Femicide Courts in Guatemala: A Beacon of Light in the Fight against Impunity

Amid highest murder rate for women in the country, specialized judges confront gender-based violence.

Source: Latinamerica Press

On Mar. 15, 2013, around 9:30 a.m., 18-year-old law student Estéfani Julissa Estrada Neill, from the highland department of Quetzaltenango, sneaked out of her classroom and got into a green pick-up truck parked opposite the campus’ main entrance where a young man appeared to be waiting for her. That was the last time her friends saw her alive.

A few hours later, around noon, Estrada’s body was found on a gravel path leading to the nearby village of Xecaracoj. She had been strangled and her cellphone and wallet were missing.

Estrada’s fellow students, who proved to be key witnesses in the case, told police investigators the young man she had disappeared with was her ex-boyfriend, 18-year-old Óscar Zacarías Ordóñez. The couple had secretly dated for a year as her parents didn’t approve of the relationship, and had continued to see each other sporadically after they split up. Estrada had confided to her friends that she feared she could be pregnant and that her ex-boyfriend had urged her not to tell anyone.

Records handed over by Estrada’s cellphone service provider showed that prior to her death the young student had received a number of phone calls from a number in the nearby municipality of Olintepeque, where her ex-boyfriend lived.

The police searched his house and found Estrada’s cellphone and wallet as well as chilling evidence: two photos of the dead teenager inside Zacarías Ordóñez’s vehicle. They had been taken at 10:52 a.m. the day she was found.

Based on this evidence and the testimony of Estrada’s fellow students, the public prosecutor’s office charged Zacarías Ordóñez with femicide — gender-based homicide — in a trial held in a new type of court specializing in violence against women. On October 26, he was given a 50-year-prison sentence.

Frightening figures

Estrada was one of 759 women who suffered a violent death in Guatemala in 2013, according to the National Institute of Forensic Sciences (INACIF), a 7 percent increase over 2012. Twenty one percent of those women were strangled, like Estrada; 69 percent were shot, 9 percent were stabbed and 1 percent was dismembered.  

Over the past five years, 3,577 women have been murdered in Guatemala, a country ranked by the Central American Integration System (SICA) and the Council of Ministers of Women´s Affairs of Central America (COMMCA) as having the highest number of femicides in the region.

Guatemala is also one of the most violent countries in the world overall, with a murder rate of 48 per 100,000 people, compared to the Latin American average of 25 per 100,000 and a global average of nine per 100,000.

Zacarías Ordóñez’s trial was held at the Court for Crimes of Femicide and Other Forms of Violence Against Women in Quetzaltenango, one of the five departments where specialized courts for gender-based crimes have been set up following the approval of a Law Against Femicide in 2008.

“This law drew attention to the problem of violence against women and to the fact that femicide is not simply the female counterpart to homicide; it is the result of unequal power relations and there are specific human rights that aim to help those groups to overcome their conditions of inequality,” explained to Latinamerica Press Hilda Morales Trujillo, director of the Public Prosecutor’s Office Victim Services Coordination Department.

Significant progress

In 2010, Guatemala became the first country in the world to create these specialized courts and so far the results have been encouraging. According to figures supplied by the Center for Judicial Information, Development and Statistics (CIDEJ), while in ordinary courts less than 10 percent of femicides and other forms of violence against women result in conviction and sentencing, in the specialized courts it exceeds 30 percent.

“The key to these courts’ success is the fact that the judges who hear the cases have been thoroughly trained [in gender issues]. This training process makes them far more open-minded so they don’t resort to stereotypes such as ‘women enjoy being beaten’ or ‘only poor women get beaten’,” Morales said.

Most of the judges who hear the cases are women. The courts also employ a psychologist and a social worker, and have daycare facilities to look after children while their mothers testify, so the difficulty of finding childcare does not hinder their participation in trials. “Thanks to these services, attendance has improved, whereas before the victims used to report the crime and didn’t show up again. We’ve managed to empower the victims so they don’t give up,” said Judge Ana María Rodríguez to Latinamerica Press.

Another innovation is that these courts record the victim’s ethnic background, age and relationship with the attacker — statistical evidence crucial for research purposes.  Statistics provided by CIDEJ show that more than 60 percent of aggressors, like Óscar Zacarías Ordóñez, are the victim’s husband or intimate partner.

Despite the progress made, Judge Miriam Méndez of the Femicide Court in the department of Guatemala, said shortcomings in the use of forensic evidence and excessive reliance on testimonial evidence remain a problem. Angélica Valenzuela, head of the Center for Research, Training and Support for Women (CICAM) added that these specialized courts are still not operating all over the country.

As the country’s grim statistics show, although gender-based justice can be a beacon of light in the fight against impunity, much remains to be done to guarantee Guatemalan women their right to a life free from violence