"What guarantees do we have?" legal tolls and persistent impunity for feminicide in Guatemala

Academic Paper
Latin America and the Caribbean
Feminicide #Feminicido #Courts #law


Guatemala has one of the highest levels of killings of women and impunity for violence against women in the world. Despite laws created to protect women, Guatemala, like other countries, generally fails at implementation. This article examines justice system obstacles in contemporary Guatemala to processing cases of feminicide—killings of women because they are women in a context of impunity—comparing two recent feminicide cases. It argues that the sociopolitical context in Guatemala, including structural violence, widespread poverty, inequality, corruption, and normalization of gender violence against women, generates penalties, or “legal tolls,” that are imposed on victims' families and contribute to impunity through undermining victims' attempts to navigate the justice system. The analysis focuses on the tolls of fear and time: the need to overcome fear of retaliation and the extraordinary time and effort it takes to do so in a corrupt and broken system.

External Authors

Shannon Drysdale Walsh
Cecilia Menjívar

Legal Tolls, Feminicide, and the Rule of Law

We focus on the tolls of fear and time that perpetuate the lack of rule of law in Guatemala: the need to overcome fear of retaliation and the extraordinary time and effort it takes to navigate the justice system. In a context that necessitates the payment of tolls, the inability of women and the poor to do so becomes an obstacle to effectively utilizing the justice system before or after murders take place, which contributes to impunity and helps explain the gap between the law on the books and the law in practice.

Structural violence in Guatemala creates conditions for exploitation and corruption and a disregard for the needs of women and the poor, who find multiple obstacles or tolls as they navigate bureaucracies in their search for protection and justice. Structural violence not only affects different levels and types of direct violence against women, but makes women more vulnerable and makes it less likely that the state will be responsive (Walsh and Menjívar 2016).

Guatemala has made legal and institutional advances that ostensibly aim to improve responsiveness to feminicide and other forms of violence against women, but there have also been institutional setbacks and many obstacles to implementation. In 2006, Guatemala created a special public prosecutor’s office for crimes against women. On May 2, 2008, Guatemala passed the Law Against Femicide and Other Forms of Violence Against Women (Law No. 22-2008). This law enabled the application of additional penalties if murders were classified as femicide. Specialists on crimes against women work in the public prosecutor’s office (the Fiscalía de la Mujer in the Ministerio Público). In 2012, with help from the Spanish International Cooperation Agency, the police established a unit focused on investigating femicides in the Department of Crimes Against Life (Unidad de Femicidios in Delitos Contra la Vida). 

The term femicide is used in formal law and statistical data to refer to killings of women for any reason, or because they are women (Radford and Russell 1992). In Guatemala, as well as in other countries, “femicide” laws add special penalties to cases of killings of women where there is evidence of misogyny as a motive. The term feminicide (feminicidio), on the other hand, was introduced by Latin American feminists to describe the escalating phenomenon of gender-based killings of women that occur in a context of impunity and are committed with high levels of brutality (Lagarde 2006; see also Carey and Torres 2010; Sanford 2008). This concept not only conveys the killings of women because they are women but also captures analytically the responsibility of the state, “whether through omission, negligence or collusion” (Lagarde 2006).




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