BARCELONA – The number of women murdered is increasing in most of Central America and Mexico. In some countries, such as Honduras, the increase is four times that of men. Moreover, many of these murders are committed with extreme violence – sexual savagery, torture, and mutilations – by perpetrators (often involved in organized crime) acting with a high degree of impunity.
In countries like Chile, Argentina, and Costa Rica, where overall levels of violence are lower, the murders of women are usually committed with less violence, by partners or ex-partners in the context of “domestic abuse.”
In Latin America, all of these crimes are known as “femicides”: murders of women precisely for being women. Cases associated with domestic violence are treated leniently by courts; in some countries, jealousy or the absence of previous convictions can reduce the punishment. Those committed by strangers, often with intense cruelty – and often linked to organized-crime groups such as the Central American maras – rarely end up in court at all.
But the reality of Latin America in recent years shows some crossover between these categories. Brutal murders of women also occur in countries such as Argentina, where a surprising number of women have been burned by their partners or ex-partners. In Mexico, women have been murdered by hit men, hired by their husbands or partners to make the killing look like the work of organized crime. And, in Central American countries, women are murdered by criminal groups as a kind of threat or message to their husbands or partners.
Nonetheless, femicide in Latin America remains a matter of different realities. The rate for women in El Salvador is the highest in the region: 13.9 per 100,000. In Guatemala, the rate is 9.8 per 100,000 women, and in Mexican states such as Chihuahua, Baja California, and Guerrero, the rate has almost tripled from 2005 to 2009, to 11.1 per 100,000. On the other hand, rates in countries such as Chile and Argentina are no more than 1.4 per 100,000.
That difference underscores a fundamental reality: violence associated with the “war on drug trafficking” and organized crime – including state corruption – in some countries has specific consequences for women. Just as in war, cruelly raping women is symbolic: it creates cohesion within armed groups, reaffirms “masculinity,” and is a form of attacking “the enemy’s morale.”
But “domestic” violence is also worsening: although women all over the world are threatened by their partners, the risk is substantially raised when men have easy access to arms and a very slight probability of being taken to court, as is the case in Mexico and Guatemala, where the rate of impunity is over 95%.
Since 2007, various laws have been adopted specifically to sanction femicides: in Costa Rica and Chile, such laws are aimed solely at those murders committed by partners or ex-partners, while in Guatemala and El Salvador, murders committed by strangers are included. Similar laws and initiatives have proliferated in Mexico, too, in recent months.
It is not clear whether these laws will actually punish the crimes or merely reduce the visibility of the numbers: if a crime requires certain difficult-to-prove elements in order to be considered a femicide, a large number of murders will remain on the books as simple homicides, and the authorities will be able to say they have “reduced” the femicide rate.
In countries such as Chile or Costa Rica – as in much of the world – advocates for women’s rights demand that the state prevent femicides by responding swiftly and effectively to death threats and abuse. In the most affected countries, they also demand that murderers be tried. But new laws are not enough, given severely debilitated police and judicial systems in much of the region.
As long as the “war on drugs” remains good business not only for traffickers and money launderers, but also for developed countries’ arms industry, the flood of weapons in the region will continue to fuel violence – including extreme manifestations against women – and weaken the judicial system. Uncontrolled arms, together with impunity, make killing easy and cheap.
To be sure, violence against women exists in times of peace. But it increases and worsens in times of war. The “war on drugs” must end, and that requires worldwide changes in drug-control policies that, unfortunately, no anti-femicide initiative mentions. Ending that war won’t eradicate femicides in Central America and Mexico, but it could at least reduce the murder rate of women to the more “salutary” numbers of other countries that are lucky to be farther away from the main trafficking routes.