Unsolved killings terrorize women in Guatemala: Culture of impunity seen
Magical Sites: Women Travelers in 19th Century Latin America
Published by Boston Globe, 3/30/06
By Indira A. R. Lakshmanan
GUATEMALA CITY -- Police found the body of 17-year-old Andrea Fabiola Contreras Bacaro on June 12, 2004. She had been raped, shot, and abandoned in a garbage ditch. Her hands were tied behind her back and her throat was cut. Carved into her right leg was a terrifying message: ''Vengeance."
Her case is tragically common among more than 2,300 women killed in this small Central American country since 2001, according to official police figures, in an epidemic of unsolved murders. In each of the last six years, the number of women slain in Guatemala has risen steadily, more than tripling since 2000. Yet unlike the epidemics of drug and gang violence in Central America, authorities have devoted scant resources and spotty attention to the crisis.
Housewives, teenagers, and college students have disappeared and later been found naked, disemboweled, sexually mutilated, beheaded, and dumped in abandoned lots. Activists have dubbed the killings ''femicides" for the particularly grisly and often sexual violence inflicted on victims.
Women suffer a high risk of murder elsewhere in Latin America -- in Ciudad Juárez in Mexico, as well as in Colombia, Peru, and Brazil -- but nowhere has the rash of killings in the last several years been worse on a per-capita basis.
On March 8, the Guatemalan government established a national commission on ''femicide," composed of officials from the executive branch, the justice sector, congress, and the state statistical agency. Activists dismissed the panel, which was allocated some $500,000 to study the problem for a year, as bureaucratic window-dressing.
In a country of 14 million people with one of the worst murder rates in Latin America -- 427 people were killed in January alone -- Guatemalan authorities are quick to blame gang violence and prostitution for the unsolved crimes involving both men and women. More than 80 percent of murder victims, officials point out, are men.
Gang violence is certainly one factor in the killings -- some victims have been young women who refused to join gangs or tried to leave them. But families of students, domestic workers, and other victims with no ties to gangs or the sex industry blame a culture of impunity in which police often fail to investigate slayings and killers believe they will go free.
Guatemala's culture and laws may also encourage the devaluation of women's lives. A man who rapes a minor can escape punishment by marrying his victim if her father consents. Domestic violence cannot be prosecuted unless signs of injury are still apparent 10 days later. Marital rape is not a criminal offense. A law empowering men to prohibit their wives from working outside the home was revoked only in 1999.
According to the Public Prosecutor's files, though more than 1,500 women have been slain since 2003, only 14 cases have ended in a prison sentence.
''This all sends a message to perpetrators that you can get away with murder," said Adriana Beltrán of the Washington Office on Latin America, a nonprofit advocacy group, who earlier this month helped families of Guatemalan victims bring attention to their cases in Congress and with the Organization of American States.
Guatemala's human rights ombudsman, Sergio Morales, agreed. ''There is a common denominator to all the murders: impunity," he told national newspaper Prensa Libre.
Crime scenes are often not properly investigated; families say their daughters' or sisters' clothes are often returned to them rather than kept as evidence, and DNA testing is not done. Victim profiling has been weak, and activists say police and prosecutors understate the number of victims. Despite the existence of an anti-kidnapping squad, police routinely delay searches until three days after a person is reported missing.
Victims' families say they have suffered harassment, intimidation, or a cold shoulder if they press authorities for progress on their cases. Members of a family whose nanny was raped, mutilated, murdered, and beheaded -- while the family's infant son was beheaded in his high chair -- say bloody clothes were found in the home of a neighbor, a policeman who they say had previously harassed the 19-year-old woman. Authorities said the blood did not match that of the victims, and the man was never arrested.
Slayings of women are rising dramatically, according to nationwide police statistics. Last year, 665 women were killed -- almost 13 a week. The death toll was up from 531 in 2004 and 383 the year before, according to official police logs. Already this year, 125 women have been reported slain, police said this month. The percentage of murder victims who are women has tripled since 2002 to 12 percent, according to police statistics.
Public frustration over violent crime has tarnished the standing of President Oscar Berger, whose once-enormous popularity has nosedived as concern over public security has climbed. In June 2004, Berger told La Nación newspaper that in ''a majority of cases, the women had links with juvenile gangs and . . . organized crime" -- although he cited no evidence to support that.
Under pressure from members of US Congress and human rights organizations, Berger's government has set up units to handle domestic violence complaints and crimes targeting women.
But activists say they want better investigations, not more bureaucracy. ''Under international pressure, they're creating lots of institutions rather than attacking the problem in a genuine way, which would require putting resources into investigating and prosecuting crimes that we already know exist," said Andrea Barrios of Guatemala's Human Rights Legal Action Center.
Interior Minister Carlos Vielmann said in an interview that authorities investigated hundreds of suspects last year and issued 31 arrest warrants. ''We're working especially hard on this problem because the crimes are particularly bloody and often include rape," he said.
But because of heavy caseloads, 40 percent of murders of women are never investigated and have to be archived, police and prosecutors say. The state's human rights ombudsman's office says only 9 percent of the cases have been investigated.
Guatemala's special homicide prosecutor Renato Durán said that as of last year, all femicide cases are now under one roof, helping authorities keep better track of the cases, streamline investigations, and profile victims. In January, two new prosecutors for crimes against women were assigned to the homicide prosecutor's office. But backlogs remain, with his office still investigating three-year-old cases. Poor police work and the absence of an active DNA lab means prosecutors have no material evidence in 95 percent of cases, his office said.
Guatemalan activists testified before the Organization of American States this month, urging them to establish a permanent observer to monitor femicide in Latin America and to pressure Guatemalan authorities to take crime investigation and enforcement more seriously.
In a report last year, Amnesty International traced the culture of impunity back to the country's 36-year civil war that ended a decade ago, in which 200,000 people were slaughtered. Citing intimidation of victims' relatives who have tried to seek justice, activists accuse rogue elements and decommissioned members of the police and military who have joined organized crime networks of involvement in some of the killings.
María Elena Peralta, 33, has been campaigning in vain for justice for four years since her sister Nancy disappeared from the University of San Carlos campus and turned up in a lot nearby with her throat slit. A nurse who began studying law so she could monitor the investigation, Peralta says she has been followed, threatened, and harassed since she started making noise about her sister's case. '' 'You're next,' one caller said," she recalls. ''It's like we're reliving the armed conflict."
''It's a show put on for the benefit of the international community," Barrios said of the government's new commission. ''But as long as they don't do investigations and imprison the guilty, women will continue to be murdered like animals."