Guatemala slowly confronts widespread rape of women

In Guatemala, drug trafficking, gang violence, and a climate of impunity lead to widespread rape of women. At least 10,000 women were victims of sexual violence last year.

Moving up the ranks of Guatemala's ruthless gangs can be as simple as robbing a store at knife point or as brutal as shooting a city bus driver. Marisole figures she fell somewhere in between.

In January, a group of gang members ripped the teenager off a public bus at 7:30 a.m. Six of them raped her for nine hours in a house she'd never seen. Eventually they dropped her off shirtless in a nearby shopping center parking lot. .

"It hurt so much," said Marisole, who did not want her last name used for fear of her safety. "I don't know why they did it. I thought they were just going to rob the bus. I made eye contact with them. And they just took me away in front of everyone."

From the patriarchal days of the Spanish conquistadors to the military's systematic torture of women during its 36-year civil war, the country has long cultivated a reputation as one of the Western hemisphere's most brutal places for women. These days, Marisole and thousands of other victims of gang violence and a wave of street crime are giving that long-standing problem a new face. The government estimated that 10,000 women were raped last year, about 77 for every 100,000 residents. The real numbers are likely higher, organizations said.

But the alarming rate of abuse is finally garnering attention – and action – from the government, which observers say might be a sign that the conservative culture is ready to address the problem.

'Of all the banana republics, it's the most repressive'

"The situation is worse than it was during the war. It's terrible. But, with pressure from the international community, we've been able to push the government to start acknowledging the problem," says Norma Cruz, director of Fundación Sobrevivientes, which helps victims navigate the legal system to prosecute their crimes. The foundation is part of a network of women's rights groups that pressured the government into passing a law last year that set stricter penalties for rape and murder of women. "We still don't have solutions to prevent it from happening, but we now have a beginning."

From the streets of San Salvador to the murders of women in Juárez, Mexico, and domestic violence in the US, violence against women cuts across the hemisphere. But Guatemala's history, its male-dominated culture, the growth of gangs battling for territory and the climbing level of violence have made its problem more complex.

"Of all the banana republics, it's the most repressive," says Roselyn Costantino, a Pennsylvania State University professor who studies violence against women in the region. "The country is out of control right now with [drug] trafficking and violence, and women are often the innocent ones caught in between."

While drugs and violence are common throughout Latin America, Guatemala's broken judicial system largely allows gangs to rape and kill with impunity. Only 2 percent of crimes are brought to trial, according to the United Nations.

Violence against women also has deep roots in Guatemalan society. Throughout the conservative society, women have little protection. Under the domestic abuse law, for example, charges can only be brought if a woman's bruises are visible 10 days after the incident.

"Women have never been equal partners in this society," Costantino said. They have always been looked on as property, he added. "This is a culture that has never wanted to confront its legacy of violence against women."

Colombian cocaine passes through Guatemala

Members of Mara Salvatrucha 13 and Mara 18, two of the largest gangs in Central America, use rape as a way to gain a reputation. During territory disputes, such as the one in Marisole's neighborhood, they will often target women as a method of instilling fear by which to control areas.

"By dropping someone off without her blouse on after they'd raped her, they are saying, 'We control this neighborhood and you better not cross us,'" says Harry E. Vanden, a researcher who specializes in Central American gangs and has served as an expert witness in cases against gang members.

Territorial control is of particular importance to gangs these days. Mexico's war on drugs has led cartels to set up operations in Guatemala, through which some 80 percent of Colombian cocaine passes on its way north, US officials have estimated. And gangs are vying for supremacy to win lucrative relationships with drug traffickers.

"They use rape as a way to take vengeance on a family and to keep their neighborhood in line," Dr. Vanden says.

Sexual violence became so acute in recent years that Doctors Without Borders started its only mission in Latin America dedicated to treating sex victims in Guatemala City. And Nov. 25, the United Nations will open its Latin America chapter of its UNiTE to End Violence Against Women campaign in Guatemala.

"This is a humanitarian crisis," says Patricia Parra, the chief of mission for Doctors Without Borders in Guatemala. "The level of this problem is similar to the levels during the war. We're seeing conflict-level violence against women in what is supposedly a post-conflict country."

Society starts to address rape

But as the problem proliferates there is also the kindling of a solution. Instead of crimes going unreported like so many did before, rapes like Marisole's are now documented. Under the new law, victims can even use evidence collected by the doctors to push for a prosecution.

Just two years ago a victim would be treated for her wounds, but the rape would not be documented. Doctors Without Borders is training the country's medical system to record rapes and other sexual crimes and to collect statistics on their prevalence.

"Two or three years ago, you couldn't utter the words violence against women, or rape," says Dr. Pedro Rosales, a Guatemalan physician who heads up the government's new sexual violence project. "Now, we are actually collecting statistics on how many of those cases occur and prosecuting crimes."

Reliable numbers would focus the government's attention, and that could help shape policies, says Nadine Gasman, Guatemala's representative for the United Nations Population Fund.

"It's really important to acknowledge that this is not normal, that this is not the way things should be. It haunts these girls all their lives," she says. "We need to find ways to prevent it from happening. I'm a strong believer that if the state would take the lead, it would make a huge difference."

The UN is funding programs that seek to teach sexual equality to young men and teenagers. They have also funded performing arts groups and documentary makers that produce works that question the country's machismo culture.

The Red Cross and other groups are also working to keep youth from falling into gangs.

Although most agree Guatemala needs to incorporate sexual equality into its school curriculum and train doctors to look for the signs of sexual violence, the government has still failed to bring such programs into its ministries of health and education.

"I think the fact that we're able to talk about it as a society and the fact that we're recognizing the problem will help us come up with a way to prevent the problem," Rosales said.

Facing accusations that it has ignored the problem, the Guatemalan government last year passed a femicide law. It followed this year with the creation of a presidential office to assist in implementing the new legislation. More than 30 cases are currently being prosecuted under the law, which went into effect earlier this year. But the law is only minimally effective in a justice system riddled with corruption and impunity.

"The law is important, but we have a system in which 98 percent of crimes are not even brought to trial. Even fewer are convicted," says Cruz, of Fundación Sobrevivientes. "For a woman to press for her crime to be prosecuted takes a lot of courage."

Under threat, women drop charges

Marisole said she chose not to push for her crime to be prosecuted because her attackers told her they would kill her and her family. Eight of 10 women who press charges wind up dropping them.

A virgin when she was raped, she says, Marisole has suffered with shame in recent months, telling just two of her closest friends about the incident. These days, sitting next to a man on a bus or being alone with her boyfriend make her nervous. "I hope I get better one day," she says. "But I'm afraid I'm hurt for life."

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