WOMEN-PERU: The Enemy at Home

Latin America & Caribbean

By Ángel Páez

LIMA, Jun 6 (IPS) - The plot of the film "Sleeping with the Enemy" is not fictional in essence. Close to 70 percent of all the women killed in one year in Peru died at the hands of their husbands, partners, lovers or boyfriends, and the murders were committed at home or in a place that was frequented by the couple.

Violence against women has reached alarming levels in Latin America. More than 300 women have been murdered in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, in the last 11 years, while in Guatemala, 500 women suffered the same fate in the 2000-2004 period. Peru's case is also dramatic, to the point that people have begun to talk of "femicide," or the murder of a person based on the fact of the victim's being female.

But the biggest danger is not out on the street. According to the study "Violence Against Women: Femicide in Peru," carried out by Amnesty International-Peru and the non-governmental Flora Tristán Centre for Peruvian Women, femicide in this country takes the shape of domestic violence.

The press tends to describe killings resulting from domestic violence as "crimes of passion," because the perpetrators usually claim to have committed them in a fit of jealousy or because the relationship had broken up.

The low-cost newspaper El Popular, which has the largest circulation in Peru and is read by the lowest income sectors, often covers cases of domestic violence in sensationalist style. One such case is that of Juan Carlos Valera, 22, a security guard who planned and executed the murders of his girlfriend Aracelli Pariona, 20, her eight-year-old brother and her grandmother. "Yungay Man Strangles Tart, Throttles Child, Breaks Granny's Neck," was the paper's headline.

Valera's gambling addiction and jealousy were the reasons why Pariona decided to stop seeing him. He attempted emotional blackmail, threatening to kill himself if she left him, but she stood by her decision.

On Feb. 7, Valera went to Pariona's house where he found her grandmother and little brother. He was invited into his girlfriend's house, even though she wasn't there, because he was known to the family. Once inside he strangled them. Then he waited for the young woman, and strangled her as well.

When he was arrested by police, Valera claimed to have been blinded by jealousy. But the records of his testimony indicate that the crime was planned in advance: he took cocaine beforehand, and went to the house at a time when he knew Pariona's parents would not be there, in order to gain admission.

"These cases become invisible when the newspapers lump them together as 'crimes of passion,' and official reports do not discriminate between them at all. Therefore, as far as the State is concerned, the specific problem (of femicide) does not exist," sociologist Liz Meléndez, of the Flora Tristán Centre, told IPS.

Meléndez, who worked on the research study, said there was no official government monitoring of killings of women, so the report had to rely on newspaper clippings.

The figures for January to March of this year confirm the pattern of murders of women detected by the study in the 2003-2005 period. Three-quarters of the killers were cohabiting partners, boyfriends, husbands, ex-partners or ex-boyfriends of the victims. And the crime was nearly always committed in a place the couple shared, their house or a hotel room.

"Privacy within four walls is potentially dangerous for women who are victims of their partners' violence or domestic violence," Meléndez explained. "Yet the State does not have a policy to deal with this problem, which is treated in the newspapers as though it were the same as common crimes, such as assault or kidnapping."

Perpetrators usually argue that they killed their partners out of jealousy, or because of alleged infidelity of the victims, in an attempt to mitigate their responsibility for the crime. In 2005, 58 percent of men accused of murdering women claimed infidelity or jealousy as their motive.

In a police report obtained by IPS, Juan José Galiano, 36, confessed that on Apr. 2 he strangled his partner, Rosa Trujillo, 38, because he suspected her of carrying another man's child.

María Elena Salas, a lawyer and researcher for the non-governmental organisation Demus, said the nationwide average was 12 cases of femicide a month.

"According to our monitoring of news items published in the press, 52 percent of murdered women are aged between 16 and 35. Furthermore, one out of three women is killed by an act of physical violence, strangled, throttled or knifed. Only one out of two is killed with a firearm," Salas said.

Meléndez pointed out that the killers attempt to mitigate their crime, and reduce the 15-year minimum prison sentence for first degree murder, by resorting to the plea of "murder under emotional duress," a way of blaming their victims for supposedly having driven them to commit the crime.

This defence strategy may result in the killers being handed down a three- to five-year jail sentence. "Many perpetrators of femicide tell the judge their violence was due to their sense of outraged honouràbecause of an alleged infidelity that is very hard to prove," Meléndez added.

The Demus organisation has devoted itself to investigating court files in cases of femicide, to find out the outcome of murderers' trials. "In over half the cases we studied, the woman was murdered after several previous instances of violence, and in some cases the victims had reported their partners to the police," Salas said.

"This means that the State does not prevent violence against women, much less do anything to eradicate it. Murder is only the final expression of a consistent behaviour pattern. The perpetrators of these crimes have a record of violence against their partners during the relationship, before they kill them."

Violence in the home setting, whether physical, psychological, sexual, economic or related to abuse of power, is considered to be one of the factors that prevent the equality of men and women, which is one of the Millennium Development Goals.

About twenty mass-circulation newspapers are sold in Lima and other Peruvian cities. Their front pages trivialise these crimes with headlines such as: "Bruiser Slits Ex-Wife's Throat", "Wife Stabbed 14 Times - She Asked for Divorce", "Jealous Shopkeeper Beheads Wife in Front of Their Only Son", "Love-Crazed Suitor Strangles Woman", or "Beast Kills Three Seamstresses".

Police found the body of a young woman with her throat cut in a swamp on the outskirts of Lima on Aug. 29, 2005. Julia Huamanñahui recognised her younger sister, Luzmila Huamanñahui, 22, at the morgue. One year later, Julia has still not been able to get the legal authorities to accept her as her sister's representative because, by law, this role falls to the victim's husband.

The victim had been separated from her husband for two years, and had started a new relationship with Ulises Arnaldo Gonzáles. Luzmila Huamanñahui had left her husband because he beat, threatened and humiliated her.

"How can a man like that represent my sister?" Julia Huamanñahui protested in an interview with IPS. "He has asked me for money in exchange for letting me represent my dead sister." Salas, who is giving her legal advice, stated that they have made repeated approaches to the legal authorities, without success.

Peru has signed the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women, but Peruvian law has not been reformed to end impunity in cases of femicide and ensure that those responsible for the murders of Peruvian women are sentenced appropriately. (END/2006)