Why The World Should Care About The War Against Guatemalan Women


Jorge Velásquez refuses to allow his daughter’s death to become “another murder statistic.”

Claudina Isabel Velásquez was raped, shot in the head, and dumped in an alley in Guatemala City in 2005, one of 665 women killed in Guatemala that year. Her case, like nearly all of the others, was never solved. But almost a decade after her death, Jorge’s constant fight to keep Claudina’s case open has made her a symbol for increasing violence against Guatemalan women and girls. It’s the same violence that’s spurring more and more unaccompanied young girls to leave Guatemala and attempt to cross the U.S. border.

Last year, 759 women were murdered in Guatemala, a 7 percent increase from the year before. A terrible new report divides the deaths into causes: 522 deaths from firearms, 70 from stabbings, 156 from asphyxiation, 11 from decapitation or dismemberment.

In 2008, the Guatemalan government set up a specialist prosecutor to investigate female murders and support victims, along with a new court to try perpetrators. But those measures have failed to stop the rising numbers of killings or bring perpetrators to justice — less than 10 percent of last year’s cases were successfully resolved and prosecuted.

Women in the country also live in fear of being sexual assaulted. Guatemala has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the whole Latin American region, largely because many teenagers are raped by family members. Last year, there were 61,000 girls aged 10 to 19 who became pregnant, an increase from 49,000 girls two years before. One advocacy organization in the country recently created a campaign using images of abandoned dolls and stuffed animals being placed for “adoption,” each the toy of an abused girl who was forced to “lose her childhood.”

So it’s not surprising that more and more young girls under the age of 13 years old are fleeing Guatemala to try to cross the border to the United States.

On Friday, Vice President Joe Biden will visit Guatemala to talk to Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina about stopping the rapidly increasing flow of unaccompanied children from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. A senior administration official told reporters that Biden will emphasize that “it is not worth subjecting children to a perilous journey when there is no light at the end of the tunnel.” Biden will also talk about how Latin American countries can address the crime and poverty issues causing the migration (because contrary to what some claim, the increase in children fleeing began well before the creation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, by President Obama in 2012).

Biden’s visit, though, only serves to highlight the historical role the U.S. has played in prompting some of the problems seen today in Guatemala. In 1954, the C.I.A. helped organize a coup to oust a popular leader and install a right-wing dictator who plunged the country into a 36-year civil war. Effects of the war, which Amnesty International and many other groups label a genocide of the Mayan people, are still felt today and contribute greatly to Guatemala’s current problems.

With over 200,000 people killed in the war and villages severely damaged, Guatemala’s malnutrition rate became the highest in Latin America and the fourth highest in the world. Despite government endorsement of programs with hopeful names like “Hambre Cero” (Zero Hunger), 89 percent of the population continues to live in poverty.

The war also helped to create the current culture of violence towards women. According to a report sponsored by the United Nations, a whole generation of Guatemalan men were taught to view rape as a “generalized and systemic practice carried out by State agents as a counterinsurgency strategy” and a “true weapon of terror.”

This April, Jorge Velásquez landed one victory: the highest civil court in the Americas, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, will investigate his daughter’s case as well as Guatemala’s “multiple failures” to find and punish the perpetrators of widespread sexual assault and murders of women.

Unfortunately, the Court hasn’t had the best track record with effecting actual change in the Guatemalan government. But Claudina’s father will keep fighting, telling The Guardian, “Every time I feel like giving up because of the pain, the frustration, the impotence, the scorn [from authorities], a little voice says to me, ‘Dad, don’t give up my cause, don’t give up the struggle.’”