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Brutal attack highlights Latin America’s femicides, violence against women

May 17, 2018

All that came to a juddering halt on April 24 when Carlos Javier Hualpa, a 37-year-old restaurant worker, launched his horrific attack on an unsuspecting Agreda on a bus in the upmarket neighborhood of Miraflores.

The incident has shocked Peru and shone a light on the issue of misogynistic violence and femicide — the act of killing a woman simply because she is a woman — that plagues both this Andean nation and, more generally, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Reliable statistics for sexual assault, domestic battery and other forms of violence against women are in short supply, experts say, in part because of official disinterest and victims’ fear of coming forward. But the few numbers that do exist point to an epidemic of gender-based physical attacks on women and girls in the region. According to the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey, 10 of the 25 nations with the highest recorded rates of femicides are in Latin America with another four in the Caribbean.

That is partly attributable to the region’s high overall levels of violence including its well documented status as being, statistically, the world’s most homicidal. But many also blame it on a deeply ingrained culture of “machismo”, which has generated what activists call a continuum of patriarchal behavior that runs from mundane everyday acts of condescension, disdain and exclusion towards women and girls, through to its most extreme expressions, rape and femicide.

Image: A woman walks at a hill in the shanty town Nueva Esperanza on the outskirts of Lima
A woman walks in the area of Nueva Esperanza, in the outskirts of Lima, Peru.Mariana Bazo / Reuters

Indeed, it is only 20 years since the concept of femicide even became an issue in Latin America, following the notorious wave of unresolved killings of women in Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican city on the U.S. border, in the 1990s.

While the United States is having its “me too” moment regarding harassment principally in the workplace, Latin America lags several steps behind, with femicides from Mexico to Argentina periodically triggering protests from the “ni una más” (“not one more”) and the more recent “ni una menos” movement in Perú.

Arrested just the day after his unspeakable attack on Agreda, Hualpa, seeking to play down his culpability, told prosecutors: “I wanted her face to be scarred, but not her body. It all went out of control.”

María Ysabel Cedano García, head of Demus, a Lima-based women’s rights nonprofit, says: “Those who commit femicides, or attempted femicides, claim they are being disrespected or cheated on. They are not able to accept being rejected because they believe they have a right, a right over women’s bodies. Femicides typically involve cruelty. There is a level of viciousness and planning. The objective is to punish.”

Responding to the attack on Agreda, psychoanalyst Eduardo Gastelumendi, meanwhile, has warned that machismo harms the well-being of men as well as women.

“Boys raised in macho homes end up being adults who are really like big children: emotionally infantile, dependent, spoilt, violent, demanding and impulsive,” he wrote in the Peruvian newspaper El Comercio.

“Girls who grow up in these homes are treated in a more demanding way and tend to be devalued for being women, which leads them to struggle with feelings of guilt and an absurd and socially cruel handicapping.”

For activists like Cedano García, extreme attacks such as that on Agreda need to be seen in the context of a full spectrum of violations of women’s rights, from teenage pregnancies and rape to murder, while frequent disinterest from law enforcement feeds a climate of impunity.

She says the National Police of Peru (PNP) open four new rape investigations every hour. “But those are just the ones that are reported. What is the real figure? Sexual violence and harassment don’t seem to worry the police. They just don’t see it as part of public safety, part of their job.”

That view of the disinterest in — and even downright hostility to — victims of misogynistic violence has been crystallized in Peru by the high-profile case of Arlette Contreras, a young lawyer beaten up by her boyfriend, Adriano Pozo, in a hotel in the mountain city of Ayacucho in 2016.

Part of the attack, including a naked and enraged Pozo dragging Contreras by the hair, was caught on the hotel’s closed circuit television. Yet a local court absolved him, supposedly for lack of evidence, and is now threatening Contreras with a year behind bars, allegedly for including false information in a CV.

The refusal to take femicide seriously— and women’s rights more generally — also comes straight from some of the most powerful players in Peruvian society.