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Last Updated: Saturday, 6 December, 2003, 08:38 GMT
Murderers prey on Guatemalan women
The BBC's Claire Marshall
By Claire Marshall
BBC correspondent in Guatemala City

A huge bundle of official papers sits on the desk of Sandra Zayas, a criminal investigator in Guatemala City.

Rosa Elvira Sandoval
Rosa Sandoval's daughter Maria was abducted, tortured and killed
"These are the case files just for the women who have been murdered in the last few months," she says. "And these are just the ones who've been killed in the capital."

These documents tell the story of a wave of brutal and sadistic murders which is terrifying Guatemala's female population.

Since 2001, more than 700 women and young girls have been killed in apparently motiveless attacks. So far this year more than 250 bodies have been found. In the past six months there have been five sets of double murders, with the tortured corpses of the young girls found together.

Despite making a number of arrests, police have been unable to stop the killings.

Teenage gangs

About four women or young girls, mostly from poor families, are being killed each week. The connection is that they are all murdered in the same way: first they are abducted, then they are tortured, then raped, then stabbed to death and their bodies dumped.

I cry every night because I couldn't do anything to save her
Ileana Peralta
The authorities suspect that vicious teenage gangs, known locally as "maras", are responsible. These are groups that have developed and thrived in Guatemala's impoverished slums.

Ms Zayas flicks through gruesome photos of some of the bodies which she has helped to recover. One shows the decomposing face of 15-year-old girl, her eye sockets filled with maggots.


The police are facing a huge task - but have few resources.

"Our police work 24 hours a day," says Ms Zayas, "but they're having to deal with about 300 cases each, which just isn't possible."

This is little comfort for Rosa Elvira Sandoval, whose daughter Maria Isabel was among those killed.

At a mass in Guatemala City, her hand shakes as she lights a candle.

She has brought to the church a photograph which shows her daughter as she likes to remember her - smiling and radiant in the white dress and crown she wore when she attended her first mass.

Nancy's sister shows her picture
Nancy was abducted after she left work
Maria Isabel was abducted on her way home from work.

She was later tortured, her fingernails were ripped out, and she was stabbed 47 times.

Rosa learnt about her daughter's death from the evening news.

Tears streaming down her face, she sobs: "It hurts so much, to see someone you love so much, so beautiful, so happy. To see her afterwards, to see her in a coffin, and then to see nothing. All you have left are memories."

Maria Elena and Ileana Peralta are still traumatised by the murder of their 30-year-old sister Nancy.

She too was abducted and murdered after leaving work one evening.

"It's so difficult," says Ileana. "I cry every night because I couldn't do anything to save her."

It is this feeling of helplessness that links together hundreds of families.

All have lost loved ones to ferocious and senseless attacks, and all are left looking for answers that the authorities have so far been unable to provide.

Guatemala women 'abused'
12 Feb 02  |  Americas
Country profile: Guatemala
07 Nov 03  |  Country profiles
Grim murders shock El Salvador
05 Jul 03  |  Americas

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