10 From Genocide to Femicide: An Ongoing History of Terror, Hate and Apathy

Leonzo Barreno

Leonzo Barreno


In the late 1970s and early 1980s one of the largest genocides in the western hemisphere was taking place: genocide in Guatemala (Chomsky, 28; Falla, 4) that the world knew little about. Only after survivors told their stories to those who dared to listen and to write about them did we learn of the extent of a campaign carried out by “an army blinded by ignorance, hatred [towards the Mayan people], and fear” (Schlesinger and Kinzer, 257). What this campaign of state terrorism created and left in Guatemala, amid the Peace Agreement signed in 1996, was a culture of violence and fear amongst the general population, impunity for those who committed crimes against humanity and apathy among the selected few who continue to govern that Central American country.

Growing up in an urban town of Guatemala in the early 1980s, I recall the news—from clandestine radio stations, from urban foci informants, or from secret discussions with high school and university students’ gatherings—of the daily rural matazones (massacres). Official news on radio and TV minimized the extent of the massacres by telling people that the national army was fighting against the “evil of communism.” One president, General Efraín Ríos Montt, even told Guatemalans in his Sunday speeches that God had chosen him to rule Guatemala and that killing rebels was part of his sacred duty[2]. He was, in fact, ordering the massacres of ten of thousands of Mayan people.

Speaking publicly against the massacres in the urban areas was uncommon due to the fear caused by the several terrorist instruments used by the Guatemalan state: neighbours (orejas) spying on neighbours; selective disappearances and mass killings of university professors and students, unionists, and Catholic leaders; assassination of youth suspected of being guerrillas (rebels); and military surveillance of collective gatherings. In short, the country became a militarized state where dead bodies were left on the streets for the purpose of causing fear among the urban population. There were no political prisoners in Guatemala and until 2012 no single high-ranking officer ever faced justice for all these crimes.

The rural areas of northern and western Guatemala, highly populated by Mayan people, suffered the worst of state terrorism. Entire rural zones were difficult, even “illegal,” to visit. Guatemala became divided not only along social and cultural lines but also by geographic zones. Those in power ruled with an iron fist and with contempt for and “devaluation” of the rural Mayan population. Army generals, since the 1954 CIA orchestrated invasion of Guatemala, took turns as “Presidents” of the country. Generals such as Schell Laugerud, Romeo Lucas, Benedicto Lucas, Efraín Ríos Montt, and Hector Gramajo, as Presidents or Ministers of Defence, were the masterminds of the genocide of more than 200,000 people, mostly Mayan.

Under the Ríos Montt government (March 1982 to August 1983), the army destroyed “some 400 towns and villages, drove 20,000 rural people out of their homes and into [concentration] camps, killed between 50,000 and 75,000 mostly unarmed indigenous farmers and their families, and violently displaced over a million people” (Schlesinger and Kinzer, x). In the Guatemalan army rhetoric, the rural Mayan people were the water keeping the fish (guerrillas) alive; “in order to kill the fish,” they said, it was necessary “to get rid of the water,” literally. Very few people escaped the massacres. In his book Massacres in the Jungle (1994), Jesuit priest and anthropologist Ricardo Falla documented some of the massacres in the Ixcan region. It was through the personal stories of survivors that the world learned about the effectiveness of these military regimes. Guatemalans did not learn until much later because Falla’s book was considered ‘subversive’ and was illegal to read (Beatriz Manz in the foreword of Massacres in the Jungle, xv).

Falla says that although racism was not the main motive for the genocide, it became a trait of it. Foot soldiers in the field and army generals stationed in Guatemala City were influenced by the racism and hate they felt for the Maya, who they only referred to as Indios (Indians)—“a despicable being, whose life is worth less than a normal person’s and whom one can therefore exterminate without scruples to save the country from a great evil such as communism” (Falla, 185). Non-Maya (in the Guatemalan lexicon referred to as Ladino, or people of mixed Spanish and Indigenous blood) killed in the massacres were treated so because they looked like Indians and were “infected” by the Indian way of doing things (Falla, 86).

By 1996, when a “peace agreement” was signed between the Guatemalan government and the rebel forces grouped under the Union of Guatemala’s Revolutionary Forces (URNG), the war was supposed to be over. “Guatemala: Never Again” was the title of a 1998 report led by the Catholic Church that documented the atrocities of both army and rebel forces during the thirty-six years of fighting. The report estimated that “150,000 people had been killed and another 50,000 had disappeared. Eighty percent of the casualties, it asserted, were inflicted by government forces” (Schlesinger and Kinzer, 264). The Catholic Church took on this project after learning that the Historical Clarification Commission (HCC), a commission agreed to by rebels and government, had agreed to impunity for the two sides: nobody was going to be prosecuted for the crimes committed in thirty-six years of “war.” Notwithstanding its limitations, the Commission’s 1999 report concluded that “the conflict had caused more than 200,000 deaths, and blamed the military for 93 percent of them.”[3]

The URNG became an insignificant political party, and former dictator Ríos Montt became President of Congress and died in April 2018 without going to jail for the crimes he committed. Other Generals became politicians or rich entrepreneurs. Terror, hate, and apathy, despite the peace agreement, was far from over. In his final report, the head of the HCC Christian Tomuschat emphasized the “the special brutality directed against Mayan women, who were tortured, raped and murdered” (Schlesinger and Kinzer, 265). This was one of the few occasions in which violence against women began to be acknowledged. However, and despite early hopes for a better society, terror and violence continue to be rampant in Guatemala.

While state terrorism was implemented in Mayan territories, resulting in genocide of four Mayan groups, the current violence is mostly affecting large cities. For example, in 2008, Bismarck Pineda and Lisardo Bolaños found that in the Departamento (province) of Guatemala, where Guatemala City is located, there were 2,433 homicides, or 81.26 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. In large Indigenous territories like the Departamento of Totonicapán 23 killings represented 5.30 homicides per 100,000 people during the same year. Genocide against Indigenous peoples has been replaced by femicide in urban areas. The killing of Guatemalan women did not stop; it continues even more in contemporary times.


Since 1976 femicide has been defined as “the processes to which violence against women becomes socially acceptable and quotidian” (Russell, 1976 in Torres, M., 1). Every year thousands of people, men and women, are killed in Guatemala. While more men die in violent acts the violence against Guatemalan women has a misogyny undertone.

According to a report from the National Committee for the Prevention of Intra-Familiar Violence against Women (CONAPREVI), violence against Guatemalan females include physical, psychological, sexual and economic abuse. Physical violence includes “pinching, slapping in the face, kicking, blows using objects or weapons. Severe physical violence can cause death.” Psychological violence is applied in many forms including “insults, negligence, humiliation, blame, emotional blackmail, degradation, isolation from friends, ridicule, manipulation, threats, exploitation, yelling, and indifference. The result is emotional harm” (CONAPREVI, 17). Sexual violence is when male offenders force their partners to have intimate relations with them or with other men. It also involves sexual harassment, child sexual abuse, incest, and forcing women to watch pornography. Economic violence refers to the selling or destruction of the couple’s patrimony, destruction of the women personal identification documents, and refusing to pay child support (p. 17).

The Observatorio de los Periodistas-CERIGUA, based on a report from the Guatemalan Mutual Support Group (GAM), reported that in 2013 alone, 51,525 women reported to be victims of violence and 755 were killed violently (Observatorio de los Periodistas-CERIGUA, November 22, 214). The National Institute of Statistics reported that between 2000 and 2018 more than 11,255 women died violently (in Torres, M., January 23, 2019).

Who is killing women and young girls and why? Is it gangs or organized crime killing women and young girls who disobey their command to commit illegal acts or who refuse to be sexually exploited? Or is it some police officers, as some gang leaders say, who are in a campaign of social cleansing and thus show their bosses that they are doing “something” against crime? Is it husbands or partners who use violence as a way to ‘punish’ women? Or is it the direct apathy and inaction of the social, economic, and political elites whose women are not victims of femicide? There is no one single answer.

Rarely punished, perpetrators of crime include “Non-state organizations – including the aforementioned gangs, and organized crime syndicates as well as quasi-police forces and even some rural communities – now engage in the quotidian acts of violence to enact social control” (Torres, 3). In an interview with journalist Antonio Ordoñez, lawyer and activist Ana Lucia Moran said, “violence against women is a continuation of the violence that predates the [Guatemalan] armed conflict” (Ordoñez, November 24, 2009). Chilean photojournalist Carlos Reyes Manzo told a group of journalism students at the School of Journalism, University of Regina (March 30, 2009) that gang leaders told him during his visit to Guatemala that it was the National Police killing their women to send them—gang leaders and their “groupies”—a message.

In one of the few public confessions about femicide and killing for money, gang leader Axel Danilo Ramirez (a.k.a. Smiley), who began his criminal career at the age of 10, told journalists that killing gives him pleasure, “especially killing opposing gang members and their women” (Castañón, M., April 16, 2009). Whether it is domestic violence, organized crime (drug cartels and gangs, or the police, or all), the killings continue despite the creation of Decree 22-2008 or Femicide Law (Prensa Libre, 1).

Femicide caused concerns in the United States House of Representatives who, in April 2007, through Resolution 100, attempted to bring an end to femicide in Guatemala and other Central American countries (United States Congress 110th, April 2007). It noted that in 2001 about 300 women were killed and in 2005 it was more than 500 victims. Sponsored by Representative Hilda Solis, this American Congress resolution observed that most victims were young women between 18 and 30 years old. The resolution also mentioned that violence “can include torture, mutilation, and sexual violence.” The new Femicide Law and the American Congress resolution did not result in changing the ever-increasing number of murdered girls and women in Guatemala. As in the 1980s, hundreds, if not thousands, of Guatemalan and other Central American women are choosing to seek refuge in the United States despite the barriers imposed by the American Administration (Torres, M., January 23, 2019).


The root causes of the 36-year Civil War and the causes of the genocide against the Maya are very much alive. Poverty and racism are endemic in Guatemala. The Maya, the majority of the population, and the poor non-Maya, or Ladinos, are mostly remembered during national elections with promises and little change to the corruption, violence, and organized crime identified by most authors that keeps the general population under a constant state of fear.

In this culture of violence and organized crime, femicide has found a fertile ground. Killing women and young girls is endemic in a society whose national authorities have rarely dealt with the crimes against humanity of the recent past (genocide) and who continue to show apathy to the thousands of femicide cases. In one of my recent visits to Guatemala, a local scholar told me that during the Civil War (1960-1996) the state had control of the state security apparatus by repressing its people. Now the state lost control or is not interested in the internal security of its citizens. Although most victims of daily crimes are men, the violence against women shows that physical, psychological, sexual and economic violence against them are rooted in their sexuality and gender. If judges have no education about misogyny and femicide, if no resources are provided to deal with these crimes and no political concern is shown for the lives of women, these crimes against humanity will continue. Justice in Guatemala remains a utopia.



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  1. “Acts committed with intent to destroy in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” (Staub, Ervin, 1993:8)
  2. Author’s personal experience
  3. Schlesinger and Kinzer, 265. Despite the American ambassador’s attempts to call the report a “Guatemalan internal conflict,” in his visit to Guatemala, former American President Bill Clinton said that the US support “for military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong, and the United States must not report that mistake.”


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Global Femicide by Leonzo Barreno is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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