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Guatemala is no ‘Paradise’ for women and girls

Killer's Paradise
Rodrigo Apt/BBC
A Guatemalan activist for women’s rights as seen in the documentary “Killer’s Paradise.”


At a time when the most fortunate of us are preparing for holiday vacations, a new documentary reveals Guatemala as a hot spot of another sort — for serial killers of women and girls.

Killer’s Paradise,” which screens Thursday night at the Riverview Branch of the St. Paul Public Library, takes no more than 90 seconds to get under one’s skin. The film begins at a Guatemala City crime scene with the discovery of a murdered 21-year-old woman, shot in cold blood while walking on the street with her young kids. “Why is Mommy sleeping in the road?” one of the children asks.

Such a story would be heartbreaking under any circumstances, but, more painful still, it’s representative of the state of affairs for women in Guatemala. So-called femicide has been rampant in the country since at least the late 1990s. More than 2,000 women have been murdered in Guatemala in the past eight years; in the last three years, the number of victims has quadrupled.

The film’s BBC narrator explains in voiceover that not one of the 665 cases of murdered women last year has been solved. The husband of the aforementioned victim, speaking at the morgue, puts it plainly: “It’s the fashion here to murder women.”

But suffice it to say that “Killer’s Paradise” is no “CSI” episode. Not sensational in the least, it’s an urgent, vital film that pushes far past entertainment into the realm of galvanizing action. It seems inconceivable to watch the film and not be shaken by it.

Ongoing film series

Cheryl Thomas is director of the Women’s Human Rights Program of Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, which is co-presenting “Killer’s Paradise” with the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library as part of the monthly “Women’s Human Rights Film Series.” Thomas says the film is well chosen to represent the 25-year-old local organization and the mission of its Women’s Human Rights Program — to focus on issues of violence against women and girls around the world.

“Our primary area of work here in Minnesota and around the world has been legal reform,” Thomas says by phone from her office in St. Paul. “In terms of the issues presented in ‘Killer’s Paradise,’ one of the biggest challenges in trying to address the problem has been the lack of both police investigation and effective legal response in Guatemala.”

In the film, director Giselle Portenier follows the heroic efforts of activist Norma Cruz to educate Guatemalans about their rights and how to protect themselves. One of the last scenes in the 90-minute documentary shows a sizable protest march.

“Killer’s Paradise” is the rare social-problem film that inspires the viewer not through a sense that the problem is being solved, but through the nagging reminder that it isn’t. As the narrator says, “There has been no progress and not a single arrest in any of the cases featured in this film … nor [those of] any of the other 60 women who were murdered while we were filming.” That is, “Killer’s Paradise” doesn’t let its audience’s conscience off the hook.

Amnesty International has a web page devoted to the case of murdered 19-year-old Claudina Velásquez, including a link to a letter that can be sent by email to Guatemalan President Berger Perdomo. In terms of U.S. legislation, support of the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA), introduced in October by U.S. Sens. Joseph Biden and Richard Lugar, can be registered through the Women’s Edge Coalition.

The “Killer’s Paradise” screening on Thursday will be followed by a discussion led by Minnesota Advocates’ education program associate Ann Theisen and Rosa Tock, legislative director of the Chicano Latino Affairs Council. The film will also be screened at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 30 by the Center on Women and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute.

The next documentary in the “Women’s Human Rights Film Series” will be “Crimes of Honor,” which explores the killer’s paradise of the Islamic world, the West Bank and Jordan in particular.

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