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Guatemala: Killing of Woman

No protection, no justice: Killings of women in Guatemala

"My 15-year-old daughter María Isabel was a student and worked in a shop in the holidays. On the night of 15 December 2001, she was kidnapped in the capital. Her body was found shortly before Christmas. She had been raped, her hands and feet had been tied with barbed wire, she had been stabbed and strangled and put in a bag. Her face was disfigured from being punched, her body was punctured with small holes, there was a rope around her neck and her nails were bent back. When her body was handed over to me, I threw myself to the ground shouting and crying but they kept on telling me not to get so worked up.

With the help of witnesses, the authorities identified two of the culprits and a luxury car and obtained details of the house where she had been held. The case has been passed to two prosecutor's offices but those responsible are still at liberty". (1)

The brutal sexual violence inflicted on María Isabel following her abduction and before her murder in 2001 is a characteristic common to many of the hundreds of killings of women and girls that have been reported in Guatemala in recent years. The failure of the Guatemalan authorities to subsequently detain and bring to justice those responsible for her murder is another characteristic of this case and many others. The suffering of many of the relatives of murdered women has been compounded by the knowledge that the government's failure to adequately address these cases by ensuring such crimes are thoroughly and impartially investigated means that they will almost certainly never have access to truth and justice. At a broader level, the Guatemalan Government's failure to prevent an escalation in the number of killings or to ensure effective prosecutions means that those responsible can continue to commit these crimes in the certainty that they will not be held to account.

Guatemalan authorities confirmed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) that between 2001 and August 2004 they had registered the deaths of 1,188 women.(2) Nevertheless, the precise number of women who have been murdered is unknown and disputed. Figures vary among institutions and are based on different criteria. (3) One official source is the National Police Force (PNC, policía nacional civil) which recorded 527 cases of women violently killed during 2004. A number of factors, however, including relatives' fear of reporting a murder and lack of public confidence in state institutions, in particular in the administration of justice system to adequately respond to complaints, suggest that police figures could be conservative. Some observers have questioned or dismissed the seriousness of the problem relating to killings of women by arguing the statistics are the same or similar to statistics for the killing of women in other countries in the Americas region. Amnesty International believes, however, that the pattern of brutality, the evidence of sexual violence, which can amount to torture in some cases, and the increasing number of women killed require the authorities pay immediate and urgent attention to the problem.

Most of the killings of women in Guatemala have occurred in urban areas of the country which have also witnessed a dramatic rise in violent crime in recent years often linked to organized crime, including drugs and arms trafficking and kidnapping for ransom, or to the activities of street youth gangs known as 'maras'.(4) Men have also been affected by general levels of violence in the community and there has been a significant increase in the overall murder rate. Public security issues and breakdown in the rule of law are frequently cited as among the main concerns of the population at large.

Many women and girls in Guatemala live with gender-based violence: violence against women in the family, rape, and sexual harassment in the workplace are commonplace. Women and young girls are also the victims of commercial trafficking and sexual exploitation.(5) Police officers have also been implicated in cases of sexual violence. A number of the victims of killings were under 18 years of age.(6) Among the women killed over the last few years in Guatemala are students, housewives and professionals, domestic employees, unskilled workers, members or former members of street youth gangs and sex workers. While the murders may be attributed to different motives and may have been committed by both state and non-state individuals, a study of some of the cases shows that the violence is usually gender-based; the gender of the victim would appear to be a significant factor in the crime, influencing both the motive and the context, as well as the kind of violence suffered by the woman and the manner in which the authorities respond.