A rise in brutal killings of women, known as “femicides,” in El Salvador can be blamed on various factors, from gender inequality to organized crime to a society hollowed out by gang culture, features common to many parts of Central America.
Non-governmental organization Salvadoran Women for Peace (Organizacion de Mujeres Salvadoreñas por la Paz – ORMUSA), which tracks violence against women, reported that, according to police statistics, there were 160 such murders committed in the country in the first three months of the year. This would put the country on track for a record 640 such killings in 2011 – higher than any year since the organization began to track the issue in 1999.
Human rights organizations in Latin America use the word “femicide” to refer to the murders of women who are killed because of their gender. Murders defined in this way typically involve sexual violence, mutilation, and torture, with the mangled bodies of victims often left in public places.
El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world, with almost 70 per 100,000 people. This is mostly due to soaring gang violence, with the country an increasingly important transit location for drugs being trafficked into the U.S., and the local “maras” or gangs fighting over the business. Sexualized killings of women make up a relatively minor proportion of the many violent deaths — of some 4,000 murders the police registered in 2010, 580 were identified as femicides.
What draws attention to the killings of women, and girls, is their brutality. The deputy head of the police force told the press recently that, while the victims of gang violence are as much men as women, the level of violence used against the women is higher. He said that the number of these attacks is rising “alarmingly.”
The reasons behind these killings are murky. El Salvador’s femicides have coincided with the growth of organized crime in recent years, but have outstripped even the booming murder rate. The country has seen a five-fold increase in femicides over the last decade, according to ORMUSA, while its murder rate has roughly doubled in the same period.
Some femicides are directly linked to El Salvador’s gangs, or “maras.” In one case in March, the murder of two girls, aged 15 and 17, was attributed to a local branch of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13).
Femicides often seem to accompany the growth of organized crime. Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez has famously suffered a rash of such killings, coinciding with the rise of the drug trade in the border town in the early 1990s, and which continues today. Hundreds of women’s bodies have been found, often mutilated and raped, with little action from local law enforcement. As organized crime has spread south from Mexico into the Northern Triangle region of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras over the last 15 years, vicious killings of women appear to have followed. Some observers have warned that the killings of women in the region are reaching “epidemic” levels.
Guatemala has seen more than 4,400 women killed in such attacks over the last four years. Honduras followed it with the second-highest femicide rate in Central America, according to some reports.
Some link the killings of women in Central America and Mexico directly to the drug trade. Salvadoran Defense Minister General David Munguia Payes suggested, in response to 2011’s figures, that some of the victims were involved in local drug sales. One theory is that, in a culture where females are sometimes seen as property, gangs use the killing and abuse of women to strike at their rivals.
In some cases it appears that women’s bodies are the medium used by criminal groups to send messages to one another, or to the government. In one recent case in Guatemala, the decapitated head of a women, thought to be under 20 years old, was found in a phone booth along with a message warning the authorities not to go through with policies to stop gangs extorting public transport.
But some rights groups have rejected this simplistic explanation, arguing that the killings reflect power relations between the genders more than organized crime. Where there is high level of violence, poor and young women make easy targets. The prevalence of human trafficking and illegal immigration through Central America and Mexico is also a factor, delivering a supply of vulnerable individuals that no one will report missing. Honduras’ Comisionado Nacional de los Derechos Humanos (CONADEH) has stated that these crimes are too often attributed to domestic violence, or killing by a partner, arguing that in cases of femicide the killer is often unknown to the victim.
The kind of ultra-violence associated with the killings of women may be an indicator less of organized crime, than of the culture of violence that comes in the wake of organized crime.
So-called femicides remain a mysterious phenomenon. One of the characteristics analysts identify about these gender-based murders is that they so often go unpunished, and even un-investigated, with impunity rates hovering over 80 to 90 percent in many of the countries where they are common.