While Mexico fights a headline-grabbing war against the drug cartels that control much of its northern border, complete with armoured vehicles and high-profile gun fights, a lesser-known struggle is talking place in Guatemala, its neighbour to the south. The country has had a tough few decades, from the vicious guerrilla wars that ravaged it in the 70s, to the systematic flaunting of human and civil rights by military governments in the 80s that lead to Guatemala becoming an international outcast. The country has, over the last ten years, acquired a worrying new claim to fame. In that short time nearly 4,000 women have been murdered in Guatemala. Worryingly, less than two percent of these killings have resulted in prosecution. Hilda Morales Trujillo, a leading Guatemalan women’s rights campaigner and lawyer, is at the forefront of the fight to curb the rising murder rate.
Vice: Nearly 4,000 women have been killed in a decade. Can you explain the situation in Guatemala as far as the femicides go? It sounds horrific.
Hilda Morales Trujillo: Femicides first became visible in Guatemala from the year 2000 onwards, although they were not at first called femicides, they were reported as violent female deaths. In 2000 there was an average of four violent female deaths a week. From 2001 onwards, that number has kept escalating year on year, sometimes reaching up to 60 women a month. Over the period as a whole, more than 3,500 women have been murdered.
Are there any discernable patterns with the killings? Are they associated with women of certain backgrounds?
The first bodies that were found, according to the media, were female sex workers. In later years the majority of the victims were housewives and students. There are also a few victims that show signs of youth-gang affiliations, connections to the maras [gangs], or connections with organised crime. Although, these conclusions are generally based on the work of the highly subjective police, who obviously haven’t done any in-depth investigations into the victims’ lives. Nonetheless, some relatives who demand justice have contended that their daughters were students, young professionals or worked in the public sector.
What are the usual distinguishing features of these femicides?
In most cases the bodies are found with signs of torture—sometimes they are mutilated and body parts are scattered across a number of sites—some bodies show signs of being sexually violated. In the beginning, the majority of bodies turned up in Guatemala City, the capital, although over time that has changed and the violent deaths of women are being recorded across the whole Republic. Most of the victims are of reproductive age or incorporated in the labour force, from adolescents to young women. Although we’ve also seen victims who are either children or elderly, but these make up far fewer of the cases.
Are the majority of the killings thought to be sexual in motive?
No. Although, as the investigations into these cases are often insufficient, it’s hard to say. There are correct scientific ways of determining sexual violation, but they aren’t being carried out. Things like vaginal swabs and tests of that kind could determine if any sexual violence took place.
Sergio Roberto Ortega, 46, tends the grave of his daughter, Velvet Madeline Noemi Ortega Castillo, who was 25 when she was raped and beaten to death for not paying protection money to the local gang. Her grave is in the cemetery of Las Flores.
In what way is the problem of femicide in Guatemala similar to the murders of women in Mexico? Do you see the two trends being part of a wider pattern?
I would say that in both cases the level of impunity that exists for those committing the crimes is probably a stimulant for these murders. And it is a factor that will encourage these crimes to be committed in the future. Just as in the city of Juarez, some victims would disappear in their local areas and then the body would be found days later in an area that the victim would not often frequent. That’s a clear similarity. Although, it is said that in the Juarez incidents the disappearances would be for a longer stretch of time and the victims were always female factory workers, whilst in Guatemala it’s women of various different occupations who are victims. There are also reports I have heard of trends of violent female deaths in El Salvador and Honduras.
What are the key factors that you think are resulting in so many killings of women?
The perception that I have is that over recent years, since the peace treaties in Guatemala, more and more women have left the domestic life and have got themselves an education and jobs, manifesting a greater knowledge of their rights and their autonomy. This is contrary to the conservative society that exists here, where it is established that a woman’s place is in the home, that their jobs are those of the household and they must obey the wants and needs of their husbands and partners.
This doesn’t mean that these issues are exclusively to blame for the violent deaths of these women. We’ve also seen cases where those responsible are the gangs who kill women in initiation rituals. It’s also said that there are even cases of social cleansing that result in the murders of young women. The attorney of human rights made investigations between 2001 and 2004 and determined the participation of members of the police in some of these crimes.
OK. I guess that ties in with the fact that a very small number of these crimes lead to prosecutions or jail sentences. Why is it that so few of these cases result in criminal charges?
The police and the public ministers in charge of the criminal investigations aren’t prepared to meticulously inspect the cases that have been presented to them. Often there’s been a tardiness in justice, bad handling of the custodial evidence, contamination of the crime scenes by passersby, relatives, firemen, journalists and sometimes by the police themselves. There’s also a serious lack of protocol and scientific proof. Here we give importance to testimonial proof in criminal cases, but we don’t give much protection to those that give it, therefore no one says anything. There’s no collaboration from the citizens and so everything ends up covered up. That’s why, obviously, the climate is one of impunity and as I said before, if the criminals know that nothing will happen to them if they kill a woman, then they are sure they can keep doing it again and again.
Maria Elva Palma, right, grieves for her daughter, Santos Marlene Flores, who was brutally murdered by a policeman. The victim’s father, Alberto Antonio, left, holds a photograph of his daughter. In the centre sits Santos’ sister, Areely Gomez de Hernandez, 40, who witnessed the killing. The family are still living in the house where she was slain.
So, essentially, as well as the atmosphere of impunity, it is the general gender inequalities that you think contribute to these deaths?
Of course I do. There are large inequalities manifested through misogyny and the exclusion of women from directorial roles and positions of authority. At this moment in time there isn’t a single female cabinet minister. Out of 158 members of parliament only 19 are women. In the Supreme Court of Justice, out of 13 magistrates, only one is a woman. That is in spite of the fact that women in Guatemala make up more than 51 percent of the population and that many of us have broken free of the tradition of staying at home and living the conservative norm. Whatever it may cost, we have found ourselves ready to fill whatever role, within the state and private sector.
How are these problems being addressed by the government?
With the current government we’ve seen a few signs of them starting to tackle the problem. For example, the government interior and security ministries have been compiling visible statistics of the problem at hand, and is attempting to combat it.
In Congress in 2008, the female members of parliament, with help from women’s organisations of the civil society, pushed forward the law against femicide and other forms of violence against women. The department of women does its best to attend to cases of violence against women, but its range is very limited. The Supreme Court of Justice has manifested that it will create three courts to specialise in crimes against women, but we still have to wait to see if that comes through.
Photos: Angela Catlin