Guatemalan women face the risk
of murder, rape, and unspeakable violence every day. The courageous
among them are fighting the climate of fear.
by Laura E. Asturias and Virginia
Amnesty International magazine,
Nancy Peralta had defied fate once as
a teenager: she survived falling from a bus teeming with passengers
and being dragged for two blocks. Although doctors told her she
might never walk again, she recovered and got back on her feet.
She returned to school, became an accountant and enrolled in state
college to become an auditor.
Death caught up to her viciously, when
she was 30 and palpably close to achieving her dream. On Feb.
1, 2002, her mother saw her off from their home in a gritty working-class
neighborhood in northern Guatemala City. The next time her family
saw Nancy was two days later at the morgue, her flesh perforated
with 48 stab wounds and covered with bruises. Her body had been
discovered in an empty lot in a slum in the southwest part of
the city, a few miles from San Carlos University-her college and
the place where she had been abducted.
Nancy was one of hundreds of women murdered
in Guatemala that year. The death toll in what some scholars have
called Guatemala's "feminicide" has exceeded 1,600 women
since 2001, according to the Guatemala City-based Non-Violence
Against Women Network. In comparison, 417 Mexican women have been
killed in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua since 1993. Yet while the
gruesome epidemic of murder in Mexico has prompted a global outcry,
the "feminicide" in Guatemala has received scant international
In June Amnesty International released
its report, No Protection, No Justice: Killings of Women in Guatemala,
presented in Guatemala City by Liliana Velázquez, president
of Al Mexico, and Yanette Bautista, Al's investigator of violence
against women. Bautista said the atmosphere of tolerance by the
state and societal indifference toward all forms of violence against
women contribute to the "feminicide." "This constant
threat of violence has affected women's freedom of movement, their
right to work in safe conditions and their right to the highest
level of physical and mental health," she said.
Guatemala City is the epicenter of danger,
according to police figures, which put roughly half of this year's
murder tally in the sprawling metropolis. As in Mexico, many of
the Guatemalan victims are poor working women of childbearing
age. Likewise, corpses found in both countries show unspeakable
signs of torture and sexual abuse. While the government blames
gangs and drug dealers, some have blamed severe gender inequity
for the killings in Guatemala, an explanation that echoes analyses
of the Juarez murders.
"Crimes against women reflect the
dangerous extremes that asymmetrical gender power relations have
reached in Guatemala," according to a study released in May
2004 by the opposition party Guatemalan National Revolutionary
Unity (URNG). "Women are considered the property of men,
who in fact or by right are legitimated to impose their will even
through violent means... with the certainty that they will not
be punished for it."
Sandra Sayas, head of the Office of the
Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Women, says her office receives
about 800 reports of domestic violence per month, with some ending
in murder. "Publicly, it has been repeatedly said that the
killings of women are related to gangs or drug dealing. This is
partly so, but most of the cases we investigated were related
to domestic violence. They could have been prevented, if I were
able to put the perpetrators in jail. But I can't."
Police and criminal justice officials
have publicly stated that they routinely investigate the murders.
But advocacy groups say the government has demonstrated a lack
of political will to deal with the crisis effectively. It is difficult
to fathom: 1,600 murders, but only six convictions to date, according
to Sayas, who says her office has initiated 68 arrests. In early
July, after the Amnesty report made headlines, the government
distributed a brochure in local newspapers that claimed it had
arrested 219 suspects for the murders of women-a discrepancy that
demonstrates the lack of consistent record keeping and communication
among government agencies.
The manner in which police investigators
determine crime motives is also inconsistent, to say the least.
The reports classify these crimes as "rape," "stray
bullet," "passion problems," and "personal
problems," among others. As many as 17 percent of the cases
were labeled "passion-motivated."
But as Hilda Morales, a lawyer and recipient
of the 2004 Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience award,
points out, "No legal text refers to 'passion' as the motive
of a crime." Describing such classification by the police
as "absurd and groundless," she attributed it to "a
sustained official position that seeks to justify the crimes."
"In the case of 'passion-motivated'
murders, it's the victim who gets blamed for what the perpetrator
did," she says.
The police classified the death of an
unidentified female found in 2003 as "passion-motivated,"
even though the only evidence was her skeleton, found on the bank
of a sewage channel in the town of Chinautla. "Passion"
was also listed as the motive in the death of 82year-old Olga
Estrada Bosch, who was strangled in her home in a middle class
enclave of Guatemala City, although there is scant information
in her file. No suspects were named in either case.
Many police reports are clearly deficient,
but some verge on preposterous. In 2003 Mirna Elizabeth Méndez,
19, died from gunshot wounds. The police report names her husband
as a suspect, yet it also states, "According to investigations,
the deceased had an argument with her husband, who then shot her
with a shotgun. Crime motive: Suicide."
Unfortunately, there are few other sources
of information about these murders. The police department is responsible
for the initial investigation of each case. Within 24 hours of
a crime, the police submit a report to the Public Ministry and
a second one 48 hours later. After this period, the police "only
investigate if so ordered by the public ministry," Morales
says. Obtaining a report from the ministry, says Morales, is "virtually
Justice officials and law enforcement
agents "simply file or dump the cases and later claim they
have no resources and therefore can do nothing," says Morales.
Worse yet, she says, "the Public Ministry's prosecutor does
not inspect his own staff."
Judicial indifference puts the official
seal of approval on impunity. Morales is serving as counsel for
the mother of Maria Isabel Véliz, who was murdered in 2001
at the age of 15. After futile attempts to obtain justice in local
courts, the victim's mother, Rosa Franco, finally brought the
case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)
in January 2005. The Public Ministry's foot-dragging reached the
point that the Presidential Commission on Human Rights has been
calling Morales, rather than the ministry, for updates on the
Domestic violence and sexual harassment
are not crimes according to Guatemalan law, and Congress has thus
far refused to incorporate them in the Penal Code, a measure that
has been proposed by several women's groups in the country, including
the Non-Violence Against Women Network. "The State of Guatemala
is responsible for the 'feminicide' by action and omission,"
says Congresswoman Alba Estela Maldonado, head of the opposition
party URNG. Moreover, public officials trivialize the murders
of women. President Oscar Berger once publicly said, "Only
8 percent of people murdered are women."
In February 2004 United Nations Special
Rapporteur Yakin Ertürk spent one week in Guatemala evaluating
the magnitude of violence against women. In contrast to the president's
blithe dismissal of the crimes, Ertürk said that the statistics
on violence against women in Guatemala "have surpassed those
of any other country I know."
While acknowledging that the number of
men killed is much higher, Ertürk said that female cases
"have a different dimension due to the way in which women
are killed: they are raped, mutilated, and this has a terrible
impact on women and society in general." She urged the authorities
to invest more effort in identifying and punishing the perpetrators.
When Susana Villarán, Special Rapporteur
on the Rights of Women for the IACHR, visited Guatemala in September
2004, she found that state agencies had scant resources to combat
violence against women. The Office of the Special Prosecutor for
Crimes against Women receives 1,500 reports of violence every
month. Yet at the time of Villarán's visit, the office
had only one prosecutor, eight aides and one vehicle to investigate
127 murder cases. In her final report, the rapporteur underscored
that for 13 percent of the women who reported domestic violence
to the office and were later murdered, the lack of response had
contributed to their deaths.
In Guatemala violent crime is rampant
and guns are everywhere. The report underscores "the notable
sense of insecurity that women in Guatemala feel today as a result
of the violence and the murders in particular." Indeed women
carry fear with them at every moment when they walk on the streets
of Guatemala City. That fear is excruciating and constant for
those women who ride public buses, for assaults are common on
public transportation. Passengers have recounted assailants ordering
the driver to turn off the lights and keep driving while they
force passengers to lie on the floor; the assailants then rape
or molest women and girls. Other attackers force women and girls
off the bus into empty lots, using knives or guns. Turning to
the police is not a safe option, since so many officers have been
implicated in violent crimes.
"The resulting effect of intimidation
carries with it a perverse message: that women should abandon
the public space they have won at much personal and social effort
and shut themselves back up in the private world," says the
Amnesty report, quoting Villarán. Sensational media reports
amplify the message by fostering negative stereotypes that blame
the victim. The country's two most popular tabloids, Nuestro Diario
and Al DIa, commonly label victims as gang members or fixate on
the victims' clothing in a way that insinuates that "indecent"
women deserve to die such terrible deaths.
The violence also bears a historical resonance
that has exhumed the collective trauma of Guatemala's recent past.
Some have compared the perpetrators' methods to those used against
women during the government's counterinsurgency operations throughout
the 36-year-long civil war that ended in 1996. During the U.S.-backed
"scorched earth" campaign, government troops and their
paramilitary allies routinely raped, tortured and murdered women
in order to destroy civilian communities suspected of leftist
The war left an untold number of women
suffering from the invisible wounds of widespread sexual violence
and torture, as well as legions of men bearing more visible scars.
Retired general EfraIn RIos Montt-the "intellectual author"
of the war crimes, according to some scholars-not only remains
free but was even president of Congress until 2004 and ran for
Guatemala's presidency in 2003. In fact, there have only been
a few trials and convictions to date for wartime crimes. As a
result, the nation's collective suffering remains raw because
most of the perpetrators are still at large.
In a grisly echo of wartime, the bodies
of women slain in recent years have shown signs of torture and
bullet wounds to the head. Maria Elena Peralta, who has been struggling
to get the authorities to investigate her sister Nancy's murder,
says, "It's like going back to those years of conflict, except
that now the war is lived at another level, in another space."
Some suspect that former and even current
security forces are indeed involved in the killings. After the
war, large numbers of former soldiers could not find jobs and
turned to organized crime. Many others got jobs at private security
agencies and still carry weapons. According to the government's
human rights ombudsman, more than ten policemen are prime suspects
in some of the murders, but they remain at large-even though the
ombudsman provided their names to the Ministry of the Interior
Nine years after the end of the civil
war, danger still pervades the daily lives of Guatemalan women.
Yet the violence has strengthened the resolve of those who are
fighting to re-establish women's most basic right to physical
safety. Guatemalan legislators-female and male-from various parties
joined lawmakers from Mexico and Spain to form the Interparliamentary
Network Against "Feminicide." The group met in May and
again in June to promote the harmonization of national legislation
with international law on women's rights; the legislators also
want lawmakers to classify violence against women as a crime against
Courageous individuals are also fighting
for justice, even as they are struggling to heal. Maria Elena
Peralta says that since her sister Nancy was murdered, "We
tried to move on with our lives, but the pain is always there;
it never goes away." Armed with little more than a barely
legible forensic report, Maria Elena, now 32 and a pediatric nurse,
has doggedly pursued the authorities, government officials and
activists to assist her efforts to find her sister's killer. Since
she began her efforts, she has received anonymous threatening
phone calls, been followed and was once assaulted by a man at
gunpoint near her home, in broad daylight. Undeterred, she is
going to law school "to see if this way I can get Nancy's
case to be investigated," she says. "And if it isn't,
then maybe other cases will be."
"I want to help other people. That's
precisely what's missing: solidarity from others. We should all
join together and help each other in order to put an end to all
Index of Website