On the outskirts of
This killing was more than just a passing aberration. Nightmarish crimes against women have been occurring with horrifying frequency in
The victims often are from low-income families deracinated from their rural homesteads during the civil war and forced to crowd into
We might recall
Those years of untrammeled massacres provide some context for the current wave of femicide sweeping the country. The 1996 peace accords officially declared an end to the butchery but the war against women continues albeit in more piecemeal fashion. Guatemalan women are enduring the whiplash of decades of dehumanizing violence—boosted by the same kind of deep-seated sexism and gender-specific crimes (rape) that are perpetrated in many societies around the world.
Independent investigators charge that the vast majority of present-day atrocities against women have been committed by current or former members of the Guatemalan intelligence services. Having escaped prosecution for human rights violations during the internal war, these trained killers are now members of private security forces or police and paramilitary units that have been strongly implicated in the crimes of the last seven years.
For the most part, authorities show little inclination to bring the perpetrators to justice. Some officials blame the victims for their own deaths, implying that the women bring it on themselves because of their supposed involvement in gang activities or drugs, or because in some way or another they refuse to lead properly conforming lives within the safe confines of a traditional family and community
Some of the victims indeed may have been entangled in shady operations. But many more have been working women, including those of indigenous stock, trapped in poverty. They are the prime victims of a broader “social cleansing” that reactionary hoodlums are conducting against a variety of groups including street children, teenagers, gays, and homeless indigents, a campaign that has claimed thousands of additional victims.
Even those rare cases that make it all the way to a prosecutor’s desk have little chance of resulting in a conviction due to the lack of reliable evidence. Recent reports reveal the continuing failure of investigators to collect and preserve essential evidence from crime scenes. More than ordinary incompetence is operative here. Guatemalan authorities manifest little interest in training skilled cadres who might unearth really damaging information about who is behind the crimes.
Anonymous death threats have been sent to the volunteer exhumation teams that locate and examine the bodies of the murdered women and who try to publicize the evidence they discover. In May 2007 the leader of one such team was informed that his sister would be “raped and dismembered into pieces” if he continued to investigate the crimes.
While these murders may seem like little more than random thrill killings to some observers, in fact they serve a function of social control much as would any form of state terrorism. The violence perpetrated against individuals creates a pervasive climate of fear and horror within the victimized families and communities, thereby discouraging social protest and popular resistance. Instead of organizing around any number of crucial politico-economic issues, many of the demoralized and traumatized families cower in stunned silence.
In time people grow numb to the violence. Feeling helpless they almost routinely check the news each day to see how many additional victims have been reported. The effects on children can be especially telling. Growing up in a climate of fear, they learn that their parents and community cannot keep them safe and that homicidal fury might strike anyone at any time.
Family members of murdered women report that authorities show hostility towards them when they request government intervention.
Guatemalan president Oscar Berger voices a commitment to confronting the crisis but has done next to nothing. Rather than devoting the necessary resources to investigation and enforcement, Berger appeared on national television in 2005 to announce that, for their own safety, women would do best to stay at home.
In 2005 Guatemala appointed its first female Supreme Court President, Beatriz De Leon, and two years later a female police chief. But there is little indication that high-placed female officeholders are going to buck the Old Boys network. Until the government makes some significant efforts towards implementing the recommendations outlined by human rights organizations (such as Guatemala Peace and Development Network, MIA, NISGUA, GHRC-USA, Rights Action, and Center for Gender Studies), the lives of
There are some encouraging signs. The Human Rights Committee of the Guatemalan Congress is giving serious consideration to a bill that purports to guarantee life, liberty, dignity, and equality for women along with stiffer penalties for those who physically and mentally abuse women and otherwise violate their rights.
Meanwhile a growing number of Guatemalan women are moving into nontraditional careers. In the upcoming election, at least one hundred women will be running for Congress. Some parties have designed campaign strategies intended to promote electoral victories for more women. At present of a total of 158 seats in the Guatemalan Congress only fourteen are occupied by women.
There also are efforts by human rights organizations to create a central, unified database of femicide victims, as well as an emergency response system for missing girls and women that would include utilization of state-of-the-art internet capabilities, DNA testing, and the like.
Awareness of the atrocities has been reaching other countries and gaining international attention. There is a growing demand from abroad that Guatemalan law enforcement agencies get serious about responding to the gender-based atrocities. The U.S. Congress is being pressured to get into the act. A House resolution condemns the murders and expresses condolences and support to the families of victims. The resolution urges the government of
The U.S. Senate passed a resolution calling on the Guatemalan Congress to approve the actions of the U.N.-sponsored International Commission Against Impunity in
Meanwhile innocent and unoffending women continue to suffer nightmarish fates at the hands of misogynistic maniacs who, some years ago, developed a taste for inflicting rape, torture, and death “in service to their country.”
Michael Parenti is a noted author and social commentator. His recent books include Contrary Notions: The Michael Parenti Reader (City Lights); The Culture Struggle (Seven Stories); Democracy for the Few 8th ed. (Wadsworth/Thomson) and The Assassination of Julius Caesar (New Press). See www.michaelparenti.org.
Lucia MuÃ±oz is founder and president of Mujeres Iniciando En Las Americas, and co-founder of