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Guatemala: One Arrest in Gender-Killing Epidemic

GUATEMALA CITY - "Femicide," or gender-based murder, has reached epidemic proportions in Guatemala. But at least for Rosmery González - one of the more than 700 Guatemalan victims of this crime in 2008 - justice is finally being done with the arrest of her alleged killer earlier this month.

On Aug 6, Óscar Romero, the 19-year-old victim’s uncle, who was the leading suspect in her murder since she turned up dead in July of last year, was taken into police custody from his home in a poor district of the capital.

Pressure from human rights organisations and the women’s movement, combined with the unrelenting efforts of the victim’s parents finally led to Romero’s arrest. Just before she went missing, Rosmery had been on her way to meet with her uncle, who had promised to help her get a job at the National School of Agriculture (ENCA). Days after her disappearance, her body was found on the grounds of ENCA.

"On the one hand, I’m nervous and worried because there are a lot of risks involved, but I’m also happy because the authorities are now behind me," González’s mother, Elizabeth Chajón, told IPS.

Just a few days earlier, she had described to this reporter the impotence she felt at seeing how crimes like her daughter's murder went unpunished.

"When I went to the police to file the complaint (about Rosmery's disappearance), they told me she couldn't have been kidnapped and must have run off with her boyfriend," Chajón said.

Femicide is a term coined for misogynist or gender-related murders of women, sometimes accompanied by sexual violence.

According to official figures, over the last five years, a total of 3,500 such murders were registered in this Central American nation of roughly 13 million people. In the first seven months of 2009 alone, 351 women died as a result of ‘machista’ or sexist violence, and that only reflects deaths by firearms or knives.

Eleven thousand murders were committed between 2006 and 2008 in the province of Guatemala alone - which has a population of 2.5 million people and includes the capital, Guatemala City - while 98 percent of all crimes perpetrated in the country go unpunished, according to official figures and data from non-governmental organisations.

These staggering figures have led the international community to speak of an epidemic. In a recent interview with IPS, Peruvian lawyer and sociologist Gladys Acosta, Latin American and Caribbean director for the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), said that the international community "must mobilise to act against Guatemala’s epidemic of gender-motivated murders," which also tend to be marked by extreme cruelty.

The epidemic also places Guatemala farther and farther away from meeting the commitment of substantially reducing violence against women and girls by 2015, as one of the priorities of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) agreed on by almost 200 member nations of the United Nations at the turn of the 21st century.

The persistence of violence against women not only undermines the specific MDG of achieving gender equality and empowering women; it is inconsistent with all the MDGs.

In an "In-Depth Study on All Forms of Violence Against Women", issued in July 2006, the United Nations states that "unless attention to preventing and redressing violence against women is incorporated in programmes to realise each of the Millennium Development Goals, the health, social and economic consequences of such violence can limit the potential benefits of these initiatives."

Violent crime is rampant in Guatemala, which has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. In its report, the U.N. says impunity is "a key factor" in violence against women.

Which is why Norma Cruz, head of the Fundación Sobrevivientes (Survivors’ Foundation), a local NGO, sees Romero’s arrest as a victory. "Every arrest made for the violent death of a human being is a huge step for us," she told IPS.

Fundación Sobrevivientes, which provides psychological and legal aid to victims of violence, has been the leading source of support for the González family in their efforts to clarify Rosmery’s murder.

Through their combined efforts they secured authorisation to have Rosmery’s body exhumed last July, to determine the cause of death, as the authorities had reported that the initial autopsy was inconclusive and that she had died of undetermined causes.

They also managed to obtain a warrant for the police and the public prosecutor’s office to search Romero’s workplace at ENCA, as no inspection had been carried out when the body was found on the grounds of the institution 13 months ago.

Rosmery's father Rafael González, pointing out that his cousin Romero's house was not searched either, even though he was the chief suspect, said all of the law enforcement authorities "are on the take."

"During the search of the ENCA facilities, photographs of Rosmery were found in the suspect’s computer," said Cruz, adding that she was optimistic with the progress made in the investigation.

"I think he (Romero) is not just going to sit back and take it, which is why we’re going to have a written document drawn up holding him responsible for anything that may happen to us," Chajón said. "All her father and I want is to see justice done for our dead daughter, but we know that means we are putting ourselves in danger."

Last month in the newspaper Prensa Libre, ENCA director Julio César Catalán denounced that Romero’s job had been protected through "pressure and influences in high places," which had prevented Catalán from firing him, despite the firm suspicions that pointed to him as the author of the crime that had stunned the institution a year earlier.

For Cruz, the new developments in the Rosmery case prove that if one can overcome their fears and pressure the State to fulfil its law enforcement duty, "impunity can be defeated.

"We’re not going to back down, we’re going to keep on pressuring the authorities to move forward with the investigation and the criminal action in court, until this man (Romero) is convicted," said Cruz. She also said that "at least one of the many cases of impunity was on its way to being solved."

Cruz said they will be asking for a prison sentence of 50 years for the defendant, because the crime had several aggravating circumstances, including that the victim was a woman and that the murder was premeditated and involved deceit.

The public prosecutor’s office and the lawyers who are handling the civil suit will ground their case on Guatemala’s new law against gender violence, which went into effect in May 2008.

The law classifies femicide as a specific crime and establishes mandatory damages for the victims’ families. It also stiffens penalties for gender-related killings, which now range from 25 to 50 years imprisonment. But the law has hardly been enforced, as few crimes even make it to court.

According to Hilda Morales, of No to Violence Against Women, an NGO, "there has been some progress in the law’s application, but it has also met with obstacles. While it has led to a strengthening of the support centres available for vulnerable women, and information on the law has been disseminated nationwide, the public prosecutor’s office is still not pursuing these cases as it should, and training is needed to help interpret the law," she told IPS.

From June 2008 to March of this year, 4,035 criminal actions were filed under the new law. Of these, 31 involved cases of femicide, and in that whole time, only 11 sentences were handed down, according to Morales.

A study conducted this year by the Myrna Mack Foundation, a local human rights group, revealed the lack of action by the prosecutor’s office: 60 percent of the cases it has under investigation have been stagnant for over a year, and of the cases that were brought to court, 87 percent were thrown out or shelved.

When femicide is involved, the lack of action is even worse. According to the study, an autopsy was only ordered in 12 percent of the 2,191 murder cases committed between 2006 and 2008 in the province of Guatemala in which the victims were women. "This reflects the scant importance that prosecutors place on sexual assault committed prior to death," the report says.

The study on the legal treatment of murders committed in that province from 2006 to 2008 monitored 11,127 cases, 17 percent of which involved women victims, Lázaro Murcia, one of the Foundation's researchers, told IPS.

But Norma Cruz is convinced that "justice is possible if we leave our fears behind. All the cases we’ve handled have been solved," she told IPS.

And the results prove her right. In 2008, Fundación Sobrevivientes obtained 10 criminal convictions and won 524 civil actions. This year, it has taken on 1,421 cases and is providing psychological counselling to almost 900 women. "We hope to obtain seven criminal convictions in cases involving violent deaths," Cruz said.

But the group's work is anything but easy, because the justice system is "ridden with corruption," from the police right up to the Supreme Court, she said.

Justice also faces another great enemy: fear. "Ninety-five percent of all victims leave justice up to God, and that translates into impunity," Cruz said.

"In Guatemala everyone lives in constant fear, and fear paralyses you. These crimes must be made public, the perpetrators must be put behind bars, so that the population can feel safe," she insisted.

This year, Cruz - whose family has been attacked and threatened because of her work in the NGO - earned the U.S. secretary of state’s International Women of Courage Award, which celebrates exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for women’s rights and advancement. But she says that her motivation comes from the many other women with whom she shares what she calls a "thirst for justice."

That thirst is aggravated by a particular characteristic of gender-killings in Guatemala: their viciousness. Torture, dismemberment, mutilations, extreme sexual violence and other unimaginable brutalities are the hallmark of the sexist crimes committed against women in this country, in many cases at the hands of boyfriends, husbands or exes, or of relatives or men known to the victim.

"This girl was dismembered, these two, mother and daughter, were stabbed, this woman was brutally murdered by her partner," Cruz says as she points to the photos of victims whose families are receiving legal support from Fundación Sobrevivientes.

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