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Guatemala: Housewives, Students and Murder
Widespread killings marked with brutality and impunity
Joan M. Dawson (joanied40)     Print Article 
Published 2007-02-07 15:53 (KST)   
If I told you that torture is being used in Guatemala, what would go through your mind? If you're like most people, you'd think of interrogators and prisoners, right? How would you feel if I told you that torture is being used on ordinary housewives and students?

Since 2001, more than 2,000 women and girls have been brutally murdered in this small Central American country. Most of the victims are housewives and students. Most of them are only 16 to 35 years old. Most of the murders take place in broad daylight.

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These women are found beaten, shot, stabbed and/or raped. They've been found mutilated, beheaded and dismembered.

And the world seems impervious to it, or so it may seem.

Similarities to Juarez

While the brutal killings of women in Juarez, Mexico were gaining some international attention, there were even more murders occurring over in Guatemala.

In actuality, there are a lot of similarities between the murders in Juarez and those in Guatemala City. In Juarez, hundreds of young women are missing. Several hundred were found, their bodies carved, raped or mutilated and tossed into the desert. In both countries, young, poor women are primarily targeted. In both, the perpetrators have not been brought to justice. And, in both, human rights agencies and activists suspect a conspiracy.

One difference between the two countries, though, is that a 36-year war occurred relatively recently in Guatemala, ending just some 10 years ago. Although the war ended, the killings have not. The sexual violence and killings of today are similar to that were used in the war.

According to Carlos Reyes-Manzo, a photojournalist for Messenger of St. Anthony: "There are disturbing similarities between the killings of women then and now. Men and women are being killed, but the women are being tortured, raped and mutilated, recalling the brutality of the crimes committed by the Guatemalan armed forces during the dirty war." (1)

Extreme violence

Sergio Morales, a human rights prosecutor in Guatemala, states, "these murders are accompanied by extreme violence, which aggravates the victims' suffering," by contrast with male victims, who are usually killed by firearms. (2) In fact, 80 percent of men are killed by firearms and there's no intimate contact between the victim and the perpetrator.

However, 69 percent of women are killed by firearms and 31 percent are murdered by direct physical violence with the perpetrator that includes knives, blunt objects, strangulation, rape and mutilation. (3) Some women are raped and then shot. Most reports and news sources concur that the murders of these women are marked by brutality.

Possible motives

What could possibly motivate people to commit such brutal murders? The police would have the community believe that these women were members of gangs (maras) or the sex work industry. Upon leaving these trades, the police say, they are prone to attacks. A BBC report quotes an investigator as saying: "She was probably a prostitute," upon finding red nail polish on the swollen naked body of a woman. (4) In May 2006, the police chief indeed publicly asked that women not get involved with gangs and "avoid violence within the family." (5)

The families of the murdered women disagree with the police, of course. While some women have been connected to gangs or sex work, most have been housewives, students, professionals or unskilled workers.

Psychologist Vilma Ovalle from Asociacion Mujer Vamos Adelante ("Women, Let's go!") believes stigmatizing the victims is an excuse to escape responsibility for solving the murders. (2) Andrea Barrios of the Centre for Legal Action on Human Rights agrees: "the government uses the maras as an excuse to divert attention away from the fact that it is not living up to its responsibilities." (2)

Typically, gangs don't use torture or move bodies to other locations, characteristics of these murders. Mr. Morales believes the murders are "selective and professional," suggesting organized crime and drug rings rather than youth gangs. (2)

According to police statistics, domestic violence can be blamed for some of the murders.

In contrast to theories about gangs, prostitution, drug rings and domestic violence, Amnesty's report suggests "hidden powers" are operating which provide impunity for government officials and members of the armed forces. The killings are too similar to that witnessed during the war. Plus, they're marked with impunity...again.

Lack of commitment

The Amnesty International report (6) cites impunity, weak laws and engrained sexist mindsets as reasons why the killings continue unabated.

In 97 percent of the murders of women, no arrests have been made.

Indeed, public officials, like those in Juarez, have been ineffective. The Foundation for Human Rights in Guatemala notes the shortcomings, stating there's a "lack of technical capacity to preserve crime scenes, interrogate witnesses, and collect and preserve evidence, as well as a lack of political will to resolve the murders." (7)

One woman said the authorities laughed at her. (8)

Many of the families have stated they received their daughters' clothes back. They should have been sent to the forensic departments.

Steps toward progress

The Guatemalan government must take these atrocities seriously. Human rights organizations recommend they do more to protect women and girls, including providing sufficient financial and technical resources, criminalizing the acts and prosecuting the perpetrators.

The perpetrators cannot continue to kill with impunity. We should not have places in this world where you can brutally rape and kill a woman and freely walk away.

Moreover, the government of Guatemala must consider steps towards preventing these needless deaths. Until countries actively work to prevent violence against women, the senseless death of female victims will continue to rise. First it was Juarez. Then it was Guatemala. Where is next?

We must recognize the worth in women, particularly their value to their families and communities. Their basic rights of health, dignity and security need to be maintained. Their life must have value.

Breaking the silence

Every year, we lose two to three million women and girls to gender-based violence. How many millions more will we lose before we recognize it as the problem that it is?

We can all do our part. We can raise awareness of these cases of injustice. We can write letters to politicians and newspapers. We can inform our family, friends and neighbors by holding vigils, film screenings, or community gatherings. We can raise funds for organizations fighting violence.

Martin Luther King said: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

We must speak out for the housewives, the students, the prostitutes...all the women who stepped out in broad daylight in Guatemala City and were brutally murdered for the one thing they shared in common: being female.

"I am woman. I am citizen. I am important."
©2007 MuJER www.mujer.cfsites.org
To send a letter to the Ambassador and the President of Guatemala requesting immediate action, go to Amnesty International's Action Center.

To attend the "Guatemala Femicide Conference: Shedding the Veil of Indifference" March 21-23, 2007 in Los Angeles, California, contact confemicide@gmail.com

For further information:
Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA
Human Rights Watch
Peace Brigades
The Foundation for Human Rights in Guatemala (US)

Film: Killers' Paradise (BBC documentary; UK/Canada 2006)

Organizations in Guatemala working on this issue:
Asociacion Mujer Vamos Adelante
Centre for Legal Action on Human Rights (CALDH)
Guatemalan Women's Group
No Violence Against Women Network
25 de Noviembre

1. http://www.saintanthonyofpadua.net/messaggero/pagina_stampa.asp
2. http://ipsnews.net/
3. Amnesty International's 2006 Report: No Protection, No Justice: The Killings of Women in Guatemala (An Update)
4. BBC This World (May 3, 2006) 쏫iller셲 Paradise in Guatemala
5. Amnesty International Press Release: Guatemala: Killings of women on the rise in 2006 (July 18, 2006)
6. Amnesty International셲 2005 Report: No Protection, No Justice: The Killings of Women in Guatemala
7. Foundation for Human Rights in Guatemala http://www.fhrg.org/
8. http://www.sfgate.com
©2007 OhmyNews

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