What has truly been accomplished when the law of the land is not enforced or respected? Very little, as the people of Guatemala have realized. The Latin American country boasts one of the highest homicide rates in the world, and gender-based murder classified as “femicide” is at an epidemic level.  In such a small country, such tragedy rocks the whole society.  

BBC reported that in 2004, the more than 500 cases of gender-based killings resulted in only one conviction. These victims weren’t just prostitutes and gang members. International calls to improve and reform laws on sexual violence and criminal investigations to better protect Guatemalan women helped to finally bring about a new law.  In May 2008, Guatemala’s new law against gender violence took effect – a milestone for the developing country and international human rights organizations working towards the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. It just wasn’t enough. 

Though femicide is now classified as a specific crime, carrying stiffer penalties for killings and mandatory damages for the victim’s families, the law has had little effect in the land.  According to Inter-Press Service, for the first nine months of the law’s enactment, 4,035 criminal actions were filed under the new law.  31 of those filings involved cases of femicide, and in that period, only 11 sentences were handed down to offenders. These numbers are hardly encouraging for victims and their families, as well as international organizations aiding the development of a peaceful and prosperous society. The Guatemalan government must back up their legislation with credible efforts to see it enforced. 

The law against gender violence was intended to empower and protect women in a fear-ridden society, but these killings persist with little prosecution. In 2009, 351 women have died as a result of ‘machista’ or sexist violence, reflecting only deaths by firearms or knives. Amidst rampant corruption at all levels of the criminal justice system from the police on the street right up to the highest court, neither protection nor empowerment from laws can be realized and the people stay silent. This systemic culture results in impunity for criminals.  IPS notes that “98 per cent of all crimes perpetrated in the country go unpunished”, and the fearful victims “leave justice up to God.”

We can only hope that increasing awareness of this problem pressures the government of Guatemala to improve their criminal justice system with meaningful reform, and initiatives to improve education and human rights take hold to embolden the citizens against this culture of corruption.