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Femicide in Guatemala & Canada

Definition: The term femicide or femicidio/feminicidios in Spanish is a term referring to the systematic killing of women because they are women. Femicide is seen as a gender crime. It is attested from the 1820s (2006 Random House Unabridged Dictionary).

There have been reports of femicide in Guatemala City, Guatemala and in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico. The murders in Juarez and Guatemala were reportedly not investigated by the local authorities. Most of the women were raped before being murdered and some were mutilated, tortured and even dismembered. In Guatemala City about 20% of the over 500 women murdered in 2004 and 2005 were killed in pairs, due to an "intimate relationship" according to Claudia Acevedo of Lesbiradas.

There is also concern that femicide of Aboriginal women is taking place in Canada. Five hundred Aboriginal women have been reported missing or murdered since 1980, a disproportionate proportion compared to non-Aboriginal women. According to sociological studies these women are seen as easy targets because their race places them at the bottom of the social and economic hierarchy. Many of the missing women have been dismissed as prostitutes and their disappearances have gone uninvestigated. A major factor in bringing international attention to Canadian women was the murder of Helen Betty Osborne in 1971.

According to the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of the Armed Forces between 113 and 200 million women world wide are missing.

Helen Betty Osborne or Betty Osborne (1952 - November 13, 1971), was a Cree Aboriginal woman from Norway House reserve who was kidnapped and murdered while walking down Third Street in The Pas, Manitoba on the evening of November 13, 1971.

She was born in Norway House, Manitoba, the eldest of many children born to Joe and Justine (née McKay) Osborne. Her ambition was to go to college, and the only way to succeed in doing so would be to continue her education away from the reserve (as secondary education was not available) It was then that she was sent to live with a white family (in a government program where the families were reimbursed for hosting Native students) in The Pas, Manitoba, a culturally-mixed town of whites and Métis.

On the evening of her death, she was walking home when she was abducted, brutally beaten, raped and killed. Her unclothed body was found later by police.

Police at first suspected her boyfriend, Cornelius Bighetty, but his name was later cleared.

Four young local white men were eventually implicated in her death: Dwayne Archie Johnston, James Robert Paul Houghton, Lee Scott Colgan and Norman Bernard Manger. It was not until December 1987, sixteen years after her death, that any of them were convicted of the crime, and then only Johnston was convicted, as Houghton had been acquitted, Colgan had received immunity for testifying against Houghton and Johnston, and Manger had never been charged.

The Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission conducted an investigation into concerns surrounding the length of time involved in resolving the case. The Commission concluded that the most significant factor prolonging the case was racism.

The RCMP officially closed the Osborne case on February 12, 1999.

A formal apology from the Manitoba government was issued by Gordon Mackintosh, Manitoba's Minister of Justice, on July 14, 2000. The apology addressed the failure of the province's justice system in Osborne's case. A scholarship was created in Osborne's name, by the province, for aboriginal women.

Rosa Valdez is an artist of Mexican heritage from the Bay Area who has strong connections to the Guatemalan community. She recently began working on an art project about "femicide" in Guatemala. The project is designed to create awareness of the crimes against women, to create solidarity among the families and friends of the victims, and above all -- to denounce the impunity that prevails in the country of Guatemala which has allowed proliferation of this type of violence.

Femicidio: The phenomenon of the female homicides in Ciudad Juárez, called in Spanish the feminicidios ("femicides") or las muertas de Juárez ("The dead women of Juárez"), involves the violent death of hundreds of women in the northern Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, a border city across the Rio Grande from the US city of El Paso, Texas. Most of the cases remain unsolved.

According to the Organization of American States's Inter-American Commission on Human Rights:

The victims of these crimes have preponderantly been young women, between 17 and 22 years of age. Many were students, and most were maquiladora [workers in foreign owned factories]. A number were relative newcomers to Ciudad Juarez who had migrated from other areas of Mexico. The victims were generally reported missing by their families, with their bodies found days or months later abandoned in vacant lots or outlying areas. In most of these cases there were signs of sexual violence, abuse, torture or in some cases mutilation. Source

According to Amnesty International, as of February 2005 more than 370 bodies had been found, and over 400 women were still missing. In November 2005, BBC News reported Mexico's human rights ombudsman Jose Luis Soberanes as saying that 28 women had been murdered so far in 2005. Despite past and current unsolved murders, in August 2006 the Mexican federal government dropped its investigation.

Criticism of investigations

There has been growing dissatisfaction, both within Mexico as well as internationally, with the progress of the official investigations, even leading to charges of police complicity. Critics say investigations have ground to a halt because of corruption, incompetence and witness intimidation. They point out that when the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was brought in to help, Chihuahua state officials rejected its findings. The serial slayings have continued despite numerous arrests and claims that they have been solved.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights noted in its 2002 report on the Juárez case that "...the response of the authorities to these crimes has been markedly deficient... On the one hand, the vast majority of the killings remain in impunity; approximately 20% have been the subject of prosecution and conviction" and "an important segment of the killings in Ciudad Juárez took place at the hands of an intimate partner, but their significance has yet to be acknowledged by local officials."


Various individuals have been arrested in connection with the murders. However, the Mexican police have been criticized for making arrests with little or no evidence and failing to detain alleged perpetrators. Additionally, they have been accused of coercing people to confess to murders, destroying evidence, even kidnapping women.

Indeed, in 2003, Catalina Gonsalez Martinez's daughter Christina Escobar Gonsalez was murdered. The murderer was arrested, but claimed that he had killed her in self-defense. He was caught stuffing her badly beaten body into the trunk of his car, but sentenced to only three years in prison by a judge, a further sign of corruption in the judicial system.

One of the first arrests made was that of an Egyptian-born chemist, Abdul Latif Sharif (born in 1947), who was accused but never convicted of several rapes in the United States before moving to Ciudad Juarez in 1994 to escape a deportation hearing in Texas. Since his conviction and imprisonment for the murder of a young maquiladora worker in 1995, the police have arrested two groups of men whom they allege Sharif was paying "from behind bars" to rape and murder on his behalf in an attempt to establish his innocence of the crimes.

However, despite the arrests of Sharif and his alleged co-conspirators, the killings continued, leading the Mexican police and the public in general to consider many theories, among them that the real killer or killers are still on the loose or that the original killer or killers are in jail and copycats have moved to the area since. There are also accusations that there has been a conspiracy of silence and cover-up by Mexican politicians bribed by the killer or killers.

Many people have been surprised at how women could turn up dead while Sharif was in prison, but the police never failed to blame him for many of the murders.

Other suspects convicted in connection with the affair include Víctor García Uribe (El Cerillo), convicted in October 2004 for eight of the murders, and Gustavo González Meza (La Foca), who was arrested on suspicion in some of the killings but died in jail under suspicious circumstances on February 8, 2003. In January of 2006, their lawyer, Sergio Dante Almaraz, was murdered in Juarez. Some suspect he was ambushed by the same police officers who have killed before. source On January 7, 2005, four members of the "Los Toltecas" gang were convicted of six murders and six member of the "Los Rebeldes" gang were convicted of another six murders. Jesús Manuel Guardado and four other "Toltecas" had been arrested in 1999. One was found not guilty. Five of the twelve convicted so far have been bus drivers.

The latest arrest was made on August 15, 2006 by U.S. Marshals in Denver, Colorado. Edgar Alvarez Cruz is being charged with 14 of the murders. These are the cotton field murders and the Cristo Negro murders. Alejandro Delgado Valles alias El Calá,and Jos Francisco Granados have also been arrested in connection with these 14 murders. Two of the men are said to be drug addicts and the third a psychopath. Undoubtedly they are all poor. The daughter of Norma Andrade, founder of Nuestras Hijas de Regroso a Casa was among the cotton field victims.


On May 30, 2005, President Vicente Fox told reporters that the majority of the Juárez killings had been resolved and the perpetrators placed behind bars. He went on to criticize the media for "rehashing" the same 300 or 400 murders, and said matters needed to be seen in their "proper dimension". In response, the congressional special commission for the killings said that the president needed to be better informed about the situation.

A group of mothers, families, and friends of the victims, called Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa A.C. ("Our daughters to come back home, civil association") was formed to raise awareness about the situation and put pressure on the Mexican government to pay attention to these cases, some of which have gone unsolved for 12 years. Members of the group, including co-founder Norma Andrade, demand that proper investigations be carried out.

To protest the lack of progress in the cases, a huge free concert was held by famous Latin artists such as Alejandro Sanz, Alex Ubago, Manu Chao, Lila Downs and others on September 18, 2005 in Mexico City's central Zócalo square.

El Paso post-hardcore band At The Drive-In released a music video for their song "Invalid Litter Dept." that details the deaths. The video features several photos of newspaper clippings and articles about the murders.

Singer Tori Amos's album To Venus And Back in part dealt with issues surrounding the deaths (along with other, unrelated themes), particularly in the song "Juarez".

In 2001, filmmaker Lourdes Portillo released one of the first documentaries dedicated to the victims of the murders, "Señorita Extraviada".

In 2004, Mexican norteño group Los Tigres del Norte released a song called "Las Mujeres de Juárez" (The Women of Juarez) on their Pacto de Sangre album. Juarez mayor Hector Murguia denounced the song, saying that it painted a false picture about the "real face of Juarez."

In 2006, filmmaker Zulma Aguiar released a documentary about the murders called Juarez Mothers Fight Femicide. She worked with Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa A.C. and is giving all proceeds from the film to the group.


  • Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Situation of the Rights of Women in Ciudad Juárez (2002) — Report by OAS human rights agency.
  • BC News, No end to women murders in Mexico 23 November 2005.
  • "Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa A.C." is a non-profit association of mothers by mothers in Ciudad Juárez who claim that their cases have gone unsolved for over 12 years, and wish to get the murderers of their daughters convicted.


  • Antonio Mendoza, Killers on the Loose: Unsolved Cases of Serial Murder (Virgin Books 2002), ISBN 0753506815 — Study of unsolved serial killing around the world, including Ciudad Juárez.
  • Simon Whitechapel, Crossing to Kill: The True Story of the Serial-Killer Playground (Virgin Books 2002), ISBN 0753506866 — Updated edition of the first detailed study of the Juárez murders.
  • Charles Bowden, Juárez: The Laboratory of Our Future (Aperture New York 1998), ISBN 0893817767 — A very personal and detailed book with many pictures portraying the street-photographers of Juárez, that aim to improve the situation by documenting the daily crimes.

    Lise Bjorne - "The Women of Juárez" - 2006.

  • Murders of Women in Guatemala Increasingly Frequent in 2006,
    New Amnesty International Report Finds
    Efforts by Guatemalan Authorities "Wholly Insufficient" So Far,
    Says Human Rights Organization

    (New York) -- Killings of women in Guatemala have risen for the fourth consecutive year since 2001, yet Guatemalan authorities are still failing to effectively investigate and punish those responsible, Amnesty International said in a new report today.

    "Murderers continue to kill in Guatemala because they know they probably won't be prosecuted -- let alone convicted," said Larry Cox, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA (AIUSA). "The Guatemalan government bears the ultimate responsibility for the safety of Guatemalan women, but, so far, it has not taken the necessary initiative."

    More than 2,200 women and girls have been brutally murdered in Guatemala since 2001. Up to 665 cases were registered in 2005; 527 in 2004; 383 in 2003 and 163 in 2002. In 2006, 299 cases have been reported between January and May -- a faster pace than in 2005.

    In addition to lobbying Guatemalan authorities to address the issue, Amnesty International has campaigned for U.S. officials to confront the problem. In May, 117 Members of the U.S. Congress signed a letter in which they urged the State Department to call on the Guatemalan government to take prompt and effective action to address the killings of women. The letter also urged the State Department to provide technical assistance to Guatemala to promote the proper investigation, prosecution and punishment of these crimes.

    Amnesty International's 14-page report, Guatemala: No protection, no justice -- killings of women (an update), is part of the organization's Stop Violence Against Women campaign and follows a 2005 study that outlined 14 specific recommendations to Guatemalan President Oscar Berger and state institutions. Although the government has begun to take action to address the murders, the measures have been limited and insufficient to effectively address the scale and severity of the problem. So far, the efforts have not had a real impact on the numbers of women killed -- or the ability of police and prosecutors to effectively investigate murders and bring those responsible to justice.

    According to Guatemala's Human Rights Ombudsman, up to 70 percent of murders of women were not investigated and no arrests were made in 97 percent of cases. In the few cases that are investigated, the process is usually flawed -- forensic evidence is not properly gathered and preserved, few resources are allocated to each case and witnesses are denied protection.

    The report includes the case of 26-year-old Clara Fabiola García, who was shot and killed in the town of Chimaltenango in July 2005. Two years earlier, Clara Fabiola had witnessed the murders of two young women in Guatemala City. Her testimony was key to securing the 100-year prison sentence against gang member Oscar Gabriel Morales Ortiz, alias "Small," in February 2005. According to media reports, "Small" had threatened Clara Fabiola, saying she would pay for testifying against him. No one has been prosecuted for the murder of Clara Fabiola.

    Amnesty International found that in hundreds of cases, victims are blamed for their own deaths. In May 2006, Guatemala's Chief of Police stated publicly that in order to prevent the murders of women it is necessary to "ask them not to get involved in street gangs and to avoid violence within the family, which we as police cannot do." This statement was an affront to the government's obligation to prevent, investigate and prosecute violence against women no matter the circumstances.

    In many cases, the survivors, families and witnesses of gender-based violence are too afraid to give testimony for fear of reprisals.

    Female murder victims in Guatemala often suffer exceptional brutality before being killed, including rape, mutilation and dismemberment. The failure of Guatemalan authorities to take into account the gender-based nature of the violence suffered by victims has contributed to the inadequacy of the response.

    "These brutal killings are an outrage -- and the Guatemalan government's timid response only exacerbates the problem," said Eric Olson, Advocacy Director for the Americas at AIUSA. "The government should take specific steps to improve the capacity of the police and justice sectors to respond effectively to this tragedy."

    Amnesty International calls on President Berger to take urgent steps to:

  • Improve coordination and cooperation between state agencies;
  • Strengthen the Public Ministry's Witness Protection Program; and to
  • Guarantee the availability of human and financial resources for the National Forensic Institute.

    Femicides in Juárez/Chihuahua, Mexico and Guatemala


    Violence against women is a human rights scandal. At least one out of every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime. In Europe, domestic violence is the major cause of death and disability for women aged 16 to 44. In the United States, a woman is raped every 6 minutes; a woman is battered every 15 seconds. Rape of women is widespread in armed conflicts, such as in Colombia and Sudan. Human trafficking has become a global phenomenon in which victims, often women and girls, are exploited, forced into labor and subjected to abuse. Murders of women in Pakistan, Russia, India, and other countries often go uninvestigated and unpunished. The experience or threat of violence affects the lives of women everywhere, cutting across boundaries of wealth, race and culture. In the home and in the community, in times of war and peace, women are beaten, raped, mutilated, and killed with impunity.

    Violence against women is a global epidemic and a serious human rights violation. VAW takes many forms, from so called “honor” killings and domestic violence to rape used as a tool of war and the sexual exploitation of women in prison. Violence against women is rooted in a global culture of discrimination, which denies women equal rights with men, and legitimizes the violent appropriation of women’s bodies for individual gratification or political ends. Amnesty International (AI) has worked to reveal and combat violence against women all over the world. AIUSA is specifically concerned with widespread and systematic abuse of women in Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua, Mexico and in Guatemala. Since 1993, almost 400 women and girls have been murdered in Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua, Mexico. In Guatemala, over 2,200 women and girls have been brutally murdered since 2001. Many of these murders were determined to be sexually violent and gender-based. Femicide, or the killing of women because they are women, is a term that has been used to describe these crimes. The governments of Mexico and Guatemala have inadequately responded to these crimes. Violence against women must not be allowed to be committed with impunity. Join Amnesty International in fighting violence against women in Mexico and Guatemala and holding these governments responsible for preventing violence against women, investigating incidents of violence against women, and holding perpetrators accountable. Only by ending impunity and the culture of discrimination and violence against women will we achieve true equality and human rights for all.

    Background: Ciudad Juárez & Chihuahua, Mexico

    Since 1993, almost 400 women and girls have been murdered and more than 70 remain missing in Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua, Mexico. All the evidence seems to indicate that these young women are chosen by their killers because they are women who have no power within Chihuahuan society, itself characterized by high crime rates and public insecurity due to the fact that drug trafficking and organized crime operate in the area. The women are often workers from the maquilas, or export factories, set up by the multinational companies that control the economy of Ciudad Juárez as well as waitresses, workers in the informal economy, or students. Many of them live in poverty, often with children to support. They are women who have few options but to travel alone on the long bus journeys that take them from the poor suburbs surrounding Ciudad Juárez to their place of work or study.

    These horrendous crimes in which women and girls are kidnapped and later found dead with signs of sexual assault and torture are simply one of the most dramatic examples of the violence perpetrated against women in Chihuahua State, where domestic violence and sexual harassment in the community and in the workplace are also serious problems. However, despite the high number of cases, domestic violence was not made a criminal offense at the state level until 2000. As of 2003, there appear to have been no convictions for domestic violence, indicating the authorities' response to violence against women is extremely slow and limited.

    As far as state authorities are concerned, most of the murders—including cases of domestic violence or other types of violence—have been "solved". However, although according to government figures, 79 people have been convicted in relation to the Juárez murders, in the vast majority of cases justice has not been done. Impunity is most evident in the case of the so-called "serial murders" that have been recognized as such by the state, but in which there has been only one conviction and 18 detainees are in detention awaiting the outcome of the judicial process, in some cases for several years. Furthermore, the quality of the investigations and the alleged failure to provide adequate guarantees of guilt during the trials cast doubt on the integrity of the criminal proceedings brought against those arrested in connection with these crimes. Meanwhile, year after year, the killings continue.

    It is now almost 14 years since the brutal cycle of abductions and murders of young women began in Ciudad Juárezand Chihuahua. Over the last few years there has been intense national and international pressure to stop violent crimes against women and to end the impunity with which these crimes have been committed. In2003, the Mexican Federal Government finally began to implement a programof measures to prevent and prosecute acts of violence against women in Ciudad Juárez.

    Despite the positive steps that have been taken, Amnesty International has serious concerns on a number of key issues. Of particular concern is the failure to fully incorporate cases from the city of Chihuahua into the programof measures; the absence of any judicial review of abuses, such as torture of suspects in custody, resulting in apparent miscarriages of justice and impunity; insufficient action to integrate gender perspective into every element of preventive and investigative measures to combat violence against women; and the failure to halt smear campaigns and harassment of the victims' relatives and organizations working on their behalf.

    Movies and Documentaries:

    Señorita Extraviada by Lourdes Portillo, Women Make Movies Distributors, 2001 Tells the haunting story of the nearly 400 kidnapped, raped and murdered young women of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

    Dual Injustice/Doble Injusticia by Witness and Comisión Mexicana de Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos AC, 2005. Tells the story of Neyra Azucena Cervantes, who disappeared in May 2003, and her cousin, David Meza, who was tortured to confess to her murder.

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