Guatemala to Eliminate Mental Asylum, Improve Health System


By Ian Van Buren

In the 1960s, the United States began to replace its mental asylums with much improved community based psychiatric treatment facilities. Today, poorly operated mental asylums still exist around the world. In Guatemala, the country’s only public psychiatric institution is nothing short of a disaster.

In 2011, Disability Rights International began an investigation over the country’s mental asylum with help from local advocates. In October 2012, the group filed a scathing complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an arm of the Organization of American States, documenting widespread mistreatment of patients, including sexual assaults and exploitation, beatings, prolonged use of solitary confinement, deaths from infectious diseases and overdoses of psychiatric medication.

Donald Robas, a patient with paranoid schizophrenia, has witnessed much of the mistreatment and has described the activity of the patients and the asylum’s personnel; if a patient refuses their medication, they are beaten and then put into what is known as the “little room”, a cell where they are left in solitude. Women can be seen selling themselves for what equates to less than a dollar. “I see when they have sex for money,” he says. “To buy food.”

At first, the Guatemalan Health Ministry denied most of the allegations. Regardless, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found the charges credible and directed Guatemalan authorities to improve safety and health at the hospital immediately. A year of negotiations concluded in October with a groundbreaking agreement by Guatemala to overhaul hospital policies and restructure the country’s mental health system.

Guatemala has promised to establish a program that, within two years, will significantly reduce the population of those who are mentally ill or disabled serving in long-term institutions and relocate them to safer, community-based homes, such as those used in the United States. New inpatient psychiatric units are to be opened at general hospitals, while outpatient mental health care and support, including free medication, will be made available at dozens of community health centers throughout the country. Criminally charged psychiatric detainees will be separated from ordinary patients, and a law codifying substantial new legal protections for the mentally ill and disabled is to be introduced within a year.

“The government accepts that people with disabilities need to be integrated into the community. They recognize that the only way to make people safe is to get them out of the facility,” said Eric Rosenthal, executive director of Disability Rights International. “If we can do it in Guatemala, we can do it everywhere.”

Guatemala is certainly not the only country where abusive, problematic institutions still exist. In order for the issue to cease, citizens and human rights organizations must continue to work through the media to spread awareness in effort to help those who remain in distress.

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Ak’ Tenamit – a Guatemalan NGO

By: Abby Belongy

An NGO in Guatemala has an inspiring story.  In 1990, Steve Dudenhoefer was the owner of a successful business in southern Florida.  Many of his employees, Mayans from Guatemala, sent their entire paycheck back home.  To understand this, Dudenhoefer decided to visit Guatemala himself and learn more about the Mayan people (Q’eqchi) there.  When he saw the vast amount of people struggling and living in poverty, he sold his businesses and founded Asociación Ak’ Tenamit (New Village Association) in 1992.  Dudenhoefer remains active in the NGO today, but it is run by the Q’eqchi people.  All board members must be elected by their communities, and the board has to have an equal number of males and females.  Dudenhoefer is more directly involved in The Guatemalan Tomorrow Fund,  a U.S. non-profit that fundraises solely for Ak’ Tenamit.

The Q’eqchi people recognize that fighting poverty starts with improving education.  Therefore, a major focus of Ak’ Tenamit is education in the villages, and this is reflected in their young Board members, who are an average age of 23.  By providing girls with more access to schooling, Ak’ Tenamit has increased female enrollment in the village school by 400%. Education also goes beyond traditional schooling and aims to inform the community about issues such as gender violence, women’s rights, and HIV.  In addition to that, 100% of the 2009 graduate class from Ak’ Tenamit’s school are currently employed.

Students have also founded an additional NGO, Aprosarstun, which promotes environmental improvement.  These students help by replanting trees, installing wood-saving stoves, and giving presentations in communities and schools.  Because of its environmental work,  Ak’ Tenamit is the only civil society organization in Guatemala to have Permanent Observer Status to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change.

In its two decades of work, Ak’ Tenamit has already improved quality of life of the Q’eqchi people.  Having a Board run by the people keeps the village’s best interest in mind and assures that the money raised by The Guatemalan Tomorrow Fund benefits the indigenous people of Guatemala.

Watch this video to learn more about Ak’ Tenamit:

Guatemala Takes Steps to Protect Forests


Maya Biosphere Reserve in Petén

By: Abby Belongy

Guatemala has several social, political, and economic issues to deal with, but the country also has an abundance of natural resources worth protecting.  According to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Guatemala is one of the most ecologically diverse nations on the planet.  In the Americas, its forests are second only to the Amazon.  The important ecological regions of the country face common environmental problems such as deforestation, contamination, and climate change.

To combat these threats, Guatemala has teamed up with USAID in its Country Development and Cooperation Strategy (CDCS).  The plan is to use marketing and management strategies to promote conservation, increase the defense against climate change, and strengthen environmental governance.

The Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR) and the Sierra de las Minas Biosphere Reserve (SMBR) are considered important natural areas to continue protecting.  In addition to reducing forestation, the CDCS focuses on preserving habitats for scarlet macaws, monkeys, and jaguars in these regions.  Guatemala has the highest density of Jaguars in the world.  The nation also places an emphasis on reducing emissions as the best and most cost-effective way to positively impact climate change.

Efforts have also come from forest conservation groups created by citizens.  The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) awarded one of two Sasakawa Prizes to the Asociación Forestal Integral San Andrés in 2011.  The group focuses on both environmental and economic benefits, as they preserve the forest, especially the MBR, and also control the extraction of xate, a huge export for Guatemala.

While it seems Guatemala is taking strides in the right direction to protect its ecological haven, the nation needs to focus even more on the environmental efforts.  Many of Guatemala’s indigenous population lives off the forest and depends on it for shelter and survival, so the issue reaches far past ecology.  With corruption and major problems, such as poverty and drug trafficking, hitting Guatemala, the government can get preoccupied.  However, working with USAID is a good first step, and all plans must be continued and executed.