Corruption: Fuel for Femicide’s Fire

On January 31, 2022, hundreds of protesters took to the streets of La Paz, Bolivia, regarding new revelations about Richard Choque Flores, who had raped upwards of 70 women and committed at least two femicides. (The term “femicide” refers to the intentional murder of women for gender-motivated reasons.) The La Paz protesters were not simply expressing their horror at Choque Flores’ heinous crimes. They were also denouncing the judicial and prosecutorial corruption that had enabled his continued predation. In fact, Choque Flores had already been arrested in 2015 and sentenced to 30 years in prison. His sentence was then reduced to a house arrest in 2019, whereupon he was able to murder two women from the comfort of his own home. How did Richard Choque Flores manage to get his sentence reduced in the first place? With a bribe of US$3,500 and a bottle of whisky.

Sadly, this story is not unique. In Bolivia as well as other Latin American countries (such as Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico), femicides not only occur at appallingly high rates, but they rarely ever get resolved. While femicide is certainly rooted in patriarchy, its rampant scope in Latin America cannot merely be explained by the misogyny of individual perpetrators. In 2021 alone, there were at least 108 known femicide cases in Bolivia, of which only 36% were solved. In Mexico, around 10 women are reportedly murdered per day (though the actual number is likely much higher). The femicide epidemic is by no means “accidental, ‘involuntary,’ or the result of ‘mere institutional incapacity.’” Rather, it is the product of profound and systematic corruption, which allows perpetrators to violate women with impunity, while imposing prohibitive barriers to justice for victims and their families.

The relationship between corruption and femicide is cyclical and mutually reinforcing. For a fee, corrupt law enforcement officers will not only fail to properly interrogate femicide cases, but have actually interfered with and undermined investigations. As a result, men with access to financial resources are empowered to violate and assault women, as they can easily bribe their way out of any legal consequences. In Bolivia and Paraguay, for example, bribed lawyers, judges, and prosecutors have been able to secure acquittals for defendants by utilizing a delay tactic known as chicana judicial, which frustrates the judicial process by making it impossibly difficult for victims to continue paying the prohibitive costs of litigation. As one judge stated regarding the practice, “very few cases end in a conviction if one side has money.” In Mexico, meanwhile, law enforcement officers have concealed and falsified evidence in femicide cases involving fellow public servants or colluding criminals who bought their loyalty with bribes.

With corruption being such a normalized practice in law enforcement, victims and their families repeatedly find that their cases are likely to remain unresolved, unless they are able to offer investigators or prosecutors bribes to “grease the wheels” of justice. In Bolivia, victims have been expected to cover significant portions of the costs of the investigations, including the costs of transportation for forensic analysts as well as supplies and internal administrative paperwork. In short, victims seeking justice are required to absorb costs that police departments should be absorbing themselves. And unless victims and their families are willing to pay hefty sums for investigations to take place, they are unlikely to get law enforcement to take their claims seriously, or investigate them at all.

Corruption contributes to de facto impunity for femicide offenders in other ways as well. For instance, corruption is partly to blame for the mismanagement that characterizes the vast majority of femicide cases. In Bolivia, many investigators have secured their positions through bribery or “personal favors,” and have no meaningful training or prior expertise. Partly as a result of this corruption-induced incompetence, femicide investigations are frequently undermined by the improper implementation of requisite protocols. For example, autopsies are frequently carried out only after significant delays, and important evidence is repeatedly left uncollected or improperly stored.

That many investigators have earned their position through corruption exacerbates impunity in femicide cases through another channel as well: Individuals who engage in acts of corruption are more likely to view violence as justifiable. Such lax attitudes towards violence are particularly lethal for female victims of gender-based violence, as it is combined with the widespread misogyny that prevails among the ranks of judges, prosecutors, and the police. Corrupt public servants are therefore more likely to have patriarchal or misogynistic biases that make them disinclined to believe victims of gender-based abuse or even take their abuse seriously.

These biases, in turn, further enable bribery and corruption to take place, because when law enforcement officers do not take a crime sufficiently seriously, they are more likely to be receptive to bribery by the alleged perpetrators. Indeed, a study by Oxfam found that the judicial system is especially manipulable by the money and power of defendants in cases of gender-based violence. Consider how the costs of femicide investigations differ between the victims and the accused. Richard Choque Flores was able to purchase a lower sentence for US$3,500. In contrast, victims and families in Bolivia have spent anywhere between US$5,000 and US$25,000 in the investigations for their cases. This financial disparity reflects the biases that inform systemic corruption in femicide investigations. Thanks to law enforcement officers’ misogyny, they will allow an accused man to purchase his freedom at relatively low cost, but will not investigate women’s claims without significant monetary incentives.

Of course, rampant corruption undermines investigations and prosecutions for all kinds of crimes, not just those against women. Moreover, anticorruption experts and contributors to this blog (myself included) have repeatedly noted the inextricable connection between discrimination and corruption, and how systems of inequity and oppression leave vulnerable communities more exposed to extortion and abuse. Yet the mutually reinforcing relationship between corruption and inequality is especially harmful for women; as it pertains to femicide, it is quite literally fatal. After all, women constitute an estimated 70% of the world’s poor. When justice is contingent on money changing hands, and when that money is predominantly in male hands, women not only become more vulnerable to victimization, but they face greater barriers to access to justice. The urgent necessity of proper redress for systemic femicide in particular therefore cannot be understated. As long as impunity and corruption continue unchecked, women will continue to suffer the most horrid and fatal abuses.

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