December 1 2009
Ana Carcedo is the Director of CEFEMINA (Feminist Information and Action Center) in San José, Costa Rica. Partnering with UNIFEM and Horizons of Friendship, CEFEMINA has been conducting much needed research into the past decade’s sharp increase in femicides in Central America.
Ms. Carceredo was careful to distinguish between homicides involving women and femicides where women are targeted based on their gender. In 2000 the average central American female homicide rate was 3 out of every 100,000 women. It has now doubled to 6 out of 100,000 and has reached 10/100,00 in the more violent of the countries: El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Dominican Republic. Their research shows than three quarters of these murders are in fact femicides.
The researchers are finding that these femicides fall into five scenarios. Domestic violence is the most traditionally recognized motivation for femicide, but violence stemming from both organized crime and gangs has become alarming. Organized crime circuits are responsible for human trafficking, most often victimizing women. The rising influence of gangs such as MS 13 and the 18 heavily exert control over women in marginalized urban communities. This scenario has become the most prevalent cause of femicide in several countries. Femicides are also linked to acts of vengeance. For example, loan sharks will target a debtor’s wife. Finally, researchers have defined a scenario of misogynist cleansing. These crimes demonstrate an extreme level of violence against its victims, including mutilated genitalia, degrading words defacing the corpse, and evidence of sexual and/or other forms of torture.
The territory for violence has been re-drawn to increasingly include women. Where disputes were more often resolved between those directly involved, it has become more common to see violence against wives and daughters. Also, such acts are more often seen in the street – they are no longer hidden behind private doors. There are fewer and fewer secure areas for women to find refuge.
Trends show that victims are overwhelmingly young, and the crimes are much more likely to be committed with firearms. The average age of femicide victims is between 15 and 25. Younger women are more vulnerable in relationships where they are un-able to set limits, leave their partner, or seek support. It is also largely younger women affected by gang violence. They can be either targeted by rival gang members or subjected to violence from with in their own gang’s hierarchy. Whereas 20 years ago femicides were more often linked to domestic violence and committed with other weapons (armas blancas) such as knives, machetes or other farm implements, today’s crimes are predominantly committed with guns.
CEFEMINA’s research also looks at the judicial and public media response to the incidence of femicides. The findings come of no surprise, but few investigations provide the necessary documentation of these responses; which are needed for further analysis. Within Central American judicial systems there is a consistent pattern of negligence. Police do not investigate, they do not collect evidence, and they do not identify guilty parties. They often arrive at crime scenes and assume a scenario based on circumstantial evidence. For example, if a young woman’s body is found along the street of a drug dealing territory, they close the case on the assumption of a drug related dispute. Evidence of sexual violence is not taken into account and no other hypothesis can take form. Without proper investigations it is difficult to determine whether a women is a victim of a homicide or a femicide. Researchers have had to depend on media reports of the crimes to make the distinction. The study has followed several cases all the way through the judicial system to identify exactly what obstacles exist and to offer viable reforms to remove them. If Central American countries do not take action against the violence and strengthen their judicial systems to decrease impunity, these trends will only grow worse.