Coatepeque, Guatemala – She suffered beatings and rapes during 13 years of marriage. Repeated attempts to get police help failed. It took one last death threat in 2005 to finally convince Aminta Cifuentes that her husband really meant to kill her.
She took just enough cash to pay some bus fares, snacks and fruit juice for her three younger children, and passage across the Rio Grande. Then the Coatepeque mother started a two-week trek north, despite knowing the dangers of crossing into Mexico and then the United States without documents.
“If I die — well, I’ll die anyway together with him,” Cifuentes, now 41, said in her first interview with the media. “I would be dead. Other women don’t (leave), because they have no money … But not I. If I had stayed there, he would have killed me.”
Then, her voice cracking and barely audible on the phone from her new home in Missouri, she asked a reporter, “Have you been to Guatemala, to Coatepeque? Has it changed?”
It has not, according to those who work with victims there and other experts, even though last summer Cifuentes won a landmark asylum case that changed the rules for immigrant victims who make it to the United States.
A decade since Cifuentes fled, Guatemalan girls and women continue to face some of the worst gender violence in the Western hemisphere. Their abusers can count on near total impunity. And it is one of the reasons behind the continuing surge of women and children from there fleeing the country, trying to reach the U.S. border.
In Cifuentes’ home town, where volcanic mountains crumble into the torrid coastal plain, Saidy Fuentes listed the most painful among the dozens of cases of crimes against women she tackles every day. She is an assistant investigator in the public prosecutor’s office.
There was the teenage wife with her forehead and shoulder shredded by machete cuts who was so fearful and dependent on her husband that she refused to report him. The mother who brought her raped 7-year-old girl to the hospital — distraught because she did not realize doctors would be required to call the authorities, who ended up charging the father.
“They are called whores, dogs — the machista man always uses these words … and the woman starts believing that she is worth nothing,” Fuentes, 24, said.
“We try to convince them to keep the complaints going. We got to the point that we say, look, señora, next time he is going to kill you and we are not going to come!”
The high rate of domestic violence in Guatemala and other Central American countries that is forcing increasing numbers of women to seek asylum in the U.S. is often blamed on a deeply rooted culture of machismo. It is widely accepted there that men should control all aspects of women’s lives.
But experts say that is an overly simplistic explanation that ignores other factors, such as the intuition of violence following years of civil war.
Blaming it all on “machismo,” is a convenient and stereotypical label for Latin America, said Cecilia Menjívar, an Arizona State University sociology professor who has written both academic research and court briefs about gender violence in Guatemala.
“The problem is violence in the life of women, not even against women,” she said. “What they go through every day, all the time.”
Some hope in the U.S.
In August 2014, the wave of women and children fleeing Central America was still making headlines.
That’s when the highest U.S. immigration court announced its first-ever binding, precedential decision that Guatemalan married women who suffer domestic violence and cannot leave their relationships, are part of a “particular social group” that is being persecuted.
Therefore, they have the right to asylum or reprieve from deportation if they can provide enough evidence of the enduring abuse in each case.
The Board of Immigration Appeals’ ruling in Cifuentes’ case marks not only the happy ending for her and her children, but also opens a new page in women’s rights and migration.
Another Guatemalan, Rody Alvarado, who asked for asylum in the 1990s after fleeing her soldier husband’s battering and brutalizing, presented U.S. immigration judges with a quandary that remained unresolved until last August.
Nobody questioned the horrors Alvarado and other women from around the world suffered, but judges often found that they were not persecuted because of their belonging to a “particular social group,” which is the legal basis for asylum claims, and therefore had no right to it.
Alvarado ultimately won her case in 2009.
But for the past 20 years, grants or denials seemed to largely depend not on facts but on what judge a victim happened to get, according to a 2013 analysis of 206 domestic-violence asylum decisions by the University of California Hastings Center for Gender & Refugee Studies. (There are no official statistics on how many asylum cases are adjudicated based on domestic violence, and most decisions are not public.)
The Cifuentes decision is now binding for judges — domestic-abuse cases can and are still being denied, but judges can do so only based on individual facts or evidence, not on the basis that our asylum law does not protect women battered by their partners, said Karen Musalo, who directs the center and provided a brief in Cifuentes’ support.
That gives hope not only to Guatemalan victims, but to all women like them who face being face being raped, beaten or killed while their governments, lacking both resources and political will, fail to “prevent and investigate, prosecute and punish” the crimes against them, Musalo said.
For Cifuentes, asylum means living in a country where, if anybody were ever to beat her again, she believes he would be arrested by police officers who wouldn’t say “sorry, lady, it’s your husband.”
Asylum also means she can give her children — including her U.S.-born, 5-year-old daughter — the model of being someone other than a woman “molested, humiliated, beaten,” who was so “ashamed” of her life in Guatemala that she didn’t want to share details of it with the border officials who caught her.
“She was just stuck with this guy,” said her attorney, Roy Petty.
Petty noted that Cifuentes’ husband beat her “constantly” with chains and cords. Yet he persuaded her to come back to him repeatedly after she had fled to her father and even to Guatemala City — a pattern of hopelessness and dependency described in the court ruling and common to victims there.
A violent home invasion by men she feared that her husband had sent finally made something in her head “click and say, ‘No,'” Cifuentes said.
Walking toward Missouri, where her sister lived, she first had to convince a man who approached her demanding money that she could not pay for him not to report her to the Border Patrol. Then she had to convince the Border Patrol that she really was the mother of her children, from whom she was immediately separated, and not a trafficker herself, she said.
After about 24 hours in detention, she was let go and applied for asylum because she was terrified to go back to her husband, but her claim was denied. Petty appealed — and then they waited a decade for the decision, during which Cifuentes never went back, not even for her mother’s funeral.
But for most Guatemalan women in the same situation, migration is not a solution, or even an option. Most lack the resources for the expensive trip north, and the lengthy litigation later — and often are simply too caught up in the violence to react.
“Women are told all the time, ‘Don’t say anything or I will kill you,'” Cifuentes said.
The grim reality of violence
“The basis for whole social edifice is violence,” said Ana Silvia Monzón, a sociologist in Guatemala City who studies women’s rights and migration. “Women know they can be victims at any time.”
Monzón and other experts find multiple explanations for this grim reality:
■ The devastating impact of decades of civil war when women were treated as booty and rape was a terror strategy.
■ The lack of access to education that translates to no job prospects and to poverty.
■ An entrenched patriarchy where women enjoy no decision-making freedom as they are passed from father to husband to do as the men please.
•Systematic impunity for their abusers.
Aside from all the trauma and entrenched social norms, Guatemalan psychologist Maria Elena Rivera also revealed a more prosaic, perhaps more devastating reason why violence against women so often goes unseen and unpunished.
“If a woman has five or six kids and the man beats her but pays, she stays, because there is no work” for her and no other way to survive, Rivera said.
The same Guatemala law-enforcement statistics that swayed U.S. judges leave little doubt as to the chances for justice for the women who seek help in their country, despite recent legislation that made rape and other offenses against women “public” and prosecutable crimes instead of “private” ones to be forgiven by the victims.
A 2010 study by Musalo of the Hastings Center for Gender and Refugee Studies found authorities “took some form of action against perpetrators” in less than one-third of gender-violence complaints, and only two percent of the more than 4,000 murders of women and girls in the last decade were successfully prosecuted.
That normalization of terror and helplessness means most complaints never reach authorities — and more than 90 percent of cases formally investigated in the justice system are abandoned by women too submissive, afraid or simply too deprived to continue to pursue them, according to Musalo and other researchers.
Stories of despair
In Coatepeque’s public prosecutor’s office for crimes against women, the numbers come alive in story after story of despair.
A woman waiting in a sweltering corridor for her daughter to finish a visit with the resident psychologist, stares at two reporters and, unprompted, blurts out that she brought in the teenager after she received her fourth death threat.
Fuentes, the assistant investigator, recalled one young woman who was at her desk filing a complaint about being beaten by her husband, when she caught sight of him waiting right outside the door — and withdrew it.
She also bristled at what she said was the most shocking part of her job — the many child rape victims who told her “it will be OK because we’re married or engaged,” and the abuse survivors who deny their own reports once they are told that the police will not only scare the men into better behavior but start a legal process.
“‘Are you crazy, you’re going to arrest him?'” Fuentes quoted them.
“Often even the worst victims say, ‘We have reconciled,'” she said. But then, she reflected, her own perspective has changed in the year since she started this job. “‘You’re trash’ was normal, but this is the way it begins. When I see them crying, and many do, I never want to be in their shoes.”
Rivera’s office is two floors down from Fuentes’. The psychologist said she also often sees her own examinations retracted by victims who seem to believe they either deserve the violence or should forgive their abusers.
“Last week, this man was beating her saying, ‘Confess you are a whore,’ and ‘I ended up believing him,’ she told me,” Rivera said.
She also has a brightly colored paper cartoon to show victims: A woman stares starry-eyed at a man bringing flowers, but “he already changed” is clearly marked as just another link in the circle of violence.
And often the women have no means to break through that cycle.
That was the case in one of the saddest of these stories.
A few miles away from Coatepeque’s bustling stores and markets, many live in wood and corrugated metal shacks hanging on to steep, jungle-covered mountainsides, growing meager subsistence harvests of corn and a few mangos.
Last summer, just as the United States was deciding Cifuentes’ asylum case, a woman from one of these hamlets sold a hen to pay for transportation and came into town to file a complaint against her husband, whom she feared would kill her, Rivera recalled. After various evaluations found her story credible, she was offered a place in a shelter.
But she said she wanted to go back home one last time to sell her remaining “animalitos” — little animals — so she would have some cash to start a new life.
Two days later, on the way to market, her husband shot her dead. She left two children, 7 and 4. The hen had sold earlier for 50 quetzales, about $6.50.
Domestic-abuse incidents enter the Guatemalan legal justice system in three main ways, according to law enforcement and attorneys there:
• If a victim arrives with physical injuries (or, if under 14, pregnant) at a hospital, the hospital is required to report it to authorities;
• If a victim files a complaint with the Ministerio Público, the equivalent of the public prosecutor’s office;
• If a victim calls the police, who refer the case to the MP for the criminal investigation.
But once the complaint is filed about 95 percent of female victims don’t appear in front of a judge, or retract what they had said, and the prosecution almost always stops the case.
If they do, the MP most often stops the prosecution and the case is over.
As a consequence, most abusers are never officially involved — there is virtually no record.
The process for asylum in the United States can start in two ways:
• Asylum seekers can file an application with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (either at the border or within one year of their arrival in the U.S.).
• They can argue for asylum if they have been apprehended and ordered deported but were found to have a “credible fear of persecution or torture,” according to USCIS.
In either case, the basis for asylum claims is the same — the alleged victims having suffered persecution, or fearing they will suffer if they return to a country unable/unwilling to protect them, because of their nationality, political opinion, race, religion or “membership in a particular social group.”
In fiscal year 2013, the last for which data is available, 25,199 people were granted asylum, fewer than half of them women, according to the Department of Homeland Security. No country in Central America was in the top 10: 383 Guatemalans were granted asylum — significantly fewer than in any year since 2004.
About this story
This story was produced in association with Round Earth Media, www.RoundEarthMedia.org a non-profit organization that mentors the next generation of international journalists. Francisco Rodríguez contributed to the reporting.
Giovanna Dell’Orto, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota, is a former newswoman for the Associated Press who has edited or authored several books, including “Reporting at the Southern Borders.” This story was produced in association with Round Earth Media, www.RoundEarthMedia.org, a non-profit organization that mentors the next generation of international journalists. Francisco Rodríguez contributed to the reporting. They conducted all the interviews in Spanish.
The reporter was unable to contact the husband of the victim in this case and was advised against doing so because any official contact could be dangerous for the victims’ family members who are in the native country, said Karen Musalo, director of the University of California Hastings Center for Gender and Refugee Studies.
The victim’s testimony about her husband was found credible both by the original immigration judge and the Board of Immigration Appeals.