Perú: Inhospitable Households, the victims hidden inside Latin American’s houses

OjoPúblico presents a region-wide investigation into one of the continent’s most vulnerable groups: domestic workers. A panorama across four countries, our stories reveal cases of physical and psychological harm, amongst a range of daily human rights violations that take place behind closed doors and affect many thousands of people—including children. Governments, meanwhile, continue to debate the rights these victims have in the 21st century.

David Hidalgo and Gianella Tapullima
Videos: Giancarlo Shibayama
26 de Mayo del 2019

A crime against a defenseless person

One afternoon in August 2000, in a middle-class neighborhood in Cajamarca—Peru’s most important mining region—an irate man beat a 13-year old girl to death. The victim's name was Luz Carmela Vásquez Sifuentes. She was a domestic worker in the man’s house. Luz Carmela left few personal belongings, and all that otherwise remains are file photographs which suggest the crime was one of inexplicable brutality. Her body was covered with large and heavy bruises. The cuts and stab wounds contradicted the employer’s initial explanation: that she had accidently tripped and suffered a fatal blow. That story was that first in a series of contradictory versions and misleading evidence whose purpose over the months and years that followed was not merely to delay justice, but to ensure the murderer was never punished.

Luz Carmela, affectionately known as Carmelita, had been working in the home for barely three months. Convinced that she would earn enough money to support her family, Carmelita came with a recommendation from one of her mother’s friends. The agreed wage was 100 soles per month—just over US$30. The employer, Kalinin Percy Pereira Díaz, then 34-years old, earned twenty-five times more from his own employment as an accountant to a firm contracted by Yanacocha—the company operating Latin America’s largest gold mine. He lived with his wife, his mother-in-law, two brothers-in-law, another domestic worker employed as a nanny, and his son and daughter—both under two years of age.

LOSS. To cover the costs of the legal process, Carmelita's mother was forced to sell a plot of land and a two motor cycle taxis she had bought for her children. She now lives in a room lent by a friend. Foto: Giancarlo Shibayama

It was a domestic accident that triggered the tragedy that fateful afternoon. Apparently striking her forehead on the edge of the crib, the youngest child was found with an open wound. The details of the events over the subsequent hours, Carmelita’s last, are confusing. Police inquiries showed that Pereira first took the child to a nearby clinic and then to the pediatrician, where a surgeon sutured the injury using a local anesthetic and then sent them both home. According to information provided by Pereira’s wife, Carmelita was present at all times.

Scattered across two decades, the threads of this story can now be drawn together to weave a tapestry of responsibilities avoided and doubts that still remain. This story is not just another tale about conflict between rich and poor; it is evidence of a climate of abuse that stretches across the entire continent which an alliance of journalists—coordinated by and consisting of Mutante (Colombia), Nómada (Guatemala), and Periodistas de a pie (Mexico)—ha1s documented over recent months in four countries. The abuses we describe in Inhospitable Households are wide ranging: humiliation and racial discrimination in Guatemala and Mexico; a new circle of violence inflicted on people fleeing war in Colombia, and; sexual abuse, human trafficking, and even the murder of women and girls in Peru. In a region wracked by crises and conflicts that generate all kinds of victims every day, the suffering we document remains concealed behind closed doors. Carmelita died around five in the afternoon on an ordinary Tuesday, at the home of an ordinary professional couple.

In April 2019, Teófila Sifuentes arrives at Cajamarca’s Superior Court of Justice, an eight-story building whose mirrored facade lends it the appearance of a hotel or business tower. It is the site of the trial for her daughter’s death. Dressed in a grey sweater and with her matching hair pulled back in a braid, Carmelita’s mother has a face marked with long lines of expression that come together like waves reaching the shore. She is accompanied by a public lawyer, who will request the case file and obtain copies of some documents. In a moment of unfortunate luck, the file falls open to pages that attach autopsy photographs. Teófila issues an anguished cry, her eyes fill with tears, and her lawyer quickly slams the document shut to prevent any further distress. A brief incident, but one that drags Teófila violently back the moment the story began.

I cried out immediately that they had beaten and killed my daughter

On the afternoon of the now nineteen-year-old crime, Teófila was resting in her room after finishing her daily chores as a washerwoman. News came that her daughter had fainted. She rushed to the hospital emergency section, only to discover that truth was far worse.

As Teófila recalls: “My daughter was not in a hospital bed. She was in the morgue.”

Despite repeated requests that afternoon, procedures at the Catamarca Central Morgue and the circumstances of the death meant that Teófila was unable even to view her daughter’s body.

With a prosecutor present, the autopsy took place the next day at 11 am in the hands of two forensic doctors. A distraught Teófila tried to enter the room but was barred, her fingers crushed between the door and its frame. A blow to her knee left Teófila with a limp that she still carries to this day. It was only hours later that she was finally able to view the body, laid out on a table and covered by a sheet. The moment she pulled the sheet back from her daughter’s face, Teófila knew this had been no accident: Carmelita’s purple lips and protruding tongue  made that much, at least, clear.

LABOR. Teófila Sifuentes is also a domestic worker. Her daughter, Carmelita, worked at the home of a family for a salary of PEN100, just over US$30 per month.

“I cried out immediately that they had beaten and killed my daughter,” Carmelita's mother remembers as we stand in front of the shiny court building which houses the documents that confirm her assertion.

These papers—reviewed by this investigation—contain the first of many confusing shifts. According to the autopsy report, Carmelita had died from acute pulmonary embolism, a neoplasm that the doctors believed had broken from an ovarian tumor and moved to a lung. A natural death. But a few hours later, during the vigil at a funeral chapel, Teófila Sifuentes provided journalists with evidence of a different kind. A video (which would later form part of the prosecution’s case) shows the moment in which she opened the coffin to show cuts, bruises, and scrapes that could never have been the result of a mere stumble. That we now know these signs were, in fact, evidence of a murder, is only because, several months later, Teófila traveled to Lima to seek assistance from the Ministry of Women, which then assigned a lawyer to the case. The two of them returned to Cajamarca to request the Carmelita’s body be exhumed.

Just as Teófila had suspected, a second expert report presented very different results.

News came that her daughter had fainted. She rushed to the hospital emergency section, only to discover that truth was far worse

Luis Sánchez, a leading Cajamarca pathologists, was one of three forensic specialists who examined the autopsy report. He remembers first examining the photographs, the video, the forensic report, and a series of related documents of the case, before then participating in the exhumation. His examination turned up certain injuries unreported in the autopsy report, and other elements related to the possible cause of death that the report had misinterpreted or left unexplained. His principal conclusion: “The findings described in the autopsy do not support the cause of death.” Instead, he discovered that several internal organs showed signs of suffocation, a hypothesis confirmed by bruises on the neck and elsewhere on the body. Whilst the authors of the original autopsy had concluded that these signs were due to manipulation of the body as part of the forensic procedures, Sánchez and his colleagues knew this was impossible: blood cannot circulate through a corpse.

“A bruise will never appear if we strike a corpse. It is impossible,” explains Sánchez, currently Head of the Department of Pathology and Clinical Laboratory at the Catamarca Regional Hospital, as we interview him in the area where samples from across the entire region arrive for analysis.

And that contradiction was not the only unusual piece of evidence. A series of tests with samples taken from Carmelita's body—which were analyzed by prestigious oncologists in Lima—showed there to be no evidence of neoplasia, thus ruling out a metastatic cancer that could have started in an ovary and reached the lung, and the theory of the original doctors of a pulmonary embolism; the latter is a pathology that causes blood clots, usually in the veins of leg, which break off and travel to the lungs.

“That doesn't happen to 13-year-old girls. It is a condition that affects older people,” adds Sánchez.

VIOLENCE. Between 2015 and 2018, the Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Populations received more than 140 complaints from domestic workers claiming to have suffered some kind of physical or psychological violence in Cajamarca. Foto: Giancarlo Shibayama

The new conclusions forced a court to order that a team of experts convene to discover the real cause of death. On a July morning, five doctors presented their findings to the judge and the prosecutor in a hearing room of the criminal court in charge of the case. One by one, the findings that supported the autopsy’s theory of natural death were discredited, until finally its author admitted he had made a mistake interpreting the evidence of injuries produced before and after Carmelita died. Under questioning from the judge, he agreed that the cause had been mechanical asphyxiation causing violent death. The court minutes recorded a new finding, supported by three of the experts: “A violent death due to mechanical asphyxiation at the hand of a third party.”

“There was no disagreement,” recalls Doctor Sánchez, “That's why we signed the minutes.”

With this new information, the prosecutor’s office formalized a charge against Pereira for causing Carmelita’s death following an accident the young child in her care had suffered.

Criminal Proceedings

The history of Cajamarca is peppered with episodes in which poor people confront a power that overwhelms them. At the time Carmelita was killed, there was considerable tension because of the activities of the Yanacocha Mining Company: just two months earlier near the town of Choropampa, in one of the worst environmental disasters in Peru’s history, a subcontractor had spilled more than 150 kilograms of mercury, poisoning hundreds of people. Whilst authorities announced an investigation, the mining company reached an out-of-court settlement to financially compensate those affected and to fund municipal works. The Ombudsman's Office subsequently found that the agreements violated the constitutional right of the inhabitants to effective protection under the law. By 2010, as Carmelita's case was entering a critical turning point that might have led to the killer's release, a peasant woman named Máxima Acuña began resisting Yanacocha's attempts to evict her from her land as part of its plans to expand the operation and dry a nearby lagoon. The images of Acuña’s lonely resistance to the onslaught of police and backhoes in a remote spot in the Andes became a global symbol of the fight to protect the environment. As several sources close to this report noted, these two incidents bookend the story of a domestic worker murdered by an employer whose own brother worked for the mining company. Although Carmelita’s murder had no relation to the mining giant, the unequal nature of the subsequent struggle is what links all three events.

The case against Pereira has been characterized by many twists and turns. In 2006 a court sentenced him to four years in prison. Following a challenge to the conviction, in 2007 the court increased the sentence to five years. Yet the change was never put into effect; three years later, his defense successfully argued that the court should downgrade the crime from first degree murder—the penalty for which was up to 20 years in prison—to second degree murder, which carried a term of no more than five years, and which Pereira had already served.

CAJAMARCA. The city in which Carmelita's murder took place is a mining center. Yet, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Informatics, in 2018 it recorded a poverty rate of 46%. Foto: Giancarlo Shibayama

“Although that seemed to be the end of the matter, we could still file an appeal,” recalls Mariano Guzmán, a lawyer with small and watchful eyes, as we sit in an empty courtroom inside the Superior Court of Cajamarca.

Working pro bono, Guzmán, who had stepped in when Teófila lost contact with her previous lawyer, become one of various advocates to represent her over the life of the case. Although the complexity of the file and the burden of his other casework eventually forced Guzmán to withdraw, he kept the matter going long enough to have Pereira—by that stage already released and in hiding—declared a defendant in contempt.

A review of Carmelita’s case reveals the following sinuous trail: two convictions against the defendant, two appeals to the Supreme Court, a change to the crime type, a statute of limitations request, extensions of time, and, delays caused by procedural overload. The story culminates in a confusing and suspicious incident in which one of the files was misplaced shortly after the court set the date to read out the final sentence. A letter prepared by the administrator of the judiciary’s headquarters in Cajamarca reported the loss, detected in December 2017 after Pereira had filed a new appeal. Following a search lasting four months the missing file appeared in another court, supposedly left there during an office move.

PROCESSES. Congressman Marco Arana followed up the case at the request of Teófila Sifuentes and was witness to the temporary loss of a file in 2017 prior to its appearance in a different court. Foto: Gianella Tapullima

Marco Arana, a former priest, environmentalist, and founder of a left wing political movement, is one of the Cajamarca’s six representatives in the Congress of the Republic and is well known for his close links to groups affected by the region’s mines. At Teófila’s request, he agreed to follow up the loss of the file and, during one of his representation visits, discussed the matter with Cajamarca’s judicial authorities. Arana confirmed that the file had indeed been lost, and came to the view that there were reasons to be suspicious about the strange twists in the case.

In his office in Lima Arana recalls: “The president of the judiciary himself stated that when he was a judge on the court and was examining the case, Pereira's lawyer had harassed and reported him and wanted to remove him from the case.”

In the months that followed, the congressman wrote to different public institutions to draw attention to the excessive slowness of the case. One of his letters reached the office of Minister for the Interior; it recommended Pereira be placed on the most wanted list and be included in the successful program of financial rewards for information leading to the capture of fugitives on the run. As a result, in August 2017 Pereira’s photo appeared on the ministry’s published list of fugitives, together with a reward of PEN15,000. Above the digital photograph reads the phrase: “They are not always alert. But we are.” More than 18 years had passed since the murder occurred.

CEMETERY. The niche in the Cajamarca General Cemetery where Carmelita Vásquez has rested since 2000. His mother claims that a few days before the formal exhumation of the body there was an attempt to remove the remains. Foto: Giancarlo Shibayama

Later installments of this investigative report will cite court documents which show that other homicides, serious abuses, and sexual violations against domestic workers continued to occur across Peru even as the case of Carmelita Vásquez unfolded.  In the same year Carmelita died, another 13-year old girl named Rosa Ch. was recruited in the northern jungle region of Amazonas to work in domestic service for a family in the middle-class Lima district of Jesús María. Four years later, Rosa reported that she had been repeatedly raped by the home owner’s son—a dentist and university lecturer by profession. In January 2008, at a house in Chaclacayo—an area of holiday homes on the outskirts of Lima—an adult domestic worker named Irma Gárate was found dead in a well. A gardener initially charged with the crime was subsequently acquitted. In August 2010, a court sentenced sacked domestic worker Martha E.Y. to three years in prison for the theft of a watch, in spite of the fact that the employer was unable to prove the existence of the piece. For her part, Martha alleged that the employer had invented the story in order to blackmail her; he would not press charges if she agreed to sexual intercourse. In none of these cases have the victims received any compensation.

We tend to see episodes of this kind as isolated events; but they are part of a culture of abuse and the evidence is often buried in the files of the state. Examples abound, as we found through an inspection of almost fifty complaint files between 2010 and 2018 held by the Ministry of Labor and Employment Promotion which we obtained under a freedom of information request. In one such file, a domestic worker named Cirila Huayaconza engaged in a house in Miraflores—a district known for its luxury hotels and famous restaurants—reported that the employer had subjected her to humiliating conditions; not content with having her sleep in the kitchen next to a gas bottle, at the height of his insanity he had defecated on the floor all through the house and yelled at her clean up the feces without the aid of any hygiene materials. An inspector sent to verify the account was unable to confirm any violation of the law, arguing that Huayaconza was not present at the time of the visit. Another file records the case of a domestic worker named Doris Cárdenas, who reported that she had worked for 41 years at the home of another Miraflores family—without receiving any salary—and was summarily dismissed without explanation or compensation. She found herself living in the street with her few belongings and having to care for her 34-year-old son who suffers from a mental condition. The case manager confirmed this account but took no action, arguing that the family had since moved to another location. From a victim’s point of view, the response of the state to their claims is often inadequate. Over the last six years, the Superintendence of Labor Inspection, a supervisory body attached to the Ministry of Labor, received more than seven hundred reports of abuse against domestic workers. Only one-fifth led to legal action.

Behind every statistic is a story. A minor working in domestic service is asphyxiated because she made a small mistake. Between 2015 and 2018 alone, the Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Populations registered more than five thousand complaints of physical and psychological violence filed by people, mostly women, who work in domestic service. The perpetrators were most often their own spouses, partners, children, or brothers-in-law. It speaks loudly to who we are as a society that, in a country in which only five thousand signatures are necessary to commence the repeal of a law, so many people can suffer violence without it becoming a national scandal. The response would surely be very different if five thousand engineers or psychologists were to endure such treatment.

POLICE. Colonel Freddy Trujillo, Chief of the Cajamarca Police Region, confirms the capture of Kalinin Percy Pereira Díaz in the city of Trujillo following several years on the run. Foto: Giancarlo Shibayama

 To pay her legal costs, Teófila Sifuentes had to sell her only assets: a plot of land and two of motor cycle taxis. Now she lives in a room, lent to her by a friend, with just enough space for a TV, two beds, and a bedside table. The home belongs to Consuelo Lescano, an experienced Cajamarca journalist who, touched by the details of the crime, has followed the many twists and turns over the years. Consuelo continues to seek answers to the mysteries that remain: Why was the defendant's wife removed from the original charge? Why did the only witness—another domestic worker—give contradictory versions about the defendant's presence at the scene? Why did that same witness die some shortly afterwards without any apparent investigation? Why did the doctors who performed the autopsy record false information in their report?

“The authorities have been insensitive,” says Lescano, a woman with a deep voice and vigorous gestures, who is seated at the end of a table covered with newspaper clippings and copies of the court files.

One of those clippings shows the only known photograph of Carmelita, under a headline that reads: “Will justice be done in the case of the murder of a girl 11 years ago?” They form part of an article that Lescano wrote portraying the circumstances of death and the list of characters,  including doctors, paramedics, forensic physicians, prosecutors, and judges. “Everyone conspired ensuring the homicide would go unpunished,” read one sentence in the report. Now, eight years after its publication, Lescano’s hypothesis about a legal system that would have delivered impunity, is confirmed: the death of a domestic worker at the hands of an employer with resources and good connections was sealed from the very start.

“Individuals with economic power can be stronger, much stronger,” comments Lescano.

The turning point in Carmelita’s case came not in Cajamarca but in far-off Lima, when the Congress of the Republic debated ratification of Convention 189, an agreement under which all signatory countries commit to adopt standards that respect the rights of male and female domestic workers. In contrast to the efforts of one poor woman to see justice for her murdered daughter, the powerful National Confederation of Private Business Institutions sent a document to Congress recommending against ratification of the agreement. Its argument (according to documents reviewed for this investigation): domestic employment “does not constitute business activity for profit”, and it is “totally inappropriate and unacceptable, through bills of parliament, to equate domestic workers with workers in the employment regime of a private business activity.”

A month after the court announced Pereira’s sentencing date, the Ministry of Economy and Finance sent a report to Congress containing comments about bills that incorporate benefits such as minimum wage or full vacation leave for domestic workers, arguing these “would have a negative impact on formalization” and “would negatively affect access by domestic workers to health services and the pension system.” Three months before the final sentence against Pereira was handed down, the Ministry of Labor sent a report to Congress arguing ratification of the convention was impractical because the cost-benefit analysis did not “take into account the impact that the measures proposed therein may have on the State and other stakeholders involved”, including the domestic workers themselves.

Individuals with economic power can be stronger, much stronger.

At the end of June 2018, a different court sentenced Kalinin Pereira Díaz to 12 years in prison for the murder of Carmelita Vázquez Sifuentes. He was still a fugitive from justice, but this time a reward was out for information leading to his capture.

On the night of March 19, 2019, an anonymous informant alerted police to Pereira’s presence in a well-known shopping center in Trujillo, a coastal city five hours from Cajamarca. According to the arrest report, a team of undercover agents intercepted him and easily verified his identity despite the glasses and bushy beard that made him appear older than his 52 years. A Trujillo newspaper announced the arrest:  “Police capture the man sentenced for the murder of a 13-year-old girl.” The news went largely unreported in Cajamarca.

Days later, Pereira was transferred to the Cajamarca prison. His lawyer did not accept our invitation for an interview to give his side of the story.

That ought to be the end of a long saga of crime and punishment. But doubts still exist. Some fear that the ease of Pereira’s capture may mask a strategy to exploit a legal technicality. Unlike the mother of a deceased domestic worker, a man, even one charged with second degree murder, retains all his rights under the law.