“ Paola was a very cheerful girl, loving, loved by all her family and full of dreams.”
This is what Petita Albarracín describes her daughter, Paola Guzmán, a young Ecuadorian woman who wanted to take her life after learning about her pregnancy as a result of the sexual abuse she suffered for two years in her school.
As alleged responsible, Ecuadorian authorities investigated Bolivar Espín, who was then vice-rector of the Martínez Serrano school, where Guzmán went in Guayaquil
Guzman, on the other hand, did not pass 16, the age he was on December 12, 2002, when he took white phosphorus pills or “devils”, as they are known in Ecuador, to take his life.
Devils, which are used in pyrotechnics, contain a very toxic chemical and with a high chance of causing death if ingested.
Her mother, family and friends wanted to save her after the toxic intake, but a succession of cover-ups and omissions caused Paola to lose her life.
After 18 years and without guilt, Paola’s case came to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) as the first on sexual violence in the educational context.
In its June ruling, the IACHR “found the State of Ecuador responsible for the sexual violence suffered by Guzman.”
And in compliance with it, the Ecuadorian government finally publicly recognized those responsibilities on December 9, 2020.
“ We are today to remember with regret something that should never have happened, but it happened 18 years ago. We are here to repair what is the responsibility of the State, although I know something about the deep pain caused by an inefficient system,” said Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno at a public ceremony that was attended by Paola’s mother.
“ We know that nothing will suffice to calm the suffering that claimed the life of Paola Guzmán Albarracín, his youth and dreams the whole country keeps in its heart. He committed suicide because of the then government’s neglect and the inefficiency of justice. The culprit was never punished. Everyone failed when a girl asked for help, I recognize the State’s responsibility for the violation of her rights,” said the president.
In its judgment, the court found that the facts that led to Paola’s suicide had been based “on the abuse of a relationship of power and trust.”
“ This is apparent, in particular, given the points that the acts with sexual implications that the Vice-Rector developed with Paola began as a condition for him to help her pass the school year,” adds the ruling.
The Court concluded that the State of Ecuador was responsible for the violation of the rights to life, personal integrity, the protection of honor and dignity, education; and for failure to comply with its obligations to prevent acts of violence against women in the tort of Paola; in addition to other crimes in tort of violence against women; his mother and sister.
But in addition to public recognition of responsibility, the IACHR ordered the State of Ecuador to provide psychological or psychiatric treatment to both and compensation, among other measures of reparation.
During the public tribute to Paola, there was also a public reading of Decree 1205, which provided for measures to protect and care for Ecuadorian children against all kinds of sexual violence and neglect caused by such situations.
Who was Paola?
Paola Guzmán lived with her little sister, mother and grandmother in a suburb of the Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil in the early 2000s.
“ We had a quiet life. There was a lot of love and values,”Petita described in a hearing at the IACHR in January.
“ I have been a mother and father to my daughters. I had to work hard so they don’t lack anything,” said the mother.
Among Paola’s projects was meeting New York, where her aunt lived, and finishing high school.
“ I wanted to be a secretary so I could work in a good company,”the mother tells BBC Mundo.
But in October 2002, Petita began to notice changes in Paola.
“ My daughter, what is happening to you? Do you have a problem?”I was asking him.
“ ‘No, mommy, ‘and he was joking me,” he said.
“ But I realized (that something was happening) through some sores that came out (on his body). The doctor told me it was psoriasis, that the disease sprouts when someone has problems or concerns,” he described.
The woman said she met the school’s vice-rector when Paola had a low grade on an exam and accompanied her daughter to talk to Bolivar Espín, because they were giving opportunities to students with low grades.
“ I told him I could put a teacher at home, but I think he didn’t like it. Then it didn’t help her,” Petita said at the hearing.
The tragic day
On December 12, 2002, the phone rang at the Guzmán Albarracín house. A niece from Petita was taken care of. Suddenly his eyes turned red.
“ What is it?”, asked the woman.
“ A partner called that Paola had something and let us go to school fast. With my nephews, we took a taxi and went. There was a group of girls outside crying and commenting, but I followed the rector’s house to see my daughter. And there I saw my daughter lying in an alley in an armchair. At that time the vice-rector came up and said to me, ‘Take your daughter and take her away, ‘” said Petita almost on the verge of crying.
“ ‘Mommy, mommy forgive me! ‘I hear what she says to me.”
Paola could barely walk from pain and decided to take her to the hospital. According to the family, the young woman had not received medical care at school.
“ In the hospital the doctor says to me, ‘Madam your daughter took devils, ‘” said Petita.
Devils are lit by a violent scraping and used at folk festivals. If ingested in quantity, they can be fatal.
These pills contain inorganic white phosphorus in an average concentration of 20 milligrams per tablet, a dose 50 to 60 mg is lethal, experts explained in the Court.
Paola took 11 pills.
“ This was a serious, fast-evolving case leading to a multi-organ failure,” said one of the experts at the hearing.
Ecuador’s medical community has been warning about the dangerousness of this product decades since it is easily accessible and young people use it to attempt suicide.
“ As my daughter must have been desperate to have taken the devils,” Pepita reflected.
“ Why did you do it?”
The family decided to take Paola to a private clinic. But the state of health of the young woman worsened.
“ Mommy said to me bathe me, give me water… (white phosphorus) was already burning her. And I couldn’t do anything,” Petita said with a distressed voice.
“ I was asking him,‘Why did you do it? Any lovers? What happened? ‘ No, Mom, it’s nothing,” recalled the mother crying in the courtroom.
“ The next day my sister realizes that her nails are purple and she yells at me: Paola is dying!”
She was taken to intensive care. Paola died on December 13, 2002.
After 18 years of that tragic event that completely changed her life, Petita Albarracín recalled in the court-IDH room the same pain and crying that day, and how she learned the truth.
“ We were at the clinic with all her teammates and a journalist comes in screaming, ‘Who is Paola’s mom? Madam, you have to report Bolivar Espín, the vice-rector, because a partner called me and told me everything. This man harassed her, raped her and pregnant her, ‘” he narrated.
“ I was surprised to learn about so many things that were happening to my daughter. I told the doctor to take a test to see if my daughter was pregnant,” he continued.
But Paola’s body was already in the hands of forensics and they would be responsible for determining whether the young woman was pregnant.
“ No matter what pain I felt, (the coroner) got me in and I saw my daughter on a naked table and with her body all open, her organs there… He taught me a meat and said to me, ‘This is his daughter’s womb, there is no pregnancy, ‘” Petita said with a short voice.
“ In the middle of my pain, how could I know if that was a uterus?”, the mother wondered. “My daughter was pregnant because I showed a test from a particular laboratory to her partner,” she added.
Petita says that days before her death Paola told her friends that she was pregnant with the vice-rector. But things would go worse for the young girl.
“ The perpetrator told him that an abortion should be performed in the school’s medical service, there he was again the victim of sexual violence because the doctor conditioned the procedure in exchange for sex,” according to the Center for Reproductive Rights and the Ecuadorian Center for Action and Promotion of Women CEPAM-Guayaquil, organizations that provide legal support to Petita.
“ The abuse my daughter had was lived there (at school). The rector, the authorities, the teachers, the students, the colleagues knew it, and they didn’t tell me anything. Theyall knew them, “the mother lamented.
Paola left two farewell letters: one addressed to her mother and another to Bolivar Espín.
“ The one who addresses me says: ‘Mommy, mommy, forgive me, take care of my nana (grandmother) that I will take care of you from heaven. ‘”
After reading both letters, the mother claimed that her daughter suffered because of Espín.
“ He abused his trust. She might see him as a superior, like a teacher. But he abused, manipulated her. My daughter was 16 years old and this man was 65. That’s not love. When she was lying there he had to threaten her so she wouldn’t tell us anything. That she took him to the grave,” he resumed.
For this Ecuadorian woman, her daughter’s death not only crumbled her life but she had to go out to seek justice with the few resources she had. And it wasn’t easy for him.
Paola’s death “collapsed my life.”
“ I was a poor woman. I had to look for lawyers. I went to the Ombudsman’s Office, they supported me for two months and left me abandoned,” he said.
“ It was a terrible struggle. I did everything I could to send him prisoner: I went to the prosecution, to the courthouse… there was a lot of humiliation. They didn’t take care of me and the papers threw them away. ‘There’s going to be no justice here, I can’t be here, ‘I thought.”
In 2003, an investigation was initiated in the Guayas prosecutor’s office in western Ecuador, where Petita’s defense requested Espín’s pre-trial detention, but the judge denied the request.
That same year, the mother filed a second lawsuit against the vice-rector for moral damage in the face of her daughter’s incitement to suicide.
In 2004, the court issued a pre-trial detention order against Bolivar Espín, but he escaped. He was then called to trial for the crimes of sexual harassment and incitement to suicide. However, it also did not appear.
In 2005, he was sentenced to pay US$25,000 in compensation for the moral damage claim filed by Paola’s mother. But Espín continued not to be brought to justice until the crimes charged against him were prescribed.
Only in the administrative sphere was a sanction for abandonment of office as vice-rector.
“ We exhaust all instances. I did what a mother can do most. Unfortunately, justice was not done in Ecuador,” Petita said.
“ He is free and alive, not my daughter. He works in private schools where they don’t know him,” he said.
And apparently the case of the abuse of Paola wasn’t the only one.
“ It became known that teenagers who were abused by this gentleman who had to be changed schools and their families did not want to tell what happened,” Lita Martínez, director of the Ecuadorian Center for the Promotion and Action of Women (CEPAM) in Guayaquil and a lawyer for Petita, told BBC Mundo.
But when Paola’s story was known, other cases began to be heard, although there were no complaints in the justice system.
“ A teacher had informed the education authorities that this man had locked her in a room, touched her body, harassed her, but nothing was done. There was an accomplice silence from all the authorities,” Martinez summarized.
Change of life
“ This man destroyed the life of my daughter, mine, and my family,” Petita described at the IACHR.
“ It was such a tough fight that I didn’t want to go on anymore, but I had to. I found good lawyers to keep fighting because my daughter was a victim,” he added.
Petita Albarracín together with CEPAM in Guayaquil filed the case with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights because they did not find the justice they sought in Ecuador.
“ We were in a friendly settlement agreement with Ecuador for many years but we could not move forward because there was always some setback,” said Martínez, who represents Petita Albarracín since 2005.
“ When there is impunity and there is no justice, a message of permissiveness is left so that these types of actions can be completely naturalized, endorsed, allowed and continue to be part of the daily life that women live in all Latin American countries,” he said.
During the IDH court hearing, Ecuador apologized to Pepita Albarracín and his other daughter, Denis.
“ As a representative of the State, I offer Ms. Petita Albarracín and Denis Guzmán public apologies for those actions or omissions by the Ecuadorian State that have caused violations of Paola Guzmán’s rights,” said María Fernanda Alvarez, counsel representing the State of Ecuador.
He also expressed his apologies “for those actions or omissions of the Ecuadorian State that have generated violations of its rights in the search for truth and recognition.”
However, the representatives of Ecuador did not recognize responsibility in the case of Paola. Something the defense got a lot of attention.
“ Offering a public apology and then not recognizing responsibility for the facts is at least contradictory. It caused us a lot of outrage,” Martinez told BBC Mundo at that time.
“ With his own experts he allowed us to clarify that there was a lack of attention to Paola, that having happened otherwise there was a probability, albeit minimal, that Paola was still with us,” he added.
At that time, Petita expressed her hope that the Court would do “what my Ecuador has not done because I was not given protection. There was no justice.”
“ I leave it in God’s hands and in his heart,” he looks at the judges in the eyes.
“ This is not going to return to my daughter. I ask for justice and reparation. I’m tired and sick psychologically. This is the last thing I do for Paola,”Petita said then.
And, finally, his efforts were rewarded this December 9.
“ Today I finally cleaned my daughter’s name and she recognizes it as she is: a victim. Today we can remember Paola as a cheerful girl, laughing, full of aspirations,” she said.
“I receive the apology from the Ecuadorian State on behalf of me and my daughter, although nothing or anyone can return my Paola,” he concluded.
One day later Paola would have turned 34.
* This article was originally published on January 30, 2020 and updated for the first time on August 16, 2020 following the publication of the judgment of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. It was updated again on December 10, 2020 after the Ecuadorian government assumed its responsibility.