by Simon Helweg-Larsen
RAPED, TORTURED, AND BEATEN, her hands and feet tied with barbed wire and her skin covered in puncture holes, Maria Isabel Veliz Franco was found dead in Guatemala City in December of 2001. Yet while the murder of this fifteen-year-old girl sparked some local media attention, she was already just one more case among the hundreds of women killed in Guatemala that year.
The following years were even worse. The Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman counted 317 women killed in 2002, 383 in 2003, and 497 in 2004. In another increase, 560 women were killed in the first eleven months of 2005.
The number of women killed each year is consistent with ratios for crime in Guatemala, with women making up around twelve percent of victims. But what is striking is not only that this percentage is increasing rapidly—-murders of women rose by fifty-six percent between 2002 and 2004, while the male rate only increased by thirty-six percent—-but that most murders share common signs of sexual violence and torture. Women’s bodies are often found naked and mutilated, with body parts removed and left beside their corpses. The mutilation is usually concentrated on areas associated with femininity and beauty (breasts, sexual organs, the face), reinforcing suspicions of misogynistic motivation.
Equally striking is the near-total lack of response to the murders by the Guatemalan government. The Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman claims that only nine percent of female murders have been investigated, and that less than 0.75 percent of cases handled by the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Women have resulted in conviction. This situation can largely be attributed to the wider inefficiency of the Guatemalan security and legal systems, which achieve similar conviction rates for all crimes nationally.
However, an ingrained discrimination against women has clearly perpetuated this non-investigation in the face of widespread and brutal killings. While not an official requirement, Guatemalan policing culture holds that officers should wait three days before investigating reported disappearances of women, to give girls time to report having run away with their boyfriends. Families of missing women consistently report that they are questioned about what their daughter wore and who she spent time with. Over half of all murders of women are listed as stemming from either personal problems or “crimes of passion.”
This discrimination goes even deeper, with centuries-old laws upholding various forms of sexual violence. Marital rape and intra-familiar sexual harassment are not criminal offenses in Guatemala, for example, and to have sexual relations with a minor is only a crime if the victim is considered “honest.”
Add to this culture of gender discrimination Guatemala’s recent history of prolonged and extreme violence. The country’s civil war ended in 1996, bringing to an end nearly four decades of systematic state terror, including the use of rape as a military tactic. Two hundred thousand Guatemalans lost their lives during the war, the populations of 660 Indigenous villages were massacred, and fear and uncertainty became a part of everyday life for millions of others.
Today, evidence is increasingly visible that death squads remain intact, targeting political opponents, social movements, and the vulnerable and impoverished majority. Youth gangs also practice extreme forms of violence on one another, and organized crime and petty criminals engage in their activities at will, unopposed by Guatemala’s ineffective security and legal institutions.
Still, the brutal misogyny of the murders of Guatemalan women makes these particular crimes stand out in a general climate of crime and insecurity. That there has been no effective response by the Guatemalan government, and that no theory exists to explain these daily acts of torture, rape, and sexual mutilation, makes the situation all the more baffling.
For more information, please see the Amnesty International report “No Protection, No Justice: Killings of Women in Guatemala.”
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