High-profile gender violence in Bolivia: Horrifying impunity and legal responses

In the first three months of 2013, two deeply disturbing crimes brought the problems of sexual and domestic violence to the forefront of public attention in Bolivia. Bolivian feminists have been denouncing these issues—and the general incapacity of the state and police to effectively respond to them—for years. In making their case they have cited facts and figures like the following, time after time:

While a 1996 law provides specialized institutions to receive denunciations of physical abuse, assault and violence, a climate of impunity often prevails. Of 442,056 cases brought to authorities from 2007 to 2011, just 27,133 even made it to prosecutors, and just 9.13% had resulted in guilty verdict or plea by mid-2012 (La Razón). Stated another way, just one of ever 178 complaints yielded a conviction. This builds upon the fact that justice is almost always delayed in the Bolivian justice system: of over 100,000 domestic violence cases begun in 2012, just 51 were closed by February 2013.  Even when domestic violence escalates to murder, accountability does not increase; none of the 120 gender-related murders in 2012 have yet resulted in a conviction (Erbol).

(trigger warning: descriptions of sexual and physical violence, and one deeply offensive denial are included after the jump)

Now, however, two cases have broken one part of that logjam: a legal framework that treated family violence as a lesser crime. When a politician in Chuquisaca was filmed in the act of raping an unconscious worker in his building, he was thrown out of his political party (the Movement Towards Socialism) and, after a delay, arrested and held without bail. When a police lieutenant with a history of assaulting his estranged wife beat her to death, a national manhunt sent him fleeing into the countryside, where he was eventually found dead. Hanalí Huaycho, the woman he murdered, happened to be a prominent young journalist, and her colleagues joined the chorus of calls for new policies on gender-related violence. With both incidents still in the national consciousness, and news anchor Claudia Fernández (the wife of the vice president) among those tear-gassed at a demonstration denouncing violence against women, legislation to address the problem was greenlighted through the Plurinational Legislative Assembly and made law.

Serious questions remain, however, about the practical willingness of the Bolivian criminal justice system to address these kinds of crimes. The cases that brought the matter to light illustrate just how challenging ending this kind of violence is likely to be.

The parliamentary rapist

In late December, a member of Chuquisaca’s Departmental Legislative Assembly, Domingo Alcibia Rivera, walked across the parliamentary chamber and raped a woman who worked in building while she was unconscious. The incident was recorded on the buildings security cameras. Technician Raúl Daza leaked the recording  to the press, who proceeded to use the video, unedited, online and in news reports. The case set off a media firestorm in Bolivia, and was covered in a Spanish newspaper and Jezebel.

Unlike some prior cases,* the overwhelming evidence led Alcibia’s colleagues to disavow his conduct and call for meaningful consequences. President Evo Morales called for his resignation and the Movement Towards Socialism expelled him and an alleged accomplice from its ranks. As the scandal went public, Alcibia held a press conference where he sought to redefine rape based on his own intoxication: “but it wasn’t even rape, I was drunk to the point of indecision, and don’t remember anything. I was so flagrantly drunk that I can’t even remember.” (“pero ni siquiera es violación, yo estaba indeciso de borracho, no recuerdo nada. Estaba tan flagrante de borracho, ni siquiera me acuerdo.”)

Despite the evidence on national television, the prosecutor’s office hesitated to press charges, since the survivor had not made a formal complaint to the police. Minister of Justice Cecilia Ayllon was placed in the unenviable position of explaining that under Bolivian law, rape is (and this is real legal jargon) “a crime between parties,” meaning that the survivor must seek charges against the perpetrator before the case can be opened. Days later, however, public outrage moved prosecutors to act and Alicibia and Humana were charged with unlawful use of public goods (presumably the chambers themselves) and jailed. In mid-March, Prosecutor Fernando Pacheco reported that the gathering of statements from witness was proceeding.

Recently, however, the case has taken another depressing turn. Covering an interview with the Justice Minister, the left-leaning newspaper Página Siete reported that “one of the victims” (implying more people were victimized that night) faced brutal attacks from her husband after he learned that she was raped. “We have learned, although not with certainty,” reported Ayllon, “that one of these people has been cruelly beaten by her husband. Another one of them, or the same woman, we don’t have information as to whether or not it is the same, was thrown out of her home. We are speaking of a culture that repeats itself, that has made it so those women have to disappear.” Ayllon described her ministry’s attempts at following up with these women, including offering psychological and legal services, but admits that the government “lost track of them” in Santa Cruz department. Prosecutors have not opened a case against the abusive husband.

Aside from this atrocious victim-blaming and victim-bashing, which seems to have happened without any consequences for the batterer, there are many indications that the original rape is part of a broader pattern. At the time of his bail hearing, Domingo Alcibia described a feeling of betrayal at his colleagues, and went on to say, “It wasn’t just us, there were other fellow assembly members and even the assembly president and his advisor.” (It’s unclear if he meant these individuals did more than get drunk on public funds.) The technician who had the video was contacted by the Assembly President: their accounts differ, but the technician alleges the president ordered the tape to be erased.

According to Bolivian feminist Maria Galindo, the act does reflect a broader pattern:

We have received countless testimonies about the way that [government] celebrations of the inauguration of public works, and of the birthdays of high officials, and others [occasions are carried out] with the intention of getting women drunk to the point of losing sense and will, in order to abuse them. This is not the first case, and if we are finding out about it now, it is because this time there was a security camera video. También en este sentido son innumerables los testimonios que recibimos sobre la forma como las celebraciones de entrega de obras, de conmemoración de cumpleaños de altos funcionarios y otras donde la intención es alcoholizar a las mujeres hasta que pierdan toda noción y voluntad para abusar de ellas. No es el primer caso y si conocemos de este es porque hay una grabación de las cámaras de seguridad

Galindo’s January editorial about the challenges survivors face now seems eerily prescient:

The victim did not have any opportunity to make a legal complaint because she has already been socially humiliated and surely has been repudiated in her own circles. This is a woman whom the assembly member has pillaged of her voice, of her dignity, and of her life. If the Minister of Justice requires the victim’s complaint in order to begin an investigation, what she is requiring is impunity for the rapist. But this is not the first time that a woman victimized by the abuse of power cannot file a complaint out of fear, out of solitude, and because in a patriarchal state like ours, it is the victim who has to demonstrate her innocence. La víctima no tiene ninguna oportunidad de denunciar porque ya ha sido socialmente humillada y seguramente en su círculo de afecto repudiada. Es una mujer a la cual el asambleísta ha despojado de voz, de dignidad y de vida. Si la ministra de justicia pide la denuncia de la víctima para poder iniciar el proceso, lo que está pidiendo es la impunidad para el violador. Pero no es la primera vez que una mujer víctima del abuso de poder no puede denunciar por miedo, por soledad y porque en un estado patriarcal como el nuestro es la victima que tiene que demostrar su inocencia.

The Lieutenant murderer

Hanalí Huaycho Hannover, a young television journalist for the PAT network, had filed repeated complaints that her husband, police Lieutenant Jorge Clavijo Ovando beat, emotionally abused, tortured, and threatened her with death. Fourteen complaints stretched from 2008 to 2013. She had legally separated from him and was in the process of filing for a divorce. On February 11, he escalated his abuse one final time, killing her with 15 to 20 blows to her lungs and heart. After being denied access to three hospitals (no clear reason seems to have been reported), she was received at Hospital Obrero and quickly pronounced dead. Her mother and five-year old child were both injured during Clavijo’s furious assault, which began during an argument about the divorce and his affair with another woman.

Just four of Huaycho’s fourteen legal complaints resulted in any action, and none brought him to justice. In a written appeal about her first attempt to appeal to the police, Hanalí wrote:

The police would only listen to my complaint, and then notified him [my husband], and left us alone in the office indicating that we should settle our situation by talking. They didn’t even call for [medical] attention. In summary, they did not carry out even one protective action for me or my small child. I presume that this omission and failure to carry out their functions and complicity on the party of the Brigade [for the Protection of Women] is due to the fact that the aggressor is a member of the Police. “Se limitaron a escuchar mi denuncia, lo notificaron y nos dejaron solos en la oficina indicando que arreglemos nuestra situación conversando. No le llamaron siquiera la atención. En resumen, no efectuaron acción protectora alguna a mi favor y de mi pequeño hijo. Presumo que esta omisión e incumplimiento de funciones y complicidad por parte de las autoridades de la Brigada se debió a que el agresor es un miembro de la Policía”

Huaycho’s case against her husband was plagued by delays and this kind of inaction. Even when her husband threatened to kill her and her lawyer during depositions taken on her divorce, no precautionary measures were taken to protect her.

However, the brutal murder of this highly visible journalist did finally alter the treatment of her husband, and the politics of domestic violence. Huaycho’s colleagues in the press publicized a February 13 march against violence against women, which was joined by legislators and female ministers in government. Per standard policy, Bolivian police resisted the march entering into the Plaza Murillo, unleashing teargas against the demonstrators. Vice President Álvaro García Linera, who married a prominent journalist last September, spoke out against gender violence and joined the push to pass a new law on violence against women. Meanwhile, the lieutenant who had been shielded from prosecution through five years of violence became public enemy number one. A nationwide manhunt was activated. In the end, Clavijo’s body was found suffocated and hanging from a tree in the the Yungas of northern La Paz. His decaying body was identified using DNA and the death has been ruled a suicide. The case of Huaycho’s murder has been closed.

Challenges with the new law

The Comprehensive Law to Guarantee Women a Life Free of Violence was signed into law on March 9. The Andean Information Network offers a detailed account of its provisions, including this summary:

The law includes preventative measures, wide-ranging services to survivors of abuse, and severe penalties for violence against women.  The law represents a great advance from previous legislation, which did not consider spousal rape a crime and dictated sentences of only 4-10 years.

Everything about these two cases points to the extreme difficulty of making the new law work. Harsher penalties can only function once a complaint is accepted and acted upon, and Bolivia’s criminal justice system is already paralyzed by insufficient resources and long delays. Standard theories of criminal deterrence begin from the idea that the certainty of punishment is far more important that its severity.

While it’s vitally important that rape has been recast a public crime, rather than a “crime among the parties,” physical assaults like those committed by the Chuquisaca rape survivor’s husband have long been prosecutable without the victim’s complaint. Yet, even under the glare of publicity, the government has not moved to press charges. The terrible social stigma attached to rape survivors will remain a deterrent to accountability. Even more seriously, the tendency of powerful men to see rape and disciplinary violence against “their” wives and daughters is likely to continue. As Huaycho’s fruitless appeals to the previous bureaucracy designed to protect women show, formal institutions and tougher laws may not be enough.

Meanwhile, a missing survivor of rape, and thousands of women who have filed fruitlessly for protection await action.

* In another example of  horrifying rape news, an alternate member of the national legislature was indicted in January for raping his 12-year-old daughter. The highland indigenous confederation CONAMAQ has expelled him, but the parliamentary ethics committee seems to be dragging its feet on following suit.

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