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Pandemic puts brakes on search for missing in Peru

By Anastasia Moloney

BOGOTA, Aug 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In the weeks after her mother disappeared, Oriana Romero scoured the streets of the Peruvian city of Sayan, showing a photo of her to anyone she could for clues to her whereabouts.

Her mother Dominga Roman, a 46-year-old house cleaner, left home early evening on January 19 to go to a party. She never returned.

“We haven’t heard anything about my mother. Someone has done something to her,” Romero, a 23-year-old mother of two young girls, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

“My eldest child asks when her grandmother, who raised her until she was 3 years old, will return,” Romero said.

Romero and her sister reported their mother’s disappearance to police, and with the help of an officer, they spoke to people at the party where her mother had been and to her ex-boyfriends.

The accounts given were confusing. Some witnesses said her mother was seen leaving the party at dawn, yet others said she left around midnight on a motorbike taxi.

But since Peru’s coronavirus lockdown began in March, Romero has had to stop searching.

From her poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of the capital Lima, she said she fears taking the three-hour bus ride to her mother’s hometown to speak to local police investigators.

“I’m afraid to travel because of the pandemic. I don’t want to catch the virus and risk giving it to my children,” she said.

“I hope I can reactivate the search soon and see my mother’s phone call records to try to understand what happened.”

HUNDREDS MISSING

Before the lockdown, five women and girls were reported missing on average a day in Peru. That figure has risen to eight during the lockdown, according to the National Ombudsman’s office, an independent body that monitors Peru’s human rights.

A total of 1,200 women and girls were reported missing from the start of the lockdown on March 16 through July, according to figures from Peru’s women’s ministry.

Some could be victims of human trafficking and violent crimes like domestic abuse or femicide – the gender-related killing of a woman by a man – women’s rights experts say.

Some femicide victims, who were reported as missing, were killed at the hands of their current or former partners.

Since the lockdown started in Peru, 37 femicides have been reported, according to government figures.

A 2018 law introduced a nationwide alert system for women reported missing. But without a proper national register of missing persons, it often remains unknown what became of those reported missing and if they were found dead or alive, women’s rights campaigners say.

Peru’s new cabinet chief, Walter Martos, announced this week measures to address gender-based violence and said a national register for missing people will be introduced within 40 days.

“Violence in all its forms continues to be perpetuated during the period of social isolation due to the pandemic,” he told Peru’s Congress on Tuesday.

In addition, more support will be given to the government’s dedicated missing persons hotline to process cases, he said.

“Such actions will make it possible to mobilize the police at the national level to locate women … as well as to provide the necessary support to family members,” Martos said.

ABUSE IN THE HOME

Before a women or girl disappears, there is often a history of domestic violence, said Katherine Soto, who heads a support group for families of those disappeared – Missing Women Peru.

“Some girls who have gone missing have been kidnapped by their partners inside their own homes and are prohibited from communicating with their families,” said Soto.

Of the total 1,200 people reported missing during Peru’s lockdown, about two-thirds are girls.

Some teenage girls reported missing are escaping abusive families – a problem that has come under the spotlight as coronavirus lockdowns and school closures mean they spend more time at home with abusive family members.

Many countries in Latin America – a region known for high rates of femicide and violence against women – along with other countries have reported increases in domestic violence under COVID-19 lockdowns.

“In the case of missing adolescents, many of the girls have been victims of violence inside their own homes, victims of sexual, physical or other forms of violence, and some of them have run away from their homes,” Soto said.

Soto and the National Ombudsman’s office say the creation of a national missing persons register will help to keep better track of cases and give answers to the victims’ families.

“We have the reports and alerts issued for missing people, but we don’t know how many of them were found or are still missing and what happened to them,” said Soto, who founded Missing Women Peru in 2016 after a university friend disappeared and was found dead almost four years later.

The group is helping about 30 families whose relatives have gone missing – some who disappeared a decade ago – to navigate the judicial system, follow up on investigations and campaign on social media to help find their loved ones.

Many families are left to search on their own, or cases are passed from one police investigator to another, said Soto.

“Families feel abandoned. They feel like their cases don’t exist. They send me messages saying: “We’re not told anything,” Soto said. “Families do their own searching. They become detectives.”

Searching has become more difficult as some families are afraid to break lockdown and curfew rules.

For Romero, her hopes lie with divine justice.

“Only God knows what happened. Only God knows the truth. There’s no perfect crime. Justice will come sooner or later,” she said. (Reporting by Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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