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How Feminists in Chile Helped Spark a Revolution

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HipLatina partnered with National Geographic in advance of its new show Trafficked featuring the trailblazing female journalist Mariana van Zeller who goes inside the world’s deadliest black markets. In this series on HipLatina, we take a deep dive into femicide and the dangers of being a woman in Latin America. Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller premieres on December 2nd at 9/8c on National Geographic.

On the morning of Tuesday, June 12, 2018, Rodrigo Alcaíno received a Facebook message. It was a co-worker of his former sister-in-law Carolina Donoso, asking if he knew anything about her since she had not shown up for work and her phone was off. Rodrigo immediately called his brother Fabián, Carolina’s ex and father of the 17-year-old daughter they shared, Gabriela. Fabián had no idea what could be going on and so he went to their house to see. On his way, he called Gabriela’s school and found out that she hadn’t been to class. 

“I was hoping that the car would not be there because that would mean that they weren’t home, but when I arrived, the car was there,” recalls Fabián Alcaíno.

Despite having keys to the house, Fabián decided to call the police before he entered. While he was waiting, the neighbor of the house across the street told Fabián: “I don’t want to scare you, but the neighbors heard a scream, a knock, and someone walking on the stairs around four AM.”

With the new information, Fabián called the police again. It took 40 minutes for them to arrive. “The wait was horrible,” he told HipLatina. “Because you don’t know what’s going on inside or what you’re going to find. You don’t know anything.”

When the police arrived at the scene, Fabián introduced himself and told them that he had keys to the house. Upon entering, they noticed that the gate was not forced open. Fabian tried to open the kitchen door and was unsuccessful, so he handed the keys to one of the police officers to open the front door. That is when they found Gabriela and Carolina’s bodies lying on the ground.

“My brother arrived, and I told him that the girls were dead in the living room of the house. I contacted my work and told them the same thing. The next-door neighbor came out, then people from my work came. The news began to spread that a horrible crime had occurred. But we did not understand what happened, or how, or why,” Fabián says.

The murders of Gabriela Alcaíno and her mother Carolina Donoso marked a “before and after” in the history of the fight for women’s rights in Chile.

Gabriela Alcaino
Gabriela Alcaino, photo courtesy of the family

When the first Femicide Law was passed in Chile in 2010, it categorized women’s murder by their partners or former partners as femicide. The legislation left out other murders of women based on their gender, and it did not cover violence between couples if they were not cohabitating.

Fabián Alcaíno and his family would not allow the murder of Carolina and Gabriela to be in vain, so they fought to create Gabriela’s Law. The new legislation legally expands the definition of femicide to include violent crimes against women based on gender, even if committed outside of a relationship or between a couple that does not live together. 

“Now femicide simply means the murder of a woman for the fact of being a woman,” explains Silvana del Valle, lawyer and coordinator of the organization Chilean Network Against Violence Against Women.

Gabriela’s Law has been on the books since March of this year. “For a year and a half, we went to Congress every week to face senators, deputies, and ministers. The president never received us,” says Fabián.

More than two years after the crime, the murders of Gabriela and Carolina are still under investigation, even though the police have a confession. Gabriela’s ex-boyfriend, Fabián Cáceres, confessed and has since been charged with rape with homicide.

“Unfortunately, the investigative issue in Chile is frighteningly slow. It is difficult to understand that with all our technology, you have two years of investigation of a crime where they have the bodies and a confessed murderer. So much research? So long? Why?” says Gabriela’s father.

The irony is since Gabriela’s Law was enacted two years after her murder, they will not apply the new law to its very namesake.

A History of Violence

Although Chile passed the Femicide Law in 2010, the use of the term dates back much earlier, mainly among feminists in the region. Violencia extrema hacia las mujeres (2010 – 2012), a report prepared by Chilean Network Against Violence Against Women, shares the extensive history of violence and the fight feminists have been waging against the murder of women in the region.

“In Chile, the term femicide has been used since 2001, based on the campaign ‘For the life of women: Not one death +’ promoted by the Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Network against Domestic and Sexual Violence. The first investigation carried out in 2004 in our country, Femicidio in Chile, assumed the concepts proposed by Russell and Radford (2006) and incorporated this notion in the public sphere.”

In Chile, like most countries, domestic violence is a central cause of femicide. Femicidio en Chile indicates that “a large part of these crimes are the culmination of repeated acts of violence and death threats by the aggressors towards the women who are finally murdered, in some of which there was a complaint of intrafamily violence to the Carabineros (Chilean police) by the victim.” Gabriela herself faced with these types of threats from her crazed ex-boyfriend. According to a neighbor, he yelled, “If you’re not with me, you’re not going to be with anyone!” That testimony was critical to the investigation.

This year the Chilean Network Against Violence Against Women turns 30. Since its creation in 1990, the organization has worked towards the sole purpose of eradicating violence against women and girls. One of the major tasks that they have carried out during this time is a registry of femicides that have been available from 2010 onwards.

“We began to make a registry of femicides in 2002. That registry was not public; it was maintained internally in the network, and then when the law was enacted, the registry became public,” explains Silvana del Valle.

According to their figures, there have been 49 femicides in Chile so far this year. This number contrasts with the data provided by the Ministry of Women and Gender Equity of the Government of Chile, which has recorded 36 femicides so far this year. The difference in statistics is mainly due to the different definitions of femicide between feminist organizations and the government prior to March.

Silvana del Valle explains: “The Femicide Law reduced the official rate of femicides that the government counted because it excluded all the other murders of women committed for gender reasons, which account for about 30% of the crimes.” Other femicides traditionally unaccounted for under the 2010 law were sex workers killed by clients or women and girls killed by parents, siblings, stepparents, or grandparents. 

Invisible Women

Regardless, if you look at the numbers provided by both the Ministry of Women and those of Chile Network Against Violence Against Women, there was a slight decrease in femicides after the first law passed in 2010. However, since then, there has not been a noticeable decline in femicide occurring in the country.

“Statistically, the differences are minimal,” says del Valle. “The organization saw that after 2010, there was a small decrease, probably because the aggressors saw the news about the law. But then the years passed, and the figure went up again.”

The same happened this year when the Gabriela Law was implemented. According to the Chilean Network Against Violence Against Women, there were 63 femicides in 2019, and so far this year, there have been 49. But forced isolation due to the Covid-19 pandemic means many women are locked up with their abusers and limited reporting or escape options.

“In March 2020, intrafamily violent crimes saw a general drop. The same month the State of Catastrophe regulations began in Chile due to the COVID 19 pandemic. Despite that dip, femicide showed a significant increase of 250%, rising from four in March 2019 to 18 in March 2020,” says a report from the National Prosecutor’s Office.

The network has also been working on the invisibility of femicides in Chile. While the numbers are consistent, there seems to be an increased interest in showing these types of crimes in the news.

“It has been made visible, but poorly,” says del Valle. “Not all the media are committed to eradicating violence against women,” she adds. She explains that the sensationalism and grotesque details the media chooses to share many times encourage more femicides. One such example is the case of Nabila Rifo.

Nabila Rifo was the victim of attempted femicide in May 2016. Brutally attacked by her partner, who gouged out both of her eyes, the media coverage was horrifying and invasive, revealing intimate details of her personal life.

“When the Nabila case happened, there was an increase in extreme violence. Many more women were attacked and threatened with having their eyes gouged out,” explains Silvana del Valle.

There have been projects that have succeeded in making gender violence and femicides visible in the right way. Poderosas is a podcast “born to tell the stories that traditional media do not tell. Stories of women who have been victims of patriarchal violence, but who are more than just victims. We tell their dreams, their life, who they were, who they wanted to be,” says co-founder Javiera Morales, one of the founders.

With 11 chapters that tell the stories of different women, the creators of Poderosas acknowledge both the criticism of the media coverage of gender-based violence and the failings of the state, while simultaneously upholding the movement that unites women. “Today allows us to recognize each other, embrace each other, accompany each other, and continue in the fight. And that is what keeps my desire to continue working and expanding this platform day by day,” says co-founder María Fernanda Cartes.

The Problem with Patriarchy

The leading cause of femicide in Chile continues to be gender violence and the domination of the patriarchy. “The motives for femicides show the aggressors’ desire for domination, possession, and control over their victims. In the cases of rape and death perpetrated on women by strangers, the sense of ownership that many men have with respect to women, in general, is also manifest.” (Femicidio en Chile, 2004)

This common thread is impossible to ignore. “The patriarchy is always behind it,” says del Valle. “Even in other countries where there is more drug or human trafficking, the general causes of violence against women are the same. In other countries, there is just more intersection with other crime.”

“The privilege that men have to exercise violence in Chile is probably lower; however, there is a sad phenomenon here where the homicide rate has steadily decreased, but the femicide rate has remained stable,” she explains.

Despite being clear about the common thread that causes femicides in Chile, the Network members are still concerned that the specific motives of aggressors and the lack of adequate investigations when it comes to femicide. For example, in cases where there is sexual assault and femicide, only the latter is considered.

“There is a lack of interest in investigating the motivations behind a crime. There are situations in which there is clearly an imbalance of power, often due to previous sexual assaults or attempted sexual assaults,” explains del Valle.

Asked about the causes of femicides in Chile, the Ministry of Women and Gender Equity stated: “Beyond identifying the motive, it rejects and condemns any act of violence against women. None of these acts that violate women’s rights are justified. Violence is violence.”

Women to the Rescue

“The patriarchy is a judge / who judges us for being born / and our punishment / is the violence that you see / It is femicide / Impunity for my murderer / It is the disappearance / It is the violation / And the fault was not mine, nor where I was, nor how I dressed,” sang thousands of women in 2019 in different parts of the world.

The feminist anthem of the LASTESIS collective gained international fame in a year that saw Chile at the heart of a worldwide feminist awakening. On March 8, 2020, one of the most massive women’s marches in the country’s history occurred. More than two million women marched, demanding an end to gender violence, femicides, and inequality.

Though millions of women marched with friends or family members, many others joined the organizations working on these issues for years and are now finally getting the recognition they deserve as the visible face of feminism in Chile. In addition to the Chilean Network Against Violence Against Women, there is also Miles ChileCorporación HumanasNi Una Menos ChileAgrupación Chilena de Familiares de Víctimas de Femicidio, that galvanized women and lead the movement.

Ni Una Menos was formed in Chile in 2016 after the murder of Lucía Pérez in Argentina, who was brutally raped to death. One of the founders in Chile is Elena Dettoni, who protested every single time there was femicide in the country. After receiving the call from Argentinian feminists, the activists did their first march under the name Ni Una Menos. “We had no idea the magnitude that this was going to reach,” Elena says about the size of their first protest, which drew more than 50,000 people.

Since then, the movement has only grown. “In 2018, I felt that there was this explosion in the complaints of harassment or abuse of university students within their study spaces. The enthusiasm grew from there,” explains Dettoni.

For Elena, the call to feminist activism was the result of a series of unpredictable circumstances. Growing up in a society that had mobilized due to the dictatorship, she found herself facing unwanted pregnancies due to contraceptive failures at a young age.

“Not being in any feminist organization or support group, I carried these unwanted pregnancies very alone and with great guilt. When I look back at myself, I see the importance of the work of my colleagues regarding reproductive justice,” she comments.

Julieta Rivera was also drawn to Ni Una Menos Chile and later founded the Association of Relatives of Victims of Femicide, which has been in operation for over a year and helps support around 14 families. Her family suffered greatly under the dictatorship, and Rivera had a history in activism dedicated to human rights. Every November 25, she would join the march of the International Day Against Violence Against Women. But everything changed in 2014 when her niece Paulina Iturriaga Aguilera, 26, was murdered by her partner. After attacking the young woman, the man then turned on Aguilera’s two young children, one of whom also died.

The night she found out about the crime, Julieta desperately wrote to the Chilean Network Against Violence Towards Women. The organization invited her to join the next march, and Julieta soon became a feminist activist. “They told me to wear black, and I put on a little picture of one of the dead at that time. There were many women with banners, and it was incredible because I saw a picture of Paulina. I told her, ‘You know, she is my niece. Can I change the picture?’ It completely broke me,” Julieta recalls.

Companions from Ni Una Menos suggested they form a group of families who are victims of femicide to address the grief and heal. However, Julieta resisted due to the great responsibility that she knew it would entail. Finally, she agreed, and they created a group to make the cases of femicides visible and provide closure to the victims’ families.

Carol Andaur joined the group after her sister Doris Andaur was murdered by her significant other, who also happened to be a member of the Chilean Investigative Police. Carol has yet to see justice for her sister’s murder, even though she was murdered four years ago by a fatal gunshot already determined to have come from her partner’s service weapon.

“The day my sister passed away, no one told us. She died at 1 in the morning, but we did not find out until the next day at 9 in the morning. The building was filled with investigative police officers, so it was difficult to find evidence because it was all tampered with,” Carol points out.

After her sister’s murder, Carol Andaur found refuge in the Agrupación de Familiares de Víctimas de Femicidios. “After you experience femicide so directly, it is as if part of your heart is ripped out. So the support from other family members and visibility of these issues has been my refuge.”

Elena, Julieta, and Carol agree that the state should promote the prevention of femicides through education and reparations for victims’ families. The Chilean Ministry of Women says, “Throughout Chile, there are more than 1,400 professionals who provide comprehensive care to all female victims of violence., including professionals from the social, psychological and legal areas, who are specialists in gender matters. Committed lawyers seek the justice that the law requires for women and their families through the judicial processes.” They also point to the existence of programs for the prevention of violence against women and shelters and women’s centers for victims of violence. But for these activists, these measures are just not enough.

“We want the state to take over. When a person is threatened with death, appropriate precautionary measures should be taken. Legal and psychological counseling should be given to the family. We want the state to make laws that educate children from daycare to adulthood about gender violence,” says Julieta Rivera.

Carol Andaur adds: “It is necessary to believe women and take it seriously if a woman says she is in danger. Life may be on the line. The danger women face and are exposed to on the street needs to be taken seriously.”

When millions of women took to the streets in March, they managed to get the world’s attention and change their entire country. They fought for Carolina Donoso, her daughter Gabriela Alcaíno, Doris Andaur, Paulina Iturriaga, and all the other innocent women who have been murdered in recent years and were never able to fight for themselves.

“Un violador en tu camino”

El patriarcado es un juez/The patriarchy is a judge

Que nos juzga por nacer/That judges us for being born

Y nuestro castigo/And our punishment

Es la violencia que no ves/Is the violence you don’t see

El patriarcado es un juez/The patriarchy is a judge

Que nos juzga por nacer/That judges us for being born

Y nuestro castigo/And our punishment

Es la violencia que ya ves/Is the violence you now see

Es feminicidio/It’s femicide

Impunidad para el asesino/Impunity for the killer

Es la desaparición/It’s disappearance

Es la violación/It’s rape

Y la culpa no era mía, ni dónde estaba, ni cómo vestía/And the fault wasn’t mine, not where I was, not how I dressed (X4)

El violador eras tú/The rapist is you (X2)

Son los pacos/It’s the cops

Los jueces/The judges

El estado/The state 

El presidente/The president

El estado opresor es un macho violador/The oppressive state is a rapist

El violador eras tú/The rapist is you (X2)

“Duerme tranquila niña inocente, sin preocuparte del bandolero, que por tus sueños dulce y sonriente vela tu amante carabinero”/”Sleep calmly innocent girl, don’t worry about the bandit, because over your dreams smiling and sweet, watches your loving cop.”

El violador eres tú/The rapist is you (X4)

rafficked with Mariana van Zeller premieres on December 2nd at 9/8c on National Geographic.