How One Woman’s Death Illuminated an Infrastructure of Violence : A Review of Textures of Terror: The Murder of Claudina Isabel Velásquez and Her Father’s Quest for Justice
In Textures of Terror: The Murder of Claudina Isabel Velásquez and Her Father’s Quest for Justice, Victoria Sanford, human rights advocate and professor of anthropology, analyzes the devastating events surrounding the murder of Claudina Isabel Velásquez, a 19-year-old Guatemalan law student, in 2005. The book follows her father, Jorge Velásquez, through his protracted and frustrating pursuit of justice for his daughter. Through this compelling account of violence in Guatemala, Sanford illuminates complex layers of conflict and post-conflict dynamics, shedding light on the multifaceted nature and history of everyday terror, violence, and trauma experienced by women in Guatemala. In addition to her close interactions with Claudina’s family and powerful emotional and scholarly investment in undertaking extensive ethnographic research, Sanford also succeeds in providing a comprehensive political and cultural assessment of the state-sanctioned violence against women that continues to plague Guatemalan society.
The book interrogates the mechanisms by which legal and communal systems foster, facilitate, and entrench patriarchal norms and behaviors. These deeply ingrained phenomena manifest as widespread gender-based violence. Sanford shows that the endemic violence against women is enabled by historical dynamics and institutional structures that shield male perpetrators allowing them to violate with impunity.
Sanford locates the murder of Claudina Isabel Velásquez in a broader historical context, charting the history of violence against women in Guatemala. Prior to Spanish colonization, Guatemala was inhabited by indigenous peoples, including the Maya civilization. The Spanish arrived in the early 16th century, and subjected the indigenous population to harsh labor, brutal oppression and various forms of violence.
Following an armed struggle, Guatemala gained independence from Spain in 1821. In the 20th century the country experienced political upheavals, civil wars, and conflicts, most notably the Guatemalan Civil War, between 1960-1969. The Guatemalan Civil War was characterized by brutal government repression, human rights abuses, and violence against indigenous populations, particularly women.
Ongoing cycles of violence kept indigenous communities in a perpetual state of conflict. In addition to the colonial, post-colonial and civil war dynamics, the roots of this form of violence are arguably most found in the genocidal period of terror known as “La Violencia”. During the 1980s and 1990s, indigenous communities were targeted by state-sponsored genocidal violence. The government developed a brutal preemptive strategy to combat “anti-government” guerillas. The state launched a ‘scorched earth’ campaign, that emphasized violence against women, characterized by systematic burning, torture, rape, and terrorization of Guatemala’s indigenous population, forcing them into submission. A shared characteristic of conflict-torn societies, Guatemalan women were the most vulnerable to the ravages of “La Violencia” and its aftermath.
Sanford’s critique stretches beyond national boundaries. She explores the role of the United States in directing regional dynamics starting from the role the U.S. government played during the period referred to as the “La Violencia”, in the treatment of Guatemalans seeking refuge from violence in the U.S., all in service of American regional hegemony.These interventions enabled and emboldened the ongoing violence and impunity for perpetrators.
Sanford aptly refers to survivors of this period as “children of genocide” who “experienced their government intending their death and destroying their culture”.
Systems and Norms of Violence
Sanford shows how violence is rooted in the practices and laws of the state and society profoundly steeped in patriarchal traditions and oppressive systems. For example, phrases like “andaba en algo” (“she was into something”) and “es la ley” (“it’s the law”) are tragically common responses conveyed to victims and their families as they seek and fail to receive justice within the impunity-oriented and victim-blaming system. Multiple generations have grown up amidst this omnipresent violence and its lingering aftermath. Today, Guatemala has one of the highest national rates of femicide worldwide.
Women’s Lived Experiences of Violence
Given the landscape of direct and structural violence, in both public and private spheres, Guatemalan women are deprived of important forms of power and agency.
In addition to her analysis of Velásquez’s murder, Sanford explores this reality through narratives of numerous other Guatemalan women. Women are not only direct victims of intrafamilial violence that breeds the broader epidemic of gender-based violence, but are also ensnared in the web of “bureaucratic proceduralism” that justifies and enables further violence. Their sole recourse is often dependent on the actions of incompetent government officials who operate with impunity and prioritize the concept of “victim precipitation” which effectively blames women for the violence visited upon them. These poignant stories stand as examples of the lived experiences of women in Guatemala and are interwoven with the overarching narrative of Jorge Velásquez’s struggle to find justice for his daughter. As they enter the judicial system, women are left more vulnerable to further harms, even as they seek justice, given the lack of any real protection from the “bureaucratic proceduralism” not just in Guatemala, but across similar societies around the world.
Successes and Ongoing Challenges
In his pursuit of justice for Claudina, Jorge ultimately sued the state of Guatemala for failing to protect his slain daughter and brought attention to the violence of Guatemala at an international level. Ultimately, Jorge’s protracted struggle culminated in 2015, finding resolution in the proceedings and judgment of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The Court affirmed that the state of Guatemala failed to protect Claudina. The court’s ruling included recommendations to continue investigations into the murder, and ordered reparations to Claudina’s family. It called for transforming policy and procedures, with the aim to protect Guatemalan women.
While the court’s ruling challenged the state of Guatemala, the ruling’s tangible impacts within Guatemala remain limited, and Claudina’s killer remains at large. The irony and historical circularity in these procedures is striking. People with historic privilege and power who are far removed from the realities of these communities and women were again empowered to make profoundly significant rulings about the violations of human rights and murder of a young woman, another murdered member of a marginalized community. These contemporary hegemons are the descendants of the elite, white ruling class that historically perpetuated such violations against these same indigenous communities.
However, Jorge finally gained a platform to share Claudina’s story and confront the Guatemalan government, which had to face the accusations leveled against it; the biases, the incompetency, the discrimination, and the violence were exposed for the world to see. Following the court’s ruling, very little has changed in Guatemala. But, as Sanford acknowledges, justice is not easy, and, much like Jorge’s memories of Claudina, it is a bittersweet pursuit.
While Sanford’s work effectively explores the emotional and psychological dimensions of conflict, a more in-depth treatment of the geopolitical and economic factors underpinning violence would have enriched its scope. That said, Sanford succeeds in shining a bright and critical light on gender-based violence in Guatemala.
There are no easy solutions to such violence. In fact, even given the significant findings of the Court, the conclusion of Jorge’s quest for justice for Claudina was in many ways not satisfying, and Sanford acknowledges this. But readers are still left with a bit of hope, knowing that there are people like Jorge that continue the struggle for justice.
In spite of the dark and heavy issues addressed in Textures of Terror: The Murder of Claudina Isabel Velásquez and Her Father’s Quest for Justice, the book is both engaging and accessible. Grounded in meticulous fieldwork, including interviews with individuals directly affected by violence in conflict-ridden regions, the book introduces fresh insights into violence perpetrated against women. It centers the emotional and psychological ramifications of violence against women. The insights from Claudina Velásquez’s murder, Jorge Velásquez’s pursuit of justice, and the book’s analysis of the historical and contemporary contexts, can add critical new emphasis for conflict resolution, human rights advocacy, and ethnographic research.
Staff Writer: Ankita Aggarwal is pursuing a Master of Public Administration degree at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, concentrating in Economic and Political Development and specializing in Gender and Public Policy. Ankita previously worked in the development sector in India with different national and international organizations engaging with issues of development politics, militarisation and policy implementation in diverse contexts.
Guest Writer: Jesus Narvaez is a vice president in the legal department of an international investment bank where his work focuses primarily on debt capital markets. Jesus earned his J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School where he served as Executive Articles Editor for the Michigan Journal of Race & Law and externed with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center as an interpreter for asylum applicants from Central America, Africa and the Caribbean and helped prepare related briefs and applications.
 Victoria Sanford,Textures of Terror: The Murder of Claudina Isabel Velásquez and Her Father’s Quest for Justice, (University of California Press,2023), 54.
 Susanne Jonas, "The Battle for Guatemala," Westview, 1991.
 Victoria Sanford, Textures of Terror, 50.
 Victoria Sanford, Textures of Terror, 55-56.
 Victoria Sanford, Textures of Terror, 65.
 Victoria Sanford, Textures of Terror, 46.
Victoria Sanford, From Genocide to Feminicide: Impunity and Human Rights in Twenty-First Century Guatemala, June 14, 2008, Journal of Human Rights 7: 104-122, https://doi.org/10.1080/14754830802070192