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The Dangerous and Complex Reality of Women Who Join Central American Gangs

La presencia de las mujeres en las maras de centroamérica crece y su importancia, tanto dentro como fuera de los grupos es crucial para los procesos de pacificación. En la imagen, una mujer pandillera de El Salvador con los tatuajes que distinguen a los miembros de las maras. Fotografía de The Guardian [seudónimo del autor] publicada en el blog Oriente al Día y usada con autorización.

The image shows a woman from a gang in El Salvador with the tattoos that identify gang members. Photo by ‘The Guardian’ [the photographer's pseudonym], published with permission on Oriente al Día's blog.

The world of gangs, which represent a significant proportion of the violence affecting Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras (known as the northern triangle), becomes much more complex when examined through the lens of the women involved.

According to a study carried out by UNICEF in 2011, women represent approximately 20% of gang members in Honduras alone. These gangs, which had a huge impact in the civil war that gripped the region for a decade, are often seen as a refuge from the violence and homelessness that many young people's lives are defined by.

Many women believe that belonging to a gang shelters them from everyday violence and strengthens them against the aggression that surrounds them (often committed by their own gangs). El Salvador is a dangerous country for women. According to the Violence Observatory of the NGO the Organisation of Salvadoran Women for Peace (ORMUSA), about 2,521 women have been murdered in the last six years, an average of 420 every year. This statistic isn't on its way down, unfortunately, due to the violence in the region caused by drug trafficking.

report titled ‘The Violent and the Violated’ by the NGO Interpeace highlights the factors that push many young people into joining a gang: “Extreme poverty, sexual violence, childhood maltreatment, dropping out of school, unemployment, easy access to weapons and drugs and, in every case, growing up surrounded by violence in neighbourhoods run by gangs.”

The website InSight Crime also analysed the problems that women face in these zones, and emphasised the following:

A partir de 2012, El Salvador registró la tasa de feminicidios más alta del mundo. Según el ex ministro de seguridad del país, el aumento de los feminicidios coincidió con la creciente incorporación de las mujeres a las pandillas. En Honduras, especialistas en temas de género informaron en 2010 que las novias y las madres de los pandilleros estaban siendo asesinadas cada vez más en actos de venganza.

Since 2012, El Salvador has registered the highest level of femicides in the world. According to the ex-minister for security, the increase in the number of women murdered has coincided with the growing number of women joining gangs. Specialists in gender issues stated that in Honduras in 2010 the wives and girlfriends of the gang members were increasingly being murdered in acts of revenge.

From girlfriends to gang members

Poverty, structural violence and marginalisation are strong factors to why both men and women have joined gangs. However, the violence women suffer is more normalised and accepted by society. Other common reasons why women join gangs are being in abusive relationships, having a partner already in a gang or wanting to feel safe from potential rape on the streets.

In an interview with Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia, Lucía Pérez, a member of Mara Salvatrucha, one of the most feared gangs in El Salvador, recognises the context of poverty and violence that surrounded her as she entered the world of gangs — and how she had to earn the gang's respect:

Yo me gané el sitio dentro de las filas. Era ruda y valiente. En general, a las mujeres nos toca hacer casi lo mismo que a los hombres: robar, vender drogas, armas, organizar algún secuestro y asesinar, claro […] En el barrio era parte de la rutina, de la forma de socializar, de sobrevivir. A mí nadie me dijo que era bueno o era malo. A los 12 años aprendí a ser una asesina, pensaba que era la mejor forma de defenderte, de ser del grupo fuerte y no del débil.

I won a place in one of the gangs. I was brave and tough. In general, women have to do almost the same things as the men: steal, sell drugs and weapons, organise kidnappings, and kill of course… In the neighbourhood it was part of our routine, how we socialised and survived. Nobody ever told me it was good or bad. At the age of 12 I learned how to be a killer, and I thought it was the best way that people could defend themselves, by being on the strong side rather than the weak one.

Lucía's story also demonstrates how difficult it is to get away from a gang, not only because of their codes of conduct which prevent them leaving, but also because of the physical appearance and history that come with membership:

[Yo] estaba tatuada y [con] eso todo el mundo sabe que es por que perteneces a una Mara. [Además…] la policía me había detenido varias veces, y con estos antecedentes nadie te da trabajo. Un día, me encontré que no tenía pañales para mi segunda bebé, que apenas tenía una semana. Le pedí dinero a su papá y éste me obligó a que lo acompañara a asaltar la casa de una anciana y [ahí] nos detuvieron.

I was tattooed, and this lets everyone know that you are part of a gang. The police had also caught me several times, and no one will give you a job when you have that sort of background. One day, I realised that I had no more nappies for my second baby, who was only a week old. I asked her father for money, and he made me come with him to burgle an old woman, and we were caught.

In a statement published on Oriente al Día blog, which focuses on news and opinions, a secondary school teacher offered his views of the relationship between young people and gangs and how they permeate different spaces. In some of these cases, the girls become the girlfriends of gang members and become known as jainas; in others, they become gang members themselves:

El reclutamiento de mujeres es primordial en la mara, ya que estas ayudan a esconder droga, recoger la renta e incluso asesinar a miembros de la mara rival […] Las jainas son mucho más peligrosas que las mismas mareras. Nadie puede tocarlas, ni verlas. Ellas tienen que ser leales a su marido para no perder este status dentro de la mara, y la vida.

Recruiting women is essential for gangs, as they help to sell drugs, collect income and even murder members of the rival gang… The girlfriends are much more dangerous than the female gang members. No one is allowed to touch them, or even see them. They have to be loyal to their husbands so that they never lose this status within the gang, and in their lives.

Initiations and exits

At first, the women who are hoping to become gang members have to stand being raped by some or all the members of the gang. Nowadays, many get to choose between being raped or being beaten up, just like the majority of their male counterparts. The majority choose the latter: for many of them, taking the blows becomes a form of gaining respect and proving themselves to be just as strong as the men, according to the Interpeace report.

Leaving a gang isn't something that happens often, since membership is for life. Ex-gang member ‘Little One’ explained in a 2009 piece by Andrés Martinez on now-defunct Spanish news website Soitu.es how entering ‘The 18′, one of El Salvador's biggest gangs, was a one-way decision:

Ingresar en una mara te marca de por vida, y en el caso que nos ocupa de forma literal: un 18 tatuado en su cara le recuerda cada vez que se mira al espejo que hace tiempo tomó una decisión sin marcha atrás […] Hoy se ha convertido en su castigo, en el responsable de que no pueda salir a la calle. […] Si la ve la policía, seguramente la detengan. Si se le ocurriese borrarse el tatuaje, los '18’ podrían sentirse ofendidos, entenderlo como un rechazo a la mara, y eso se castiga.

Joining a gang marks you for life, literally: the '18’ tattooed on your face reminds you every time you look in the mirror that you made a decision that's impossible to back out of… That becomes your punishment, meaning you can't go out on the streets… If you were seen by the police, you'd be arrested. If you decided to remove the tattoo, ‘The 18′ could become offended, taking it as a rejection of the gang, and they would punish you.

The gang structure can almost be seen as a more violent version of everyday macho attitudes. In the documentary ‘Segundos en el aire’ (Seconds in the air) from the Simeón Cañas University and the University Institute of Public Opinion in El Salvador, patriarchal gang culture echoes Salvadoran society as a whole:

Es un grupo de hombres, configurado por hombres, pensado por hombres y diseñado por hombres, en el que las mujeres son minoría cuantitativa, y en el que no existen razones para creer [… están] todos los estereotipos, prejuicios, desbalances y desigualdades entre hombres y mujeres que prevalecen en la patriarcal sociedad salvadoreña […]. De hecho, el machismo de la pandilla es una réplica, en versión micro, del extenso patriarcado salvadoreño.

It's a group of men, run by men, planned by men and designed by men. Women are the minority, and there is no reason to believe all the stereotypes, prejudices, imbalances and inequalities that prevail in the patriarchal Salvadoran society aren't there. In fact, misogyny in gangs is a microcosm of widespread Salvadoran patriarchy.

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