UNITED NATIONS (WOMENSENEWS)--In the first four months of this year, almost 200 women in Guatemala were murdered.
Like the other 1,800 women who have been killed in that country since 2001, they were young and poor, usually hailing from the cities. Their bodies were found in gutters and empty lots, sometimes missing breasts or eyes, sometimes beheaded and, other times, cut to pieces.
During the past five years, only 14 of these murder cases have been resolved. And there may be hundreds more murders that have gone unreported.
While far more men than women are murdered in Guatemala, the rate at which women are being killed has jumped dramatically in the past four years and the sexualized circumstances of the slayings alarms local and international rights advocates.
"The gall with which these women are killed is telling women that they shouldn't be on the street, that they should go back home," Juana Batzibal, a human rights lawyer with the Center for Legal Action on Human Rights (CALDH) in Guatemala City, told Women's eNews.
Over 100 members of Congress signed a letter in May asking the U.S. State Department to provide technical and financial support to Guatemala to fully investigate the attacks on women.
Sponsored by three Democratic congressional representatives from California--Barbara Lee, Tom Lantos and Hilda Solis--the letter urged the State Department to help reinforce forensic teams in Guatemala, increase support for victims' rights advocates and assist the government in implementing a national plan to prevent domestic violence.
This summer, the Washington-based Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA is organizing a delegation of U.S. professional rights advocates and other concerned individuals to visit the country, meet with women's rights leaders and government officials and look into efforts to curb violence against women.
International Vigilance Sought
"Only through international vigilance can change happen," Batzibal told Women's eNews.
An Amnesty International report last year found insufficient financial and human resources assigned to investigating the murders, with police reporting that 40 percent of the cases were never probed. Victims' families also complained to Amnesty that they had to prove the murdered women were not prostitutes or gang members before authorities would take their cases seriously.
"Violence against women is acceptable not just in pop culture, but also in how the police and government respond or fail to respond to these murders," said Alyson Kozma, coordinator for Amnesty International's Women's Human Rights Program in Washington, D.C.
About a third of the murders are thought to be committed within the family, but the motives for the rest remain unclear. The government has attributed the increase in violence against women to gangs and drug trafficking. Amnesty noted that for rival gangs, controlling women's sexual activities--and murdering them as punishment for "betrayals"--has become a show of power.
Batzibal told Women's eNews she sees disturbing similarities to murders during the country's 36-year civil war, such as the age of the women, their social and economic status and the sexualized nature of the killings.
The conflict between the military government and leftist guerillas--which ended 10 years ago--left 200,000 dead, the majority of them unarmed civilians from the country's indigenous Maya population. Rape and sexual violence were central to the military's counter-insurgency strategy, and about one-fourth of those killed during the conflict were women.
Batzibal said the failure to hold accountable those responsible for the wartime human rights abuses has created a culture of impunity and helped perpetuate extreme forms of violence against women.
"Justice has never been part of Guatemala," she said.
Amnesty's Kozma drew a parallel between Guatemala and Juarez, Mexico, where as many as 400 women have been brutally murdered since 1993 in unsolved cases.
"In both places, the murders are a very clear manifestation of what happens when you have a culture that discriminates against women, and where poor women are seen as disposable."
Escalating Murder Rate
Guatemala, with a population of 14 million, has faced escalating murder and crime rates in the past five years; homicides increased by 40 percent between 2001 and 2004. In 2005, the murder rate was 35 per every 100,000 inhabitants. The U.S. murder rate is 5.5 per 100,000.
The percentage of Guatemalan female murder victims has risen even faster. According to official police numbers from 2002, 163 women were murdered, accounting for 4.5 percent of all killings. By 2005, 665 women were murdered, 12 percent of all murders. Most of the victims were between 14 and 35.
More disconcerting than the four-fold increase in female murders has been the brutality of the killings. Unlike male victims, the bodies of murdered women are often found mutilated and disfigured, bearing signs of torture and rape.
In May, the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights brought Batzibal to New York to testify before a committee at the United Nations, which was evaluating Guatemala's compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW.
Widely seen as an international women's bill of rights, CEDAW was adopted in 1979 by the U.N. and ratified by Guatemala in 1982.
Batzibal acknowledged that the government had made some attempts to introduce the rule of law, but she told the U.N. committee that implementation and follow-through were lacking.
Femicide Commission in Guatemala
Guatemalan officials told the U.N. committee that the country has established a commission to study the problem of femicide and facilitate cooperation among different branches of government.
In the past year, four new positions were created for district attorneys charged specifically with prosecuting women's murders. Additionally, prosecutors and the police are working to coordinate the gathering of statistics and collect better data.
The U.N. committee members, however, continued to express concern over the killings, and called on the government to bring its domestic laws in line with international human rights standards, streamline its process for addressing violence against women and publicly condemn the murders.
Guatemala established a national Female Homicide Unit in 2004 with 15 officers, each with a caseload of over 20 cases, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Investigations also have been hampered by the absence of a DNA laboratory that could analyze evidence.
Human rights activists say that Guatemala has a track record of listening to the international community, particularly the United States.
The United States was one of six "Friends of Guatemala" countries that supported the nation's 1996 U.N.-brokered peace accords that ended the civil war.
The United States provides $45 million in development aid to Guatemala annually, mostly for investments in health, education and other social services. Last year the U.S. Congress also approved the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which liberalizes trade between the U.S. and five Central American countries, including Guatemala.
"This is one case where U.S.-based activism is likely to have a tangible impact on the ground," said Kozma of Amnesty International.
Bojana Stoparic is a freelance writer based in New York.
For more information:
For Women's Right to Live--Delegation to Guatemala:
Amnesty International: Stop the Killings of Women in Guatemala:
Center for Legal Action on Human Rights (CALDH)