Latin America has some of the highest femicide rates in the world

Latin America is the region with the most female murders on earth, a phenomenon partly due to organized crime activities such as human trafficking and gang violence. Just how do these criminal activities increase the victimization of women? 

A recent report by a number of international organizations (pdf) revealed that seven out of the ten countries with the highest female murder rate in the world are in Latin America. El Salvador heads the list with a rate of 8.9 homicides per 100,000 women in 2012, followed by Colombia with 6.3, Guatemala with 6.2, Russia with 5.3 and Brazil with 4.8. Mexico and Suriname are also in the top ten.

While general violence levels and domestic abuse are considered to be the main contributors to high femicide rates, organized crime also plays a huge yet overlooked role in the victimization of women in Latin America. As Guatemala's Attorney General Thelma Aldana told InSight Crime, 50 percent of the 854 women killed in Guatemala in 2015 were murdered as a direct result of organized crime.

Human Trafficking and Female Murders

 

"The only case in which you can make a case that femicide is increasing as a result of transnational organized crime is human trafficking."

Human trafficking is a vast illegal economy in Latin America, and one that disproportionately affects women and girls.

"The only case in which you can make a case that femicide is increasing as a result of transnational organized crime is human trafficking … in Central America and the Caribbean," InSight Crime was told by the Representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Regional Office for Central America and the Caribbean, Amado Philip de Andrés.

Human trafficking victims to and from the region -- the majority of which are females between the ages of 18 and 28 -- are on the increase, and so are the number of fatalities.

"The femicide rate in cases of human trafficking for victims is very, very high," de Andrés said. "Especially for the purposes of sexual exploitation, which … might account for 91 or 92 percent of the cases."

Female victims from across the region as well as other areas, such as Eastern Europe, are tricked into working in the sex trade where they are tortured, raped, and often murdered.

One of the most troubling aspects of this form of crime is that, as de Andrés points out, the woman's "victimization never ends." Even if the victims manage to escape or are rescued, they may be killed in retaliation, or even fall back into the trade if they are not given sufficient attention and alternative work opportunities, which they rarely are.

SEE ALSO:  Coverage of Human Trafficking

Widespread impunity in human trafficking cases, fear of denouncing crimes, and the huge profitability of the market -- up to $320 million a year in the region alone, according to the UNODC official -- causes the victimization of women to be an ongoing reality. Women and girls are increasingly becoming victims of other variations of the crime, including a lucrative and often deadly illegal organ trafficking industry and the smuggling of migrants.

Gang Violence

Another Latin American phenomenon that can help explain the high rate of female murders is the presence of gangs.

 

The Maras became a gang member's true "family," while relatives became gang "property."

While the majority of gang-related deaths are men, one of the fundamental threats to women is that they are considered to be the property of gang members.

This is arguably the result of the origins of gangs themselves. According de Andrés of the UNODC, femicides linked to Central America's Mara gangs can be traced back to Los Angeles in the 1980s, where the Maras first arose.

As the Maras developed, a new form of social cohesion arose -- one which continues to be an essential trait of these groups today -- in which the Maras became a gang member's true "family," while relatives became gang "property," de Andrés told InSight Crime. 

Consequently, during disputes between gangs, women are frequently caught in the crossfire, with girlfriends, sisters, and mothers targeted by rival gangs. In many cases, female relatives of imprisoned Mara members make easy targets for revenge killings, as the male is unable to protect them. 

What's more, according to the Mara "code of honour," if a member betrays or abandons his own gang their most vulnerable "possession" is attacked -- which usually means the rape or murder of his sister or wife, de Andrés explained.

Girlfriends are also vulnerable. While men are seldom punished for infidelity, women can be killed for such behaviour.

The oft-studied case of Mexico's Juárez, which saw 400 femicides between 1990 and 2005, is illustrative of how femicides often involve "symbolic" effects. Murdered women in Juárez were found to have undergone torture, rape, mutilation -- especially of the sexual organs and breasts, and decapitation.

But those signs of torture are more anomalies in the pattern than the rule. Of the 400 cases documented in Juárez, all but 100 were resolved, and most of those cases involved domestic partners or people that the victim knew. 

SEE ALSO:  Coverage of Homicides

Nonetheless, the brutal tactics seen on some of the victims do appear to be a means of delivering a message and are still common today, particularly in the Northern Triangle. According to Aldana, these brutal tactics not only bear the clear markings of organized crime, they are also an expression of misogyny.

"The difference in Guatemala between the death of a man and the death of a woman is that the woman is raped before she is killed, she is mutilated … This does not happen to men… It is clear to see how misogyny is present up until the moment of a woman's death," she told InSight Crime. 

Women Who Work in Crime

Femicides can also be high among women who become members of criminal organizations.

"Within organized crime, patriarchal structures and traditional gender roles continue to be reproduced," the Criminal Policy Unit of Colombia's Justice Ministry told InSight Crime. Indeed, women seldom occupy higher positions in an organization, and are rather used for menial, but often dangerous tasks.

16-02-07-woman-Mara

A Barrio 18 woman in a 2008 documentary about El Salvador gangs, "La Vida Loca"

 

Perhaps the most high-profile of these largely female roles is the "mula" -- or drug "mule". This duty can all too frequently lead to death if drugs enter a woman's bloodstream, and she can also be killed as punishment for getting caught.

In other criminal structures, women can be used as expendable members, working as extortion collectors or as drug dealers

Ending the Cycle

Femicide and the overwhelming impunity surrounding it is a hot topic for law enforcement around the region.

 

"The law does not protect women who are involved in organized crime."

A fundamental problem hindering progress is that, as Guatemala Attorney General Aldana points out, "The law does not protect women who are involved in organized crime."

This is despite the fact that many women are co-opted into joining criminal structures. According to the attorney general, prosecutors need be disciplined enough to understand the difference between women who become involved with criminal organizations willingly and those are forced to join due to economic dependence, or other reasons.

De Andrés agrees that, although the legislation defining and criminalizing femicides is strong in many Latin American countries, what is lacking is prosecution and prevention. Re-victimization is a critical issue that can be resolved by increasing attention to victims, as well as protecting those who put themselves at risk by becoming witnesses.

Given the nature of organized crime, international action is essential in preventing femicides. One response to this issue is a new UNODC-backed "Blue Heart" Campaign, which looks to raise awareness on human trafficking on transnational flights.

16-02-07-Thelma-Aldana

Thelma Aldana, the Attorney General of Guatemala

 

In Guatemala, the government established a specific law regarding femicide in 2008; launched a task force, created a special court for hearing these cases, and established a center where victims can give testimony and receive psychological treatment in the same place.

Most recently, Aldana announced a Prosecutor's Office for Femicides's Office for Femicides that should be inaugurated in March 2016. And yet, she admits that there continues to be a discouraging resistance to the subject of femicides in her country.

"It is incredibly difficult for laws to be issued in favor of women... to introduce a law requiring the judiciary to take a gendered approach in cases in which a woman is involved in crime, it can't be so," she said. "I think we're a long way away from this way of working."

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

The FARC and the Drug Trade: Siamese Twins?

The FARC and the Drug Trade: Siamese Twins?

The FARC have always had a love-hate relationship with drugs. They love the money it brings, funds which have allowed them to survive and even threaten to topple the state at the end of the 1990s. They hate the corruption and stigma narcotics have also brought to...

The Reality of the FARC Peace Talks in Havana

The Reality of the FARC Peace Talks in Havana

If we are to believe the Colombian government, the question is not if, but rather when, an end to 50 years of civil conflict will be reached. Yet the promise of President Juan Manuel Santos that peace can be achieved before the end of 2014 is simply...

The FARC 1964-2002: From Ragged Rebellion to Military Machine

The FARC 1964-2002: From Ragged Rebellion to Military Machine

On May 27, 1964 up to one thousand Colombian soldiers, backed by fighter planes and helicopters, launched an assault against less than fifty guerrillas in the tiny community of Marquetalia. The aim of the operation was to stamp out once and for all the communist threat in...

The Infiltrators: Corruption in El Salvador's Police

The Infiltrators: Corruption in El Salvador's Police

Ricardo Mauricio Menesses Orellana liked horses, and the Pasaquina rodeo was a great opportunity to enjoy a party. He was joined at the event -- which was taking place in the heart of territory controlled by El Salvador's most powerful drug transport group, the Perrones -- by the...

The FARC 2002-Present: Decapitation and Rebirth

The FARC 2002-Present: Decapitation and Rebirth

In August 2002, the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) greeted Colombia's new president with a mortar attack that killed 14 people during his inauguration. The attack was intended as a warning to the fiercely anti-FARC newcomer. But it became the opening salvo of...

MS-13's 'El Barney': A Trend or an Isolated Case?

MS-13's 'El Barney': A Trend or an Isolated Case?

In October 2012, the US Treasury Department designated the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) as a transnational criminal organization (TCO). While this assertion seems unfounded, there is one case that illustrates just why the US government is worried about the future.

Barrio 18 Leader 'Viejo Lin' on El Salvador Gang Truce

Barrio 18 Leader 'Viejo Lin' on El Salvador Gang Truce

Barrio 18 leader Carlos Lechuga Mojica, alias "El Viejo Lin," is one of the most prominent spokesmen for El Salvador's gang truce. InSight Crime co-director Steven Dudley spoke with Mojica in Cojutepeque prison in October 2012 about how the maras view the controversial peace process, which has...

'Chepe Luna,' the Police and the Art of Escape

'Chepe Luna,' the Police and the Art of Escape

The United States -- which through its antinarcotics, judicial and police attaches was very familiar with the routes used for smuggling, and especially those used for people trafficking and understood that those traffickers are often one and the same -- greeted the new government of Elias Antonio...

Criminalization of FARC Elements Inevitable

Criminalization of FARC Elements Inevitable

While there is no doubt that the FARC have only a tenuous control over some of their more remote fronts, there is no evidence of any overt dissident faction within the movement at the moment.

Ivan Rios Bloc: the FARC's Most Vulnerable Fighting Division

Ivan Rios Bloc: the FARC's Most Vulnerable Fighting Division

When considering the possibilities that the FARC may break apart, the Ivan Rios Bloc is a helpful case study because it is perhaps the weakest of the FARC's divisions in terms of command and control, and therefore runs the highest risk of fragmentation and criminalization.