Girls More Active In Central American Gang Crime
BOGOTA (TrustLaw) - Women and girls are playing more active and important roles in Central America’s gangs while suffering high levels of physical and sexual abuse, says a new report from peacebuilding groups.
By Anastasia Moloney
Traditionally women and teenage girls in Central America’s street gangs, or “maras”, have stayed on the sidelines as mothers, sisters or girlfriends.
But in recent years - as some gangs in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have expanded into drug trafficking, organised crime, prostitution rings and money laundering – women are doing more of the dirty work, found the report by Geneva-based Interpeace and the Initiative for Peacebuilding (IfP), a consortium funded by the European Union.
“The dynamics of gang life have changed during the last five to six years. Women are taking part more in criminal activities, and they’re also participating in extortion. Women tend to be the ones who ask for extortion money and the ones who carry the money,” Isabel Aguilar, the report’s co-author and regional coordinator of Interpeace’s Central American youth programme, told TrustLaw.
“But at the same time, women are not part of the decision-making processes inside gangs, and they also continue with the more traditional roles imposed on them, as carers, the ones bringing food to gang members in jail, looking after children, the family and the sick,” Aguilar said in a telephone interview from Guatemala.
The study, based on dozens of interviews with active and former gang members of both sexes from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras between 2008 and 2011, found that more women and teenage girls are now tasked with surveillance duties, bus robberies, and extorting money from bus drivers and shop owners.
Gangs are increasingly getting women to do these tasks because they are less likely to raise suspicion among police and customs authorities. As a result, women gang members often end up being used as “mules” - transporting drugs or guns. They also stalk victims targeted for robbery and kidnapping.
“To kidnap someone, we (women) were put in charge of finding out where that person lived, where they worked, what they did, at what time they left the house, when they came back, where they walked and all the rest of it,” one female ex-gang member from Honduras is quoted as saying in the report.
Experts agree more research is needed to better understand how, and to what extent, Central American gangs are involved in drug trafficking, and why women are taking on new roles.
“It is not clear yet whether these changes are due to gang strategy or whether they are the result of the women claiming equal rights within the gangs’ inner circles,” the report said.
There are no reliable statistics on gang members in Central America, experts say, with estimates ranging from 70,000 to 500,000 across the region’s seven countries. Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are home to the largest numbers.
Women and girls account for around 15 to 20 percent of the total, Aguilar said.
The maras originated in the United States in the 1980s, and were made up of Central American immigrants fleeing the region’s civil wars. When U.S. immigration policy was tightened in 1996, tens of thousands of gang members convicted of crimes were deported, spreading the gang culture to Central America.
The most infamous gangs are the Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, and Barrio 18, or the 18th Street gang, whose roots both lie in Los Angeles.
Gangs in Central America propagate the male chauvinist and patriarchal attitudes towards women that are prevalent across the region, Aguilar said.
“Women are considered dependent subjects inside the gang, under the logic of a patriarchal system of domination, which is also reflected outside gangs in society in general,” she said.
The high levels of violence experienced by Central American women are also a feature of gang life.
“Men hit women when they want to punish them. They don’t care whether they are right or not. They go over the top with being abusive,” one female ex-gang member from Guatemala is quoted as saying in the report.
BEATING OR GANG-RAPE?
Women and girls are used as casual sexual partners for male gang members, the report found. And they are discriminated against during initiation rituals undergone by new recruits.
For men, the initiation involves a beating by gang members, which normally lasts up to 18 seconds. But women have two options: get beaten or have sex with successive gang members.
“Nearly all the women we interviewed chose the beating over gang-rape because they felt their dignity would be better preserved this way,” Aguilar said.
Women join gangs for similar reasons to men. Some follow friends, classmates and relatives into gangs. Others hope for a sense of belonging, a family, and recognition they do not receive at home.
Along with poverty and high unemployment across Central America, it is often abuse at home that drives both young men and women into gangs.
“Girls join gangs to seek status and protection in their communities. But they’re also escaping and seeking protection from their very own families and home life too,” Aguilar said.
Women gang members are generally allowed to leave when they get pregnant or - like men - if they join a church, the report found. But most receive little support from the government.
As one ex-female gang member from Guatemala said in the report: “No institution, nor the government, allowed or helped me to get out of this. Only God.”
The full report in Spanish will be published in November.
This story is part of TrustLaw Women’s coverage for the United Nations’ first-ever International Day of the Girl Child on October 11.