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LATIN AMERICA
Holding the state accountable for femicide
Louisa Reynolds
5/28/2014
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Authorities lacks of political will to protect women’s right to a life free of violence.

“Daddy, I’m on my way home.”The last words his daughter told him haunt Jorge Velásquez and remain engraved in his mind.  Nineteen-year-old law student Claudina Isabel Velásquez never returned home from the party she attendedwith her boyfriend the nightof August 12, 2005, in Guatemala City.

Claudina called her parents at 11:45 p.m.to say she would be home soon after midnight. By 3 a.m., when she hadn’t returned, her parents contacted the police but were told they had to wait for 24 hours before reporting her disappearance. The following morning, they received a phone call: the unidentified body of a young woman who strongly resembled Claudina was at the morgue, a close friend told them. The victim had been beaten, raped and shot in the head.

After Claudina’s parents identified the young woman as their daughter, they were told forensic experts had already examined the body and they could proceed with the burial. However, much to their anger and disbelief, crime scene experts turned up halfway through the funeral to take Claudina’s fingerprints.

That marked the beginning of anineffective murder investigation. Forty days passed before investigators interviewed Claudina’s parents, investigators failed to locate key witnesses, the names of the police officers that took her body to the morgue were not recorded, and the victim’s clothes were not kept as evidence, among many other deficiencies.

One of the main reasons the crime scene was treated so carelessly, said the Velásquez family, was because Claudina’s body was found in a working class neighborhood and the fact that she was wearing sandals and a navel piercing led investigators to assume she was a sex worker or a gang member, that “she was to blame for her own murder” and that the case was not worth investigating—a series of assumptions deeply rooted in Guatemala’s culture of gender-based violence commonly used by Guatemalan authorities to justify their lack of diligence.

Two years after Claudina’s murder, the investigation remained stalled, so her parents took the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).The State of Guatemala was accused of failing to protect Claudina’s life and physical integrity, thus breaching a number of international treaties and conventions the country has ratified, including the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women, or Convention of Belém do Pará, which establishes that women have the right to live a life free from violence and that violence against women constitutes a violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The IACHR recommended the state should complete the investigation in a timely manner, prosecute those responsible and adopt protocols for the investigation of violence against women. In recent years, important steps have been made in terms of tackling violence against women including the creation of specialized courts for gender-based violence. However, those responsible for Claudina’s rape and murder have yet to be brought to justice, mainly because evidence was lost at the beginning of the investigation.Therefore, in March 2014, the IACHR ruled that Guatemala had not complied with its recommendations and submitted the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Femicide and Feminicide
In 1992, South African feminist academic Diana Russell, author of Femicide: The Politics of Woman Killing, coined the term “femicide,” meaning the murder of women on account of gender, stressing these are hate crimes rooted in patriarchal oppression and violence, and should be treated separately from other homicides.

Two years later, Mexican anthropologist Marcela Lagarde, sought to adapt the term to the context of Latin America, where the killing of women has reached epidemic proportions. She coined the term feminicidio or “feminicide,” which refers to cases such as that of Claudina Velásquez in which the state is accused of breaching its international obligations and committing a crime against humanity by failing to investigate gender-based crimes.

“Marcela Lagarde broadens the term coined by Russell in order to include the political consequences of the authorities’ negligence and omissions, which are contrary to the principles of the rule of law. The states’ lack of political will to tackle violence against women is a structural problem that results in a failure to investigate and punish most acts of violence against women, which means that the justice system fails to act as a deterrent and perpetuates a context of violence against women,” explained to Latinamerica Press Ana Grace Cabrera, a UN Women expert on gender violence.

According to Cabrera, having specific laws that define femicide and/or feminicide helps to hold individual perpetrators as well as states accountable for these crimes, although she stresses that even if a country does not have specific laws on the issue, it can still be prosecuted in an international court for failing to comply with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) as well as the Convention of Belém do Pará.

Unaccomplished ruling
If the Inter-American Court of Human Rights rules against Guatemala in the Claudina Velásquez case, it will be the second time a Latin American state is sanctioned for failing to protect women’s right to a life free of violence.

In 2009, the court found Mexico guilty of the denial of justice to Claudia González, 20, Esmeralda Herrera, 15, and Berenice Ramos, 17, whose bodies were found with those of five other women in November 2001 on a stretch of wasteland known as Campo Algodonero on the outskirts of Ciudad Juárez, a violence-plagued industrial city on the US-Mexico border.

The Mexican state was deemed responsible for “the lack of measures for the protection of the victims, two of which were underage, the lack of prevention of these crime, in spite of full awareness of the existence of a pattern of gender-related violence that had resulted in hundreds of women and girls murdered, the lack of response of the authorities to the disappearance (of women), the lack of due diligence in the investigation of the homicides, as well as the denial of justice and the lack of an adequate reparation to their families.”

The court instructed the Mexican authorities to investigate the murders, hold a public ceremony to apologize for the killings, build a monument to the three young women in Ciudad Juárez and train the police in human rights and gender-based violence. The authorities were also ordered to create a website about the women and girls killed since 1993 in Ciudad Juárez, step up efforts to find missing women and investigate death threats and harassment against their family members. However, the only action carried out by the government so far has been the publication of that ruling in the official gazette and in one national newspaper.
—Latinamerica Press.


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Lack ofdiligence in police investigationsfavorsimpunity forfemicideperpetrators. (Photo: Rodrigo Arias)
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