Yessenia Juárez and her daughter, Jocelyn, were extremely close. Even if only via a WhatsApp message fired off at lunch, the pair spoke every day. So when, on the morning of Thursday 5th July, Yessenia rang Jocelyn and she didn’t answer or call back, something seemed strange.
Jocelyn was good at replying; she didn’t simply ignore phone calls.
Call it mother’s intuition, call it sixth sense, call it whatever you want, but panic quickly started to rise in Yessenia’s chest.
‘Jocelyn had never done anything like this before,’ the 44-year-old mother explains, anxiously twiddling her fingers. Dressed in a pink-coloured smock, tears begin to fill her dark eyes: ‘Never.’
In the weeks leading up to her disappearance, Jocelyn had frequently attempted to break up with her boyfriend, Ronald Urbina. The pair had been in a relationship for ten years – lived together for five.
‘She was sad,’ explains Yesenia. ‘She said to me: “I told Ronald I’m going to leave and he doesn’t want to let me go.” I wasn’t worried, though. My daughter was a tenacious woman – she set goals and she hit them.’
Three days later, 26-year-old Jocelyn was dead. Her body had been cut up into seven pieces and dumped in two different locations across San Salvador, the leafy-green capital.
El Salvador is considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world. A small, densely populated state in Central America, it has the highest homicide rate outside of a war zone. On average, a murder happens every two hours. In January 2017, the country hit headlines around the world because no killings had been reported in 24 hours – a rare occurrence.
In this bloody landscape, the prognosis for women is especially bleak.
When the value placed on any human life is overwhelmingly low, women become objects to be used and discarded. So it follows that the country has the highest rate of femicide in Latin America, and the third highest in the world.
Femicide, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a hate crime. And it is predicated on the idea that a woman is killed because she is female. In El Salvador, a woman is murdered every 18 hours. In 2017, 468 femicides occurred, according to the Institute of Legal Medicine. In 2018, the official number is over 300 – and growing.
Most of these women were under 30 and many of the murders were brutal, savage killings.
Take 22-year-old Graciela Chávez, for example, who was found dead in a garden in San Salvador in February. Her fiancé had stabbed her 56 times.
Or journalist Karla Turcios, who was discovered just three months later, strangled and suffocated on a road near where she lived. Her partner, Mario Huezo, had wrapped the 33-year-old’s head in plastic bags, suffocating her. Ten days later, he was charged with her murder.
Two days after she disappeared, Jocelyn’s body was uncovered. When police found her, she was headless and unrecognisable. Urbina, the boyfriend, was subsequently arrested and charged with killing her (he denies all charges).
‘I never imagined anything like this,’ says Yessenia, her voice breaking as she says this. ‘There have been many killings in El Salvador, but my daughter’s was the most cruel, no?’
In recent years, the plague of violence against Salvadoran women has reached dramatic proportions. To understand it, however, we need to look to El Salvador’s past. Less than 30 years ago, the country was ravaged by a bitter civil war – one of the worst in modern history. Around 70,000 people died, and many more disappeared. Countless women were brutally raped and murdered, as they often are in wartime scenarios.
To escape the violence, entire families fled to America. It was here, in the early 1980s, where El Salvador’s two main gangs were formed: the Mara Salvatrucha (or MS-13) and Barrio 18. Both were started on the streets of Los Angeles by the children of Salvadoran refugees.
The civil war in El Salvador eventually ended, and many of the Salvadoran gangs fostered in LA were sent home, taking LA street culture with them that merely replaced political violence with gang violence.
Today, each town in El Salvador is now a patchwork of districts, divided up between the two rival gangs. After the war ended, a lack of government support left thousands of young people feeling abandoned. Killing became easy; an all-too-comfortable get-out card.
‘[We] haven’t been taught [how] to live in harmony or in peace,’ explained criminologist Ricardo Sosa in a recent BBC interview. ‘We prioritise violence as a way to resolve conflicts.’
The result? A culture of misogyny, under which brutal – and often fatal – male violence is allowed to fester.
‘In El Salvador, there exists a social permission to murder women,’ explains Morena Herrera, a Salvadoran feminist and activist. ‘When it’s acceptable to mistreat, insult, and control women, men grow up with the idea that they can dominate their girlfriends and wives. And this domination can, in specific moments, give them permission to put an end to her life. Not everyone acts on that permission, but men here kill women because they believe that they can kill them.’
And when extreme, ungoverned male violence is left unchecked, no-one wins: men kill men, but they also kill women at alarming rates.
Or, as Herrera points out: ‘Men kill and die. Women do not kill as much as they die.’
While gang related murders are typically male-on-male, femicides also have a male perpetrator, but one closer to home. The murdering of women in El Salvador is mostly at the hands of a current or previous romantic partner, or a male family member.
‘A lot of the cases we handle are related to domestic violence,’ explains Ana Graciela Sagastume, El Salvador’s women and femicide special prosecutor. ‘When the victim tries to break up with their partner, they end up dead.’
Like Jocelyn, for example. At the first criminal hearing, the testimonies of friends and relatives painted a picture of Urbine: controlling and possessive, he exercised a ‘misogynistic attitude’ against his partner. Jocelyn, a psychology graduate, had to ask for permission to cut her hair. Before the femicide, Urbine had tried to suffocate his girlfriend to death. He has been prosecuted for alleged aggravated femicide.
Yet more than three-quarters of femicides in El Salvador never get taken to court. And only 7 per cent of cases result in a conviction, according to the United Nations.
El Salvador is among the worst countries in the world for impunity – that is, you’re not punished for your actions.
‘And the justice system [is also] particularly misogynistic,’ explains Herrera. So much so, that last year, six special women’s courts were created to deal exclusively with violent crimes against women. Judges for these courts are trained against biases that they might have learnt growing up, like asking about the way a victim was dressed, for example. Or saying that a woman in a relationship can’t be raped by her own partner.
Another reason for low conviction rates is partly down to the law itself: femicide is much harder to prove than homicide. In murder cases, you simply have to establish A killed B. With femicide, you also need to show one of five scenarios occurred (on top of A killed B), like sexual crimes (rape, for example) or displaying disregard towards a body (like mutilating and dismembering a woman, either dead or alive).
‘Lately I have seen a lot of those cases,’ adds Sagastume. She is chatty and optimistic, but also clear about the tremendous responsibility she and her colleagues carry. ‘In September alone I prosecuted five cases of mutilated women.’
When I ask why, she smiles sadly – like the answer is obvious.
‘Men want to show that they still have control. We are now directly prosecuting the murder of women by men, so it’s a display of power – “the authorities can’t stop me! Women can’t take power away from me!” They look down on a woman’s body as something that has no value. Or rather, as something they can destroy.’
When the victim tries to break up with their partner, they end up dead
For years, people zoned in on the gang violence. Like a particularly gruesome tunnel vision, filled with carnage and cruelty. It’s not that the high femicide rate was being ignored, exactly, it was simply less obvious when men were shooting each other in broad daylight.
‘People used to say: “if there are more men than women dying, what’s the problem? Why do we care?”’ explains Enayda Argueta of Hablame de Respeto (‘Talk To Me About Respect’), a project that studies how women in El Salvador are affected by violence.
‘Violence against women has always existed, it just wasn’t visible before.’
In 2018, however, it looks like that might be shifting.
When Karla’s body was found, Sagastume was contacted to work on the case. Many, including Sagastume herself, have described the journalist’s death as a ‘tipping point’ in bringing the problem to light. ‘Like a time bomb that finally went off,’ she said in a recent BBC interview.
Firstly, Karla’s murder was highly publicised – not only did her partner, Mario, appear on the front pages of newspapers in El Salvador, UK outlets also covered the story. Unlike any previous femicide investigation, a whopping 20 prosecutors worked on the case. Just ten days later, they had pressed charges against Mario for aggravated femicide (he denies all charges).
Soon after her death, El Salvador’s president, Sánchez Cerén, declared – for the first time ever – a national femicide alert and crisis over extreme violence against women.
And in an unprecedented move, the Attorney General’s Office have since launched a new women’s unit to help tackle the problem. Sagastume, who will be heading up the unit, was appointed chief prosecutor on all femicide cases in El Salvador.
In September, the UN announced an €15 million contribution to end femicide in Latin America. €11 million will go to El Salvador.
Perhaps Yessenia was aware of these rumblings, perhaps not. Due to the brutality of her daughter’s case, news of Jocelyn’s death went viral. The media went ‘crazy’ and demanded to interview her during an incredibly difficult time. Initially she refused, but several weeks later she changed her mind.
‘I said to myself, “I have to speak about this.” I feel like God has put a purpose in my heart, and that is to alert and warn other women so that they do not suffer the same fate [as my daughter]. To spot the danger signs, because I didn’t.’
In a country where violence is so visible, Yessenia’s choice to speak out is incredibly brave. Against a backdrop of intimidation, fear and corruption, refusing to remain silent is in itself an act of defiance.
I feel like God has put a purpose in my heart. To spot the danger signs, because I didn’t
But she is determined to do more. According to a report published in May, women in El Salvador don’t report violence because they find it difficult to access public services. Jocelyn was educated, independent (she owned the house she and Urbine lived in) and had a close-knit circle of friends – why did she suffer in silence for so long?
‘She never came to me directly – the one person who could truly have helped,’ explains Yessenia. ‘She thought that she could resolve the situation herself, but she couldn’t.’
Yessenia wants to fill this gap. Instead of staying in the house ‘crying, and crying’, she’s invested her time in creating a foundation. Set up in memory of Jocelyn, the aim is to help prevent further femicides. The foundation will act as a safe space for women and girls looking for a ‘way out’ should they need it, in addition to providing lessons on how to recognise abuse in relationships. Psychological, legal and technical support will also be offered.
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Neither Karla nor Jocelyn fit the stereotypical image of a battered woman. Aside from the brutality of their murders, this in part explains why both their deaths went viral. They weren’t poor, or associated with gangs. They were ‘normal’, right? How could it happen to them?
‘No woman is safe,’ explains Yanira Argueta, director of the Salvadoran Institute for the Development of Women (ISDEMU). She is also helping Yessenia set up her foundation. ‘There is no difference between gangs and life partners – men in both worlds see a woman’s body as a possession. Even those who have access to information and help don’t open their eyes.’Still, women are pushing on. Like Karla, whose death, experts say, marked a moment of truth in El Salvador. Or Sagastume, who sees the solution as two-fold: the state has to strengthen the structures already in place – the courts, the prosecutor’s offices – but the country’s fundamental culture also needs to be challenged.
Or Yessenia, who, even on her darkest days, when the sorrow threatens to consume every bone in her body, gets up and leaves the house. It’s a simple act, but it helps. ‘I would die if I didn’t,’ she says. It’s not hope, exactly, but a courage; a newly-formed strength forcing and figuring its way through the world.