Women in Danger

December 29 2005 | by

WHEN I WAS documenting the murders of women in Ciudad Juarez (Mexico) in February 2004, I learned that many more women were being violently killed in Guatemala, but that it was not widely known internationally. I decided that it was very important to document the violence affecting  women in Guatemala in order to inform the international community so that it can put pressure on the government of that country to take measures to stop the violence. I was last in Guatemala in 1979 during the dirty war which lasted 36 years until the United Nations-brokered Peace Accords in 1996.


When I arrived in Guatemala City in June 2005 the atmosphere of fear that gripped the city reminded me of my previous visit. The war has been over for nearly ten years, but the killing of people has not ended. There are disturbing similarities between the killings of women then and now. Men and women are being killed, but the women are being tortured, raped and mutilated, recalling the brutality of the crimes committed by the Guatemalan armed forces during the dirty war.
Another characteristic of the crimes is the failure of the Guatemalan authorities to carry out investigations and to detain and prosecute the people who are committing the murders. In these circumstances, those responsible continue to murder with impunity, and every year increasing numbers of women are being killed. Nearly 1,700 Guatemalan women have been murdered in the past five years: 184 murders in 2002; 380 in 2003; 527 in 2004, and over ten women per week in 2005, and these are conservative figures.
When I visited the morgue in La Verbena, the bodies of three women who had been murdered overnight were lying on trolleys. Dr. Mario Guerra, Director of the morgue, told me that it was difficult to investigate cases as, without a forensic laboratory in Guatemala, specimens have to be sent to Costa Rica. Most murders are archived and never investigated.

Legacy of war

Why is this brutal violence against women happening in Guatemala? In order to try to understand we need to look into Guatemala's history.
In March 1951, Jacobo Arbenz was elected president with 65 percent of the votes. His agrarian reforms redistributed 1.5 million acres of uncultivated land to around 100,000 families, but his reforms were not popular with everyone.
Arbenz's most powerful opponents were two shareholders from the United Fruit Company which lost land to the reforms. They were also part of Dwight Eisenhower's administration. In June 1954 the US government orchestrated a coup and forced Arbenz to flee the country.
One of the darkest periods in the history of Guatemala followed. According to the report published by the Catholic Church in 1998, Guatemala: Never Again, over 150,000 civilians were killed and over 50,000 disappeared in the 36 year internal armed conflict, and more than 400 villages were razed to the ground, with Mayan farmers the main victims. The report confirmed that 90 percent of the time the perpetrators were members of the Armed Forces or the army-commissioned Civil Defence Patrols. On 26 April 1998, two days after the report was published during a mass in Guatemala City Cathedral, the Auxiliary Bishop of Guatemala, Bishop Juan Gerardi, was brutally murdered on his doorstep. Army officers were found guilty of his murder.
So who is committing these crimes? In recent years there has been an increase in gangs known as Maras involved in drug trafficking and other criminal activities. The authorities accuse the Salvatruchas and other Mara gangs of committing the crimes. These gangs originate from deprived areas in Guatemala. Gargola, however, who comes from these areas, is sceptical, 'We have sisters, daughters, mothers and wives; how could we commit such brutal killings? The police broke my legs with truncheons; many of our friends have been killed by the police or the special forces of the army; we have to defend ourselves when they attack us.'

Women targeted

Women's bodies appear, sometimes beheaded, on the side of paths far from the urban centre in El Incienso shanty town. With a member of the Salvatruchas, one of the most feared mara gangs, I visited the place where the body of a woman had been found that morning. We climbed down to the bottom of a steep hill to a narrow place under a railway bridge, and we found a woman's clothes which the police had not even bothered to take for forensic analysis.
The most marked characteristic of the killings of women is the brutality with which the crimes are being committed. Amnesty International's report published in June 2005, No Protection, No Justice: The Killings of Women in Guatemala, found that, 'Many of the killings of women in Guatemala were exceptionally brutal, often bearing signs of mutilation and disfigurement associated with killings during the internal armed conflict. Despite the lack of detailed forensic information, there is significant evidence to suggest that sexual violence, particularly rape, is a strong component characterizing many of the killings. Amnesty international believes that the level of brutality, mutilation and sexual violence evidenced in many of these cases amounts to torture.'
Most of the women being killed are housewives, students and professionals between 13 and 40 years of age. Many come from the poorer sectors of society, working in low paid jobs as domestic employees, shop or factory workers. Some are migrant workers from neighbouring countries in Central America.

Fighting for justice

The pain and suffering caused to the families of the murdered women is indescribable. Ileana Peralta, 22, says, 'When the crimes began we did not think that we would be affected; we are students concerned with our studies and with living in peace. The murder of our sister provoked a cataclysm in our family. The suffering of knowing that our sister will never return makes it impossible for us to live. The police is not interested in looking for the murderers. The students at the university, usually very vocal, are quiet about the crime.'
'Why are they silent; what are they hiding?' asks Maria Elena Peralta, 32. Their sister, Nancy Karina Peralta Oroxon, 30, was kidnapped on February 1, 2002, from the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City, where she was studying accountancy. The sisters are now studying law, and are working to obtain justice for their sister and other women who have been brutally killed.
I met Rosa Elvira Franco Sandoval, who is in the final stages of her law degree, and mother of Maria Isabel Veliz Franco, 15, in her home in Zona 1. In a corner of her living room is a small shrine with photographs of Maria Isabel on her fifteenth birthday, a rosary and paintings of Jesus. Maria Isabel was killed on December 17, 2001. She had been raped, beaten, and her body had been tied with barbed wire. Despite the evidence available, the police have not carried out forensic tests and her murder has never been investigated.
Rosa remembers her daughter as a warm and loving person, 'Maria Isabel would come to see me at work with the excuse of using my computer, but she would leave me notes, telling me how much she loved me, and thanking me for all I was doing for her and her brother.' Rosa has formed a network with four other bereaved families to fight for justice for their loved ones. 'My faith in God has helped me to continue to live,' she told me.

Mass graves

Poverty is forcing women from neighbouring countries in Central America to migrate to Guatemala City to look for work and better living conditions, often only to be kidnapped by gangs and forced to work as prostitutes. No one knows exactly how many women from other countries are being killed as many are buried in mass graves for unidentified people.
Miurrell Judith Cadena Rodriguez, 22, came from Nicaragua to work in Guatemala City, where she married a Guatemalan. Miurrell was shot in front of her son Ruli, but her murderers have yet to be found. I met her mother, Marta Rodriguez, who had come over from Nicaragua to seek justice for her daughter, and to bring home her grandson now 5 years old. She told me, 'Whatever a woman does, she's still a human being.'
In Villanueva, a small town south of Guatemala City, I walked through a narrow alley to a modest house where I met Cervelia Roldan, grandmother of 7-month-old Anthony Roldan, who was killed alongside his babysitter, Manuela Sac Haz, 19. Anthony was beheaded and Manuela was raped and tortured before being killed. A police officer living nearby, whose clothes were found soaked in Manuela's blood, is the suspected murderer, but after preliminary forensic investigations the case was abandoned.
The suffering of grieving relatives continues. When I said goodbye, Cervelia Roldan was crying and looking at a photograph of her grandson saying, 'Why are you so ungrateful; why did you abandon me?'

Updated on October 06 2016