July 21, 2004

Police probe gruesome slayings

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala (Reuters) -- Gunmen shot dead a heavily pregnant 15-year-old in the latest of a series of gruesome killings of women and girls that has shocked even crime-hardened Guatemala.

Flies buzzed around the corpse of Rebeka Viera as it lay on a rusting trolley in Guatemala City's busy main morgue on Wednesday. Police said Viera, who was seven months pregnant, was killed in the capital on Tuesday night in a likely drug feud.

"The baby was also dead when we examined the corpse," said a doctor at the morgue.

Viera was one of six females murdered in two days. Others included a 6-week-old baby whose crushed body was left in the city dump. More than 260 women and girls have been killed in Guatemala so far this year, compared to 386 in the whole of 2003.

The frequency and brutality of the killings has increased pressure on Guatemalan President Oscar Berger, who took office in January, to fulfill campaign promises to crack down on crime.

Interior Minister Arturo Soto resigned this week, faced with nearly 2,000 mostly unresolved murders of both genders.

Women's murders frequently involve sexual abuse and the number of victims is on the rise.

"This government laments what happens but has no concrete goals, it has no plan," said women's activist Giovana Lemus.

Last year, U.S. actress Jane Fonda compared the killing of females in Guatemala to murders in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico where more than 300 women have been killed in the last 10 years.

Official Negligence
Victims' relatives say Guatemalan judicial officials are negligent. Twelve hours after Viera was killed in the poor El Gallito district, officials still could not agree on how she died.

Police say she was pumped full of bullets with an automatic weapon but doctors at the morgue said she was shot three times with a shotgun.

An estimated 95 percent of all murders go unresolved in Guatemala, partly due to a lack of resources and training for police.

Violent crime in Guatemala increased after the government and leftist guerrillas signed peace agreements in 1996, as out-of-work former fighters turned to crime. A weak legal system combined with poverty have added to the crime wave.

Youth street gangs known as maras are considered responsible for many of the killings of women. Gang members are often from abusive homes where violence against women is the norm, said Lemus.

Women are seen as a soft target in drug feuds, attacked by jilted gang members or killed in domestic violence, activists say. "Many have died because their brothers or relatives are involved and owe things; they grab the weakest person," Lemus said in her steel-barred office.

In recent weeks several women's organizations demanding investigations into the murders of women have been broken into or threatened.

For Rosa Elvira Franco, whose daughter was raped, tortured and killed in 2001, the crime wave is too much to bear. Franco said investigators laughed at her when she asked for the case to be investigated.

"They told me to investigate it myself," she said. "Now I just want to take my children and start a home in another country."

Copyright 2004 Reuters.