Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 293 | Diciembre 2005



The Visible and Invisible Aspects of Feminicide

Why are women murdered? And why the youngest and poorest? In Guatemala, we have too many questions still without answers. And though we now hear so much about their deaths, what do we know of their lives?

Diana García

Although the debate over terminology is ongoing and concepts are still being defined, “feminicide” is the word most commonly used in Guatemala to give a name to the murder of women. For the past five years, we’ve been waking up virtually every morning to their faces, names and stories in the news. Night comes, and we can’t help but fill the silence.

The figures for violent deaths of women have been on the rise in the country since 2000. The National Statistics Institute reports that 1,501 women were murdered between then and 2004, which was the peak year, with 527 women homicide victims. Adding the first five months of 2005, the Guatemalan Women’s Group reports 1,882 cases in total.

With so many women raped and murdered in Guatemala in the last five years, we still don’t know the names and faces of those responsible. Even establishing motives is a complicated task, since at least 40% of the cases were never investigated and have been shelved, so the indicators are only descriptive. The media and the authorities only give us stories for public consumption, none of which are of any use in explaining why these killings occur.

Hypotheses, arguments, reasons...

According to the journal Gobernanza, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission has put Guatemala at the top of the list in Latin America with respect to the number of women murdered. While we hold the record, have we made any progress in understanding what’s happening? And to what extent do the statistics, descriptions of the events and hypotheses developed to explain them accurately reflect what’s happening? “The phenomenon”—in singular—is often described as an “epidemic” characterizing “societies in decay,” or socially and culturally “macho” societies that don’t tolerate women going “out in the street.” We’re told that these deaths are “no more” than the peak expression of the daily practice of violence against women that has become normalized, virtually a habit in our society. We’re told that the increasing impoverishment of the last two decades caused by the application of neoliberal policies erupts into violence due to the accumulated frustration among those who are most vulnerable. We hear that the appropriation of women’s bodies is part of the territorial impulse of gangs and organized crime, or that the lingering impact of the war and the continuing repression will mark our society for a long time to come. Which of these arguments are really true?

Many analyses have shown that these crimes are possible only because of the irresponsibility of the state and the justice system, which do not investigate or sanction them. The Guatemalan Institute of Comparative Studies in Penal Sciences goes even further by reminding us that the state’s punitive power selectively criminalizes behavior and thus cannot nor should not be responsible for fighting and eradicating violence.

At the same time, many sectors of society have denounced the corruption, impunity and criminal networks embedded in the state security forces. Those most familiar with the workings of the criminal justice system have proposed any number of responses to this crisis in the system, which is associated with both the serious problems affecting the National Civil Police and the collapse of the prison system.

Representatives of women’s movements have on innumerable occasions pointed out the series of obstacles in current legislation to criminal prosecution of acts of violence against women, which thus legitimizes the prerogatives of masculine power in Guatemalan society. They have argued that what are sometimes seen as simply “poor practices in the justice system” are instead forms of secondary victimization and ways of “disciplining” women.

In addition to striving to make the problem visible and demanding a coherent response from the state, women’s organizations have been working for over three decades to unmask the ideology used by the institutionalized patriarchy to legitimize, justify and naturalize acts of violence against women.

Although they have helped make society aware that official statistics don’t reflect the seriousness or extent of these crimes, the media continues for the most part to present the information irresponsibly. The way they spin certain aspects of the cases or highlight certain facts has not only heightened the sense of insecurity and vulnerability among many women, but also increased the degree of generalization, confusion and simplification of an extremely complex problem. In contrast, our understanding is increased by multidisciplinary, multi-sector investigations and analyses that allow us to more clearly identify the various actors involved along with their varying levels of responsibility, as well as our own.

Childhood and adolescence are key

We have to unmask the historical, political, social, cultural and economic forces that may be operating at the local, regional and global levels. To learn the names and faces of those responsible, we have to develop perspectives that are not mutually exclusive. Daring to interpret this social suffering we now share in order to both survive and eradicate it will require focused, systematic, coordinated efforts at all levels. Such a challenge will also require women to delve into the stages in which our fears and silences are formed.

Our childhood, adolescence and youth have a lot to do with the gender roles we are taught, and which many of us later refuse to continue accepting because they were so arbitrarily assigned to us when we were young. But what does childhood and adolescence have to do with feminicide? According to the National Statistics Institute, 27.6% of the recorded female victims in 2002 were under the age of 18 and another 42.6% were between 18 and 30. The following year, it reported that 23.2% were under 18 and another 33.7% between 18 and 30, a figure with which the Human Rights Ombudsperson concurs.

According to the 2004 report The Situation of Children in Guatemala, published by the Archbishop’s Human Rights Office, the press reported 108 violent deaths of females under 18 in 2002 and 256 in 2004. The National Civil Police reported a national total of 1,400 murders of minors in only three years. The judicial branch reported 862 murders of minors in two years in the department of Guatemala alone.

Clearly, the reports from the various sources intersect. Are children and young people are also being cut down by the state’s irresponsibility and the high social “tolerance” for violence, although perhaps less visibly? Could these violent deaths of minors be part of what we define as feminicide? Are there power relations within or between the genders that help explain them? Do we have sufficient evidence to either affirm or dismiss this possibility?

Ever greater expectations
and ever fewer opportunities

To exercise power and symbolically, physically and materially subject women in order to guarantee its own reproduction, the patriarchy couldn’t restrict its domination solely to a biologically different “other” of the same generation. To perpetuate its existence, patriarchal power tirelessly seeks to control and govern the energies, times, spaces, meanings and ways of being not only of women, but also of men and of the adolescents and children of the coming generations.

We haven’t yet done sufficient research on feminicide in Guatemala, but the various reports to date concur that the majority of victims are young women from the poorer and increasingly impoverished classes. They come from marginalized urban neighborhoods where people’s expectations and imaginations have been expanding but the limits of their lives and security have shrunk and in many cases effectively disappeared, as historian Deborah Levenson argues.

Several studies have shown that although the problem also affects rural areas, it is most severe in urban areas, especially the misnamed “red” zones. In an assumption that serves multiple interests, the easiest interpretation is simply to attribute the brunt of the responsibility to young people who are strongly conditioned from birth then systematically and increasingly “restricted” and “criminalized” through their participation in gangs in a manner not limited to reactive punishment for real criminal acts but through aggressive image campaigns and preemptive repression.

Perhaps young people have more to do with us than we dare think, fearing that such thoughts will reveal the similarities and differences in our identities. As much as we may want to share criteria to avoid the splintering of our efforts; and as much as we decide to distance ourselves from the stigmatizing, criminalizing and repression scarring the younger generation, we may bear more responsibility that we’re willing to admit.

A problem for women alone?

Is feminicide strictly a women’s issue? Incredible as it seems, it sometimes appears to be so, particularly when institutions view the sexual violence exercised against women as merely an excess that occurs in the course of a homicide. Or when women’s bodies are turned into objects by a justice system that still allows perpetrators of sexual crimes to compensate their victims financially as an alternative to criminal prosecution. Or when this compensation is compared to reparation for other “minor” crimes. Or when the penal code does not consider crimes of sexual violence to be matters of public interest that threaten the social order and peaceful social coexistence, but rather views them as private matters.

Feminicide would appear to be seen as a women’s issue when the legislative branch can refuse to respond to the demands of feminist organizations to classify domestic violence and sexual harassment as crimes, or continue stalling on the long-delayed reforms to the penal code, which include elimination of outdated legal concepts that legitimize the violation of women’s human rights. The state’s systematic position in favor of a “permissive” judicial response to physical and sexual violence finds plenty of support in the economic and political logic associated with treating the bodies of female children, teenagers and adults as commodities, and in the skyrocketing profits of the pornography industry and North-South sexual tourism.

Little backing from male
leaders of social movements

It also seems that feminicide is a problem that concerns only women when the Network Against Violence Against Women, the National Union of Guatemalan Women, Living Earth and the Women’s Sector, among many other women’s groups, have been working for so many years to establish alliances with children’s and youth movements but are not accompanied or even backed in their efforts by other sectors of the social movement as a whole.

The failure of the union, peasant, indigenous and human rights movements to take up women’s demands reflects how little the awareness level of these groups’ male leaders have progressed. They may be familiar with the so-called “gender focus” they are required to adopt if they hope to obtain development funds, but do not seem to realize that it won’t be possible to transform Guatemalan society without taking determined steps to break down the multiple and multifaceted nodes on which the hierarchies of the patriarchal order are built.

Seeing feminicide as a women’s problem fuels the arguments used to minimize and de-legitimize our struggles.

The same crime, but
many different circumstances

What exactly do we mean when we talk about feminicide? Some twenty years after Anne Warren coined the term “gendercide,” a discussion has only recently gotten underway in Guatemala over whether or not to use the terms “femicide” or “feminicide.”

We have to look again at the meaning of “gendercide,” and consider the implications of using or avoiding the gender-neutral term. What exactly are we talking about here? The extermination of people based on their sex? Death due to gender? Murder committed by men and caused by their hatred of women? The killing of women as an extreme form of violence against women?

It has been necessary to explicitly identify the diversity of circumstances in which these crimes can occur, to include categories such as “intimate” or “non-intimate feminicide” depending on the type of relationship between the victim and the perpetrator, or “accidental feminicide” when the murder occurs in the course of another crime, or feminicide with or without sexual violence, as an indicator of the kinds of power relations involved. These definitions represent significant progress, which open the way to a series of considerations yet to be developed.

Clearly, important elements can be drawn from the differentiation between genocide and the commission of genocidal acts established in international law. An understanding of feminicide that is not restricted to the physical elimination of women; recognition of the existence of a diversity of sexual preferences that challenge patriarchal power and take us beyond the biological dichotomy of the sexes in their roles as victim or perpetrator; the interpretation of explicit forms of misogyny as unconscious manifestations of a collective subjectivity that sees women as inferior—are all useful perspectives as well. And as Ignacio Martín-Baró pointed out, we must also consider how the exercise of violence can be both a means to an end and an end in itself, in accord with the circumstances of the context that makes it possible.

European, Latin American
and Central American figures

In 2003, the Queen Sofía Center for the Study of Violence published data on the incidence of “femicide” in Europe. According to its report, Germany, Rumania, the United Kingdom, Poland, Spain and Italy topped the list of the greatest number of women killed, with figures ranging from 437 to 186 victims a year. Considering the murders as a percentage of the female population in each country brings other countries into prominence, with Estonia, Rumania, Switzerland, Finland and Iceland showing rates between 47 and 14 murders per million women. Thus, the phenomenon is found in a wide range of societies all over the world.

In Latin America, according to Inter-American Human Rights Commission figures reported by Gobernanza, Guatemala tops the list with 70 such crimes per 100,000 inhabitants, followed by Colombia with 65, Venezuela with 33, Brazil with 25 and Mexico with 12.5. These rates are high and on the rise. Although we can’t describe the increase in the number of violent deaths with complete certainty given the variations in the quality and methodology of the registries, these variations would not be enough to explain the increase observed in some countries over such short periods of time. In Central America, while 21 cases were reported in Honduras in 2000, the number rose to 70 in 2002. In Guatemala, according to the National Statistics Institute, it shot up by 112% between 2000 and 2004.

Are our situations similar?

With a similar series of challenges to face, it also seems important to ask ourselves to what extent our situations are similar to other countries. To what point does patriarchal power find the same means of manifesting itself, the same channels for expressing its dominance? What are the visible facets of feminicide in Guatemala—the ones we’ve made visible—as well as the ones that are hidden or covered up?

Looking at the case of Spain, the available sources tend to report murders committed “in domestic relationships (current or former)” as femicides. There, virtually all victims are between the ages of 21 and 40. According to a study by Ana Carcedo and Monserrat Sagot covering Costa Rica in the 1990s, an average of 31 women a year were murdered, and in 61% of these cases the perpetrators were current or former partners. In El Salvador, 98.3% of the 134 women murdered in 2000-2001 were killed by partners, according to a study by the Women’s Studies Center (CEMUJER), cited by Isis International. A study by PROFAMILIA in the Dominican Republic tells a similar story: most of the victims were killed in the context of power relations established with their partners or former partners, who most often used knives, and there were generally no signs of torture. Most of the aggressors had prior criminal backgrounds, many were unemployed and many committed suicide after murdering their victims.

Guatemala: Ineffectiveness,
impunity and many open questions

In Guatemala, the state’s abrogation of its responsibility by failing to investigate the crimes and prosecute those responsible makes it impossible for us to reach definitive conclusions. According to Claudia Paz of the Guatemalan Institute of Comparative Studies in Penal Sciences, only 2 of the 527 cases reported by the National Civil Police in 2004 were brought to trial by the Public Ministry. This reveals not only the utter ineffectiveness of the justice system in dealing with these crimes but also the prevailing impunity. A coherent typology of the crimes, which might help us obtain a reliable account of the murderers’ motives, has yet to be developed. Furthermore, the incompatibility between the relevant existing institutions, which were established by and answer to different state entities, only compounds the difficulties in trying to achieve a better understanding of the problem.

One example of the lack of uniform criteria can be found in the report “Homicides of Women in 2003-2004,” produced by the National Civil Police’s Criminal Investigation Office in the capital. According to its analysis of the cases reported to the police, “21% of the homicides were related to gang violence, 21% to personal disputes, 17% can be described as crimes of passion, 10% occurred during the course of a robbery, 9% were related to drug trafficking, 5% involved rape, 4% were caused by stray bullets, and the other 13% involved car theft, domestic violence, suicides or unknown motives.” In contrast, in its 2003 special investigation on the violent deaths of women, the Human Rights Ombudsperson classified the cases in terms of whether they were related to crime, gangs, extra-judicial actions or “social cleansing,” whether—in cases involving sexual abuse and/or rape—the perpetrators showed psychopathic or maniacal tendencies and whether the deaths were caused by negligence or accident.

It would be instructive to look into how the characterization and motives for feminicide were established in other countries. Nonetheless, to define the terms, categories and interpretative framework required to understand the problem in Guatemala, we will have to make a determined effort to see how our particular historical, economic, social, and political characteristics condition the complex way these crimes occur.

Does the patriarchy operate in the same way when women are murdered by their partners or former partners as when their deaths result from a gang’s exertion of control over its territory? When the killings stem from actions carried out by drug traffickers or organized crime to guarantee their profits, does the patriarchy react the same as when they are the result of a misnamed “social cleansing”? Does it work according to the same logic when it creates the conditions to demobilize and paralyze any possibility of social protest as when that protest is systematically reflected in the socio-cultural reactions of daily life? Does it draw on the same patterns and mechanisms when it expresses the frustration of an increasingly marginalized male labor force as when it reveals how the next generation learns to exercise violence? Who is operating according to a patriarchal logic, and how, when political violence tries to remain invisible vs. when the practices of people who have been trained for years to be killers are revealed?

Gangs or organized crime?

“We used to hear about women who’d been killed by their husbands or in the course of a crime, but it wasn’t like it is now.” This is one of the most common readings of the problem and in this case is expressed by a man named José based on his experience working with adolescents and young people in marginalized neighborhoods and as a leader of many efforts over the years to bring about change. After a minute’s pause he amends his view: “It’s been around as long as I can remember… but the newspapers didn’t talk about it.”

What has changed? Why are these murders becoming more common, or at least more reported? Why women? Why such brutality? These are some of the many questions raised but not answered by one of the most useful reports to date on feminicide in Guatemala. This 2005 study by Myra Muralles and Violeta Lacayo for the National Guatemalan Revolutionary Union (URNG) bench in the National Assembly examines a variety of actors, interests, logics and positions related to the murder of women.

The study reports that while the National Civil Police emphasizes the role of youth gangs, as can be seen in the press, Human Rights Ombudsperson Sergio Morales believes instead that the murders are characterized by “careful planning” more typical of the structures and modes of action of drug traffickers and organized crime than of gangs. If correct, this interpretation would echo several analyses of violence in other contexts that emphasize the role played by organized crime and drug and arms trafficking rings in the increase in violence, as they seek to control increasing amounts of urban territory.

Morales also insists on the importance of disbanding the illegal entities and clandestine security apparatuses encrusted in the state. It is here that we can begin to delineate one of the borders between the material and intellectual authors of the crimes since while a description of the facts suggests that gangs are involved in many killings, these actions don’t always respond to their own internal logic, but rather serve the interests of other actors.

National security and
privatized security

According to the Network Against Violence Against Women, women who are affected by gang violence typically have a family member who belongs to a gang and get caught up in an act of vengeance, a settling of accounts or a struggle to establish new power relations among the various groups. Here too, the violence often occurs in the context of a relationship between a young woman and her partner or former partner. Women have also been murdered for witnessing a crime and daring to talk about it.

But none of these mechanisms are exclusive practices of gangs, not even their characteristic turf control. In our analysis of the rapid rise in violence, we must also consider the extremely important fact that since the mid-1990s, “local” gangs have been gradually elbowed aside by “transnational gangs,” as Gabriela Escobar has documented.

While gangs have been around for several decades, the Government Ministry has recently begun to describe them as a “national security” problem. This new view of gangs, their regional expansion, the US government’s insistence on “controlling” them and other recent events—such as the Central American Armed Forces conference, where it was argued that the need to respond to disasters, maintain peace and fight terrorism require the formation of a regional military force—are all ways to justify the region’s militarization.

But the belief that there’s a breakdown in the rule of law and the creation of a climate of insecurity and even terror among the public serves many other interests as well. One of these involves the privatization of security, as the United Nations Mission in Guatemala and the URNG have noted. The private security companies have more equipment, weapons and agents and a greater capacity to gather and manage information in several parts of the country than the National Civil Police. They generate substantial profits for their owners, who for the most part are former members of the military or police or Israeli businesspeople. These companies, which often operate illegally, tripled in number between 1996 and 2001.

Fear, insecurity and sensationalism

The media have also participated in this industry of fear, insecurity and sensationalism. Not only have the figures on feminicide been on the rise in Guatemala, but so has the degree of violence involved. Several reports concur that there are signs of torture, mutilation, strangulation or other forms of extreme violence in 20-25% of the cases. The URNG’s report shows that sexual violence also occurs in 28% of them.

Given such a wide range of interests and actors, the national and international press often resort to the most sensationalistic presentation of events and over-generalize them. This practice helps create a climate of fear that inhibits people, makes them less likely to participate in community activities and restricts the spaces where the community can come together. Muralles and Lacayo suggest that there may be more sinister motives at play here as well: given the impoverishment and lack of socioeconomic prospects for the poor, “the system encourages and allows mechanisms for the self-elimination of the population it considers dispensable and a potential source of social movements or protests,” without taxing or tarnishing the security forces.

Based on its study of the magnitude and costs of the violence, one neoliberal Guatemalan researcher working under World Bank auspices reported in 2002 that poverty is not enough to explain the generation of violence. Its report concluded that “it’s not so much a case of poor individuals attacking those with a higher socioeconomic level as of young people with few resources killing each other.”

Where are the murderers?

An examination of our national situation gives us other leads as well. In a society like ours, “postwar” is not merely a way of defining a period. The actors at various levels who perpetrated the brutally violent, genocidal acts against the population have not disappeared; they have simply acquired new interests and occupied other positions. And given the impunity resulting from the state’s apparent inability to operate an effective criminal justice system, people are beginning to believe that “what happened before can happen again,” a belief that could help prepare the ground for the reproduction of the violence. So many men were trained to exercise extreme violence; where are they, what are they doing, what kind of work do they do now?

The Human Rights Ombudsperson has presented evidence to the Public Ministry on 23 National Civil Police agents suspected of participating in crimes against women. The sexual violence committed against women detained in police stations and the practice of torture by the Office of Criminal Investigation recently denounced in an unpublished study by the Guatemalan Institute of Comparative Studies in Penal Sciences reveal that the state security forces have not yet cleaned up their act and are themselves responsible for crimes that must be investigated and punished.

In this context, neither criminal violence nor domestic violence have been or are “news.” Thus, although both the National Civil Police and the Human Rights Ombudsperson pay attention to such crimes, they do not sufficiently examine or analyze them, rather tending to see them as normal. These crimes require extensive, in-depth analysis if we hope to reach an understanding of their multiple dimensions beyond the visceral expression of a misogynist hatred. In the communities, verifying and denouncing these kinds of crimes is dangerous work.

Is “manhood” in crisis?

In light of considerations such as these, Manuela Camus suggests studying the contradictions generated by the changes in the configuration of the family and the symbolic representation of its members in response to the pressures exerted on people by current social models and discourses. She further proposes examining the resources that women and men can draw on in their efforts to deal with the transformations in women’s roles as mothers, spouses and servants, and men’s roles as workers and served, in the context of the prevailing economic precariousness and social violence. And finally she proposes exploring the ways people experience masculine frustration and “manhood” at a time when women often have an autonomous income but are also increasingly exploited—for example through employment in the maquilas.

Might violence help guarantee the control of women’s free labor in the domestic and productive spheres? Might it help guarantee the benefits produced by women’s unsalaried or informal work? These are also questions we need to answer. In 2004, Clara Jusidman noted that while poor women have been thrown onto a labor market that offers them higher degrees of freedom but exacerbates their tension and suffering, men have yet to take on any more responsibility for household tasks. This situation has intergender consequences that we must also analyze in order to understand the growing violence.

If we don’t do something...

The incalculable value of these lives not realized, the absences and the grief demand all of our efforts of analysis and action. Identifying those responsible is undoubtedly one of the central tasks. And now, when we hear so much about these women’s deaths, what do we know of their lives?

This question led me into a two-month study on how young men and women in marginalized urban neighborhoods, who are both potential and daily victims, experience the crystallization of the multiple forms of violence around them. And the sound I heard will deafen us if we don’t do something.

The results of ten interviews and nine focus groups on the daily lives of young people and adolescents, their voices and desires to express themselves, but also to be quiet, form the basis for a second part to this analysis.

Diana García is an anthropologist, social psychologist and activist in the Guatemalan rural women’s movement.

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