Sergio Ortega asks me to look at two pictures of his daughter, Velvet. In the first, taken four years ago by her husband Kenneth, she kneels, holding her daughter Kimberly on the occasion of her only child’s first birthday. A cake sits in the foreground, and from behind it, Velvet gazes happily at the camera. In the second, taken by a policeman, Velvet’s eyes are screwed shut and her face is grotesquely swollen. Battered beyond all recognition, her head is double its size. This second photograph was taken after the 25-year-old was found dead after being bound, raped and beaten in the suburbs of Guatemala City in July, 2005.
Ortega is a tall, thin man with jet black hair, more Slavic in appearance than Guatemalan. His hands tremble as he replaces the pictures in a large brown file. “My beautiful daughter,” he says in Spanish.
Velvet’s death came one year before Amnesty International issued a report that highlighted a staggering increase in the number of women murdered in Guatemala. According to the report, the figure has increased by more than 400 percent since 2002. In 2005, the fourth consecutive year the total had risen, 665 deaths were registered. The death toll for 2006, according to the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission, was 672. That equates to nearly two women every day.
Up to 70 percent of female homicides have never been investigated and no arrests have been made in 97 percent of cases, according to Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman, Frank La Rue. The report called on the nation’s president, Oscar Berger, to take urgent steps to improve policing, to strengthen the witness protection program, and to provide funds for the country’s National Forensic Institute. Despite this, the killings continue in Guatemala; the phenomenon is called femicide.
THE IMPETUS FOR VIOLENCE
Guatemala borders El Salvador, Honduras, Belize and Mexico. It is a land of stunning beauty with more than 30 live volcanoes and jungles jeweled with ancient Mayan temples. It is also a nation recovering from a 36-year civil war, spurred by a CIA coup in 1954. The conflict ended ten years ago. Its legacy remains: the deaths of at least 200,000 Guatemalans left the country virtually lawless. Violence is endemic and public lynchings are common, a form of mob justice particularly prevalent among rural communities. A study by the UN found that between 1996 and 2002 there were around 400 lynchings resulting in more than 200 deaths.
Guatemala City, the capital and largest urban center in Central America, sprawls over a mountain valley in the southern part of the country and is home to nearly three million people, the vast majority of whom live well below the poverty line. To the south of the city sits the smoking volcano of Pacaya; at night its glowing lava flows are visible from the road that heads west to the old Spanish colonial city of Antigua.
Guatemala City is one of the most violent capitals in the world. Last July, Philip Alston, the United Nation’s special reporter on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions, said the current levels of violence in Guatemala are worse than during the civil war. Murder is as common as the street vendors selling tortillas. Soldiers patrol the streets and nearly every shop or business has a security guard outside who nervously totes a pump-action shotgun held high up across the chest. Shopkeepers serve from behind steel bars and the down-at-heel, low-rise streets are mostly deserted at night. It is a city living in fear.
Much of the current violence in Guatemala is targeted at women. The Centre for Legal Action on Human Rights (CALDH) has a folder six inches thick of newspaper cuttings detailing female murder stories from the previous three months. The tabloids such as Dia and Nuestro Diario are full of such reports daily. There were 19 killings the day I arrived—six of the victims were women. I sift through the folder; a female murdered in a cafe in broad daylight 100 metres from a police station; a photo of a woman’s body stuffed in a box; a machete used in an attack on a student; an AK47 fired in another; a woman killed in front of her daughter.
Gangs are to blame for most of the female killings—or so runs the line in Guatemala City officialdom. Since the end of the war and the virtual breakdown of law and order, gang culture has spread from the United States and taken hold in the slums of Guatemala City. The maras, as they’re called, terrorize communities through violence; they have been known to kill for just a few dollars. The two most notorious groups in the region are Mara 18 and Mara Salvatrucha.
THE LONG SHADOW OF CIVIL WAR
Sergio hands me four more pictures. They are mug shots of the young men he believes are responsible for Velvet’s murder. Sardonic faces glower back defiantly at the camera. The men—El Negro, El Quique, El Mykol, and El Tiul—are maras members, all infamous in the San Juan Sacetapequez area close to Guatemala City.
In June 2005, the maras came to Velvet’s video and internet arcade to demand 500 quetzals a month—about 25 dollars—in protection money. Velvet refused to pay them. “They threatened her and stole money, so she called the police. Two of the maras were caught and ended up in jail. But then one of their mothers came to the shop to threaten Velvet and to ask her to withdraw the charges. She did so on the condition the money was returned… and it was. We hoped that would be the end of it,” Sergio says.
But the gangs take grave offence at any sign of disrespect. They returned to the arcade a month later on July 13th, when Velvet was alone. Velvet’s murder, Sergio says, was a warning to others not to defy them.
It is rumored that killing a woman is also part of some gangs’ initiation processes. Juan Rivera, covered with 150 tattoos, was, until two weeks before, a member of the Mara Salvatrucha in zone six of Guatemala City. Now, the 21-year-old stays at a rehab center for young men who want to escape the violence of the streets. Rivera admits that one has to kill to get into a gang but says the victim doesn’t have to be female. “As long as you kill on the other gang’s territory… [and] the more people you kill the faster you get in the gang,” he says. He also insists that gangs do not carry out mutilations of female bodies and instead accuses the police of these types of murders. “The maras only ‘smoke’ [shoot] people,” he adds.
General Montt, whom Spain is trying to extradite for crimes against humanity, ran for president in 2003 and will run again for Congress in September. The message seems clear: life is cheap and acts of brutality will go unpunished.
Claudio Samayoa, a 39-year-old human rights activist who has been carrying out research on femicide, agrees. “Gang violence is generally gang against gang, using guns. But we’ve had weeks when it’s just been pregnant women killed, or periods when females with the same characteristics have been targeted, or only evangelicals, or specific age groups,” she says. “In February, 2003, the bodies of 12 women aged between 16 and 21 were found cut up in garbage cans across the city.”
She points out that the patterns of killing resemble those present during the civil war. During the conflict, women were targeted by the state in the fight against leftist guerrillas. “Women were raped and killed extremely violently to give out a graphic message to communities that they should not support the rebels,” Samayoa says.
She believes that forces linked to the military and the police are deliberately orchestrating the atrocities for their own gain. In targeting women, she says, they are promoting instability and fear in society and are engaging in a form of psychological warfare by casting up a perfidious past. “There were mutilated women’s bodies put on the streets back in the 1980s during the war, and there are women’s corpses littering the streets again now,” Samayoa says. “Now there seems to be a fad in the killings.”
In 1999, a UN-sponsored Truth Commission said that the nation’s armed forces and police were responsible for 93 percent of the atrocities that took place during the war and that those responsible for the worst crimes should be brought to justice. According to Samayoa, however, army and police officers accused of abuses have retained their positions. The nation’s culture of impunity is personified by General Montt, whom Spain is trying to extradite for crimes against humanity. He ran for president in 2003 and announced recently he will run again for Congress in September. The message to society seems clear: life is cheap and acts of brutality against women will go unpunished.
NO ONE TO TURN TO
At the Congress Palace the President of the Human Rights Commission, Mirna Ponce, keeps a body count of women killed, and updates a chart outside her office nearly every day. Ponce, an opposition politician from the Guatemalan Republic Front, is scathing about the lack of impetus on the part of the police to investigate female murders. “They (the police) do not care about female victims. If a female body is found they immediately say she was a prostitute, or it was the result of gang killing. They simply do not investigate and are the worst institution in the country because of the corruption. There is no fingerprint or DNA database, no crime or victim profiling, and no real forensic science. In 2005, 26 female recruits were raped at the National Police Academy,” she says.
Juana Maria Matamoros was murdered by a senior police officer, Santiago Luis Garcia, who lives four doors away. Juana’s sister, Yesinia, and her mother, Josefina, sob uncontrollably as they explain how he came into their home at 9:45am on July 10th, 2006, and fired 14 times at Juana. Five bullets entered her body. Yesinia, who witnessed the murder, says Garcia admitted to her that Juana’s was a revenge killing. Garcia’s wife had run off with Juana’s brother.
The Matamoros family is supposed to be in witness protection but instead remain in the home where the killing took place—on the same street as Garcia’s family who have been making threats. And the police will not guarantee round-the-clock security at the home—not that the Matamoros family trusts the police. “We do not know who could be standing guard outside our door. An officer could even be a friend of Garcia,” Yesinia says.
Although Garcia is in custody—the result of pressure from a group called Sobrevivientes [Survivors], which aids female victims of violence—the family fears he will escape justice because of his position. Yesinia says she is scared of being killed in another revenge attack. Juana’s children, Howard, age six, Maryann, age seven, and Luisa, age 10, say nothing.
Asked for an interview, National Police Chief Erwin Sperizen agrees initially, but then cancels two days later. He declines requests for another date.
SOCIAL INEQUALITY STOKES THE FIRE
In Guatemala, it is common for men to believe that women are inferior and that domestic violence and rape are acceptable; it is accepted for a married man to have a mistress and, in some communities—according to the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the
Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography—for fathers to take their daughters’ virginity. “Women have no real right to work, to education or to healthcare,” says human rights activist, Giovana Lemus, from the fortress-like offices of the Network for Preventing Violence Against Women in Guatemala City. She adds that this is a country where a man can escape a rape charge if he marries his victim, provided she is over the age of 12, and that having sex with a minor is only an offence if the girl can prove she did not act provocatively. “And many of these crimes take place within the family,” she says.
Though not atypical for Latin America—in many of its countries there is a long history of misogyny—in Guatemala this perception has exacerbated the problem of femicide, almost like a collective shrug toward violence against women.
The figures for rape, as with murder, are increasing and there were more than 4000 such crimes reported by girls under the age of 16 between 2000 and 2005 in Guatemala City alone, Lemus says. In the two main hospitals in Guatemala City there are no fixed procedures with which to investigate cases of rape, Lemus says, and women are generally turned away. Unless the issue of discrimination is addressed, and female life begins to be valued, the violence will continue unabated, she explains.
At Casa Alianza, a shelter for teenage girls, there are around 80 girls in care. Claudio Rivero, who has worked there for five years, notes that most have been sexually abused, some by their own fathers. Rivera says that some girls reject their babies simply because they are so young. In one shared bedroom with bunk beds for the young mothers and three white cots for children, Danielle Estevez picks up her baby and kisses him on the forehead. Her son, Carlos Daniel, is two months old. Danielle is only 12. She was raped by her stepfather. “It was not time for me, but I have to look after him because he is my son,” she says in a daze, her mind flitting. She kisses Carlos again as he kicks his legs and squeezes her finger. Danielle, slim with long, brown hair, smiles at him. Anyone seeing them would think she was Carlos’s elder sister.
EVERYONE IS TO BLAME
After Velvet’s death, police caught one of the men who had been detained following the first incident. But they did not seal off the crime scene or make any forensics report and, despite a full confession providing detailed information only the killers could know about Velvet’s death, the men thought to be responsible still walk the streets. “Mario, the guy caught, was not even informed of his rights, and, as a result, walked. I don’t think that anyone will ever go to prison for my daughter’s murder,” Sergio says.
“There have not been enough police investigations, not enough specialized training, and a lack of co-ordination between police and prosecutors has not helped,” says Gabriella Nunez, the official in charge of Seprem, a special commission to investigate female killings, set up by the Guatemalan government after pressure from the U.S. Senate in November 2005. “But we are addressing the issue with more resources and developing a strategy to deal with femicide.”
In an interview at her office, Nunez says she doesn’t have the answer to stopping femicide yet, and admits to a number of failings on behalf of the state. Has anyone has been fired over the past five years? Nunez thinks, replies, “Probably not. Why has it taken so long to investigate the problem? “Because the system is weak,” she says bluntly. Government recognizes the problem of femicide, she insists, but there is a major issue with violence generally in Guatemala that will take time to change.
Carlos Viellman, the former Guatemalan interior minister, promised that new laws on rape and domestic violence will be introduced. He added that all police departments will have special sections created to deal with female victims of violence and that the Spanish government has been helping to train Guatemalan investigators. But Viellman was unable to offer much by way of explanation of the problem other than to say “We have a culture of violence in Guatemala.” And, of course, this is something the government is trying to address. His promises still resonating, Viellman resigned weeks after we spoke.
Many fighting for justice and for the rule of law in Guatemala see little to cling to, so they turn to their faith in a power higher than the state’s. In Santo Domingo Church, Odilia Medrano Pineda lights two candles for her daughter Dora, murdered at home four years ago. Odilia, a frail women of 56 who looks considerably older, survived the same attack, but barely. Dora was only 18, when she was tied up, raped, beaten, and burned alive during a robbery in 2002. Odilia was also raped, then battered with a rock and left for dead in a river. At one point the killers discussed decapitating her. “One of them said, ‘Today, we kill you and tomorrow the vultures eat you,'” Odilia tells us, weeping.
Odilia and her husband David are in church the day after a court convicted Rigoberto Lopez, Myrna Espinoza and Juan Santos for Dora’s murder. They were sentenced to 60, 50 and 50 years in prison, respectively—a surprise verdict to many people in Guatemala but perhaps an indication that the courts are taking a tougher stance on femicide. They pressed on despite continuous death threats and a fear the three killers could escape jail because of a corrupt prison system. “We knew God was with [the judges]… God gave them strength for this great injustice,” Odilia says.
But Sergio Ortega’s faith has yielded nothing; still he perseveres. Las Flores Cemetery where Velvet is buried is vast and green; the high graveyard overlooks the city, a city so dangerous that armed guards patrol even here. “There are lots of robberies—even the dead cannot rest, it seems,” Sergio says from the cemetery. There are no headstones, just small bronze plaques set in the ground. Velvet’s memorial is etched with sheep led by a shepherd, and reads, “Velvet Madelline Noemi Ortego—Feb. 23, 1980 to Jul 13, 2005.” Sergio bends down on one knee and gently brushes the bronze with his hand. “I come here about once a month. But Velvet’s husband, Kenneth, finds it too difficult to come…Kimberly just keeps asking for her mom. What can we tell a child? When will we ever get justice and closure?” he says, echoing what the desperation of many Guatemalans.
Billy Briggs (www.billybriggs.co.uk) is a freelance journalist from Scotland who specialises in human rights issues. In 2005, he was the recipient of two awards from Amnesty
International for reportage about neo-Nazis in Russia. He has written recently for The Guardian, The Sunday Times, The Herald and Sunday Herald.
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