ONE night last year police received a call from worried residents of a wealthy area of San Salvador, El Salvador's capital, who thought they had heard a woman being beaten up by her partner. A few minutes later they called back to say they had heard gunshots ring out from the house.
The police were too late. When they arrived at the scene, they found the lifeless body of Lida Maria Huezo with a gunshot to her head. She held the fatal weapon in her hands, but the police believed that her husband, Manuel Gutiérrez, who was drunk and at Huezo's side, might have put it there to make it seem as though she had committed suicide. The police arrested Mr Gutiérrez, the manager of a successful car dealership. He gave several different stories: that it was an accident, that his wife had committed suicide, that they were arguing when the gun just went off.
When a trial was held earlier this year, a forensic specialist testified that she had found dust from the gun surrounding Huezo's wound, bruises on her neck and arms, and swelling in her pelvic area. But Mr Gutiérrez was acquitted because of flaws in the prosecution case. The prosecutor did not submit a final autopsy, did not interview the neighbours who reported hearing the incident nor the couple's children who were supposedly present, and was unable to procure the gun to present as evidence.
Infuriated by the ruling, Vanda Pignat, El Salvador's first lady, complained that it “strengthened impunity and the dreadful practice of El Salvador's justice system to favour aggressors and assassins and to punish victims of gender violence.” Perhaps as a result, last month a judge ordered Mr Gutiérrez's arrest for illegal possession of the gun in the case.
In theory, such crimes should not go unpunished. In 1994 Latin American countries signed the pioneering Convention of Belém, which required them to educate their people about women's rights, to fight machismo and pass laws to protect women from violence. Most have done so. Brazil's law on violence against women is widely seen as exemplary. The trouble is that in many cases these laws have made little practical difference.
Unpunished violent crime is a more general problem in the region. Nevertheless, the statistics of violence against women are particularly gruesome. A recent report by UN Women, a UN agency, found that many Latin American countries have a higher-than-average incidence of domestic violence. According to the agency, a woman is assaulted every 15 seconds in São Paulo, Brazil's largest city. In Colombia attacks in which acid is thrown at women's faces, disfiguring them, nearly quadrupled between 2011 and 2012. Of the 25 countries in the world that are “high” or “very high” in the UN's ranking for “femicides” (killings of women that seem to be related to their sex), more than half are in the Americas, with El Salvador the worst in the world.
Activists say the problem is that most cases of violence against women are not investigated, let alone effectively prosecuted. Take El Salvador, which passed a law in 2011. In its first 16 months, only 16 of 63 reported cases were followed up. In the first three months of this year 1,822 rapes were reported in the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro; only 70 men were arrested.
Protection for victims is improving in some places: 13 countries have set up specialised police stations for women, according to Andrew Morrison of the Inter-American Development Bank. These aim to make it easier for victims of domestic violence to report crimes, and typically offer them medical care, psychological counselling and legal aid. A study by the UN suggests that, since the introduction of such stations, levels of reporting have indeed increased. Brazil, Uruguay and Venezuela have also established courts dedicated to cases of domestic violence.
National and local governments in Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina have handed out panic buttons to women with restraining orders against abusive former partners. When triggered, the devices use GPS technology to help the police track down the victim quickly.
Three Latin American presidents are women: Cristina Fernández in Argentina, Brazil's Dilma Rousseff and Laura Chinchilla in Costa Rica. A fourth, Michelle Bachelet, who is a former head of UN Women, is likely to become president of Chile for a second time at an election later this year, according to opinion polls. While their leadership may help to change the image of women in Latin America, that is a slow process.
Machismo has deep cultural roots in the region, and will take decades to disappear. Meanwhile, women have the right to expect that their governments act more vigorously to turn well-intentioned laws into tools to prevent and punish the violence they often face.