Who is Rody Alvarado Peña? For much of the 1980s and early 1990s, she was one of Guatemala's thousands of battered women, suffering daily violent abuse at the hands of her husband. Since escaping to the United States in 1995, she has become a symbol of America's ambivalent treatment of female asylum seekers. Three presidential administrations and countless judges deliberated, appealed and ultimately deferred decisions on her case, but a recommendation issued in October may finally make Ms. Peña a legal U.S. resident.
The Department of Homeland Security filed a brief statement in late October asserting that Ms. Pena "merits a grant of asylum as a matter of discretion." Though an immigration judge must still make the official order, her petition is widely expected to be approved.
The facts of Ms. Peña's case have never been the issue. According to a report by the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies (CGRG), after marrying a former soldier at the age of 16, he subjected her to ten years of extreme violence. He regularly "raped and sodomized [her], infecting her with sexually transmitted diseases, broke windows and mirrors with her head, dislocated her jaw, and tried to abort her child by kicking her violently in the spine." The courts and local police did not intervene despite Ms. Peña's multiple requests for help. Before reaching the United States, she made several unsuccessful attempts to flee and each time she was returned, she was beaten more savagely than before.
Had Ms. Peña remained in Guatemala, she would very likely have become a victim of femicide - murdered because she is female. Though murder rates in general are extremely high in Guatemala, femicides are particularly troubling because of their rate of increase. Another report by the CGRG claims that the number of women killed between 2002 and 2004 rose 56%, a full 20% faster than the rate of increase for male victims. In 2008 alone, 722 women were murdered.
The highly contentious question of whether gender-based human rights violations should be considered a basis for asylum is at the heart of Ms. Peña's case. Judges continue to grapple with the question of whether widespread violence against women qualifies as persecution inflicted because of an individual's membership in a particular social group, as outlined in international law. It is in part because Ms. Peña's experience is so common that her case produced such deliberation. So many of the world's women suffer from domestic violence that many fear a precedent-setting case would "open the floodgates" and render a small number of countries responsible for granting asylum to millions of battered women. Despite the fact that the great majority of women lack the means to make the expensive trip to the United States, the argument is salient in U.S. legal circles.
The tenuous relationship between U.S. jurists and Guatemala's female refugees is only the most recent iteration of an entangled history. Many of the conditions that have allowed femicide to flourish arose in the wake of Guatemala's 36-year civil war, with which the United States is widely acknowledged to have been involved.
Many of Guatemala's femicides involve firearms, which is not surprising given the staggering number of them present in the country today. Small arms first flooded Central America in the 1980s as Washington and Moscow sought to arm their allies in proxy wars. At the official end of Guatemala's civil war in 1996, just 1,500 weapons were surrendered by guerrilla units, and no other major disarmament efforts have been made. In 2008 it was estimated that there were 1.8 million firearms in Guatemala, 90% of which were unregistered. The United States continues to be a major supplier. According to data published by Just the Facts, U.S. suppliers have sold $27.5 million worth of commercial and military small arms and equipment to buyers in Guatemala since the peace accords were signed in 1996.
The proliferation of arms has been accompanied by heightening violence by Guatemala's estimated 80,000 members of maras, or gangs. Interestingly, most of Central America's gangs have roots in the United States, where thousands of young men fled seeking respite from the violent civil wars of the 1980s. Many took up residence in poor neighborhoods of Los Angeles and other urban centers, which were already rife with gang violence. Eventually, U.S. immigration authorities began deporting these young men - and their gang affiliations - back to Central America where the gangs have continued to grow.
With one of the highest impunity rates in the world, Guatemala's justice system has been unable to respond effectively to gang violence, which has been compounded by the growing presence of drug cartels. Violent vigilantism against alleged gang members has become so widespread it is casually referred to as limpieza social, or social cleansing, and the killings have increasingly targeted women. A 2005 Amnesty International report noted that "controlling women's sexual activity and fidelity has become a form of currency among men vying for power or control of a local area...women have been murdered as a form of punishment of the women themselves or of family members or as a demonstration of power between rival groups."
A chilling thread runs throughout much of the violence today. Many of the increasingly indiscriminate limpieza social murders are attributed to police officers who have found more lucrative work as hired guns. Before they were police officers,many of these men were members of the military. It is therefore unsurprising that today's femicides are hauntingly reminiscent of the military's gruesome treatment of women during the war.
Given their military training in gender violence it is unsurprising that law enforcement bodies regularly blame femicide on the victims themselves, claiming that they were members of gangs. In June of 2004, La Naciòn newspaper quoted then-president Oscar Berger as saying "We know that in the majority of [femicide] cases, the women had links with juvenile gangs and gangs involved in organized crime." The Amnesty International report goes on to describe the many ways in which discrimination against the victims has contributed to misreporting of statistics and widespread impunity in these cases.
The legacy of civil war is just one factor in contemporary Guatemalan society that is influenced by centuries of history, culture and political economy. But the war, and the U.S. involvement in it - has played a commanding role in cultivating the conditions that have allowed femicide to flourish there today. Guatemala's murdered women are a silent reminder that war continues to claim victims long after peace accords have been signed.
Lisa Skeen is a NACLA Research Associate