The high number of women murdered in Guatemala shows little sign of abating this year.
Six women and girls were killed in Guatemala last week in one day alone. Two of the girls, about 6 and 12 years old, were found strangled to death in a street in the capital Guatemala City wearing their pyjamas, in a crime that has shocked the nation - reputed as one of Central America’s poorest and most violent.
Only three weeks into 2013, so far this year the government has tallied 33 femicides - defined as gender-related murder of a woman by a man.
Official figures show Guatemala’s femicide rate fell by 9 percent, to 574 women and girls murdered in 2012 from 631 in 2011.
“There’s been a dip in the number of femicides, but it’s still hundreds of victims a year,” Sebastian Elgueta, Guatemala’s researcher at Amnesty International tells me.
“There is no let up in the cases of killings of women and girls recorded every month, despite the national scandal this has become for Guatemala. It’s a widespread problem that affects all sectors of society, from the middle class to the very poor.”
Roughly 60 percent of all femicides in Guatemala take place at the hands of former and/or current boyfriends or husbands using firearms.
LEGACY OF IMPUNITY
So why is Guatemala, a nation of 15 million people, grappling with one of the highest femicide rates in the world?
A big part of the answer lies in Guatemala’s dysfunctional justice system. Most crimes go unpunished.
“Impunity is by far the biggest problem in Guatemala,” Elgueta says. “Estimates of the conviction rate for murders hover from less than 1 percent to 4 percent.”
Such high levels of impunity create a culture where perpetrators of crime, including violence against women, believe they can get away with it.
“The law has a very minimal deterrent effect,” he says.
To support Guatemala’s judicial system, a U.N.-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) was created in 2007.
However, while most applaud the commission’s efforts to expose major corruption scandals and convict high-profile drug traffickers, little progress had been made to stem femicides.
Because of Guatemala’s high levels of drug-fuelled crime and murder rates - one of the highest in the world - overstretched local authorities and the CICIG have focused on tackling general violence in recent years, leaving fewer resources and officials to investigate gender-based abductions and killings.
“Countries with the highest levels of homicide generally show the highest rates of lethal violence against women,” noted the 2012 Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based independent research institute.
The legacy of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war (1960-1996) also contributes to the country’s high levels of violence and impunity.
A U.N.-backed Truth Commission set up under the 1996 peace accords concluded that the military was responsible for more than 85 percent of human rights violations during the war.
“Impunity has a structural legacy in Guatemala,” says Elgueta, noting that the vast majority of crimes against the 200,000 victims of the civil war remain unpunished.
Since 2008, Guatemala has approved a number of laws and set up institutions to deal exclusively with femicides, from special tribunals and police task forces to a presidential commission on femicide (COPAF).
Under Guatemalan law, femicide is a specific crime, carrying a prison sentence of 25 to 50 years.
“The response of the state has been to create special bodies and teams to address femicides, but that shouldn’t be the benchmark,” says Elgueta. “It doesn’t end with the creation of laws and commissions. The proof of the pudding is the amount of killings that still go on.”
Guatemala’s high levels of violence against women also stem from the low social status of women, particularly indigenous women.
It means some government officials still tend to blame the victims for gender-related crimes.
“There’s a generalised discrimination against women in Guatemala,” which affects the way a case is investigated, says Elgueta. “There’s a tendency to blame the victim. The tone is character assassination.”
In some femicide cases, he says, officials imply it is a woman’s fault because she wore a short skirt, had a belly button piercing or painted her nails red.
In the mid-2000s, there was also a tendency among government officials to blame femicides on gang violence, as part of an initiation ritual new gang members had to go through, Elgueta says.
These days under the right-wing government of Otto Perez, a retired army general who took office just over a year ago, little progress has been made on preventing femicides and improving criminal investigations, Amnesty says.
The president has yet to recognise the killings of women as a problem, Elgueta says.