GUATEMALA CITY — Rosa Franco Sandoval spent two decades seeking justice for her daughter, whose murder helped spur the creation of Guatemala’s national alert system for missing women. Now she is finally seeing a man put on trial for the crime but the process is painful.
“It hurts,” said Franco Sandoval, who has had to listen to forensic testimony describing what happened to her 15-year-old daughter María Isabel Veliz Franco during the two days she was missing. “I had to wait a long time for this and it is very painful and difficult for me.”
The killing led to the creation in 2016 of the Isabel-Claudina alert, an inter-institutional cooperation mechanism that has helped rescue hundreds of missing women. The other name on the alert system is that of Claudina Velásquez Paiz, a 19-year-old killed in 2005.
But the murders have continued in Guatemala. As if to underscore the fact, on Wednesday the body of 8-year-old Sharon Jasmine Figueroa was found in northern Guatemala. She had disappeared a day earlier while riding her bike on her home’s back patio.
According to Guatemala’s prosecutor’s office, between January 2020 and January 2021 they received on average five reports per day of missing women and one per day for missing girls.
Franco Sandoval says she remembers the death of her daughter like it was yesterday. Isabel had left home for her job in a clothing store during school break on Dec. 16, 2001. She never came home.
Prosecutors say 39-year-old Gustavo Adolfo Bolaños Acevedo was pursuing a relationship with the teenager. When she rebuffed him, he killed her, they say. He denies any involvement in her killing.
In both the deaths of Isabel and Claudina, police refused to take or investigate the reports of their disappearances because not enough time had passed.
Franco Sandoval says she tried to report her daughter’s disappearance immediately, but the police told her she had to wait 48 hours. Isabel’s body was found two days later in a vacant lot with head wounds, bite marks and signs of abuse.
“She had signs of having been bitten,” the mother said. “I am really suffering, asking God that her killing does not go unpunished.”
In 2014, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights condemned the Guatemalan government for Isabel’s murder and the lack of an investigation and justice in the case.
It has taken almost two decades to get to this point for a variety of reasons, said prosecutor Max López. The crime scene was poorly managed and contaminated. Not enough evidence was collected. The suspect was wealthy with connections and people close to him threatened Isabel’s family.
Bolaños Acevedo lied to investigators regarding his whereabouts on the dates of Isabel’s murder and denied contact with her, prosecutors say.
Also charged in the case is police officer Jorge Mario Ortíz Maquis for his role in bungling the investigation, but he died less than a month before the trial began from a terminal illness.
“There was a tainted investigation, bad practices, a delay in the investigation and intimidation of those involved,” said López, the prosecutor.
The bungled investigation means there is little scientific evidence in the case, so it will rely on testimony from witnesses who saw Bolaños Acevedo harass Isabel and say he was the last person seen with her before her disappearance. Other testimony concerns violence against women.
At least 60 people have been called as witnesses by the government.
Bolaños Acevedo is participating in the trial via video conference from prison. It is scheduled to resume next Wednesday.
“I always think about how my daughter must have suffered, those days we didn’t know anything about her,” Franco Sandoval said, upset that people have tried to blame her daughter for her murder.
“I gave her permission to work. I didn’t think this would happen. I get angry. I’m frustrated by how much time has passed, how they degraded her, saying the worst,” she said. “To me, she was a girl. I think about him as an adult, biting her, saying, ‘This body is mine and now that it doesn’t serve me I throw it away.’ He killed her.”