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Guatemala: region’s highest rate of femicide


Guatemala has a long history of violence which did not end with the peace accords in 1996. During the civil war thousands of men in the military and paramilitary groups committed many acts of violence, including violence against women, and were subsequently reintegrated into society with no sanctions against them. 

Today the continuing and escalating sexual violence and brutal murders of women are related to this history but also to the rise of organised crime, gangs, drug and human trafficking. Although legislation exists, the prevailing culture of machismo and misogyny means that corruption and impunity in the enforcement and investigation of crimes against women is the norm. 

Women activists have mobilised and fought a long uphill battle against gender inequality and institutionalised impunity for the perpetrators of violence. It took them many long years of lobbying the government and discussions with international human rights bodies but finally in April 2009 these efforts were successful with the passing of the Law against Femicide as a punishable offence. This was an important first step in the fights to put an end to the targeted and brutal killing of women. 

Guatemala has the highest rates of murder of women in the region: according to the Procuraduría de Derechos Humanos (PDH, Human Rights Ombusdman), 4,159 women were murdered in 2000-2008; and an estimated 2,900 in 2008-2011. According to the Instituto Nacional de Ciencias Forenses de Guatemala (INACIF), more than 600 women were murdered in 2012.

Very few arrests

However, according to Amnesty International, fewer than 4 per cent of these cases have resulted in the arrest or conviction of the perpetrators. Since the Guatemalan government passed the new law (Decree 22-2008), which typifies different crimes of violence against women and lays down sentencing guidelines, the violence has not abated.

The Grupo Guatemalteco de Mujeres (GGM) was one of the founders and active members of the No Violence Against Women Network. One of their contributions in the fight against violence against Guatemalan women is the collection, analysis and dissemination of statistics about the problem.

Photo: Walter AstradaThe stark details they provide of the 80 deaths registered by INACIF in January 2013 are shocking: 66 % were killed by firearms, 13% were burnt or bled to death, and 11% were asphyxiated; there was also an increase in the number of decapitations. These figures show that the trend is for the number of femicides to increase (there were 9 more deaths than in January last year), even though the government claims that the number has gone down.

They also highlight that an increasing number of young and adolescent girls are being killed. In a report analysing recent statistics the GGM found an increasing number of victims of violence were girls under 11 years of age, some of them killed alongside their mothers.

Cecilia Alvarez, from GGM, elaborated on this worrying trend:

“I wish there was an easy answer, but there isn’t. It would be irresponsible to come up with a theory when even the Public Ministry who are responsible for criminal investigation don’t have one. What we can affirm is that most of the murdered girls were killed with their mothers, which is why we talk about femicide by connection. They lost their lives because they were caught in the line of fire of a man aiming to kill a woman, because they tried to prevent the murder of a parent or relatives or because they were just with them at the time of the killing.”

The GGM report concludes that the cruelty of these killings are not only barbaric, but show a total lack of respect for women. They believe they are proof of the unequal power relations between women and men in Guatemala.

New measures

The government has recently introduced several new measures to address violence against women. In November 2012 Roxana Baldetti, the country’s vice president, inaugurated a special tribunal to process crimes against women such as sexual violence, trafficking and domestic violence. These tribunals are open 24 hours a day so that women can report violent crimes.

In her speech the vice-president also reported that 100 new graduates from the National Civil Police had been assigned to work exclusively on crimes of violence against women. It is not known how many of these new officers are women but women’s organisations are calling for all police officers to receive training on the application of the new Law against Femicide and other forms of violence against women and on human rights. They argue that this will make a qualitative difference in the services provided to survivors of violence.

However, they remain concerned about the level of the government’s commitment, as it has recently disbanded the CONAPREVI (the national coordination body to prevent violence against women and family violence), a state mechanism that had coordinated strategies and dialogued with civil society to end violence.

Limiting women’s participation

Women’s organisations have also spoken out against steps taken recently by the government to limit their participation in decisions to close or reform specialised government bodies focussing on women’s rights, indigenous women and violence against women. The Red de la No Violencia contra las Mujeres (REDNOVI, the No to Violence against Women Network), which participated in the CONAPREVI for over 12 years, issued a press release in January 2013 deploring this decision by the government.

They highlighted the achievements of CONAPREVI in developing legislation and social policies to address violence as well as some of the difficulties they encountered: “dialogue and permanent negotiation are complex processes… but we moved forward because our concern is that women in Guatemala are able to exercise their right to live without violence.”

The lobbying efforts of REDNOVI focussed international attention and ensured that the UN Rapporteur on Violence against Women and the Inter-American Commission sent delegations to investigate violations against women’s rights. In the press statement REDNOVI stresses that the women’s movement will continue holding the government to account: “We announce publicly that we will continue to be vigilant and to press the State to meet its responsibilities.”

They also sent a letter to the President saying that the State is not meeting its obligations but they have not received a reply. They are also continung to press the Public Ministry and Judiciary to re-establish this consultation mechanism with civil society.

Difficult times

Sonia Acabal, a representative of REDNOVI, recently interviewed by CAWN, underlined that these are difficult times in Guatemala: “Democracy has been put to one side and authoritarianism has returned. Although the new government has good intentions, their actions are narrowly focused and ignore the fact that discrimination against women comes in many forms and is part of a bigger picture”.

Sonia emphasised that “Guatemala is currently the corridor for drug trafficking from the south to Mexico. This is very dangerous for women as many get involved with gangs or organisations connected to sexual violence”. She also told CAWN that women’s organisations in Guatemala are being discredited in the press and there are calls for an end to state support for the women’s centres run by the GGM, a member of the network. 

There have been attacks on the Centros de Apoyo Integral para Mujeres Sobreviventes de Violencia (CAIMUS, Centres for the Holistic Support of Women Survivors of Violence), which were set up by women’s organisations and which have supported women survivors of violence for the past 20 years. In 2012 alone they helped 5,000 women. Until recently they were recognised in public policy as a viable alternative, providing holistic support to women and children to protect their security and find solutions to violence. 

The CAIMUS implemented a comprehensive care model (Modelo de Atención Integral) developed by the Guatemalan Women’s Group (GGM), which runs these centres. The model has two strategies: first, women’s empowerment, which consists of direct support to women survivors including emergency support, legal advice, psychological support, medical care, temporary refuge and a 24 hour telephone helpline; and second outreach work, which includes setting up support networks for survivors of violence, self-help, security, prevention of violence, awareness raising and training, research and social auditing, advocacy and communication. Yet government officials and television personalities have openly criticised the centres and the work of GGM and are calling for the government to stop supporting the CAIMUS. 

About 20,000 reports of violence against women were made to the police last year; and women’s organisations are demanding prosecutions for these crimes. But women who speak out for their rights and against the epidemic of violence in Guatemala are threatened and harassed. Maya Alvarado, from the Guatemalan Women’s Union (UNAMG), told CAWN in February that women’s organisations are struggling to get their message across: “Feminism is not well received in Guatemala and we have been called witches in the press, we are not accepted.” 

A culture of impunity

Since 2008 the Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG, the International Commission Against Impunity), backed by the UN, has been supporting Guatemala’s justice system to try to end a deeply-entrenched culture of impunity. President Otto Perez Molina, who took office a year ago, has launched a campaign to curb domestic violence and has agreed to extend CICIG’s mandate until 2015. 

Where are Cristina and her children?In his state-of-the-nation address Perez Molina hailed Guatemala’s “historic decline in violence” in 2012. Murders were down by some 10 per cent, he said.Yet this advance has brought few benefits for women. Although legislation against domestic violence was introduced in 2008, campaign groups say very few are held to account for these crimes. “Perpetrators know they will not be punished”, said Amnesty International’s Guatemala researcher Sebastian Elgueta, in an interview with the BBC. “High levels of violence and a lack of political will, along with a track record of impunity mean authorities are unable to pursue perpetrators, or just don’t care”. 

Although the Guatemalan state has taken some actions, they have not succeeded in stopping the killings. In January 2013 the press reported that the bodies of two girls aged six and 12 were found dumped on a street in the capital city; they had been strangled. Two murdered women, aged between 20 and 35, were also discovered in the same neighbourhood. One had been shot in the face.

Two other women were killed in the town of La Union, in Zacapa Province, shot dead outside a school. It is still not clear whether they were victims of domestic violence or murdered by criminal gangs. “Guatemala awoke in mourning”, a women’s rights group, the Survivors’ Foundation, said in a recent statement about these killings. “We demand these crimes be solved.”

Other press reports in Guatemala highlight the social unrest throughout the country over land conflict, mining, and indigenous rights. After talking to activists, Mike Allison, associate professor in the Political Science department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania,concluded: “these are real concerns about the situation here … I’m afraid that adverse decisions with regards to the prosecution of human rights violators and the increased reliance on the military to resolve problems that do not have military solutions will only stoke the flames of discontent which is unfortunate and dangerous for the people of this beautiful country.”

Femicide and other forms of violence against women are widespread throughout the country but more reports are made and assassinations recorded in urban areas. Indeed, there may be under-reporting in the countryside, as in many cases the violent killing of women in these areas is not classified as femicide. Criminal investigation is very weak and only specialists from the Public Ministry can determine if it was femicide. These often have less capacity to carry out investigations outside the main cities and give less priority to these cases. 

The long history of conflict has destroyed many communities. It will take a long time to bring about change but Sonia Acabal is confident that the struggle will continue: “Guatemala needs to construct a true democracy and find justice for the victims’ families. The deaths of 300,000 people will not be forgotten.”

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