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The key to ending impunity lies in the political will to properly investigate femicides

FRIDAY FILE - Grounded in a context of mafias, militarization and impunity sanctioned by some States in Latin America, femicides are increasing in number and brutality. As we commemorate the annual Sixteen Days of Activism Against Gender Violence campaign from November 25thto December 10th [1A], AWID spoke to Ana Carcedo from Centro Feminista de Información y Acción (Cefemina) in Costa Rica about this reality.

AWID: What is meant by the term femicide/feminicide?

Ana Carcedo (AC): In Honduras and Costa Rica, when we began investigating the deaths of women in 1994, we adopted the concept of “femicide” developed by Diana Russell[1], and translated it as “femicidio”. At the same time, unbeknown to us, in the Dominican Republic, Susy Pola was conducting similar research and she translated “femicide” as “feminicidio”.[2]Marcela Lagarde[3]expanded the concept developed by Russell to include impunity; she says this is something new and is called “feminicidio”.

So in Central America these are two different terms to describe two crimes[4]. Femicide is the murder of women by men, because they are women, because of their gender ‘subordination’. This ‘subordination’ lies in the unequal power relations between women and men referred to in the Inter-American Convention On The Prevention, Punishment And Eradication Of Violence Against Women, known as the Belem do Para Convention. This violence is not random; it is the product of a particular social structure in which women occupy a lower and subordinate position, which facilitates violence against them. Femicide is the most extreme form of violence against women.

Feminicide relates to the impunity and complicity related to femicides. A crime is not only committed when a woman is killed but also when the State does not thoroughly investigate it and is an accomplice. In this case, we say the State commits the crime of not guaranteeing women’s right to a life free from violence and not guaranteeing their right to justice[5].

AWID: What prompted you to investigate the deaths of women in 1994?

AC: Since the 80s, feminists had been working hard to make visible the different forms of violence against women (VAW). It was at the first Latin American and Caribbean Encuentro (Gathering)[6], where November 25th was established as International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. This was a reality we had perceived before, but in the 90s we began to realize that violence killed and we wanted to bring attention to that.

In the mid-90s, a law including protective measures was passed in Costa Rica, but it was not the one feminists had proposed. Feminist organizations, including Cefemina, had proposed a law to protect women in relationships, but the one passed was a law protecting persons in relationships. Then in 1997, we began to work on a law criminalizing VAW. We stood firm in that it must be a law that would respect Belem do Para and is not gender neutral for men to use. It was in that context that we wanted to prove that violence is not symmetrical, not shallow; we wanted to prove that femicides existed and that there was no comparable situation for men. This is how the first research on femicide began in Costa Rica and to my knowledge, the first of its kind in Latin America.

AWID: Would you say that femicides are increasing? Why do you think this is so? Where is it most prevalent in the region?

AC: In Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, femicides have escalated, not just in number but also in brutality. In the rest of the Central America the rates fluctuate, except for Mexico, which has consistently high femicide rates.

The hypothesis we put forward in the research entitled “We Don’t Forget, We Don’t Accept. Femicide in Central America”[7], is that the increase in femicides is linked to the current economic and political context of the region. In Central America the imposed opening up of the economy and globalization has meant serious losses for our countries and particularly for women. This has resulted in the most successful businesses in our region being those of the mafias. Conditions that feed into VAW are being created in our countries, including the trafficking of women and drug trafficking. Migration also places women at serious risk. At the economic level, women are relegated to the maquilas and militarization and the phenomena of the maras (gangs)[8]are a problem.

In the past, mafia networks[9]had codes of conduct and they would leave women out of everything. Today, it’s quite the opposite; criminals have started to use women as leverage. For example, if the mafia behave like “gentlemen” with the enemy who steals their drugs or kills the enemy, they will never recover their money or drugs, but if they are good “businessmen”, they use the women in his family, because they are “disposable” and their enemy will feel threatened. This is what Rita Segato[10]calls the horizontal message that men send to other men by killing women. It says, “This is my territory; if I can dare to do this and can get away with it, it’s because I have bribed the authorities”.

In the case of women journalists and women human rights defenders (WHRD), the fact that they are women who speak out to defend or expose these situations makes them particularly vulnerable to this form of violence.

AWID: What have been the failures in the policies developed to address femicides in countries where they are on the rise?

AC: In spite of the laws that exist the problem continues to be faulty legal investigation. There is lack of interest in presenting charges the correct way. In Costa Rica we have laws criminalizing VAW, but more than 70% of the reports filed under that law are not taken up by the Attorney General’s Office, which decides that no crime was committed. Women who demand justice for their daughters are told their daughters were mareras[11], whores, drug-addicts, when in fact the girls were students. Besides, what if they are mareras or whores? The report has to be investigated and that’s it.

States only react when international bodies apply pressure. Guatemala has responded quite well, in 2008 they passed the Law against Femicide and Other Forms of Violence against Women. Now they have specialized lawyers and an Attorney Generals Office. And this year cases of femicide committed by maras were solved, showing it can be done if there is political will.

AWID: What changes are needed for these policies to be effective? What else should States be doing to address this?

AC: Almost all Central American countries have specific laws on VAW. We need Attorney General’s Offices and teams that know how to investigate and present charges, and who want to do so. We must demand that the Attorney General’s Office collects all evidence and expert tests required. More police crime teams should be trained for quick response, particularly in high-risk situations. At the regional and international level, we need to create spaces where States are held accountable for what is happening. We have tried to do it at the Central American level through the Central American Integration System (SICA)[12].

AWID: Could you tell us about the “Model of Protocol to Effectively Investigate and Document Femicide/Feminicide”?

AC: It is a work in progress and tries to bring together some specific guidelines for investigating femicides and which tend to be overlooked when femicides are investigated as ordinary homicides.[13]

Developing the hypothesis is crucial. The first one to arrive at the crime scene creates a hypothesis based on a first impression. For instance, if a female body is found in an empty lot, one might conclude that the attack was the result of an attempted robbery. If that hypothesis becomes the only possibility, there is nothing more to it, case closed. The key is to have a good investigative hypothesis that is not closed and above all, works on the assumption that the murder was likely intentional, committed by people who might have known the woman and places us in the context I referred to earlier. It’s probable that this will lead to a much different investigation.

The technical analysis will not be that different: the forensic expert will do an autopsy as usual, but he or she will have to report if the woman had bites, marks made with a knife, and particularly if she had the word puta (whore) carved on her chest, that will not be overlooked.

I am among those who think that every female homicide needs to be investigated as a possible femicide from the start, to be discarded if disproved. This way we avoid losing important information and more cases could be solved.

[1A]This year’s global theme is From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Let’s Challenge Militarism and End Violence Against Women!

[1] For information on Diana Russell and the work on this concept see, and,%20AUTORA%20DEL%20T%C3%89RMINO.html

[2] A meticulous lawyer, she consulted the Spanish Language Royal Academy (RAE in Spanish) and was informed that either of the terms – femicidio or feminicidio – could be used as neither had yet been used and both shared the same root. She decided to use “feminicidio”.

[3] A conference by Marcela Lagarde on this topic (in Spanish):

[4] This is a recent debate within Latin America, and a very important one.. CONVENCION INTERAMERICANA PARA PREVENIR, SANCIONAR Y ERRADICAR LA VIOLENCIA CONTRA LA MUJER:

[5] For the origin of both terms, see (in Spanish)

[6] Celebrated in Bogota in July 1981


[8] On maras (in Spanish) In English:

[9] Organized crime and violence against women (in Spanish):

[10] On Rita Segato (in Spanish)

[11] Women who belong to gangs, especially in Guatemala, Honduras y El Salvador

[12] In English: and

[13] This Model Protocol was proposed at a seminar on Gender Violence and Femicide in LAC in Guatemala in September 2012.

Latin America