ON A SUNNY APRIL MORNING in 2009, Norma Cruz sat at the prosecution’s table in a courtroom on the 15th floor of the Tower of Tribunals in Guatemala City. A petite, almost mousy woman of 47, she didn’t give the impression of someone accustomed to death threats or hunger strikes, yet as the director of La Fundación Sobrevivientes (the Survivors Foundation), a leading force in the fight against gender-based violence in Guatemala, she is no stranger to either.
Dressed in a sharp gray suit, Cruz waited patiently with her hands folded over a legal notepad while observers trickled into the courtroom, among them U.S. ambassador Stephen McFarland. It was the opening day of the trial for a triple murder that had left Guatemala aghast the previous spring: three sisters, Heidy, Diana, and Wendy Suruy, ages 7, 8, and 11, respectively, found dead with their throats slit in the woods of their small town in the municipality of San Lucas Sacatepéquez. Wendy showed signs of rape. Under Cruz’s oversight, the prosecution team had spent the last 11 months meticulously assembling a case against the three young men charged with the crime, Moroni Silva, Luis Socoreque, and Áxel Cho. With conclusive DNA evidence, over 60 supporting witnesses, and the murder weapon itself — a machete — Cruz hoped to rack up swift, definitive convictions.
These auspicious factors in the case of the Suruy killers are the exception, not the norm, in Guatemala. A victory for the prosecution would only highlight the tremendous obstacles that need to be overcome in a country where justice for crimes against women is nearly impossible to obtain. Since the turn of the millennium, over 5,000 women have been murdered in Guatemala. To give a better idea of what this figure means, consider that if Guatemala, with its population of 14 million, were the size of the United States, this would add up to 110,000 women murdered in a decade. And conditions are only worsening with the passage of time. In 2000, 213 women met violent deaths in Guatemala, compared to 720 in 2009 and 675 in 2010. Worse still, only an estimated 2 percent of these cases have received legal action. The victims are mostly the “nobodies” of society, poor women, in many cases indigenous, from families lacking resources and education. Their bodies are often found mutilated, with indications of rape. Investigations are routinely botched, if they’re even pursued. “She was a prostitute,” a police investigator might say if the victim has a belly-button ring or is wearing a miniskirt. The investigation is closed before being opened.
No female is safe from the violence: not little girls, not housewives, not foreigners. The elevated level of aggression against women is not a isolated phenomenon in Central America — El Salvador and Honduras, for example, also present alarming statistics — but nowhere in the region is it worse than in Guatemala, where U.S. Cold War foreign policy aided in establishing a devastating culture of violence that persists today. At the same time, the situation echoes that of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, where the murder of approximately 400 women since 1993 has drawn much international attention. Only in Guatemal...read more