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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 May 2006, 14:26 GMT 15:26 UK
Murder mystery in Guatemala

By Olenka Frenkiel
BBC reporter, Killer's Paradise

The number of women killed in Guatemala is soaring, but not a single murderer has been convicted. A BBC documentary team travelled there to find out why.

The press photograph the body of a dead woman in Guatemala

Claudia Madrid, aged 21, lies dead in the gutter, shot while walking with her children.

Investigators walk past her husband in the morgue as he waits to identify her body.

They will never question him.

"It's the fashion here to murder women. They never investigate such third class crimes," he says.

He smiles.

Two refuse sacks containing the body of a woman cut into 19 pieces are found in the street.

Her decapitated head lies in the road.

Police remove her limbs from the plastic bags to show the press.

If no one comes to identify her she will be classed XX, and buried in an unmarked grave.

'Red nail varnish'

The swollen naked body of another woman lies in a dried up river bed.

Newspaper showing pictures of women killed in Guatemala
More than 2,000 women have been murdered in the last four years

Her mouth hangs open.

Her eyes and a gash in her skull have been pecked by vultures.

An investigator says: "She was probably a prostitute."

He points at her hands. "Red nail varnish," he says.

In Guatemala, the victim is always to blame. Another XX.

Cause of death

Fifteen million people live in Guatemala and two women are mudered there every day.

Even more men are murdered, but the gap is closing fast.

In 2005, 665 women were killed - more than 20% up on the previous year.

No one really knows why because the crimes are rarely investigated.

Not one of the 665 murders last year has been solved.

Women who have ventured out of their homes to study and to work have now become targets

Are these gangland killings? Crimes of passion? Domestic violence? Serial killers? Probably all of these.

Norma Cruz, a human rights activist explains: "There is no fingerprint data base, no DNA testing, no profiling of the victims, or of the murders themselves. There is no ballistics database, no cross-referencing."

No one knows anything and killers are roaming free, protected by systemic impunity.

The justice system is corrupt and police are afraid to investigate.

Witnesses are afraid to testify and bereaved parents are afraid to agitate for action.

Even the interior minister himself speaks darkly of the "parallel powers", those really in charge.

Generations of killers

In the 1950s it was the United Fruit Company which had such clout in Guatemala that the US backed a military coup to protect their profits from land reform.

Map of Guatemala

Today it is the spoils from drugs which are protected by corrupt institutions at the top, and brutal street gangs below.

In 36 years of civil war, 200,000 people were murdered and women were routinely raped.

Today the graves of entire massacred villages are being exhumed, yet no one has ever been held responsible for these crimes.

Three generations of killers have murdered with impunity.

Peace was agreed in 1996, leaving the country awash with guns and those women who have ventured out of their homes to study and to work have now become targets.

Blood-stained clothes

One man, a dental technician, collapses in tears when he speaks of his 20-year-old daughter.

When neighbours ran to tell him kidnappers had forced her into a car, he begged the police to put up road blocks to help save her.

They told him nothing could be done for 24 hours.

By then she was dead.

President of Guatemala, Oscar Berger
Despite these cruel figures I am optimistic
President Oscar Berger

Her body was found, mutilated, bitten and shot many times.

"I don't want to live," he told Norma Cruz, "I wish someone would shoot me."

"There is total indifference from the authorities to these crimes," says Cruz.

Months later, in the home he and his family have abandoned in fear, he finds the blood and saliva-stained clothes his daughter was wearing when she was killed.

Evidence that could have been vital in a prosecution is routinely contaminated and returned to the families, or buried in the coffin with the victim.

History of atrocity

The President of Guatemala, Oscar Berger, listens as I present him with the latest statistics showing another steep rise from the previous year.

"Despite these cruel figures," he says, "I am optimistic. We have reformed the police and we have more radio patrols," he answers, castigating me for my pessimism and denying that the justice system's failures guarantee impunity, not just to this generation of killers but to all those who went before.

He would like the world to believe that the atrocities of Guatemala's past are history.

But the killings will not stop unless the justice system works.

And there can be no justice for today's killers in Guatemala as long as those of previous generations, politicians and military men, continue to benefit from this culture of impunity.

This World: Killer's Paradise was broadcast on Thursday, 4 May, 2006 at 2100 BST on BBC Two. Produced and directed by Giselle Portenier.

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