GUATEMALA CITY — Ana Cecilia Gonzalez left home for the corner grocery last month and never came back. The 19-year-old student was found bludgeoned to death a day later, one of 405 Guatemalan woman slain this year in a crime wave that has baffled authorities.
About half the killings have occurred here in the capital, producing a murder rate that far exceeds that of Ciudad Juarez, where about 300 women have been killed over the last 11 years. But the deaths here have not attracted nearly as much international outrage as those in the Mexican border city have.
"The society is disintegrating, and the government is doing nothing to spread word about the gravity of the problem or to confront it," said Hilda Morales Trujillo, an attorney and activist who heads the Stop Violence Against Women network.
Violence generally is on the upswing in Guatemala. The U.S. State Department issued a warning to tourists this month, saying, "Crimes against foreigners have included murder, rape and armed robbery, increasingly in conjunction with highway banditry."
But killings of women have exploded, more than doubling over the last two years, and criminologists, government officials and human rights activists are struggling to explain why. Weak or nonexistent laws related to offenses against women -- including domestic abuse -- are blamed, as is a rise in organized crime and gangs. A corrupt and poorly trained national police force is also a factor.
Observers also cited the unfinished process of national reconciliation after more than three decades of civil war. Commitments to improve women's rights made in 1996 peace accords have not been fulfilled, said a panel of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that arrived to investigate the killings in September.
"Many of the promises remain outstanding," the group said in a statement, including new laws to classify sexual harassment as a common crime and the elimination of sex discrimination in matters of education and health. The commission is the human rights arm of the Organization of American States.
Rape prosecutions are infrequent, and sexual harassment simply goes unpunished, Interior Minister Carlos Vielmann acknowledged. About a quarter of the homicide victims this year had reported sexual abuse in the workplace, school or home, Vielmann said.
Nearly a third of the deaths are attributed to domestic violence, said Sandra Zayas Gil, a special prosecutor for cases involving women and human rights abuses.
"We have proposed changes in the law in the area of rape and to make sexual harassment a crime. There is currently very little support for such victims," said Vielmann, whose boss, President Oscar Berger, took office in January.
Vielmann blamed deep-rooted social problems, including a culture of machismo in which men perceive women as objects, not as thinking people with rights.
"It's a problem throughout Latin America," he said. "The solution lies in more than public security. We need an integral solution that addresses moral values and principles."
But critics say the government could be doing much more. Eight years after a peace accord, the country has yet to purge the police force, whose members were implicated in at least 10 of last year's slayings of women, said the top human rights prosecutor, Sergio Morales.
"We found out about those only by chance," he said.
Despite indications that police are involved in some of the killings, "the army and the police continue intact," Morales said. "There has been no cleansing process.... So we have asked the United Nations to investigate and help us."
Vielmann acknowledged that reforms were overdue, saying the previous administration did nothing to clean up the police force or train it in modern investigative methods. The result, he said, is that the public has very little trust in the police and is reluctant to report crimes.
Increased drug addiction and gang membership have made matters worse in recent years, prosecutor Zayas Gil said. "The government formed a new prosecutor's office for crimes against life, but it is overwhelmed."
Among the new laws Vielmann is pushing for is one that would allow juveniles to be imprisoned past the age of 18. Several gang-related murders of women have been committed by teenage youths who by law must be released at that age. Many of those set free commit murder again, the minister said.
The huge caseload and the ineptitude and complicity of the police mean criminals largely enjoy impunity. Of every 100 homicide cases in Guatemala, only 15 are investigated and just seven result in prosecution, said Samuel Gonzalez, an international justice expert and former anti-drug investigator with the Mexican government and the United Nations.
Gonzalez blamed Guatemala's extensive judicial reforms of 1994, which, in trying to address human rights abuses of previous decades, in effect tied the hands of investigators, he said. Among the rules: Suspects must be brought before judges within six hours of their arrest, and they can be interrogated only with a judge present.
"It shouldn't surprise anyone that these murders are happening. You have laws that make investigations impossible in Guatemala," Gonzalez said. "If you cannot punish people who commit murders, they continue to murder."