The Perfect Storm: Impunity and Violence against Women in Guatemala
Author: Emily A. Willard
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 04/01/2012
“The ability of perpetrators to commit crimes with impunity…has contributed to further violence against the people.”
A recent report by the United Nations found Guatemala to have the seventh highest murder rate in the world; Honduras was ranked number one and El Salvador a close second. The report noted the very high murder rate in the Central America region. Combining the murder rate in those three countries, it is higher than the murder rate in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country at war.
In Guatemala, these high rates of murder also, of course, include women. Since 2000, more than 5,000 women have been murdered because they are women, a phenomenon that is described by the human rights community as femicide. Out of those over 5,000 murders, Guatemalan courts have only produced 30 sentences, including both convictions and acquittals. More recently, police figures show that the violence continues; 708 women were killed in 2009 and over 630 in 2010. The perpetrators are not being held accountable for their crimes and are free to live with impunity. While impunity prevails across the majority of crimes in Guatemala, gender bias and acceptance of violence against women as the norm characterizes impunity in the specifics of cases of violence against women. Amnesty International sites “the culture of impunity in Guatemala as contributing both to the murders and the authorities failures to investigate crimes, preserve evidence and prosecute suspects.” This is a continuing trend from the conflict era, were perpetrators of human rights violations, and masterminds of the genocide are rarely ever held accountable.
Guatemala suffered from a 36 year internal armed conflict between the Guatemalan government and leftist guerilla forces, which left more than 200,000 people murdered and 40,000 disappeared. The majority of the people killed were indigenous civilians, including women, children, and the elderly living in highland regions. Leftist dissidents in urban areas were also targeted for political protests and labor organizing, which was deemed “communist” by the Guatemalan government. The United Nations declared the conflict a genocide by the government against the indigenous people in its truth commission report by the Historical Clarification Commission released in 1999. The Guatemalan government and representatives from the leftist guerrilla groups signed the peace accords in 1996, however the violence continues, especially violence against women. There are clear links between violence against women today and the violence against women during the conflict.
From out of the years of conflict and the following peace accords, we see a continuation of violence. Many human rights groups argue that violence in Guatemala has reached levels experienced during the conflict, while many groups argue that the violence is actually worse than during the conflict, compounded with the fact that there is no longer a clear enemy since the signing of the peace accords. This makes addressing the causes and effects of today’s violence all the more difficult.
Reporting indicates that much of Guatemala’s violence today can be attributed to drug trafficking, gang violence, and general street violence that occurs in a culture of impunity. In regards to violence against women, femicide is a perfect storm that is unfolding from specific military strategies used against women and children that reached genocidal proportions combined with the culture of impunity that has developed over the course of Guatemalan history.
Military Strategies of Violence against Women during the War
The United Nations Truth Commission, as well as other reports and investigations into the conflict era violence have clearly documented specific military strategies aimed at humiliating and destroying women, particularly indigenous women, during the conflict. Specific tactics were taught to soldiers and members of the civilian defense patrols to suppress the guerilla forces by specifically attacking and destroying the women, seen as the source of new guerilla members and the continuance of a the Mayan race. These military strategies were later declared by the U.N. as a state policy of genocide against the Mayan people.
Characteristics of these military strategies can be seen in many of the femicide cases, for example the brutality and different torture tactics used against the victims that attack their femininity and reproductive capacity. The tactics used by the military during the conflict were a “premeditated strategy of violence specifically targeting women.” This premeditated strategy of attacking women is part of the basis for proving the Guatemalan government’s policy of genocide. The military’s strategies of targeting women reached such a large portion of the male population, normalizing rape and violence against women. The residual effect of these genocidal policies and strategies can be seen in the rate and type of violence in Guatemala today.
Nearly 1 million Guatemalans, as either soldiers in the army, or as forcibly conscripted members of the infamous Civil Defense Patrols, (PAC, in Spanish: Patrullas Auto-Civiles) took part in human rights violations on behalf of the government of Guatemala. Between 1982 and 1983, approximately 900,000 peasants between the ages of 15 and 60 made up 80 percent of the male population in indigenous areas. The government and military forced conscripted these local male citizens to make up the patrols. At this rate, most Guatemalans lost family members to brutality, or had a male family member that was forced into the PAC.
The military used the PAC to protect a certain area from guerilla control. They were trained to keep the guerilla forces from entering a community. The training was based around the use of fear of violence to keep a village loyal to the government instead of aiding the guerillas, which may have included providing food, shelter, arms, or technical support as well as people joining the ranks of the guerilla forces. Psychological control provided the ability to suppress and control the indigenous people by sexually domination women and men, thus dominating them physically and destroying their dignity and identity as human beings.
The PACs used violence against women as a way to attack and destabilize the community. Violence directed at the woman’s body made the woman’s body the battlefield in order to control the community by fear and destroy the community’s dignity through her dignity. Oftentimes men of the PAC were forced to terrorize, rape, and kill their own family and community members. This was the PAC’s military “strategy of penetration and control”.
The purpose of the psychological and physical control was to break down the social fabric of the indigenous communities which were seen by the Guatemalan government as abetting and aiding the leftist guerrilla groups. The military actions “attacked the community social fabric at its foundations attempting to exterminate women and children in their capacity as vessels for the continuity of life and the transmission of culture.” This is clear evidence to prove the military’s policy of genocide according to Article Two of the United Nations Convention on Genocide, which alludes to the obvious strategy of the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. The REMHI report noted that the reason for the attacks against women was that “they were the ones who preserved the essential ingredients for reestablishing life among groups of survivors.” They were a symbol of perpetuation of life.
Sexual violence was used to degrade women, who were seen as the care-takers of the family and community members. By destroying the women, the community is destroyed because it is the women that care for the wounded and sick and help to rebuild the community. Specific strategies “were designed just for women…because women are the ones who preserve the family and care for others.” In many instances, pregnant women were attacked and the fetuses was removed from their bodies as a way to “kill the seed” of guerrilla. Rape was used to “plant” non-guerrilla “seeds,” and often orphaned infants and children were abducted by military officers and raised as their own, or used as slaves and servants, in order for them to not be raised by guerrilla sympathizers.
Sexually assaulting and raping women in front of their families was a way to subdue and humiliate the families and community as a whole. The “complexity lies in its nature as a show of power by the perpetrator and an experience of abuse and humiliation for the victim.” The RHEMI Report concluded that “the purpose of such atrocities was to degrade women through their sexualities, to show the highest contempt for their dignity as people, and to use the intimate aspects of womanhood to add a measure of exemplary terror for the benefit of the population.”
The military used the female body as the focus of violence against the community and women because “it serves to underscore who must be dominant and who must be subjugated”. One strategy to break morale and indirectly attack the men is to attack the women because it proves them weak and defenseless. By attacking women, the military degraded and destroyed the dignity of men as well as women. The military used violence as “a vehicle for acquiring power and property, female bodies were seen as just one more possession.”
Specific military strategies of violence against women that target a woman’s femininity as well as the normalization of violence against women and the following impunity that the perpetrators live with have created the perfect storm we see as femicide.
Normalization of Violence Today: Femicide
The violence that women experienced during the conflict is evident in today’s Guatemalan culture. Many of the same strategies used by the military and the PAC during the conflict are common characteristics of femicide cases now. The brutality in which the women and girls are tortured before they are murdered, the way in which the bodies are handled afterwards, and the impunity with which the perpetrators live are all eerily characteristic of the war years. One can see the connections with the brutality experienced by femicide victims and testimony of women who experienced violence during the conflict. It is apparent that the strategies of the past are being revived in the strategies of violence against women today.
During the war years, because of the duration and brutality of the conflict, violence was normalized. The characteristics of the conflict explain how “violence in an institutionalized form encoded into physical structures and socioeconomic relations…violence is learned by witnessing and experiencing social violence…” According to Egla Martinez-Salazar, state terror, including genocide in Guatemala, has affected the “learning-teaching” process for Guatemalans and has “made a political culture of terror”. Salazar argues that learning is not always a positive or peaceful experience, especially during a war or violent conflict. During the conflict, violence, especially violence against women, is something normal and accepted, as a way of dealing with conflict or “problem” women.
While there does not seem to be a specific profile of a femicide victim, they are usually young women and girls between the ages 12 and 30. They include university students, housewives, factory workers, domestic employees, and professionals. They are kidnapped on the way to and from work, school, and parties. They are killed in the home by family members, and on the streets and in parks. Victims have suffered sexual assault, torture, and mutilation targeting their face or reproductive organs, denoting a specific attack against their femininity.
As an example, in June of 2004 police found the body of Andrea Fabiola Contreras Bacaro, 17 years old. “She had been raped, shot, and abandoned in a garbage ditch. Her hands were tied behind her back and her throat was cut. Carved into her right leg was a terrifying message: ‘vengeance’.” Other femicide victims have been found “naked, disemboweled, sexually mutilated, beheaded, and dumped in abandoned lots.”
Femicide victims are often murdered by their family members and partners as an extreme form of domestic violence. However, many of the cases suggest less personal patterns of violence. The Guatemalan Human Rights Commission-USA reports on their website that twenty-three police officers have been linked to ten murders, “fueling the suspicion of many Guatemalan analysts that clandestine security forces linked to the police and to the army are murdering women with such brutality to foment political instability and a climate of terror.” The brutal violence is intended to send a message of terror and intimidation.
Due to the culture’s strict gender roles, violence is used as a means of social control to ensure that women stay in their private sphere of the home and not enter the masculine public sphere outside the home. Some men see female independence as threatening and use violence to keep women afraid that if they leave their homes they will be victims of violence. This is especially damaging when the idea is that women are safe in the home, because as we can see, violence takes place outside of the home, but also inside the home.
This form of social control is perpetuated when the focus is on the victim’s actions and characteristics instead of the perpetrator’s. For example, when the police respond to a femicide case, they often refuse to take evidence or open an investigation because the victim was wearing a short skirt or bellybutton ring and suggest that she must have been ‘asking for it’. The police will also often say that the victim is not worth an investigation because she is a ‘nobody’. This sends the message that “a woman must be eternally on guard, lest she brings sexual assault onto herself.” Violence of this magnitude encourages women to be “good” women and stay in the home “where they belong”. By keeping women in the home, they remain unable to become economically independent from the men. A United Nations report on woman states: “Violence against women and girls is both an extreme manifestation of gender inequality and discrimination, and a deadly tool used to maintain women’s subordinate status.”
While the conflict has come to an end, many Guatemalans fear that “the demon of human rights abuses has remained in power and waits to come bounding into full view….” The feeling is that not much has changed in the form of human rights violations and the violence in society and on the streets. And that because of the amnesty and impunity of wartime military leaders, the threat that widespread violence could reemerge at anytime. In a way, it has reemerged through the phenomenon of femicide. This is the idea that even after conflict officially ends, violence against women does not, especially in a country that remains militarized. Violence against women is always present in society; during conflict it escalates; and in a post-conflict setting, it continues to escalate when most people assume that violence overall decreases.
Healing for the Future
Femicide and violence against women in Guatemala is an extremely complex issue; and one of the main issues with today’s current high rates of violence, not only against women but also men, is that perpetrators of violence enjoy impunity. Perpetrators of the past, committing genocide and crimes against humanity have rarely been held accountable, and perpetrators of current day crimes of femicide and general street violence are also rarely held accountable. There are many different opportunities and avenues to make change, with impunity being one of the most fundamental. The first steps to combat impunity would be to strengthen the rule of law and the judicial system, and hold perpetrators accountable. This can be done in several ways:
Hold perpetrators of past crimes accountable
There have been a handful of criminal cases heard in Guatemalan courts that have convicted the “material authors” of crimes during the conflict, such as the Dos Erres Massacre, and the case of Edgar Fernando Garcia. There also needs to be a movement to hold the “intellectual authors” of the crimes accountable. In the past year, several “intellectual authors” of crimes have been arrested and indicted, including former military dictator and material author of genocide, Efrain R’os Montt and Hector Mario L-pez Fuentes, former army chief of staff under R’os Montt.  It is essential that these trials progress fairly and according to law. In November of 2011, Guatemalans elected their new president, Otto Fernando Pérez Molina, a former general in the Guatemalan army, in command of part of the Quiche region during the bloodiest era of the conflict in 1982 and 1983. His crimes need to be investigated and he needs to be tried in a Guatemalan court of law.
Strengthen the Judicial System and Rule of Law
- Upholding the Femicide Law: On April 9, 2008, Guatemala passed a law against femicide and other forms of violence against women in order to create specific legal mechanisms to address the near 100% impunity in regards to femicide cases. However, last August, the constitutionality of this law was challenged, arguing that “the law is violent and causes severe damage to the household, besides being discriminatory because it punishes only males.” It is essential that this law be upheld and applied to crimes of violence against women. Merely having the law in place is not enough, it must be enforced.
- Rome Statute: On January 27, 2012, the Guatemalan congress passed the Rome Statute, which “confers jurisdiction to the International Criminal Court for judging and punishing Genocide, War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity.” A UN Security Council Resolution 1820 confirmed that sexual violence is a tool of war and can amount to a war crime, a crime against humanity, and genocide. It is essential that the Guatemalan government uphold this statute and abide by the agreement.
- Police Reform: It should be mandatory that one female police officer be on duty at each location where sexual assault and abuse reports can be made. A woman making a sexual violence report should have the option of making the report to a female officer in order to reduce the risk of re-victimization by the police. Additionally, human rights activist Helen Mack (sister of murdered anthropologist Myrna Mack) was named the new police commissioner in 2011. She needs the government’s full support in her efforts to combat corruption and weakness within the national police system.
- Legal Education Programs: There should be more funding for women’s education of their rights. A local Guatemalan organization, Presbyterio Katchikel, has a program that educates women on what their rights are so they know how and where to go when they want to file charges. There should be the creation of additional community organized education programs for women on what their rights are. The community programs that are in place should be augmented and expanded.
By addressing the causes and effects of violence against women, and the fundamental role the culture of impunity plays in the perpetration of femicide, we are able to address violence in general in Guatemala, and the Central American region as a whole. Firstly, the situation in Guatemala proves the importance of some type of truth and reconciliation process in which the perpetrators of human rights violations or crimes against humanity are held accountable either in the court of law, or symbolically. If a society is not allowed to properly heal in a post-conflict situation, the wounds stay open and continue to destroy the society. This can be the case in violence against women, but also in the case of ethnic violence or religious violence. Secondly, the situation in Guatemala shows the severe impact that long-lasting internal conflict can have on the culture of a society. As in the case of Guatemala, the intensity of the brutality and the violence over many years has created a culture of violence in which an entire generation has grown up with violence as a normal part of life. Combining the culture of impunity along with the culture of violence, we can see the perfect storm arising in many post-conflict situations, especially in the Central American region. The perfect storm can occur as femicide, as we see in Guatemala, but it may occur as other phenomena in different contexts.
Bio: Emily A. Willard is a Research Associate for the Evidence Project of The National Security Archive.