Violence Targets Women In Mexico, Central America

Violence against women in Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala has reached crisis proportions, according to a report by the Nobel Women's Initiative. The group's delegation spent ten days documenting homicides, disappearances, and attacks of sexual violence. Laura Carlsen wrote the report and discusses the findings with guest host Viviana Hurtado.

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VIVIANA HURTADO, HOST:

Now we turn our attention to a growing problem in Mexico and Central America - violence against women. It's a situation that's become a crisis in the last decade. For example, in Guatemala the number of women murdered each year has more than tripled since 2000.

The Nobel Women's Initiative, which was founded by the female Nobel Peace Prize winners, is shining a bright light on this violence and its victims. The group has also just released a report, "From Survivors to Defenders: Women Confronting Violence in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala." I'm joined by the author of the report, Laura Carlsen. She's the director of the Americas Project for the Center for International Policy based in Mexico City.

Welcome to the program, Laura.

LAURA CARLSEN: Thank you, Viviana.

HURTADO: So Laura, tell us about the delegation that traveled to Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. Why did you decide to focus on these three countries?

CARLSEN: We knew beforehand that Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala had serious problems of violence against women, and what we wanted to do is go to these countries and actually hear the voices of the women to be able to document what was going on there and try to get at some of the reasons behind this explosion of violence against women in all three countries.

So we already had an idea that we were going to be confronting a very serious problem, but I think that almost none of us were prepared for the gravity of the problem that we actually came - ran into when we got there because we heard testimonies that were really overwhelmingly moving and we saw the breadth of a problem that was not only caused by a rising violence against women, but also by indifference and in many cases complicity of the governments there.

HURTADO: And, actually, Laura, as you just said, the delegation interviewed hundreds of women. Is there a particular story that haunts you, that stands out?

CARLSEN: Well, yes. I think - in Mexico, for example, there's a woman in the southern state of Chiapas and she's been defending indigenous communities as a human rights activist for many years. And one day the police, the state police, in uniform, came into her house, raided her house and threatened her. She was brave enough to report this, even though it was authorities that were involved in the raid and then the police came again and raped her and threatened her again.

This woman now has protective measures, but she's afraid every day of her life because she's assigned the protection by the same police forces that were actually guilty of the crime, and the state government has refused to prosecute.

This is, unfortunately, a pretty typical case. We saw many, many cases where government security forces were involved in the threats against women, and in those cases in particular there is almost no willingness whatsoever on the part of the governments to prosecute. They really tend to protect their own.

HURTADO: And one of the things that is different about the violence now, in comparison, for example, to the violence in the '80s, is the war on drugs and the report says that, quote, "The war on drugs has become a war on women." What do you mean by that, Laura?

CARLSEN: The war on drugs is this particular model of confronting drug trafficking and what's it's involved in - all these countries, and particularly here in Mexico, is the deployment of the army in public safety. In the case of Mexico, there is an estimate 50,000 army troops now in many different parts of the country, supposedly fighting this war on drugs.

What we find is that, instead of making women safer, it's actually put them at far greater risk. There's an explosion of human rights violations by the army and police forces against women, so we have this volatile situation where, not only are the security forces themselves threatening women in some cases, but also the confrontations between the security forces and drug cartels have created an overall increase in violence that has meant that women - and other people as well, of course - are being caught in the crossfire.

HURTADO: If you are just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Viviana Hurtado. We are talking about violence against women in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. We're speaking with Laura Carlsen, who researched the issue for the nonprofit the Nobel Women's Initiative.

Laura, I wanted to ask you, what kinds of crimes did your report cover?

CARLSEN: We covered femicides, which is the targeted murder of women, sexual abuse, disappearances, which unfortunately is a crime that's increasing a lot in the entire region, and there's also evidence that when people disappear, there's no effort to find their bodies.

And in particularly what we found was an increasing phenomenon, which is a serious concern for us, and that is the targeting of women human rights defenders. In other words, it's not just random crimes against women that we're looking at in any of these cases. There's systematic reasons behind it, and in many cases when women become defenders, when women stand up to defend their lands in indigenous communities in Guatemala, especially against mining, or in Mexico to protest militarization, they actually become targets of, in some cases, both government and drug cartels.

There are paramilitary forces as well, and there's private security guards that are being used, especially by corporations and by private interests. They are also constituting a mounting threat to women's safety.

HURTADO: The report states that more than 95 percent of crimes are never punished in the three countries the delegation visited. Most are never even investigated by authorities. Why, Laura?

CARLSEN: Because people don't have faith in the justice system and the justice systems in all three countries are largely dysfunctional. These are estimates. We don't have exact figures because they include the number of crimes that aren't reported because people know that nothing will be done. In fact, in many cases they actually go to report a crime and they become victims themselves of a justice system that not only doesn't work, but that is actively working to protect very powerful and violent interests.

HURTADO: Is this news, Laura? I mean, there has just been a history of impunity in Mexico and Central America.

CARLSEN: First of all, it's news because you can mark this spike in violence against women just in the last four or five years, especially in these three countries. And then the second reason is that it took three decades for people to realize the horrors of the genocidal campaigns in Guatemala and the dirty war in Mexico and Honduras as well.

So what we're saying with this report is we can't take three decades for this news to come out. We can't let this go on for that long. We can't let that many women suffer without responding to a crisis situation right now.

HURTADO: Laura, you mentioned the dramatic increase in violence against both men and women in recent years. Why does the report focus on women victims and not all victims?

CARLSEN: It's not just that a woman is killed instead of a man. In fact, in many places the number of assassinations - in Mexico, for example, with rivalries between drug cartels - the statistics are that there are more men killed than women. But the problem is that there's this flourishing of violence against women that's taking place in a patriarchal society in which there is discrimination and it has these particular characteristics of sexual violence and extreme cruelty.

And the warring factions in these conflicts are often using women's bodies to send messages that would say this is our territory. This is where we control. Or this is our way of retaliating against you. Or this is our vengeance. And women's bodies are being used for that in many cases where the women were really not involved at all. And they tend to be kind of the canary in the mine too. When there are increasing human rights violations against women, it's a sign that there's likely to be an increase in human rights violations against the population in general.

HURTADO: Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Project for the Center for International Policy. She wrote the report "From Survivors to Defenders: Women Confronting Violence in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala." She joined us from a studio in Mexico City.

Thank you, Laura.

CARLSEN: Thank you.

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