When a federal court in California blocked the deportation of an undocumented Guatemalan woman this week, the case resonated in Palm Beach County.
Lesly Yajayra Perdomo, 34, insisted that Guatemalan society is so dangerous for women under 40 that, for no other reason than her sex and age, she faced the threat of physical harm if forced to return to her native country. The U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco agreed with enough of her argument that it sent her case back for further review.
In Palm Beach Gardens, Ana Matias, 33, had no trouble understanding Perdomo's plea. She says her former husband repeatedly beat her in both Guatemala and Florida and eventually used the Guatemalan legal system, which she says is biased against women, to take their three children from her.
"Violence against women is bad in the Guatemalan community here, but it is even worse back there," Matias said.
It is unclear whether the ruling in California will eventually influence South Florida deportation cases. Immigrant advocates here hope it does.
"The decision is not a blanket protection for all Guatemalan women," says West Palm Beach immigration attorney Aileen Josephs, "but it creates an important legal precedent for gender-based asylum claims on a case-by-case basis."
Guatemalan human rights activists report that between 2000 and 2009 almost 5,000 women were murdered there. This year, as of June 29, 532 women have been victims of homicide, according to the National Civil Police, a rate even worse than last year, when 708 women were murdered.
Guatemalan women's advocates and sympathetic political leaders have attributed those numbers to a culture that has long permitted violence by men against women, including endemic domestic abuse.
The U.S.-based Guatemalan Human Rights Commission says that law enforcement is complicit in that violence, evidenced by the fact that only about 2 percent of murderers of women get convicted. The rate for murdered men is not much better.
The United Nations has listed Guatemala as the most dangerous place for women in the Western Hemisphere and one of the worst in the world. In 2009, when it established an international program to fight violence against women, the U.N. placed the program headquarters in Guatemala.
Guatemalan political leaders also recognized the problem. In 2008, the national Congress passed "The Law Against Femicide," which specifically targets not only killers of women, but all violence against females. But so far enforcement has been lax.
"Police there won't get involved in these cases of domestic abuse," says Marlene Rivera, a victims' advocate for the Palm Beach County State Attorney's Office with long experience trying to help Guatemalan women. "They say they are family affairs and the women get no protection."
Local Guatemalan women and immigration advocates say the culture of violence is carried by Guatemalan men to the South Florida, where it is most often seen in cases of domestic violence.
"There is a huge domestic abuse problem in the Guatemalan community," says Ruth Doran, executive director of the Guatemalan Maya Center in Lake Worth. But she says it is almost impossible to get women to talk about it.
Elisa Tomas, a Guatemalan-born member of the center staff, says the women don't go to the police.
"In their country this abuse is normal," she says. "He is your husband. You do what he says, or you get beaten up."
Benito Gaspar, community liaison and outreach worker for the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office in the large Guatemalan community in Lake Worth, agrees that arrest records don't reflect the problem.
"It is certainly an under-reported crime," says Gaspar, 32. "In the Guatemalan community, it is a taboo subject."
Gaspar cites two main reasons. One is that women are afraid that reporting the violence will only make the men mistreating them even more abusive.
The fact that many Guatemalans are undocumented also plays a role. "The man is the breadwinner and if they report it and the male gets deported, then who pays the bills?" Gaspar asks.
Lt. David Moss, executive officer of the sheriff's district that serves Lake Worth, says his officers emphasize to the Guatemalan community that they should report crimes, including domestic violence.
Maria Mendez, who performs home visits for the Guatemalan Maya Center, has been in the U.S. 29 years and has heard of many abuse cases, few of which go reported. She says some cases of violence may have to do with the Guatemalan tradition of parents arranging marriages, very often for girls who are younger than 15.
"Many of these couples don't love each other to begin with," says Mendez. "In Guatemala, if the relationship isn't good and the husband begins to abuse the girl, the father can protect her. But once she comes here, she has no protection. She is alone and the husband feels he has the right to hit her."
Matias said that is what happened to her. When she was 14, in her home province of Huehuetenango, her parents arranged her marriage to a man age 27.
The man lives in Guatemala and was unreachable for comment.
"We knew each other but we were never boyfriend and girlfriend," she says.
A year later, they entered the U.S. illegally and came to South Florida. They had three children. Matias says all along the man drank to excess and regularly beat her.
"I never went to the police," she said. "I didn't speak English then. I was afraid of him, too. Oh, there were many reasons."
She finally decided to separate from him and contacted a lawyer. Her husband then insisted that they take the entire family to Guatemala, where they would file for divorce. Against her lawyer's advice, Matias went. She soon found herself in a legal proceeding in which her husband managed to gain custody of the children.
"I went every day to see the judge and he just ignored me," says Matias. "In Guatemala, they don't listen to women."
Matias eventually returned to the U.S., remarried and became a resident, but remains in contact with her children in Guatemala. When it comes to the case in California, she is in total sympathy with the plaintiff.
"No, I don't blame her for not wanting to go back," she said. "Women don't have any protection there."