Several brutal, high-profile murders of women in the last few weeks in El Salvador are just the latest reminder that this is one of the countries in the world with the highest number of femicides, the term used to describe the killing of women because they are female.
The killings are fuelled by impunity, machismo, and the weakness of a state that has failed to understand the magnitude of the problem, according to women's rights groups consulted by IPS.
“Women are seen as someone's property; there is an idea that women can be ‘corrected', and this legitimates violence against us,” Silvia Juárez, a lawyer with the Organisation of Salvadoran Women for Peace (ORMUSA), told IPS.
The most recent cases include the murder of Yuridia Herrera Laínez, 24, on Mar. 28 in Tonacatepeque, on the north side of San Salvador. Her partner, Luis González, was arrested on charges of firing several bullets at her when she tried to break up with him.
Eight days earlier, in the eastern city of San Miguel, 32-year-old María Carmen Centeno was killed with a machete by her boyfriend, who is at large.
Suyapa del Carmen Villatoro, 37, a Salvadoran-American who had come to El Salvador on vacation, is in the hospital struggling for her life after she was shot on Apr. 1 by gunmen allegedly hired by her husband, José Elías Canesa.
Prosecutors said Canesa, who is in preventive detention, confessed to ordering the hit against his wife. Her friend, 67-year-old Colombian-American Ana Cristina Ramos, was killed in the shooting.
According to the police investigation, Canesa apparently offered the contract killers 36,000 dollars to shoot his wife because she was allegedly unfaithful to him
Another case that has shocked Salvadoran society was the murder of Lida María Huezo, 41, who was shot at point-blank range on Mar. 24 in her home in San Salvador.
Although the evidence points to her husband Manuel Gutiérrez, the manager of one of the country's biggest car dealerships, a judge released him, citing a technicality.
According to press reports, Gutiérrez was freed thanks to the intervention of the Poma family, one of the country's wealthiest, who own the company where the suspect works.
“The impunity that has prevailed in this and other cases sends out the message that nothing will happen if you kill a woman here, or that someone with money and influence can easily get away with things,” said Ima Guirola, spokeswoman for the Women's Studies Institute (CEMUJER).
The Geneva-based independent research project Small Arms Survey places El Salvador at the top of the list of countries for gender-related murders: 12 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to its recent report Femicide: A Global Problem.
However, the 2012 study, based on statistics gathered from 2004 to 2009, does not reflect the drop in the total number of murders in El Salvador, which have been cut nearly in half since a truce was agreed by the two main youth gangs and the authorities in March 2012.
Juárez concurred with Guirola that impunity is one of the main reasons that this Central American nation is at the top of world rankings for violence.
No progress has apparently been made since a law on violence against women – the Ley Especial Integral para una Vida Libre de Violencia para las Mujeres – was passed in January 2012.
The new law creates sentences of up to 50 years in prison for men who commit femicide – 20 more than the maximum sentence for other kinds of murder.
But Ormusa's statistics indicate that only seven of the 270 cases brought to court since then were classified as femicides, and convictions were achieved in only three of these.
Human rights ombudsman Oscar Luna told the local media that many of these murders involved a previous history of domestic violence, and called for a state policy of prevention.
Guirola said the state should implement an early warning system, where domestic violence cases would be treated as potential femicides. The CEMUJER activist complained that the authorities don't respond adequately when threats against and mistreatment of women are reported.
Many police officers, judges and other criminal justice officials are not even familiar with the new law, and are resistant to addressing the cases as femicides, which are more specific than homicides, she said.
In fact, several public officials have been charged with domestic violence. The most notorious case was that of legislator Rodrigo Samayoa of the right-wing Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA), who beat his wife, Mireya Guevara, in June 2012.
And six police officers have recently been accused of violence against their wives, girlfriends or partners.
Policeman Oliverio Enrique Rosales killed his wife, Xenia Roxana Mártir, in their home in the western city of Ahuachapán. After he shot her, he killed himself.
The ineffectiveness of institutions like the attorney general's office, the national civil police or the prosecutor's office means investigations go nowhere, Guirola added.
“This institutional fragility means many crimes are not adequately investigated, and everything is blamed on gang violence or other kinds of problems that do not reflect what is really happening,” she said.