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Latin America & Caribbean

In the region's most violent country, killings of women pushed aside

Twenty-five years after peace accords ended civil war in El Salvador, the country has become one of the most violent in the world and particularly dangerous for women. But because the overwhelming majority of homicide victims in El Salvador are men, the loss of women's lives is seen as a minor problem.
7 Mar 2017 – 05:34 PM EST
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Women hold images of the community leader Aida Maria Paniagua, a defender of women's rights who was assassinated March 4 by gang members, according to the police. Crédito: Marvin Recinos / AFP / Getty Images

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador - Manuel Dagoberto Gutiérrez was the first man accused of femicide in El Salvador and also the first acquitted. He killed his wife at point blank rage, shooting her in the head, on March 24, 2012.

That day, Dagoberto was caught red-handed. His young children were witnesses to the scene of their dead mother wrapped in a sheet. He kept saying it was an accident. Later, he twice changed his story, saying first that his gun had gone off on its own and then that she had committed suicide.

As several witnesses related, Dagoberto was extremely controlling and tormented his partner psychologically, made worse by his frequent drinking.

Despite the fact that experts showed Dagoberto was the only one with remnants of gunpowder on his hands, the judge concluded that there was reasonable doubt: "Suicide could have occurred in the heat of anger, taking into account a previous argument." He also said he could not rule out the possibility that the pistol had fired accidentally, even though a ballistics expert stated that was impossible with the type of weapon used.

A year later, national newscasts spread images of Dagoberto exiting the court a free man. Neither witnesses nor expert testimony was sufficient to convince the judge of his guilt.

The magnitude of the tragedy and the way in which the crime went unpunished unleashed indignation in society. Women's organizations and a policy group voiced their protests against the ruling. The prosecution appealed the resolution in June 2013. The acquittal was annulled and a new trial was ordered, which was scheduled two years later. It never took place. Dagoberto fled. He is still a fugitive from justice. He is believed to be out of the country but his photo has never appeared on the INTERPOL red-alert page.

Femicide in El Salvador is the ultimate expression of a history of everyday violence towards women that has been normalized by society and generally goes unpunished. In the last two years, at least one woman has been killed every day in El Salvador, a country of 21,000 square kilometers and six million inhabitants. According to data from the Institute of Legal Medicine (IML), there were 1,097 female homicides between 2015 and 2016.

According to one report, El Salvador has the third highest rate of violent deaths of women, only after Syria and Lesotho.

The stories seem endless: On October 7, 2016, María was shot by her boyfriend. On December 2, 2016, Sandra was shot by her partner, before he declared that he did it out of jealousy as she had been unfaithful to him. On December 17, 2016, Margarita was murdered by her husband with a gun shot, before he committed suicide. On December 22, 2016, Beatriz's ex-boyfriend killed her out of jealousy. On January 23, 2017, Carla's partner stabbed her to death in front of her children, and then committed suicide. The same day a group of men stabbed a woman in the street to death after arguing with her in a bar.

This is not new. From 1999 to 2009, reported violent deaths of women increased from 195 to 570, according to the Salvadoran Women's Organization (ORMUSA). In 2010 the IML registered 568 such killings, a figure that rose in 2011 to 629.

This inspired feminist organizations to fight to obtain the public and penal recognition of specific acts of violence against women. Women are victimized for the simple fact of being a woman.

As the well-known feminist activist Morena Herrera explained, this is due in part to the fact that violence against women has a sexual connotation in Salvadoran society: "Having a woman's body means having a sexual body and society allows and tolerates acts of violence (against women) as if they are unimportant. This comes from women’s subordinate position, which we decry. It has become so accepted that society gives license for a sexual body to be possessed,” she told Univision News.

On January 1, 2012, the country passed the Comprehensive Special Law for a Life Free of Violence for Women (LEIV). This legal framework marked a significant step forward in the struggle for equal rights by prosecuting a series of violent actions that endanger the dignity and physical and moral integrity of women.

One of the most important achievements was the recognition of femicide as a crime, punishable by 20 to 50 years of imprisonment. With this, El Salvador became part of a group of 15 countries in Latin America that have legislation against femicide. Article 45 of that law defines it as the murder of a woman where "the motives are hatred or contempt for the status as a woman. Also, Article 46 stipulates the crime is aggravated when the author is a relative, public authority or a person the victim trusts.

"The importance of having a law on femicide is that it allows us to use all existing theory and practice, not only to implement all human rights regulations but also the entire anti-discrimination framework and to expose the crime," according to Xochilt Bendeck, a representative of the Salvadoran Institute for the Advancement of Women (ISDEMU).

Since this law came into play in 2012, complaints categorized as femicide have increased.

The figure rose from 31 cases of femicide and aggravated femicide registered by the Office of the Attorney General in 2012 to 318 registered femicides in 2016.

This underscores the law’s importance in shaping society’s perception of the violent deaths of women, killed because of their gender.

But the law has proven insufficient as a deterrent to prevent the crime. El Salvador remains one of the most lethal countries for women.

In 2012, the year when well-known gangs negotiated a truce with the government, 321 women were killed. In 2016 it reached 524.

Xochilt Bendeck of the ISDEMU says the country must prevent forms of violence that precede a femicide.

In El Salvador, raising awareness and awareness about femicide and other types of gender-based violence is not easy. In a country where 90% of homicide victims are men, 400 or 500 women killed in a year does not seem to be a significant problem.

Although femicide is a prosecuted crime, there's a very low probability that a case makes it to court. Between 2013 and 2016, of 662 complaints filed by the Prosecutor's Office, only 5% reached a conviction.

This dynamic also plays out with other crimes where the victims are mostly women and girls. For example, in the case of rape, between 2013 and November 2016, the Office of the Prosecutor reported 8,464 complaints. Only 25% went to court and approximately 10% got a conviction. The majority of victims were under the age of 15. For the same period, there were 7,891 complaints of domestic violence; only 34% reached trial stage and less than 2% were convicted.

"Violence towards women is a common problem," says Morena Herrera. "And the problem is that many women are silent about the issue out of shame and because of the impunity and lack of access to justice. There is no point in making a complaint. The level of vulnerability is huge. "

Downplaying and normalizing violence against women is also expressed in the arguments judges make when assessing the crimes and issuing sentences. Several still refuse to apply LEIV and base the delivery of justice on gender bias.

Manuel Dagoberto's aquittal is one such example. The judge concluded not only that there was there insufficient evidence to prove that the defendant pulled the trigger, but that there was no evidence to prove the existence of the crime of aggravated femicide.

The ruling read that "on the contrary, far from being subject to inferiority or psychological and economic violence, [the victim] enjoyed good economic conditions, used a car, had a credit card and if she did not buy things it was simply because she did not want to, but not because the accused forbade it. Besides, her husband also took her with him on business trips.”