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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 June, 2005, 23:59 GMT 00:59 UK
Guatemala's epidemic of killing
By Adam Blenford
BBC News

Guatemalan women
Campaigners say Guatemalan women live in "latent fear"

In Guatemala, a small country not long emerged from three decades of civil war, women and girls are being murdered faster than anyone in authority can cope.

Deborah Tomas Vineda, aged 16, was kidnapped, raped, and cut to pieces with a chainsaw, allegedly because she refused to become the girlfriend of a local gang member.

Her sister Olga, just 11 years old, died alongside her.

The raped and mutilated body of Andrea Contreras Bacaro, 17, was found wrapped in a plastic bag and thrown into a ditch, her throat cut, her face and hands slashed, with a gunshot wound to the head.

The word "vengeance" had been gouged into her thigh.

Sandra Palma Godoy, 17, said to have witnessed a killing in her home town, was missing for a week before her decomposing body was found next to a local football pitch.

Her breasts, eyes and heart had been mutilated, reports said.

According to Amnesty International, which has collated these stories and others in a new report on the killing of women in Guatemala, the country's leaders must share the blame for an epidemic of violence that has killed more than 1,500 women in under four years.

The brutality of the killings... reveal that extreme forms of sexual violence and discrimination remain prevalent in Guatemalan society
Amnesty International report

In 2001, the first year separate records were kept for men and women, 222 women were registered as murdered, Guatemalan human rights activists have told the BBC.

By 2004 that figure had more than doubled, to 494. In the first five months of 2005, the tally reached 225 - considerably more than one killing every day.

Expression of hate

"It's a very serious problem for the country," says Hilda Morales Trujillo, a veteran defender of women's' rights and a campaigner for Guatemala's Network for Non-Violence Against Women.

KEY FACTS
Population: 13m
Capital: Guatemala City, 2m
Civil war from 1960-1996 killed more than 200,000
Among Ms Trujillo's major concerns is increasing evidence that large numbers of women are tortured and brutalised before or after being killed.

"The only explanation we can find for the use of extreme violence is as an expression of misogyny, of hate towards women," Ms Morales Trujillo told the BBC News website.

Almost casually, she uses a chilling Hispanic word - "femicidio" - to describe what is happening to her countrywomen.

In Guatemala, a male-dominated society that was heavily militarised during 36 years of civil war, thousands of men carry weapons and are no strangers to extreme violence.

But if Guatemala has slowly slipped toward Colombian-style anarchy since peace accords were signed in 1996 - as President Oscar Berger recently said - women at least have made real social progress.

Today more Guatemalan women go out to work, stay longer in education, and express themselves more freely than ever before.

In much of the country, their reward is a perpetual fear of violent, sudden death.

Neither the police nor the government take the problem of violence against women seriously.
Hilda Morales Trujillo
Network for Non-Violence Against Women
Prostitutes and female gang members are at the most serious risk, but the death toll includes women from all walks of life.

"Every day the numbers are growing, and for two reasons," Sandra Moran, another women's rights activist, told the BBC News website.

"Firstly, there is no respect for the body of a woman. People feel they can treat women however they want. Also, there is the idea that women are the property of someone.

"Because of this we find women are often tortured and sexually abused before they are killed. In some cases they are dismembered."

Impunity

In its new report, Amnesty calls on Guatemala's government to improve public education, inject real urgency into criminal investigations, and reform outdated laws on rape and sexual violence.

She had been raped, her hands and feet tied with barbed wire, she had been strangled and put in a bag - they kept on telling me not to get so worked up
Rosa Franco
Mother of Maria Isabel Franco, murdered in December 2001
The report follows criticism of Guatemala in 2004 by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which noted the high rates of murder, domestic and sexual violence, rape and kidnapping within Guatemala.

Hilda Morales Trujillo speaks of "a latent fear" among Guatemalan women, who are rarely protected by the country's overworked, underfunded and often corrupt police force.

In its report, Amnesty International catalogues examples of "serious and persistent shortcomings" in police work "at every stage of the investigative process".

"There is a common denominator to all the murders: impunity," Guatemala's Human Right's Ombudsman Sergio Morales said in 2004.

Anabella Noriega, who heads the women's unit in Mr Morales' office, told the BBC that out of more than 500 cases in 2004, just one ended in conviction.

Lack of interest by state authorities, failure to collect evidence and endemic corruption all feed the problem, she added.

Amid growing revulsion to the inhuman nature of many killings, a handful of women's groups and victims' relatives try to raise awareness of the issue at home and abroad.

But they face a culture of silence and are regularly targeted themselves. In the first week of May, 12 separate offices were ransacked, Sandra Moran said.

"No-one ever comes forward to tell their story.

"The message is that people can do whatever they want, with no chance of prosecution.

"We all feel afraid. But it just makes us want to carry on."




SEE ALSO:
Guatemala murder jail terms cut
23 Mar 05 |  Americas
Murderers prey on Guatemalan women
06 Dec 03 |  Americas
Guatemala women 'abused'
12 Feb 02 |  Americas
Country profile: Guatemala
01 Jun 05 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Guatemala
12 Mar 05 |  Country profiles


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