“This is the street, criminals abusing girls of every age. This is the street. Girls are raped and there’s nothing that can stop it, however much they’re protected there’s always someone shooting,” goes a song by Guatemalan rapper Mai de Rimas. They are lyrics that accurately describe the harsh reality of daily life for women and girls in the Central American country, where they are victims of femicide, rape – 18 per day in 2021, according to the Public Prosecutors’ Office – sexual harassment, mistreatment and disappearances. So far in 2021, the Women’s Observatory has reported 159 femicides and violent deaths among women, a number that reached 457 in 2020. The Guatemala National Institute of Forensic Science (Inacif) revealed that the majority of these deaths in 2021 have been caused by firearms (80). Last year, the police officially recorded the murders of 358 women, while Inacif carried out 504 autopsies connected to deaths from criminal activity. Furthermore, the Women’s Department of the Prosecutors’ Office processed 43,482 complaints last year and so far in 2021, 19,616 files have been opened on behalf of victims of violence, the most frequently reported crime.
All of these statistics, which vary between one institution and another, have names and surnames like Rosa María Salazar Velásquez, who had been missing since November 2019. In March, a skeleton was discovered under the courtyard of her former partner’s house in a village in Quiché. Inacif confirmed that these remains belonged to the 21-year-old. The whereabouts of the man who had been in a relationship with her remain unknown.
Luz María del Rocío López also disappeared and days later, on January 22, her body was found by street cleaners, wrapped in plastic inside a sewer in Guatemala City. The young woman, who has a one-year-old daughter, worked as an investigator at the Model of Integrated Care for Children and Teenagers of the Public Prosecutor’s Office. Her partner, 23, was arrested and is in preventive custody.
The wheels of justice are slow: Maria Isabel Véliz Franco’s mother had to wait 20 years to see her daughter’s killer brought to account
On April 20, a 26-year-old man was arrested in the village of Las Palmas, in Quetzaltenango, on suspicion of raping his former partner Sonia Delfina Rodas, 33, and beating her to death with a lump of wood in November 2019.
Other victims of similar violence have never been found, as is the case with Cristina Siekavizza, a 33-year-old mother of two who has been missing since 2011. Her husband, Roberto Barreda, who is the son of the former president of the Supreme Court of Justice of Guatemala Ofelia de León, never revealed where he hid her body. Barreda died last year of Covid-19 while he was awaiting trial on charges of killing his wife after being extradited from Mexico in 2013. Despite the authorities’ continued search for Siekavizza’s body in various cemeteries across the country, no trace of her has ever been found.
According to Lucrecia Vásquez of the Women’s Department of the Prosecutor’s Office, they receive an average of 234 complaints of crimes against women and children per day. “We’ve watched with concern as many women have retracted after being brutally beaten in many cases, because they do not have financial resources and there is a dependence on the partner, who threatens to cut off payments for food and rent,” says Vásquez. “Between 60% and 70% of women who report violent crimes later back out as their partners make death threats against them or their children and they suffer terrible psychological effects that cause them to withdraw the charges or to miss scheduled hearings.”
The Women’s Public Advocate describes the “weariness of women in the face of the inability of the judicial institutions to provide effective responses to this problem”
Since the beginning of 2021, four women have gone missing on average per day in Guatemala. To speed up the search for these missing women, the public prosecution service, the police and the Solicitor Generals’ Office in 2018 created the Isabel-Claudina Alert system, in memory of two teens who were abducted and killed: María Isabel Véliz Franco, 15, and Claudina Isabel Velásquez, 19. The mother of Véliz Franco had to wait 20 years for the perpetrator of the 2001 crime to be sentenced to 30 years in prison this March. The impunity that surrounded the case caused the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to rebuke Guatemala in 2014 for what it termed the “violation of its duty to ensure the free and full practice of the right to life and personal integrity” of the 15-year-old, in addition to violating her right to judicial protection due to irregularities in the handling of the case.
Another case that has yet to be brought to justice is the death of 41 girls and the serious injuries suffered by another 15 in a fire that occurred on March 8, 2017, in a state-run shelter from where the children had attempted to flee a day earlier due to the rapes, sexual abuse and overcrowding they were subjected to. As a punishment, they were illegally locked up in a classroom at the so-called Safe House where, prevented from using the bathroom, one of the girls set fire to one of the 22 pillows they had been given to sleep on in an attempt to be set free. The police who were guarding the classroom took nine minutes to open the doors after the fire started.
“We want to live”
Against this backdrop, thousands of women took to the streets of the capital on March 7 under the slogan: “We want to live.” One of the protestors, 19-year-old Keila Garrido, carried a placard that read: “I’m marching because I’m alive and I don’t know until when.”
“I fear for my life every day,” she said, while pointing out that it is “dangerous to be a woman in Guatemala because if you go to the store, you don’t know if you’re going to make it home again.” Garrido said she doesn’t trust the state to protect her, given that the police “instead of looking out for us are the ones who harass us and in some cases there are police who are abusers, so we don’t know who to trust.”
At the beginning of the year, two policemen were jailed for raping a woman who had approached them for help. Instead, she was taken to a police station in Puerto Quetzal, on the country’s Pacific coast, where she was sexually abused. According to an investigation by online media agency Ocote, this was far from an isolated case: over the past 11 years, prosecutors have received 212 complaints against police officers for sex crimes.
“We’ve had enough!” shouted a young woman outside the government ministry that oversees security at the March 7 protest, a day before International Women’s Day. “My friends look after me, not the police,” was one of the most shouted slogans during the march, at which one woman carried a placard reading: “This isn’t a country, it’s a cemetery.”
Feminist organizations have highlighted that there is still no law qualifying sexual harassment as a crime in Guatemala
Protestor Génesis Rivera carried a photograph of a 13-year-old girl who had been missing for several days and who was eventually found alive after being kidnapped, according to her parents. “It’s impossible to go out without putting your life in danger and I’m even scared about carrying this poster, because I could face some sort of reprisal for seeking justice,” said Rivera. “I’m afraid for myself, for my mother, my sister and for all the women who are here. The police frighten us because instead of protecting us, they harass us.”
Earlier this year the #TengoMiedo (I’m Afraid) campaign was launched in Guatemala on social media, through which women expressed their fears about becoming victims of gender violence. The initiative was sparked by the murders of several girls and women, among them the case of three-year-old Hillary Saraí Arredondo, who was abducted from her own home and found dead in January in Tiquisate. Weeks later, eight-year-old Sharon Figueroa was kidnapped while she was riding her bike in her own backyard in Melchor de Mencos, on the border with Belize. She was also found dead and a woman and her son, who were neighbors of the victim, were jailed for the crime.
In a display of outrage over Figueroa’s death, dozens of children protested outside the National Palace in Guatemala City on February 13 in a parade of bicycles to demand the government protect the country’s most vulnerable citizens. However, the violence did not stop and two videos were uncovered showing a man sexually abusing and attempting to kidnap a nine-year-old girl in San Marcos, while in the other a taxi driver left a 20-year-old passenger, who later reported him to police for raping her, in the middle of the street in Guatemala City.
“Saying that we are scared is normal, even more so given the gender violence statistics in Guatemala and Central America. Furthermore, it is necessary to express this fear because if we don’t, it will suffocate us,” a woman who participated in the #TengoMiedo campaign wrote on Twitter. The campaign, which aims to “give society a wake-up call so that spaces can be created to eradicate violence against women and girls,” has already had negative consequences for its organizer, María Alejandra Morales.
Morales has filed a complaint after being sacked from her position as an advisor at the National Office of Civil Service (Onsec) under “instructions” from the president of Guatemala, Alejandro Giammattei, “as a reprisal for having started a public dialogue over this situation of violence against women and girls.” On March 24, Morales filed an injunction against the president, the Labor Minister and the director of Onsec at the Constitutional Court in which she alleges a violation of her rights to freedom of speech, equality, non-discrimination, dignity, privacy and the right to a life free from the threat of violence.
However, the #TengoMiedo campaign has not met with universal support. Ana Cofiño, the founder of the feminist newspaper La Cuerda, which has been in print for over 20 years, takes issue with talk of fear as, in her view, “it is a negative, oppressive sentiment that is forced on women from childhood and as such is something that we are taught.” Cofiño says that when she saw the campaign, she felt “a little bit of pain in my heart” because the slogan “calls me to fear instead of to fight.” However, she agrees that “of course, you can be afraid in this country, where we know that nobody will protect you and where men are unhinged.”
Cofiño, 65, points out that she comes from a generation in which women “went up against the Army in the streets; fear as a protective mechanism is a good thing, but not as a way of life,” she adds, given that “the Army, the Church and the education system put fear into us in order to control us.” Cofiño says the fact that “patriarchy and misogyny” is being called out at all “is a triumph for feminism in Guatemala, where women have realized that together they can fight against the fear. I don’t think I’ll live to see it, but this country has to change one day.”
“We don’t need to be brave; we need to be free”
Blanca Yolanda Sandoval, a prosecutor in charge of women’s issues, has criticized the #TengoMiedo campaign as she believes “it is not valid to transmit messages like those circulating on some social media saying ‘I am afraid’.” According to Sandoval, “This is not how justice will be achieved in this country.” Shortly after her remarks, she clarified that her message “was intended to empower women to denounce their aggressors and not to fear them.”
Berónica de León, a prosecutor who investigates femicides in Guatemala, goes the other way and states “people tell us we need to be brave and we don’t need to be brave, we need to be free.” De León says that since her department was set up in 2018, “we have put people on trial who have taken the lives of girls, children and women because we deserve to live in a society where women can leave their homes without fear.” At the legislative level, Guatemala in 2008 passed a law dealing specifically with femicide, designed to act against those committing murders against women simply for being women. According to the Center for National Economic Research, since the law was approved and brought into effect, 2,135 women have been victims of femicide and only 597 men have been sentenced to jail for their crimes.
However, feminist organizations have highlighted that there is still no law qualifying harassment as a crime. As a result, in recent years many women have chosen to denounce the harassment they have suffered online and sometimes photographs of the those accused of committing it have been published. The most recent example was when a group of students at the private Rafael Landívar University accused two professors of sexual harassment, leading to their temporary suspension while an investigation was conducted by the Jesuit-run institution. In 2019, the Public University of Guatemala released a report, with the support of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, that revealed 30% of all sexual harassment cases were carried out by faculty members. In 2015, the Observatory Against Street Harassment was set up, which drew up a map of the places where women were most regularly subjected to harassment.
The Women’s Public Advocate at the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office in Guatemala, Dorotea Gómez, says that many women have opted to denounce their aggressors anonymously because “they have not seen effective responses from public prosecutors and when the complaints are about sexual violence or harassment, they have seen very little in terms of progress.” As such, Gómez says that protests in public places where women display photographs of men accused of these offenses reflect the “weariness of women in the face of the inability of the judicial institutions to provide effective responses to this problem, which affects women in a serious way on a daily basis.”
“The wheels of justice are slow; as an example, we interviewed a woman who told us she had filed a complaint about psychological and physical violence in 2017 and it wasn’t until last year that the initial hearing over took place in a Femicide Court,” says Gómez, adding that over the past year only 36% of cases of violence against women were prosecuted at some level in the courts, which means 64% of the cases filed have yet to be heard at any stage of the judicial process. Gómez also disagrees with the idea of being afraid, although she does admit that in Guatemala “it is risky to be a woman, because the necessary conditions to be able to live a life free of violence are not guaranteed.”
In Guatemala a debate has been on the floor of Congress since 2018 over the creation of a Women’s Ministry, and in the meantime a Model of Integrated Attention for Female Victims of Violence was launched last March, where comprehensive support for victims of gender violence is provided at a time when, according to Gómez, men are acting with “greater impunity and cruelty” towards women as a result of the screen provided by coronavirus lockdowns.
This violence without end was highlighted by a woman at the March 7 protests, carrying a placard that pleaded: “I don’t want to survive, I want to live.” There was a unanimous shout at the rally in Guatemala City: “They are scared because we are not!” As the Guatemalan rapper Rebeca Lane sings: “We are standing up to fight because we want to live, we are not afraid and we don’t to lose a single woman more.”
English version by Rob Train.