In the summer of 2012, Jessica Lewis (class of 2013) participated in the Inter-American Summer Program in Antigua, Guatemala. While in Guatemala, Lewis heard about the office of the Procurador de los Derechos Humanos (Human Rights Ombudsman), and applied for a volunteer position in the office that focuses entirely on human rights violations.
In August of 2013, immediately after successfully sitting for the Washington State bar exam, Jessica moved to Guatemala City, Guatemala and began working in the Averiguaciones Especiales (Special Inquiries) office.
In her position at the Procurador de los Derechos Humanos (PDH for short), Lewis works in the Forced Disappearances unit, along with seven other attorneys.
“I am charged with the job of researching about people who were abducted during Guatemala’s Internal Armed Conflict, which took placed from approximately 1978-1996. Between these years, thousands of people disappeared, usually connected with student university organizations, political or religion affiliations, or labor unions.” Explains Lewis, “with enough evidence, my office formally charges and prosecutes people who are believed responsible for the abduction (and presumed execution) of these ‘disappeared’ people.”
In 2005, over 80 million pages of military documents were discovered in an abandoned military hospital. A search of the city later revealed about four other locations of military records, which have since been transferred to what is now called the Archivo Histórico de Policía Nacional located in Guatemala City.
“Although I am not licensed to practice as a lawyer in Guatemala, I play an integral role in my office. I spend my days here piecing together the last months, weeks, days, and even hours of someone’s life before they ‘disappeared’ by sorting through declassified Guatemalan military documents. In addition to investigating military documents, I interview witnesses, often scared family members who witnessed loved ones being taken by military personnel. Their stories include the fact that during that time period,, they had nowhere to turn since the police and military were often behind the disappearance of their loved ones. This evidence plays a vital role in making formal charges.”
Gaining International Experience
While in law school, Lewis served as President of Mission: Possible, a service trip to the Dominican Republic, studied international human rights with the Gonzaga Florence program, as well as acting as Associate Editor of the Gonzaga Journal of International Law. This international experience has carried over to her current position, where Lewis is the only American lawyer working in her unit.
“Although Guatemalan law vastly differs from American law, my time here has proven an invaluable experience that I am confident is making me a better lawyer. Learning new laws, researching foreign case law, interviewing witnesses, working with cases – all in a foreign language – has not only improved my listening skills, increased my patience and understanding of dealing with difficult cases, it has given me a rare and unique opportunity to work and learn from foreign attorneys. This not only includes learning from Guatemalan attorneys, but also licensed attorneys from Canada and France. I have witnessed international cooperation, including the signing of international conventions, as well as the signing of inter-country conventions working towards social justice.”
Volunteering To Work For Justice
Though the PDH position is a competitive one, it is not paid. Lewis has used up her savings to fund the six months she has volunteered in Guatemala. “I have kept my living expenses as low as possible, around $600 per month. I would very much like to stay on and do this work, and I am trying to find ways to fund at least six more months.”
While in Guatemala, Lewis is also working on writing Law Review articles about her experiences and the work of PDH, though the work is much more than merely academic. “While some feel that people should ‘forget’ the past and just move forward, countless numbers of families cannot move forward without knowing what happened to their loved ones and my office provides that road to answers and justice, even if it is over twenty years later.” For more information about Lewis’s experiences in Guatemala, email her at email@example.com.