By Claudine Boeglin and Katie Nguyen
LONDON (TrustLaw) - Desperate to belong among the "homies" - the young men prowling her slum in Guatemala City - Alma did what she had to do to join their gang.
She killed someone. She was just 15.
Describing her "baptism" in the gang, Alma said she was given the choice - to be beaten "like a man" or to be raped. She chose to be beaten.
"I didn't want to be seen as a weak woman," she said.
For the next five years, Alma belonged to Guatemala's most feared maras, or gangs responsible for murders, extortions, rapes and robberies.
She only left after being so badly beaten by a boyfriend, another gang member, that she miscarried their baby. But Alma paid a heavy price for escaping. She was shot by her homies and paralysed.
Her story of brutality and redemption is told in an extraordinary web documentary, "Alma: A Tale of Violence".
The winner of this year's World Press Photo multimedia prize for an interactive documentary, allows viewers to navigate between photos, illustrations and Alma's sometimes too intense testimony of life in the mara.
It also tries to answer why violence is endemic in Guatemala, a country with one of the world's highest murder rates, by featuring background material on the 1960-1996 civil war that killed 250,000 people and left deep scars in the Central American nation.
On the eve of International Women's Day, which this year focuses on violence against women, TrustLaw spoke to Miquel Dewever-Plana, a photographer who met Alma and eventually convinced her to tell her story.
Q: What sparked your interest in Guatemala’s gangs?
A: I had just finished a big project on the armed conflict in Guatemala, and wanted to understand how and why this country was sucked into this "other war". A war in time of peace that created as many victims as in the 1980s. How did this country come to that point? How could the government not have anticipated this violence? Why didn't it address the major social and economic injustices which had already triggered a war leaving 250,000 victims? How could it sacrifice an entire generation on the altar of power and money? So many questions pushed me to start this project at the end of 2007.
Q: How did the project start?
A: I first wanted to meet the youths, members of gangs called maras, who are without a doubt the most extreme expression of violence. I finally spent five months in prison with them, six days a week, from 9 am to 5 pm. They only gave me permission to photograph and document their stories after two months - which gave me time to better understand their world, and little by little, to build a relationship of trust.
Listening to their testimonies, I understood, without necessarily justifying their acts, that before becoming murderers they were themselves victims of a multitude of violence – physical, social, economic and cultural - which planted in their hearts a seed of enormous hatred against everything and everyone. I asked myself what I would have done if I was born in their place, and if I had suffered all this violence? I changed my point of view and, rather focusing exclusively on them, I thought it more fitting to show all these forms of violence. Because all these youths were doing, was holding up a mirror in which no one dared look.
Q: Why did you choose a female character?
A: Very soon after, I was interested in having the insight of a woman marera in this world of men. With the help of a psychologist friend who works for a reintegration programme for ex-mareros, I was able to meet Alma. During our first encounter – in a public space for security reasons - I could immediately detect her strength of character. She moved me. We stayed in contact. In this universe of darkness, her beauty and smile were shining. Alma is a curious mix of fragility and strength, of innocence and cruelty, of fragility and inflexibility.
I wanted to tell her story to personify this lost generation. I mentioned it to the journalist Isabelle Fougère and, initially, we had the idea of a non-fiction book. Surprised by our proposal, Alma needed time to think about it...a period of reflection which lasted a year and a half.
Q: To what extent does Alma represent other girls in the maras?
A: Alma chose the opposite of what is imposed on women in Guatemala by its machismo society. A Guatemalan woman's destiny, like that of her mother and sisters, is to be submissive and battered. She chose not to be prey, desired but despised. She chose not to be only a vagina and a belly for which to bring children into a world without a future. For Alma, there is no alternative but to become a predator in order to no longer be a victim, to inflict pain rather than to suffer. Besides, like the other girls, Alma has no positive male figure to look up to. Her father died when she was 11, and was an archetype of the men in her universe - violent and alcoholic.
Q: What was the most unexpected part of Alma's tale?
A: The most surprising and disturbing thing about her story is how this little girl is capable of killing another woman. She does it for the love of her gang, to receive the love she never experienced at home. She killed to be born again in the heart of a new family which gave her everything she never had before: affection, camaraderie, a father figure who was authoritarian and responsible, who imposed values and rules on the members of his gang, which if not respected, could lead to death.
Alma first runs away from the gang to escape from a violent marero lover. But after two years of exile in the United States, she decides to return to her gang because the loss is unbearable. It's a disturbing aspect - the addiction, to the kind of power that can give or take a life. Alma's persona is ambivalent. We aren't sure really if we should admire her, hate her, or love her. We see a human with her contradictions, her dark sides, and her desire for a better life. Yes, she is a murderer who committed barbaric acts in cold blood. She is also the victim of a system and a heritage, which has from the Spanish colonisation to the armed conflict of the 1980s, led to populations being dominated, excluded and massacred. Without condoning her, I have a lot of affection for Alma, but I never forget what she's done and I don't excuse any of her acts.
Q: What do you think of the finished product?
A: I wasn't familiar with the world of the Internet. But it's the world of the younger generations and that's primarily the audience we wanted to reach. So the concept of a webdoc was an obvious one.
Alexandre Brachet, the founder and producer of Upian, was immediately moved by the story and by Alma, and there is no doubt he must have felt the potential her testimony along with 15 years of reportage, could bring to an online installation. But from the start, I refused to have it turned into a kind of video game. I wanted the interface to be as sober as possible, to become an educational tool.
Alma gets us to experience a life without roots. Alma is of Indian origins and her parents are Mayan who migrated to the city. Alma grew up in a slum, marginalised, discriminated against for being a woman, poor and Indian. While filming her, I was thinking of the thousands of young people born in France of immigrant parents who faced problems integrating, and have no future and hope.
Q: What was Alma's response to the film? Are you hopeful for her future? Is she safe now?
A: Alma has started a journey towards redemption. She wants to relieve her conscience and needs to find a new reason for living. She is lucid about her past and is looking to build a new Alma. Her testimony was part of this process, despite the risks taken. Her wish is to be able to save other kids who may be on the verge of making a similar choice to the one she took at just 15 - a choice that can only lead to prison or the cemetery. In spite of that, watching the documentary felt like a test of her strength. She was overcome by guilt and shame. But today she feels very proud, probably for the first time in her life, to have taken such a decision and participated in the project.
Since she decided to join the gang, she’ll be in danger for a long time. Her testimony just adds to the danger. Today she lives very far from her neighborhood and just finished her high school exams. She dreams of going to university to become a psychologist, for her experience to serve other kids so that they do not repeat the same mistakes.