 1996 the peace accords were signed, hope returned to Guatemala. A US-backed coup in 1954 had led to years of repression and the most violent and least reported civil war in Latin America. Acts of genocide against the indigenous population and left-wing insurgents were carried out by paramilitary death squads. Marielos's father, a human-rights lawyer, was murdered by a death squad in 1981. She was aged ten.

Her radio show gives a voice to the people no one else wants to talk about - the families of murdered women; rural women whose livelihoods are threatened by the Central American Free Trade Agreement; and other victims of the conflict. She calls them all Guatemalan heroes. She talks of communities destroyed by Hurricane Stan last year, and how the government gave no help.

The threats began in 1998. They come and go. At the moment she is "just" followed and her mobile phone calls and e-mails are intercepted. In the past, the intimidation has reached terrifying levels: on one occasion armed men forced their way into her house; on another occasion, in response to her coverage of the protests against the free-trade deal, a caller to her mobile threatened: "Stop defending those stinking Indians, you bitch, or we'll kill you."

At one point Amnesty helped her and her children leave the country, but they returned after three months. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has since forced the government to place guards outside her home and workplace. They offer some protection, but also make it hard for her to keep her sources secret.

The groups which carried out the terror have not been dismantled. Marielos says they still use their power against peasants, human-rights defenders and journalists. The paradox is that she believes that the same security forces designated to protect her may be the source of the threats against her. Her courage remains undaunted, however. Her father is clearly an inspiration. She loves her job and sees it as a way of continuing in her father's path.

Marielos thinks that her own children, as they grow older, have a better understanding of what drives her. Her daughter, who is nearly 15, wants to be a journalist, too. Her son, who is 12, told his teacher how proud he was of his mum, because she works for peace.

A year ago she won Amnesty's Special Award for Human Rights Journalism Under Threat. She is not sure if her international profile has given her protection, but says: "My children and the young people of Guatemala deserve a better life and I have to try with my work to fight for it."

Jenni Murray is a presenter of Radio 4's Woman's Hour and The Message

Next Article