A Functioning Democracy? The Intolerable Abuses of Guatemalan Women

CAFTA – The Bush administration insists that CAFTA should be seen as a reward for a job well done when it comes to democracy building. While modest progress has occurred in terms of strengthening democratic institutions – for the most part, Central America is composed of corrupt governments that are not responsive to the needs of their populations, which haven’t even fulfilled most of their commitments to the UN–brokered Central American Peace Process. The plight of Guatemala’s women is just part of an Alice in Wonderland story that the Bush administration is inaccurately supplying the American people.

The Case
“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.” (An interview conducted by Amnesty International)

Unfortunately, the brutal acts of violence perpetrated against María Isabel have become commonplace for far too many Guatemalan women and have claimed the lives of more than 1,000 victims over the past three years. While authorities remain baffled by the mounting numbers of female casualties, particularly in recent years, their efforts to quell the problem have produced only marginal results. An official of the Guatemalan embassy in Washington pointed out that, “What had the authorities most alarmed was the viciousness of the crimes.” According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, 1,188 women had been abducted and frequently brutalized between the years of 2001 and 2004 alone. Moreover, these figures understate the magnitude of the loss because many families refused to report their missing loved ones due to a lack of faith in the government and a fear for their own lives.

Contributing Factors to Violence against Women
Many of the acts of violence committed against Guatemalan women and girls take place within their own family circle or at their workplaces. Commercial trafficking and sexual exploitation have played major roles as well, particularly in recent months. The victims of these human rights abuses vary greatly and include students, housewives, professionals, domestic employees, unskilled workers and sex workers. Although the murders mainly result from a number of different motives and were committed by both state and non-state culprits, studies frequently indicate a “gender-base” in which the sex of the victim serves as a significant factor in the crime. Such gender-base factors influence the motive, context and the type of violence suffered by women, as well as the speed with which the authorities respond. In many of these cases women also endure rape or some other form of sexual violence before being killed, further suggesting that there is a strong gender-base associated with these acts.

Regrettably, the amount of reliable information regarding the full extent of the violence being committed against Guatemalan women is limited. Many official documents exclude sex-related data, rendering such violence almost impossible to quantify. In order for the Guatemalan government and the international community to successfully address the growing violence against women, it is imperative that reliable data be produced that includes sex-based categories.

Recently, many of Guatemala’s urban areas have experienced a surge in crime rates due to an increase in gang activity. Trafficking of drugs and arms, kidnapping for ransom and the activities of youth-dominated street gangs not only lead to higher death rates for the general population, but for women in particular, with many of the female fatalities occurring in urban settings.

The Historical Roots of the Problem
The widespread violence toward Guatemalan women, while alarming, is deeply rooted in Guatemala’s history. Throughout a 36-year internal armed conflict lasting until 1996, Guatemala remained a male-dominated society in which the subordination of women was both expected and encouraged. A total of 50,000 women “disappeared” during the period of the armed conflict. The sexual violence that many of the victims suffered, which often resulted in pregnancy and the contraction of sexually transmitted diseases, not only stripped them of their dignity, but created profound psychological ramifications as well. However, the international community may never fully know the magnitude of these sexual abuses, due in part to a lack of proper documentation, but also because many women refused to go public with their testimonies, citing internal guilt and a fear of rejection by their communities. This psychological complex is shared by many Guatemalan women, and it represents a major impediment to solving the endemic problem of violence against women.

Many of those thought to be responsible for committing violence against women during the era of armed conflict were never brought to justice. The signs of sexual violence on the victims bodies, however, have left the imprints of these shameless atrocities that continue to occur and go unpunished but are remembered by their survivors. The legacy of a weakened female role and the impunity of the perpetrators continue to foster much of the discriminatory and often arbitrary violence that still threatens the lives of Guatemalan women today.

The Guatemalan Response
Despite the outrageous disregard for human life exhibited by these violent acts, the Guatemalan government has done little to counteract the killings, sometimes refusing to even acknowledge the magnitude of the problem. Commitments to the improvement of women’s rights after the 1996 peace accords have remained unfulfilled. In addition to this apparent indifference, the government’s failure to bring those responsible for the crimes to justice has only contributed to this rapidly growing trend, as rape prosecutions are infrequent and sexual harassment often goes unacknowledged, let alone punished. It would seem that with the killings of women in Guatemala having more than doubled over the past two years, the government cannot afford to ignore the problem much longer.

Although recently the government has improved its undercover investigation of the crimes, particularly with the monitoring of street gangs, these efforts have only yielded marginal results in comparison to the more than 36-year legacy of abuses. It is imperative that the authorities adopt stricter laws for offenses against women and assume a more proactive role, at the very least, in curbing the disarming trend of abuses. A failure to do so would be a breach of the government’s responsibility to the Guatemalan people.

The International Response
Although in recent years the ongoing abuse of women taking place in Mexico’s border city of Juárez have gained widespread attention, the international community has yet to adequately recognize and effectively address the acts of violence that occur almost daily in Guatemala City. The number of women slain in Juárez amounted to approximately 300 deaths over the past 11 years, while over 400 women were killed in Guatemala in only one year. International outrage and immediate attention must be directed not only toward the Juárez atrocities, but to those taking place in Guatemala as well.

Despite the blatant crimes committed against Guatemalan women, the U.S. has chosen to all but ignore the problem, instead rewarding the Guatemalan military with $3.2 million in aid in March of 2005, while burying the subject during the current CAFTA debate. Washington claimed that the Guatemalan government had made marked improvements in reforming its army, which played the greatest role in committing human rights abuses during the internal armed conflict, and thus allegedly deserved the benefits of U.S. financial support. However, if such military reform efforts had really been successful, the Guatemalan government would have brought a greater number of those responsible for abuses against women to justice, a feat that has not yet been achieved.