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Latin America

'My husband was killed while trying to murder me, and I went to jail.'

Lucia Sandoval was almost killed by her husband after she reported his abuse to authorities. During a struggle over a gun, he was shot and killed. After almost four years in pre-trial detention, Sandoval was acquitted. The Paraguayan woman studied law in prison and is now fighting to win back her children and help other victims.
8 Mar 2017 – 05:34 AM EST
Lucía Sandoval spent her years in prison studying law and now helps other victims of gender-based violence Crédito: Santi Carneri

ASUNCION, Paraguay – I thought my life was normal. We got married after my youngest son was born. We lived well. We didn't want for anything.

But then our relationship started to change.

He traveled a lot, and started to drink. He always had a strong character. At first, he was not physically violent, although he did abuse me verbally. Then that got worse. It started with pushing and yanking my hair, and then it turned brutal. People around me didn't know anything because I had very few friends. I stayed home almost all of the time. I lost contact with the outside world. I wound up alone, with my four-year-old daughter and a one-month-old boy. I was 36.

We had a lot of problems and I started to file complaints, but I always wound up withdrawing them. Sometimes even my mother would tell me to withdraw them because my mother-in-law had persuaded her. My mother came from the countryside, so she had a different view. I always wound up giving in, but in the end it just became too much.

I was born in Pucú Island, in the Cordillera province of Paraguay, about 55 miles from Asunción. Mi family lived in the countryside. My father was a farmer, but we moved to the capital when I was 15 because he was sick. After that, I worked to help my mother, why is why I only finished primary school. My father was the kind of man who said that women should stay at home and not go to school, because those who go out are “nosy.”

When I turned 18 I went to Buenos Aires to work as a nanny and send money to Paraguay. I met my former husband on one of those trips. I returned to Paraguay to continue my studies and eventually graduated at the top of my high school class. By that time we were already dating, and we moved in together.

My three-year-old son woke up one night when my husband was attacking me, and he tried to defend me. He hit his father with a slipper, and his father threw him against the wall. That was the final straw.

I filed a complaint. Five days later, they called me to the court and handed me a restraining order and told me to give it to my husband. They should not have asked me to do that, but I didn't know it at the time.

I handed him the notification, and I think that was detonator for what happened later. At first I thought he would refuse to leave the house. But two days later, on a Sunday, he left without keys. I was sure he would never return.

A fight turns violent

But he had another key. He came back at night. He went into the house and waited for me. The kids and I had been with a friend until late. If I had known he was there, I never would have gone in.

He was sitting in the shadows, listening to music, smoking and drinking beer. When I saw him, I ignored him. I took my sleeping children from the car and put them in their beds. When I went back to the car to get my purse, he was waiting for me in the kitchen. That's where the fight started.

He pushed me, and I saw that he had a gun in his waistband. He was furious over the court order. He said he was not leaving, that no one was going to force him out of his house, that he was going to discipline me because that's what I needed. And that if anyone was going to leave it would be me, but dead. He said that no one would miss me, that no one would care. He hit me in the chest. I fell down twice, but I got up.

I wanted to take away his gun, but he was stronger than me. During the fight a shot went off, and I didn't know whether it hit him or me. We were both covered in blood, but I never touched the gun.

When the shot went off, my daughter came out of her room and I shouted to her to call the neighbors. She witnessed her father bleeding, and I think that to this day she has not been able to erase that image.

He was bleeding a lot. I covered him with a t-shirt. I didn't think he was going to die. I only wanted to save him. We went to the hospital with his sister. I don't even remember parts of that trip.

When we got there and the doctor looked at him, he was already dead. I called my mother, because that was the only telephone number I could remember. Then the police and the prosecutors came in and tested me for gunshot residue. From there, all bloody and barefoot, they took me to the police station. That's the way my photo was published in the newspapers.

That's when I lost all contact with my children and never heard anything more about them.

'I was accused of killing someone'

They took me from the police station to the Buen Pastor jail two days later. They put me in a wing with 40 other women who treated me really well and even gave me a bed. I tried to pray because I am Catholic, but I could not remember the Our Father. I started it, but could not finish it.

Fifteen days went by and I was still shaking, not understanding what had happened. I was accused of killing someone. I couldn't eat. My mother fed me milk by the spoonful. That's how bad I was.

After a month they did a nitrite test that confirmed I did not kill him, and I felt better. I knew that I might have been the one killed. I never wanted him to die. I wanted him to leave, to move on with his life, to continue seeing me and his children.

I always say the government was to blame for what happened. Because I asked for help. I asked for help and nobody listened to me. Like many other cases, this could have been avoided. You ask for help, and you wind up in more danger because that's when he really gets mad. And who protects you? That's what happened with me.

I was in jail three years, seven months and 20 days. I got up seven days a week at 6 a.m., when they unlock the doors. I did everything possible to stay well. I tried to keep my sense of responsibility. I always thought that when I was free again, I would take care of my children first. I would have to take care of them, by myself.

My mother, the priests and jail mates were my main support. Jail was a disaster. A horrible place. An early punishment, because no one had decided whether I was innocent or guilty.

The case goes public

I recovered little by little. If I did nothing, I could have become depressed. So that same year I started to study law and I began running the library. I took all the training courses I could. I worked in the workshop. We even had fashion shows in the prison. I started to paint my fingernails. I never used to paint my nails red, because he said that only whores paint their nails red.

I began reading everything I wanted because we had a library. I started to follow the cases of some of the other women, as a volunteer for the Justice Ministry, and I do believe that helped to calm the atmosphere in the prison.

After three months in prison I was contacted by CLADEM (the Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defense of Women's Rights). They told me they knew about my case and wanted to look into it for a documentary, and I agreed. The video was shown in the prison, for everyone to see.

Only CLADEM knew about my case until December of 2013, when my trial was postponed. That happened two more times. Then the activist Elba Núñez sent my case to Amnesty International, and that's when it went public. I think the photos of me in prison helped my case. It had a snowball effect. It started a debate, and it put people in my position. The support was surprising.

What also helped was that the news media took a different approach to my case. They did it with respect, instead of the usual “crime of passion.” And that helped a lot to discuss the issues of family violence and feminicide.

The trial lasted more than a month. They asked for 25 to 30 years in prison. The plaintiff slandered me. She treated me like a menopausal drunkard. It was terrible to sit there, unable to defend myself.

I was panicked the day of the court ruling. My lawyers, Paula and Romina, held my hand as I cried and they whispered into my ear, “Pay attention. You will never forget this day.” I knew I was innocent, and I always thought that was enough. But now I am totally convinced that without all that support and visibility for my case, I was going to be convicted even though I was innocent. And that really scares me. How many cases like mine are there?

When I was acquitted, they took me back to the prison, where 500 inmates were waiting in the yard for a surprise goodbye.

A lifetime of activism

My first thought every day is my children, but I have not been able to see them. I have no relationship with them even now, although I hope that changes.

I am very anxious. I think too much time has passed. I don't know if I can recover these six years when I had no relation with my children. I think that when we start talking, they will get over this because they need their mother.

Over time, I shed my fears, finished college and returned to prison to work with the girls. I continued to work on rehabilitation programs, through a cooperative we started with another woman. And then Romina Rolón suddenly called me last September to join her law firm.

When I was in prison I promised to work to improve the laws, like the law for the protection of women, and I remain committed to that. I feel I was part of a little step in the right direction. Many women who have been victims of domestic violence now reach out to me. They contact me on Facebook, and I answer them.

I tell my story to help other women get up the courage to escape domestic violence, to tell them that they can overcome their situations.

I define myself as an activist lawyer. I want more women to join the fight for the rights of women. At some point I would like to get into politics, because I am convinced that change can only be brought about from a position of power. But that will be down the road. My priority right now is my children.

Interview and editing by Santi Carneri in Paraguay.