Since 2000, more than 3800 (and by some estimates as many as 5000) women and girls have been murdered in Guatemala. Nationwide, only 1-2% of murders are effectively prosecuted in Guatemala meaning that in these cases, as in all others, prosecution and punishment is rare. And notably, in the crimes against women, often called ‘femicide,’ meaning the murder of women because they are women, the murders are not only frequent, but brutal: women are raped, murdered and mutilated, their bodies discovered in garbage bags and found in public places.
In response to this, the recently elected President, retired right-wing general Otto Pérez Molina, has announced the creation of a new task force to address the country’s high femicide rate. Courts in Guatemala passed a law last year that would formally recognize femicide as a crime comprising both physical and psychological elements of violence against women, but it hasn’t resulted in the crimes being solved more often. The new femicide unit, which aims to reduce the number of these crimes by 25 percent in its first year will be led by former Prosecutor Mirna Carrera.
So far, women’s rights advocates are supportive of the increased attention to the issue. Mayra Sandoval, a representative of the non-governmental Observatory against Femicide said:
“Femicide is being addressed as a matter of state policy, and a message is being sent out to aggressors that their actions will not be tolerated and that they will be punished.”
According to Amnesty International, Guatemalan women experience one of the highest levels of violence in the world; and while death rates have steadily risen over the past 12 years, prosecutions and convictions for these crimes have not. Approximately two percent of femicide cases ever reach sentencing, so the government’s new task force has a daunting task. To solve the crimes against women and to change the attitude of impunity. Guatemala’s attorney general Claudia Paz, admits the disparity for crimes against women:
“The justice system hasn’t given violence cases the importance they deserve. And with violence against women, the problem is even worse.”
Historically this has been an issue for women from indigenous communities,who are targeted for rape, sexual violence, torture and murder. In the past, little has been done to counter it: attacks were rarely investigated and seldom brought to trial. This, of course, has happened in the context of many genocidal practices against the indigenous people of Guatemala, occurring with government complicity.
But the attention to the issue is growing: last month, two Nobel Peace Prize winners, Rigoberta Menchu and Jody Williams, came to Guatemala to shine a spotlight on the femicides. So the attention and energy is good, and will hopefully help stop these crimes and acknowledge the historical violence against women, oppression and poverty that have allowed this to happen for so long and to so many.