Confronting Femicide in Guatemala

As a member of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission’s 2007 delegation, I spent a week interviewing parents, leaders of women’s groups, and government officials about the killing of young women in Guatemala. We wanted to know why the number of murdered women in Guatemala has more than doubled since 2000.

We also wanted to know why less than 20 of the more than 3,000 cases of murdered women have been resolved by the justice system.  

Shortly after college, I moved to Guatemala City and worked there as a teacher for two years, from 2004 to 2006.  I learned to teach drama, learned to dance salsa, and also learned, fairly quickly, that most of the friends I would have in Guatemala would be males.  I rarely saw women my age out at night, and many of the young female teachers at my school were prohibited by their families from leaving home after dark.  I bemoaned what I attributed to a macho culture and conservative family values and made friends instead with women from outside Guatemala and with Guatemalan men.  Only this summer did I begin to fully understand why women in Guatemala do not come out at night.  

Women – mostly between the ages of 13 and 30 – are being raped, tortured, mutilated, murdered, and left often in very public places. These brutal murders, and the failure of the state to address even one percent of them in meaningful ways, have left women rightfully terrified, wary of making themselves vulnerable by leaving home at night. 

ImageAs a delegation of nine Americans from all over the United States, we extended solidarity to parents of victims and to groups working for women’s rights in Guatemala.  In our meetings, we also asked why the murders of women have increased so dramatically in recent years, why the government has done so little to address the problem, and what role we might play in changing the tide of violence.  Because so few of the murders have been investigated, very little specific information exists about why women are killed and who is responsible for their suffering and deaths.  There were no simple answers to our questions.  But by speaking with people whose daily lives are deeply affected by violence against women in Guatemala, we were able to better understand the broad causes of femicide and we found ways to contribute to the work of effecting positive change. 

The Rise of Feminism in a Macho Culture

“This is a country where patriarchy dominates on an institutional and familial level.” – Dora Bagley of the Presidential Secretariat on Women (SEPREM) [1]

As more and more Guatemalan women seek to attend school and enter the workforce, they risk confrontations with a male-dominated society that often employs violence to force women back into limited roles within the home.  The emergence of feminism has been made both painful and slow by machismo, an ancient force whose heavy boots we heard marching through stories of both domestic and political violence against women. 

At the Coordinating Group of Traditional Midwives of the State of Quetzaltenango (CODECOT), a midwives’ association in Quetzaltenango, Maria Cecilia Escobar explained that many women face resistance from their husbands even to enter into the traditional field of midwifery.[2]  According to Escobar, wives are beaten for attempting to leave the home to attend the workshops given by CODECOT.  As Sandi Mendoza of the Association for Community Development of Panabaj (ADECCAP), a Mayan association in Panabaj, said, “The majority of men won’t let their wives participate in workshops where they would learn about their rights.  They’re afraid that their wives will learn how to support themselves and won’t need their men anymore.”[3]

Women who speak out against this deeply entrenched sexism face even greater threats to their security.  Many of the women’s groups we met with reported that they have been followed, threatened, or even attacked.  Sandra Moran, director of Sector de Mujeres (Women’s Sector) in Guatemala City, recounted several recent attacks on her organization’s office.  She said the intruders broke in, ransacked the office, stole files, and left behind threatening notes and a trail of blood.  She called the break-ins “very symbolic” of the fierce resistance to women’s empowerment and said she thought her group was being targeted because “We have been very present denouncing femicide in the streets. But we’re going to continue with this work because it’s so important.”

Norma Cruz, director of Fundación Sobrevivientes [Foundation Survivors], a center for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, recounted a recent trip to the department of Chiquimula to investigate the brutal rape, burning, and murder of an eight year old girl with Downs Syndrome.  Knowing they could be targeted because of their mission to investigate and denounce the violence, she and her colleagues armed themselves with firearms.  “We know this is a contradiction,” said Cruz. “We do not support violence.  But we’re not going to allow one more woman to die.” 

Most women, however, are not able to protect themselves in the way Cruz has from politically motivated and gender-based violence.  Maria Cristina Gómez, a women’s rights activist with the organization Ixqik Women’s Association, worked to stop violence against women and increase women’s political participation in the department of Petén in northern Guatemala.  On June 3, Gómez, her son, and her daughter, also a women’s rights activist, were gunned down in Petén.  Gómez and her son were killed in the attack, and her daughter was seriously injured.  Not long afterward, other members of the staff of Ixqik received phonecalls threatening that they would meet the same fate if they continued the work of defending and promoting women’s rights in the area.[4]

The violent clash between rising “feminismo” and ancient “machismo” has only been heightened by a recent period of increased poverty.  As in the United States, increased poverty in Guatemala is tied to increased violence, and according to official statistics, extreme poverty in Guatemala rose from 16% in 2000 to 21% in 2004.  As times get tougher, men must get tougher too.  Lacking employment, young men seek security in the violent brotherhood of gangs or in the lucrative world of narco-trafficking.  Admittance into these clubs, however, is typically dependent on a man’s ability to prove that he is macho, and the fierce machismo of organized crime sustains itself in part through violence against women.  Vengeance is enacted or territory is marked by murdering the women (girlfriends, sisters, mothers) associated with rivals.  Exacerbating the gang violence is a Washington policy (begun in 1996) to immediately deport gang members in the US to their country of origin.  Young men who fled Guatemala’s civil war during the eighties are now being repatriated in growing numbers.  They return to their homeland as violent criminals, often without any remaining family ties in Guatemala and without much possibility of gaining legal employment. 

Extreme poverty also forces women onto dangerous paths.  While competition for scarce resources can drive men into violent illegal organizations, extreme poverty in rural areas compels many young women to migrate to Guatemala City in search of jobs.  Women as young as fourteen or fifteen arrive in the city with plans to earn the money they will need to survive on their own and help support relatives at home.  Severed from a protective network of families and small communities, young women are made vulnerable in an increasingly violent urban setting.

A History of Violence and Impunity

“Historically, since the conquest, women have been attacked and abused.  What has prevailed is impunity in the violation of the human rights of women.”
– Giovana Lemus of the Guatemalan Women’s Group (GGM) [5]

While the rise of extreme poverty, gang violence, and feminism do put women at significantly greater risk, these recent factors, also at work in neighboring countries, do not explain the unparalleled surge of femicide that is unique to Guatemala.  In addition to entrenched and violently enforced sexism, Guatemalans live with a culture of violence born out of a 36 year long civil war.  It is this long history of violence and impunity that distinguishes Guatemala as the most dangerous place for women in Latin America. 

After Guatemala’s civil war claimed an estimated 300,000 lives, most Guatemalans were ready to embrace the peace promised by the 1996 Peace Accords.  Although military activity was initially curtailed, however, the Guatemalan people have experienced little respite from the constant violence.  “We are culturally conditioned to violence,” said Juan Pablo Arce Gordillo, Human Rights Advisor for the Ministry of the Interior. 

Maggie, a lawyer with Nuevos Horizontes [New Horizons], a women’s shelter in Quetzaltenango, explained that this cultural conditioning affects women in violent households: “The problem is that most women are victims of violence and don’t recognize it.  We tell them, ‘Listen, you’re in a situation of violence.’ And they say, ‘No, I’m not.  This is normal.'”

Not only was Guatemala’s civil war one of the longest and bloodiest in Latin America, but it was also a particularly ruthless war for unarmed female civilians.  Although women made up only a very small part of armed forces on either the government or the guerilla’s side, an estimated 25 percent of the deaths were women.  Many of these killings took place when entire communities were systematically massacred in a state-sanctioned campaign aimed at undermining the rural base of guerilla forces.  During these attacks, the rape and torture of unarmed women by the military was not uncommon. 

Now, more than ten years after the signing of the Peace Accords, the pattern of killings is disturbingly similar.  In a gruesome show of power, the murderers consistently sexually assault, torture, disfigure, and dismember female victims before abandoning them in ditches, trash cans, or garbage bags.  These women suffer distinctly more brutal and sadistic ends than the many men who are murdered in Guatemala every day.  Rosa Franco, whose 15-year old daughter, María Isabel, was raped, beaten, tortured, bound with barbed wire, and killed, said, “What’s happening today is the same as what happened during the war.”

The similarities between the killings during the war and more recent murders of women have led many women’s groups to suspect that the perpetrators may be the same as well.  And their suspicions are made more plausible by another common factor:  impunity.  Ninety-eight percent of human rights abuses committed during the war remain unprosecuted, and 99 percent of femicide cases since 2000 remain unprosecuted.  Many of the men responsible for atrocities during the war have integrated themselves into high levels of the government, and many of the men trained to kill unarmed civilians are now leading narcotrafficking cartels, clandestine “security” groups, or police forces. 

According to Congresswoman Nineth Montenegro, “Organized crime has grown like never before, and it’s permitted in the Public Prosecutor’s Office and in the police.  The police themselves are involved [in the killings of women].”  And because these powerful criminal groups have strong links to the government, bribes or threats buy easy access to “a weak justice system that doesn’t care about the deaths of women.”

Edda Gaviola, executive director of the Center for Legal Action in Human Rights (CALDH), a renowned human rights legal group, also linked impunity in Guatemala with powerful forces of organized crime.[6]  She pointed to the continued existence of illegal clandestine “security” groups that are tied both to the state and to narcotraffickers.  According to Gaviola, these clandestine groups, reportedly headed by former military officers, are implicated in the extrajudicial killings of poor urban youth – both men and women – assumed to delinquents, as well as killings related to narcotrafficking and organized crime. 

Gaviola also confirmed that corruption and organized crime extend into the police and could be a major contributor to the deaths of women in Guatemala.  CALDH’s research shows that areas with high levels of femicide correspond with areas with high levels of police corruption and crime.   

The cycle of violence and impunity is perpetuated even at the highest levels of government.  Nowhere is this more glaringly apparent than in the discourse surrounding the September 9 elections in Guatemala.  The propaganda of over twenty political parties plasters walls, dangles from trees, and competes for space on roadside rocks.  And because the biggest concern of most Guatemalans is the escalating violence, the central promise of nearly every candidate is increased security.  For one leading presidential candidate, Otto Perez Molina, this means implementing a policy called “mano dura” (tough hand) which can include anything from the militarization of the police to social cleansing in urban areas.  However, Molina himself is a known killer.  As a former general, present in Quiché during the massacres of the eighties, he is an embodiment of Guatemala’s continuing impunity.  Nevertheless, many Guatemalans prefer the strong arm tactics of a dictator to the unpredictable violence of the streets.  For this reason, some human rights groups suspect that the candidates themselves are behind a sharp increase in violence in the months leading up to the election.

With violence and impunity permeating every level of Guatemalan society, many Guatemalans feel helpless to make changes within their own country.  Knowing that clandestine groups and politicians will stop at nothing to protect themselves, most Guatemalans are too afraid to speak out about the rising level of violence against women.  Giovana Lemus, director of the Guatemalan Women’s Group (GGM) and coordinator of Network for No Violence Against Women (REDNOVI) reported that of the hundreds of families of victims that she has spoken with, “There are lots of families that know who killed their daughters and why, but they are too afraid to speak up.”[7]

The Official Response

“They laughed at me and told me my daughter was a prostitute.”
– Rosa Franco, mother of María Isabel, 15, who was raped, tortured, and killed in 2001

At the end of our week in Guatemala, we had the opportunity to meet with several government representatives and question them about the state’s response to femicide.  We pointed to the extraordinarily low number of convictions and echoed the frustration of victims’ parents who, after years, are no closer to justice for their daughters. 

The prevalence of gang violence and organized crime in Guatemala has led many in the government to assume that women who are murdered are also either criminals or prostitutes.  Both Rosa Franco and Jorge Velasquez, parents of femicide victims, reported to us that their daughters were initially written off as prostitutes who were responsible for their own murders.  Giovana Lemus calls this inaccurate and irresponsible portrayal “revictimizing the victim.”  The majority of women killed in Guatemala, including the daughters of Rosa Franco and Jorge Velasquez, are not directly involved with organized crime.  They are students, housewives, factory workers, and domestic servants.  But as Lemus notes, “It’s easier to say that they’re sex workers or part of organized crime than to assume responsibility.”

Besides the victim herself, police and officials often blame gangs and “crimes of passion” in cases of femicide.  Rosa María Salazar, a lawyer for the Public Prosecutor’s Office, named both of these, as well as “satanist cults,” as main factors in the rise of femicide.  Edda Gaviola and CALDH contend, however, that gangs play a far lesser role in femicide than the kind of organized crime that is linked to the state.  While gangs are a significant problem in their own right, they also provide a convenient scapegoat and easy justification for violence perpetrated by the state. 

“Crimes of passion” were described by Salazar as crimes committed by a man against a woman who had been unfaithful to him.  Because only unfaithful women are the victims of crimes of passion, this represents another form of blaming the victim as well as another easy attribution that does little to advance justice.  While domestic violence is a severe problem in Guatemala, CALDH’s research indicates that only 30 percent of recent femicides could be attributed to that cause.  The majority of cases seem more likely to have been executed by perpetrators outside the family.     

In another meeting, Juan Pablo Arce Gordillo, of the Ministry of the Interior, called for tougher sentences for the murderers of women.  He suggested we pressure the legislative, rather than the executive, branch of the government, so that new laws could be passed to punish perpetrators more severely.  While his perspective represents a common view in Guatemala, it hardly seems practical to pursue harsher sentences when fewer than one percent of femicide cases are ever even brought to trial. 

Many of those we spoke to also pointed to a lack of resources.  This is a formidable barrier in Guatemala that, combined with entrenched sexism and impunity, has led to a shocking level of unprofessionalism in the police and investigative forces.  Jorge Velasquez, father of Claudina Isabel, a 19 year old law student murdered last year, told us that the police never processed the crime scene, never questioned witnesses, never established the place or time of death, and only came to take fingerprints at the last minute, during his daughter’s funeral service.  Since her death, he has quit his job to devote himself entirely to investigating and pushing forward his daughter’s case. 

With the upcoming election, we wondered if there might be hope for change.  Most of the women’s groups we met with were skeptical.  When asked which candidate might represent some hope for women’s rights, Giovana Lemus replied, “We see that all the candidates represent a threat to our efforts.”  She noted that some politicians had paid lip service to the issue but very few had followed through by making substantive changes. “We’re fighting to get them to sign contracts so that if they are elected, they’ll have to fulfill their commitment or at least we won’t regress on what we’ve achieved.” 

Indeed, the majority of Guatemalans seem to be regarding the frenetic presidential race with ample suspicion.  Most people I spoke with cited candidates’ links with the military or with organized crime as the reason for their lack of faith or interest in the electoral process.  In an atmosphere of so much corruption, violence, and impunity, very few hold out hope for change within the system.  And with decreasing faith in the government and justice system comes new waves of violence as more and more cases emerge of people turning to vigilante justice to maintain order in their communities.  

Partnerships for Change

“We need to approve the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala [CICIG] because it would be an organization apart.” – Nineth Montenegro, Congresswoman

In our meetings with over 15 individuals and organizations in Guatemala, we came to understand impunity as the greatest cause of femicide in Guatemala.  As Jorge Velasquez said, “The government has extended an invitation to murderers to kill.”  Impunity not only contributes to the murders of women, but also to the murders of men, to a loss of faith in government, to a disintegration of the rule of law, and to the widespread fear that keeps women in their homes after dark. 

For these reasons, the UN proposed the formation of an International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).[8]  If approved by the Guatemalan Congress, the CICIG would bring an independent group of international investigators to help uncover the workings of clandestine groups and reveal their links in Guatemalan society.  Needless to say, many in the Congress were opposed to the CICIG, and it failed to pass in 2006.  In a revised form, it came to the floor of Congress again this year.  Groups within Guatemala as well as the governments of Europe and the United States redoubled their efforts to pressure the Guatemalan government to pass the CICIG.  Resistance persisted from Guatemalan politicians who feared exposure, and few in the activist community expected it to pass.

But, thanks in part to a timely New York Times editorial, Guatemalan lawmakers felt the eyes of the world on them, and on August 1, the CICIG passed against all odds.  However, it remains to be seen how effectively it will be implemented within Guatemala.  At the most, it could be a meaningful step toward ending impunity in Guatemala and toward creating a safer, more just home for Guatemalan women.  At the least, it represents the power of the United States and other governments to sway the politics of Guatemala through international pressure. 

Because of the passage of the CICIG and because of the dedication and courage of the women I met in Guatemala, I returned to the US with a commitment to raise awareness about femicide.  With the hope that greater awareness among US representatives could lead to greater pressure on the Guatemalan government, I am urging my Senators to co-sponsor Senate Resolution 178.  It extends solidarity to the families of victims, condemns the murders of women in Guatemala, and advises specific steps that the Guatemalan government can take to begin to address femicide.  For me, the resolution represents a chance to express, through my government, my immense respect for the bravery and commitment of the women I met during the delegation and my hope that they will begin to feel safer stepping out – both into their communities at night and into the difficult social, cultural, and political battles that must be fought for a more just Guatemala. 

To learn more, visit the website of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission at

Organization Names in Spanish:

[1] La Secretaría Presidencial de la Mujer de Guatemala

[2] Coordinadora Departamental de Comadronas Tradicionales de Quetzaltenango

[3] La Asociación de Desarrollo Comunitario del Cantón Panabaj

[4] Asociación de Mujeres de Peten Ixqik

[5] Grupo Guatemalteco de Mujeres

[6] Centro de Acción Legal en Derechos Humanos

[7] Red nacional de la No Violencia contra las Mujeres

[8] Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala