The Disappearance and Murder of Claudina Velasquez: A Story of Gender Stereotyping by Guatemalan Authorities

Image Caption: Velásquez Paiz et al. v. Guatemala in the Inter-American Court revealed Guatemala’s failure to address stereotyping and gender-based violence against women.


“I won’t allow the authorities to let my daughter become just another [Guatemalan] murder statistic”[1]. These are the words of Claudina Velasquez’s father right before the Inter-American Court case, Velásquez Paiz et al. v. Guatemala, in 2015. Claudina’s murder in 2005, which stands out as one of the few investigated in Guatemala and brought to an international court[2], illuminates a particularly severe problem with the methods employed by the National Civil Police (PNC) to investigate gender-based violence. At the time of Claudina’s death, PNC officials had very few resources to help them carry out extensive investigations of murders of women in Guatemala that had risen by over 20% more than the increase in the number of men murdered between 2002 and 2004[3]. Yet Claudina’s case revealed that officers did not make use of even the limited resources they did have to investigate female killings. I argue that the failure by the police to investigate thoroughly the disappearance and femicide of Claudina Velasquez was tied, in large part, to particular gender-based stereotypes of women at play that reflected a lack of care for women in general. In order to remedy this ongoing issue, the government must institute courses taught by instructors that train police officers to avoid forming gender-based stereotypes, rather than encourage them to do so, and that emphasize the importance of women’s lives by exposing officers to the reality that a victim could be one of their family members. By implementing these recommendations, police might learn to reduce, rather than contribute to the spread of, gender-based violence.

In the years between 2000 and 2005, as violence against women increased in Guatemala, the PNC continually demonstrated a lack of will to investigate such crimes. The number of women killed had increased by over 63% from 2002 to 2005[4], and many of the crimes were categorized as femicides, meaning the victims were murdered because they were women[5]. According to the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, families reporting crimes against females repeatedly encountered police who possessed gender bias against women[6]. In a report, “Guatemala: No Protection, No Justice: Killings of Women,” Amnesty International revealed that family members of a female victim often had to prove to police that she was “respectable or that she had not been involved in any crime before the authorities would take their complaint seriously”. In some cases, even after this “innocence” was proven, officers’ investigations were influenced by the stereotype and “perception that women are to blame for their own deaths”. For this reason, police often demonstrated a lack of will to carry out investigations and thus made several mistakes while doing so. If a woman was reported missing, police often “placed the burden of proving her disappearance was not voluntary on the family”[7]. Or, when a woman’s body was found, it often took police hours to arrive at the scene, if they arrived at all, and they handled evidence without care or consideration[8]. In this way, the view that women were at fault for any violence inflicted on them particularly hampered police investigations and thus perpetrators often did not meet legal consequences, entrenching impunity within Guatemalan society.

Within this context occurred the femicide of Claudina Isabel Velásquez Paiz, a 19-year-old law student. After attending school at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City on April 12th, 2005, Claudina called her parents at 10 p.m. to inform them that she would be attending a party with her boyfriend, Pedro Moreno, until 12 a.m. During this party, she spoke with her parents and brother multiple times, yet after a final phone call at 11:45, Claudina’s family members did not hear from her again. The Velasquez family called the National Civil Police who came to their home and informed the family that they would patrol the area of concern, yet could not file a missing person’s report because 24 hours had to pass before doing so. Claudina’s family decided to launch their own search with the aid of friends until 5 a.m., when they headed to the local police station to again inform officials that Claudina was missing. In a similar fashion, police told the family that it was too early to formally report Claudina’s disappearance and it was not until 8:30 a.m. that officials finally did so. By this time, it was far too late. When an anonymous caller informed police that a woman’s body had been found, officials went to locate it and noticed that the victim had been shot in the forehead and sexually violated; upon confirmation by the family, it was clear that the woman was Claudina. Police only began investigating after her body was found, for prior to locating Claudina, they took no action aside from filing the missing person’s report on the morning of August 13[9].

After 13 years, Claudina’s case has yet to be resolved by Guatemalan authorities. This lack of resolution led the Velasquez family to take their case[10] to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights after exhausting all domestic remedies. The Commission then referred the case to the Inter-American Court and so arose the court case of Velásquez Paiz et al. v. Guatemala in 2015.

Analysis of the Inter-American Court’s commentary, along with petitions presented to the Inter-American Commission, further highlights the failure of the National Civil Police in Guatemala City to investigate Claudina’s disappearance. The Court determined that based on the information provided by Claudina’s parents to the police, officers were fully aware of the real and imminent risk that Claudina Velasquez could be sexually assaulted or killed[11]. Indeed, the petitioners,[12] including the Guatemalan Institute of Comparative Studies in Criminal Sciences and Claudina’s father, Jorge Velásquez, noted how police were informed that the mother of Claudina’s boyfriend “heard screams” when “she called Claudina’s cell phone”[13]. According to the Court, in a context of increased violence against women, the State had the duty of strict due diligence when reports of missing women were made[14]. However, police failed to fulfill their role in this positive obligation of the State that was especially crucial in a society with high rates of femicide, as they did not carry out an extensive search for Claudina immediately after she disappeared. Not only this, but police also did not gather a description of Claudina that could help identify her, did not visit any places where she might have been likely to be, and did not question anyone for information about her location[15]. Though the PNC are known to have received an “inadequate governmental allocation of resources” which severely impacted the way they handled all cases of violence[16], their inaction in Claudina’s particular case is indicative of another causal factor that ran deep within the police’s mindset.

Indeed, supplementary details of the case make clear that the PNC’s investigative inactivity was majorly tied to gender stereotypes that officers possessed. For example, police “suggested that Claudina had run off with her boyfriend”[17]when her parents reported her missing as a justification for why they did not feel the urge to order a search for her. These actions demonstrated the PNC’s belief in the stereotype of women as dependent individuals who leave behind their lives to follow a man. Additionally, it was later noted by the Inter-American Court that because Claudina’s disappearance had occurred at night when she was attending a party, police officers assumed she was likely a gang member or a prostitute and thus her disappearance did not deserve their attention in the form of a thorough search[18], which in itself reflects a problematic discrimination. PNC officials had jumped to the conclusion that Claudina was involved in promiscuous and illegal matters solely because she had been spending time in the company of friends at a social gathering in the way that many women do. This assumption suggests that police do not consider partying is a socially acceptable act for women to partake in, and thus renders women inferior and subordinate to men who can enjoy partying without being stereotyped in a society where machismo[19] is prominent.

The lack of will to investigate Claudina’s disappearance remained throughout the examination of the crime scene and the gathering of information. In Guatemala, officers are expected by law to head to the scene of the crime and to secure it before searching for possible bullets, the victim’s personal belongings, or interviewing any possible witnesses present[20]. Yet when Claudina’s body was discovered by police, they carried out very little analysis of the crime scene. Indeed, the PNC inspection was not conducted with the necessary rigor, as important details were missing about the state in which the body was found, and the condition of the clothing”[21]. Though Claudina’s body was located near a house that also functioned as an informal restaurant, the PNC did not search this establishment for any possible blood stains or suspicious footprints. As for evidence that was seemingly taken into account, police made note of a package found next to Claudina that they assumed was a condom wrapper, yet ended up being part of a soup container. Additionally, though there were many people at the crime scene, there is no evidence that police attempted to collect official statements from witnesses who claimed to have seen someone in a white taxi drop Claudina’s body off. The PNC also failed to gather testimonies in the days following the discovery of Claudina’s body, failed to even question relatives until a month had passed since the murder[22], and failed to take the primary suspect who provided a voluntary statement “into custody even though…there was sufficient basis for issuing an arrest warrant”[23]. These observations reveal an incredible lack of concern and motivation on the part of the PNC to solve the case it was presented with, which to date has still not occurred. The details also illuminate how police did the absolute minimum when tasked with the crucial job of determining who violated Claudina’s right to life.

Were the insufficient investigative techniques of the PNC tied to a lack of basic police training? In Guatemala at the beginning of the 21st century, most police officers were only required to receive three months of instruction that consisted of a lack of substantive lessons on how to simply gather evidence[24]. Consideration of this fact may suggest that police did not thoroughly look into Claudina’s death because they did not know how to. Though this type of insubstantial training may certainly explain a number of the PNC’s problematic investigative decisions, it does not fully describe the issue.

Indeed, a major reason why PNC officials felt that they could conduct an investigation of the crime scene and of those involved in the crime in an incomprehensive way was because of prevailing gender stereotypes of women. According to Helen Mack, a human rights activist in Guatemala, the PNC’s tactics reflected “not only…organizational failures, but also … deeper and more complex [issues that were] rooted in culture”.[25] Indeed, as cited in the Court’s commentary, when the PNC investigator from the Women’s Unit of the Criminal Investigation Service, Carolina Hernandez, went to visit the Velasquez family three days after Claudina’s death, she was asked why the crime scene and subsequent investigation had been treated and carried out so poorly. To this she responded without any consideration for the victim’s family and claimed that police once again assumed Claudina was a woman of ‘easy virtue,’ a prostitute or female gang member[26][27]  Hernandez explained that this label was formed not only because of the aforementioned time when Claudina disappeared[28], but also because of the fact that the victim had been wearing a choker around her neck, a ring in her belly button, flip flops, and had red polish on her nails. These details were enough for officials to consider her death not worthy of investigation[29]. In this way, the PNC imposed the stereotype of a prostitute or female gang member on Claudina based on the way she looked and dressed, which was seemingly not in accordance with the “ideal view of women”[30]. Because Claudina’s accessories were reflective of chic young female fashion trends at the time, police were stereotyping against many women in Guatemalan society. This practice imposes a limit on women’s freedom of expression since it suggests that the clothing they choose to wear can earn them a certain disreputable identity if it is not in accordance with the PNC’s view of conservative female fashion. Additionally, continually using the excuse that Claudina was likely someone who sold her body for sex or who was involved with dangerous drug lords highlighted the PNC’s prevailing view that in general, women are killed because they place themselves in dangerous situations and are thus at fault. In this way, Claudina and other female victims are discredited in that their version of the story is hardly ever considered in attempts to achieve justice for them.

As shown, when dealing with the disappearance and murder of Claudina, the PNC made several decisions with prejudiced views of women in mind which led to the conclusion of the Inter-American Court in 2015. The Court explained that, though the State failed to formally make note of this in Claudina’s case reports, her murder was clearly an act of gender-based violence given the signs of possible rape, the wounds on her body, and the context of violence against women in Guatemala. The Court concluded that stereotypes emphasized by various agents throughout the treatment of Claudina Velasquez’s death constituted a form of discrimination and violence against women[31].  In this way, the State had violated Claudina’s right to equality before the law[32] and further entrenched impunity within Guatemalan society[33].

For this reason, the Court recommended that the State incorporate within the National Education System curriculum a permanent education program on the need to eradicate gender stereotypes, in light of the international standards on these matters[34]. Additionally, it recommended that Guatemala implement ongoing programs and courses for public officials of the National Civil Police regarding acts of murder of women[35]. In particular, a specific combination of both of these recommendations—training for the PNC on how to avoid gender-stereotypes that influence the way it handles women’s disappearances and murders, as well as a permanent program to help eliminate female stereotypes in Guatemalan society—is arguably necessary to help potentially prevent deaths like Claudina’s or to help make arrests surrounding murders that resemble hers.

Are such recommendations currently being implemented in Guatemalan society? Since 2015, Guatemala has taken positive steps to meet the Courts’ concerns, yet has not addressed crucial deficiencies in the police system. According to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women’s or CEDAW’s[36] review of the eighth and ninth periodic reports of Guatemala in 2016, the nation is making attempts to “ensure that women’s issues [are] a part of the public agenda, including stereotypes which [stand] in the way of women being truly able to enjoy their rights.”[37] Yet training to help eliminate these stereotypes is predominantly provided only to those within the judicial system. According to the Advocates for Human Rights in 2017, there remains “widespread impunity for…perpetrators due to the failure of the government to adequately investigate” gender-based violence. Although the “police are the most easily accessible sector for most Guatemalan women,” officials do not “always perform their duty under the law”[38].

Thus, the National Civil Police remains in need of fundamental change. Closer examination of the police training system reveals necessary potential reforms that should be made to eliminate gender stereotyping amongst officers and to encourage more thorough investigations of female disappearances and murders. The International Crisis Group reports that police academy instructors are often “the least motivated and qualified… older officers waiting out retirement”[39]. This finding reveals that recruits are being trained by the very elders who likely inculcated gender stereotypes and biases within them as they grew up[40]. To help end this ongoing cycle, Guatemala must replace current police academy instructors with trained individuals who can learn to begin tearing down commonly held views of female victims. Police officers must not only be trained to deeply examine evidence pertaining to female disappearances and murders, but also specifically how to do so without allowing prejudice and gender stereotypes to influence their degree of involvement in a case. Furthermore, in order to make the police care more about female victims of violence and to end the practice of simply attributing stereotypes to women and dismissing their cases, training courses should emphasize to officers that the victim of a murder could easily be one of their family members.

What is more, following through with these recommendations is crucial for Guatemalan authorities because according to CEDAW’s General Recommendation on Violence Against Women, “traditional attitudes by which women are regarded…as having stereotyped roles…contribute to the propagation and the depiction…of women as sexual objects…[which] contributes to gender-based violence”[41]. Thus, when police are blinded by their stereotypical views of females, they encourage the spread of violence against women. This consequence reveals why it is all the more necessary for Guatemala to immediately begin the process of implementing the aforementioned police training reforms.

Though Claudina’s death has not been brought to justice, the lack of thorough investigation of her disappearance and murder have been profoundly illustrative of the close connection between gender stereotypes that reflect indifference towards women and a failure to look into gender-based violence. Despite agreeing with several of the Inter-American Court and numerous NGO recommendations, Guatemala has yet to implement ongoing programs that train the PNC on how to avoid its biases against women. In a society where machismo pervades, change may be difficult to envision. Yet as around 15 women per week are either killed or disappear in Guatemala, it becomes clear how stereotyping that leads to indifference cannot continue[42]. Based on the universal and fundamental principle of human rights for all, it is crucial for foreign NGOs to dedicate even more attention, in addition to their work within Guatemalan society, to helping eradicate the gender stereotypes that prevail amongst police. In particular, women’s NGO members must continually show Guatemalan officers of all genders how evading gender stereotypes and dedicating attention to all cases of violence against women should be the standard rather than the exception. Though at first these attempts will likely face opposition and indifference out of the belief that foreigners are imposing their cultural views on Guatemalans, ongoing and permanent efforts can bring about greater tolerance in the future. Difficult as it is to acknowledge, without implementing some kind of change, Guatemalan women will continue to disappear and die in the way that Claudina did.


About the Author

Shannon Guerra is a sophomore studying Political Science at Yale. She is very interested in studying immigrant rights and policies in the US, as well as human rights issues in Latin America. She would like to be a lawyer in the future and has done work with several asylum cases that expose her to a wide array of international issues


Endnotes

[1] Lakhani, Nina. “Murder in Guatemala: ‘I Won’t Allow My Daughter to Become Another Statistic’.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 18 June 2014.

[2] “From Genocide to Feminicide: Impunity and Human Rights in Twenty-First Century Guatemala.” Journal of Human Rights, Journal of Human Rights, 2008,

[3] University of California. “Guatemala’s Femicides and the Ongoing Struggle for Women’s Human Rights: Update to CGRS’s 2005 Report Getting Away With Murder.” Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, 2006, pp. 1–31.

[4] Sanford, Victoria. “From Genocide to Feminicide: Impunity and Human Rights in Twenty-First Century Guatemala.” Taylor & Francis Group, 2008, 105.

[5] World Health Organization. “Understanding and Addressing Violence against Women: Femicide.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, 2012,

[6] Jones, Kelsey. “Guatemala‘s Femicide Law: Progress Against Impunity?” Guatemala Human Rights Commission, Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA, May 2009.

[7] Velasco, Natalie. “The Guatemalan Femicide: An Epidemic of Impunity.” Law and Business Review of the Americas. Vol. 14 (2008): 397-424.

[8] Jones, 2009

[9] Inter-American Commission. “Report No. 53/13, Claudina Isabel Velasquez Paiz Et Al., Merits, Guatemala.” 3 Nov. 2013.

[10] It is important to note that there was never a trial held regarding Claudina Paiz’s death in Guatemala City.

[11] Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos. Caso Velasquez Paiz y Otros Vs. Guatemala. 19 Nov. 2015, 37. (Translated by author)

[12] Here, this refers to the petitions made to the Inter-American Commission, for “individuals do not have direct recourse to the Inter-American Court. The petition was lodged by the Instituto de Estudios Comparados en Ciencias Penales [Guatemalan Institute of Comparative Studies in Criminal Sciences] and Jorge Rolando Velásquez Durán (hereinafter “the petitioners”), on behalf of Claudina Isabel Velásquez Paiz, Jorge Rolando Velásquez Durán, Elsa Claudina Paiz Vidal de Velásquez, and Pablo Andrés Velásquez Paiz ( “the alleged victims”)” (Inter-American Commission).

[13] Inter-American Commission. “Report No. 53/13, Claudina Isabel Velasquez Paiz Et Al., Merits, Guatemala.” 3 Nov. 2013.

[14] Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, 2015, 15. (Translated by the author).

[15] Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, 2015, 48. (Translated by author).

[16] “Guatemala.” U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, 8 Mar. 2006,

[17] Sanford, Victoria. “Feminicide in Guatemala.” ReVista, Harvard University, 2008

[18] Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, 2015. (Translated by author).

[19]Machismo culture imposes rigid gender roles on societal members and consists of the idea that men are superior to women, and that men are always stronger, tougher, and more independent (Newman).

[20] Dudley, Steven. “Homicides in Guatemala: Collecting the Data.” InSight Crime, InSight Crime, 22 Sept. 2017

[21] Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, 2015, 74.(Translated by author).

[22] Ibid.

[23] CEDAW. “CEDAW: General Recommendation No. 35.” 2017. Chazaro, Angelica, and Jennifer Casey. “Getting Away With Murder: Guatemala’s Fail to Protect Women and Rodi Alvarado’s Quest for Safety.” Hastings Women’s Law Journal. Vol. 17. (2006): 141-187.

[24] International Crisis Group Working to Prevent Conflict Worldwide. “Police Reform in Guatemala: Obstacles and Opportunities.” Latin America Report. (2012): pg. 1-30.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Hernandez’s response is indicative of the fact that both men and women of the PNC partake in gender stereotyping, which also reveals how pervasive the machismo culture is in Guatemalan society.

[27] Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos. Caso Velasquez Paiz y Otros Vs. Guatemala. 19 Nov. 2015, pg 1. (Translated by author).

[28] Claudina had disappeared at night after attending a party with friends in a neighborhood near her own called Colonial Panorama in Guatemala City.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, 2015. (Translated by author).

[32] Right to equality before the law found in Article 24 of the American Convention requires “equal protection of the law.” This means that judges and State officials must not act arbitrarily in enforcing laws. In Claudina’s case, it was clear that as a result of the gender stereotypes that PNC officers adopted, they placed her case in a “negative category” and barely carried out an investigation, which is against Guatemalan law (Antkowiak and Gonza).

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Guatemala signed and ratified CEDAW by 1982 (CEDAW).

[37] CEDAW, 2006.

[38] The Advocates for Human Rights. “Guatemala: Violence Against Women.” The Advocates for Human Rights. (2017): pg. 1-10.

[39] International Crisis Group Working to Prevent Conflict Worldwide, 2012

[40] Ibid.

[41] CEDAW, 2017

[42] UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, 2012


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