Feminicide in Guatemala: A Link Between Past and Present

The current feminicide crusade in Guatemala takes root in the unjust bloodbath of a culture that views women as objects in which to install fear, terror and extreme submission. Guatemala’s recent history involves a good deal of indigenous blood; frustration and bitterness over these past injustices lives on in succeeding generations. Armed groups, especially those in rival gangs, release their anger through the one aspect that unequivocally connects the generations and is far from being a stranger to this county: violence. The mode of retaliation towards the injustices that have characterized Guatemalan society has led to a steady deadly dosage of violent actions against women.

The feminine subordination witnessed in Guatemala’s contemporary Mayan population, began in 1524 with the arrival of the conquistador, Pedro de Alvarado. The Spanish subjugated the great Mayan empire to their rule “with the sword and the cross.” In effect, throughout the Mayan Late Post-Classic period, the indigenous population declined from 800,000 to 100,000, mainly due to the diseases brought by the Conquistadores and the continued exploitation of the local population. The stable, traditional rule of the Maya became replaced by the hierarchically structured social classes of the Spanish, completing a hierarchical pyramid where the native Maya composed the bottom base and the Spanish-born elite claimed the apogee.

Once Guatemala gained its freedom from the Spanish Crown in 1821, the nation’s elite continued the repression of the lower classes through the overbearing corporations such as the United States-based United Fruit Company that mercilessly exploit resources and through the support of home-grown military dictators like Jorge Ubico, who ruled from 1933 to 1944. A short-lived democracy appeared in Guatemala from 1944 to 1954 with the election of Juan José Arévalo Bermejo and his successor, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. In 1954 Arbenz stepped down after an uprising, backed by the U.S. government and the CIA, which threatened to destroy the country’s democratic institutions. Several dictatorships followed until 1986 after which civilian presidents were elected.

The Grim Tell
Torture, death and disappearances permeate Guatemala’s modern history. Professor and author Peter Winn describes the Northern Highlands from 1928 to 1985 as “green valleys ran red with blood.” Between the 1960s and the 1990s, “at least 80,000 people were killed or ‘disappeared’…while 200,000 or more had to flee their homes.” Most were the victims of the military and associated death squads. In March 1999, the United Nations confirmed a total of 130,000 political murders, 45,000 disappeared, 50,000 widows, 250,000 orphans, 500,000 Guatemalan refugees in Mexico, 1,000,000 internally displaced people and 440 villages destroyed from 1978 to 1982. Yet the violence that resounded during the civil war has not ended, but instead now has been disproportionately redirected towards women.

Violence against women, usually against impoverished mestizas in urban areas, increased between 2000 and 2004 by 112.25 percent. During the same time, 1,501 women were violently murdered. About 25,000 of them were reported as victims of violence in 2003, and in 2004, the number of women killed reached 527. Yet the government has done almost nothing to try to stop this new wave of violence against women, aptly termed “feminicide.” Punishing aggression of this type is not their priority; therefore, no specific action has been taken to halt these heinous crimes. The traditional lack of interest and dedication on the part of the police has lead to a slew of unsolved crimes against women. In 160 cases studied in 2004, 73 percent of the forensic reports “could not” identify the possible aggressors, the where the body was found, the motive, the civil state of the victim, place nor could they determine if any sexual aggression was directed towards the victim.

No specific female demographic cohort has been targeted, suggesting that the problem is societal and not the act of a single group. In 2003, only 9 percent of the victims were students; most of them usually from lower classes with low-skilled domestic jobs. In 2004, 31 percent of victims were housewives, 13 percent students, five percent domestic employees or vendors, three percent were secretaries, two percent prostitutes and 37 percent of unknown occupation. Photographs of the victims, from an investigation by the Inter-American Human Rights Court, revealed that targets vary; there are “faces of unkempt youth, the elderly, girls; faces of white, mestizas, indigenous and housewives.” The only common thread the victims share is their gender.

The violent way in which the crimes are carried out intensifies the cruelty. Nancy Peralta, a university student kidnapped in 2002, died of 48 stab wounds and a broken neck. The body of 16 year-old María Isabel was completely coiled with barbed wire; she died of an ax blow to the head. Stories like these are common, and they produce a flashback to 30 years ago, during the country’s brutal civil war in which violence took hold in every one of its corners and in which 150,000 people were killed or disappeared. As the Guatemala’s morgue chief, Mario Guerra, declared:

    “they say that she froze to death, I know that she died of torture, machete wounds, strangulation, mutilation, dismemberment, blows, rape…I had previously seen cases of this type of violence, but only during the war.”

“A Policy of Social Cleansing”
The unknown reasons for the specific targeting of women remains the most upsetting characteristic of this latest chapter of feminicide. The Guatemalan police force, the PNC (Policía Nacional Civil), blames gangs, personal conflicts, drug trafficking and/or common delinquencies. The government supports the theory that organized crime and drug trafficking networks use these brutal acts as distractions or justifications to cover their main activities. Still, none of these theories explain why so many women are brutally tortured before and after death.

Violence against the female gender as an engine of fear can be traced back to the civil car and is compounded by the fact that “Guatemala has always been characterized by a patriarchal and male-dominated society, where women are criminalized and robbed of their rights,” according to Mujeres Universia, a group focused on reducing violence against women. During the Guatemalan civil war, rape and sexual violence were common, everyday strategies to reflect a power struggle between the subordinate victim, and the dominant aggressor. These tactics and their perpetrators almost always went unpunished, even at the end of the Civil War. Thus, no repercussions were associated with violence; instead, violence became a usual and socially integrated tactic. The Guatemalan Human Rights Organization (Procuraduría de Derechos Humanos, PDH), which focuses on the implications of these gendered-systematic mutilations, tortures, and killings, agrees with this view, seeing gender discrimination against lower-class women as “a policy of social cleaning.” A book published by the Archbishopric of Guatemala in 1998 and the 1999 Commission Report for the Historic Clarification also see violence against women as a deliberate action to purify society. Both of these documents focus the blame on the military and conclude that violence against women is an attempt to define the outcome of the next generations and “to better the race just like the Spanish did during the Spanish Conquest,” as well as to plant the “seed of the triumphant one.”

Decades of constant degradation have turned women into complacent recipients of unjust treatment. Women, mostly of the lower classes, are brought up as servants to their fathers and male siblings. Boys are given the luxury of education, while the girls must tend to the family. In the lower and middle classes of Guatemalan society women completely embody the traditional role of servitude. Even in the higher classes, women take on the role of “trophy wives” instead of that of the role of an independent woman. Since childhood, women’s goals are to become wives and mothers, and are never given the opportunity to pursue their own path in life. Therefore, by consenting to their subservient roles, women allow themselves to be seen and treated as objects, instead of individuals. This exempts from guilt those who violate women’s rights, as they have never seen women as human beings; but are instead only violating an object. Consequently, the country is left with a society that highly values men and their actions, while it ignores the potential accomplishments of women.

Guatemala has a history of pitting its social classes against one another, a habit that again can be traced back to the rule of the Spanish conquistadores. The higher classes continue to fervently believe they have the imprimatur to deny, oppress and kill the lower classes, which reveals their logic is based on the violent, male-dominated society that Guatemala has become. Furthermore, Civil War has given birth to a population that feels that violence is the only way to get their point across. The widespread hate and frustration left over from the devastating armed conflict that went on for more than six decades, manifests itself in the only outlet they know and have grown up with, violence. The fact that feminicide has been committed throughout the entire country shows how pervasively Guatemala has been negatively affected by its modern history. The government’s denial that such injustices exist fosters the continuation of such barbaric practices. Violence has become the modus operandus in Guatemala, be it by revolution or the silencing of revolution.

The Futile Fight
The casualties have risen, as reported by the PDH: in 2003, 383 women were killed; in 2005, 517 women were murdered; in 2006, upwards of 603 were killed; and in 2007, the figure was 590. As of March 9, 2008, 70 women had been found brutally murdered in the country. Although several organizations such as the U.N. and Amnesty International have fought to further improve the conditions of women in this Central American nation, not much progress has been made. One of the main reasons is that those fighting for human rights, be it specifically for the prevention of injustice or the education of women, are also themselves targets of violence. Those guilty of violence towards women over the years do not want to be convicted, those used to treating women as objects see no reason for things to change. Therefore, anyone trying to help better the condition of women is subject to violent intimidation, ranging from threatening text messages, phone calls and physical beatings, to torture, rape or murder.

The inevitable consequences of providing aid for women, tends to dissuade members of justice and peace organizations from action because they and their family members are constantly in danger. When Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú began to work for the improvement of Guatemalan indigenous groups and for the disclosure of the injustices committed during the civil war, members of her family, including her brother, mother and father, were tortured and killed as an act of intimidation by the country’s death squads.

Guatemala needs its predictably timorous government to act more boldly when it comes to the protection of basic rights, and to be more highly involved in the advancement of women’s rights. The government needs to increase funding for grassroots organizations dedicated to helping women become better educated and meaningfully autonomous. Also, it needs to ensure the safety of national and international organizations such as Amnesty International, the United Nations and the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, so that they can continue to carry out their investigative work on women’s safety issues. The authorities must crack down on the National Police Force for neglecting to investigate cases of feminicide. The police force must also be re-educated and re-trained to work in a professional manner in order to achieve gender-equality in Guatemala.

Because women have so little to say regarding what they do in their daily lives, they have few means to control any type of abuse directed at them. The scant prospect for hope that they now have lies in local and foreign organizations willing to put their lives on the line in order to affect the quest of improvements in a country so instinctively hostile to women.

1. Mujeres Universia. Contra el feminicidio en Guatemala. Portal Universia Online. Madrid, 2005.

2. Feminicidio en Guatemala. ADITAL: Noticias de América Latina y Caribe, Online. Brasil, 2006.

3. History of Guatemala. Online, 2006.

4. Martinez, Nery. Guatemla 36 años de Represión. Guatemala: History, Social Issues and Human Rights of Guatemala. Online.

5. Skidmore, Thomas E. & Smith, Peter H. Modern Latin America. Sixth Edition. Oxford University Press. New York 2005.

6. Steinsleger, José. Feminicidio en Guatemala. La Jornada en Internet. México, 2005

7. Winn Peter. Americas: The Changing Face of Latin America and the Caribbean. Third Edition. California University Press. California 2006.

8. Al menos 70 mujeres asesinadas en 2008. Univision Online. http://www.univision.com/content/content.jhtml;jsessionid=CLN3VNO0LM33SCWIAAOCFFQKZAAB0IWC?cid=1460311. March 9, 2008.