"The idea of going in and actually representing clients in court, and, of course, treating their social needs as well ... [to] not only to assist the individual but really to start improving the justice system and show that something works, that you can actually achieve justice in these cases where only 2 percent of cases are ever prosecuted successfully, just seemed like a really interesting challenge," says Rawlings. "And it's pretty audacious."
He says he was impressed with the courage and toughness of his staff, particularly in light of the injustices they had experienced in their own lives.
"Everybody on my team has been robbed, at least," he says, "I had one who had a kidnapping in the family."
He says one of his lawyers had suffered the death of her father, a professor, who was gunned down outside her home in 1981 when the government was killing suspected leftists.
As an example of his staff's courage, Rawlings recalls a case that started after the office received a credible report that children were being abused at their home.
His head social worker made plans to meet police and child welfare workers in a dangerous neighborhood, but she was the only one who showed up. Nonetheless, the petite woman faced down a crowd of angry relatives and plucked the children out anyway, says Rawlings.
He says he had to trust his staff, especially at first when, despite an immersion course, his Spanish was shaky. In the beginning, he often found himself simply saying "muy bien" when his staff, who insisted he communicate in Spanish, approached him with a question.
He says IJM had found that, although the system had major problems, there were well-meaning folks among the official government players.
"What we were doing in Guatemala was, more than anything else, making sure that those people who had enough courage to report a case of sexual abuse got the support that they needed to be protected to get out of a bad situation, to get the therapy they needed and, really, to prosecute the offender," Rawlings says.
Despite high crime rates in the country, Rawlings says he wasn't ever afraid. He recalls considering a visit to the neighborhood Pizza Hut one year for his birthday. Luckily he opted for sushi, instead: When he returned home from dinner, he learned that security guards had been killed in a shooting at the pizza place while he was out.