Salvadoran Women Respond to Violence with Community Service, Music, and Individual Efforts

Oscar Leiva

Member of the Barrio 18 gang in Cárcel de Mujeres (Women’s Prison), El Salvador. According to the author of the photograph, Oscar Leiva: “Sometimes we simply demonize gangsters and we don’t really ask ourselves what had happened that led these people to be a part of these criminal structures to which many often gravitate looking for a family, identity, belonging.” This photo is taken from his Flickr account (Oscar Leiva Marinero / Silverlight) and is reproduced here with permission.

Outside of the peace negotiations that resound in the media and governmental organizations, one of the strongest solutions to the scourge of gang violence in El Salvador has come from individual initiatives and groups dedicated to women. This work with female youth and ex-gang members, both in and outside of prison, is part of a movement that seeks to collaborate with peace processes in which women have rarely been taken into account. At the same time, it addresses the social structure that intensifies violence against women.

Las Dignas: Initiatives by women, for women, against violence

The feminist association Las Dignas (The Dignified Women) emerged in El Salvador in 1990 out of one of the organizations involved in bringing about the Chapultepec Peace Accords  that officially ushered in an end to the conflict which had kept El Salvador at war for more than a decade. Las Dignas have carried out a variety of diverse projects over the years with the goal of helping women in vulnerable situations, especially those involved in gangs.  In this way, the organization conducts programs aimed at preventing violence against Salvadoran women, based on economic justice and political protection for women.

The group focuses not only on the violence against women at the hands of gangs; they also seek to directly engage the problem of structural violence. Its objective is to educate and guide women and anyone else who seek to understand the problems created by social conventions that separate the genders. One of Las Dignas’ initiatives, described on their YouTube channel, is a campaign called Have a Coffee With Us (Tómate un café con nosotras). The project was created in 2014 as part of the struggle for the decriminalization of abortion and seeks to raise awareness about the realities faced by women in El Salvadorone of the most restrictive countries in the world with regard to abortion laws:

Demandamos respeto [para poder] decir “sí queremos” y “cuándo queremos” ser madres. Deseamos que la interrupción voluntaria del embarazo sea despenalizada. No queremos más mujeres presas o muertas. Tenemos derecho a vivir la vida que queremos. Sobre mi cuerpo y sobre mi vida decido yo.

We demand the respect to be able to say ‘Yes, we want to [be mothers],’ when we want to be mothers. We demand that the voluntary interruption of pregnancy be decriminalized. We do not want any more imprisoned or dead women. We have the right to live the life we want. About my body and my life, I decide.

Orchestras that create links between ex-gang members

Another project that has translated into opportunity for many young women with gang-related histories involves the Female Orchestra of the Salvadoran Institute for Children and Adolescents (ISNA). This initiative began during the truce reached in 2012 between the Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs, two of the most powerful gangs in the country, whose constant fighting had kept several areas of the country in check. The challenges were not few. Karina, one of the members of the orchestra, revealed to the AFP:

Lo más difícil fue saber que íbamos a estar junto a las de la otra mara, costó sentarnos a la par, pero luego ya cuando nos comenzaron a enseñar a tocar los instrumentos nos concentramos en eso para sacar adelante a la orquesta

The hardest part was knowing that we would be together with women from the other gang. It was difficult sitting together, but as soon as we started learning to play the instruments we concentrated on that to get the orchestra off the ground.

Nevertheless, the project bore fruit. A few of the girls who took part affirmed as much in a report shared by ISNA’s YouTube channel. In It, the pair who took charge of the project, as well as some young girls who participated, recounted their experiences:

One of the girls states:

Cuando toco el violín me siento bien porque siento que […] puedo liberarme, porque mi cuerpo está encerrado, pero no mi mente. Por medio [de la música] puedo […] viajar a otro lugar.

When I play the violin I feel good because I feel like […] I can be free, because my body is locked up, but not my mind. Through [music] I can […] travel to another place.

For her part, the instructor emphasized the significance of music in the rehabilitation of the participants:

La música es una forma en la que nos podemos comunicar con los demás. Eso es algo también que hacemos con ellas: proyectarles la paz, proyectarles la armonía… ¡Proyectar todo! De hecho, la música es eso: armonía.

Music is a form through which we can communicate with others. That is also something that we do with them: project peace, project harmony…Project it all! In fact, music is just that: harmony.

Ex-gang members address the problem themselves

Other cases reflect how individual determination can often generate great force. Susana, who has dedicated part of her life to fighting against the marginalization of people who have belonged to gangs, is one example. Susana was part of the Salvatrucha gang from adolescence and passed through some of the most difficult rituals to earn respect. Her story was reported on by Dona Decesare for VICE in 2012:

Las historias de violaciones y maltrato por parte de la MS13 o en el Barrio 18 abundan. [Sin embargo, Susana] tuvo un lugar digno, incluso temido, dentro de la MS. Pero cada vez crecían más los sentimientos encontrados. Por un lado, los lazos que formó a través de los años dentro de la pandilla seguían fuertes, como los de una familia, pero al mismo tiempo se decepcionaba al ver cómo la pandilla victimizaba a inocentes. Corría la década de los noventa cuando regresó a El Salvador y vio que aquel grupo de jóvenes que se unía para protegerse, se convirtió en el enemigo #1 del país. Todavía se sentían las repercusiones de más de 12 años de guerra civil.

Stories of rape and abuse by the MS13 or in Barrio 18 abound. [However, Susana] had a respected, even feared, position within the MS. But Susana increasingly grew to have mixed feelings. On one hand, the bonds that formed through years within the gang were as strong as those of a family, but on the other hand Susana was disappointed to see how the gang victimized the innocent. The 90s had passed by the time she returned to El Salvador and saw that the group of young people that had joined together to protect themselves had become the #1 enemy of the state. The repercussions of more than 12 years of civil war can still be felt.

During her time in the gang, Susana was involved in incidents of extreme violence and had the opportunity to abandon the gang, a chance that few gang members have:

[Susana] se ganó su derecho. Cumplió sus compromisos dentro de la pandilla, fue herida de bala por una pandilla rival en Los Ángeles y estuvo presa en un penal de máxima seguridad en California. Ya podía caminar tranquila sin miedo a que la quisieran matar. Le dieron ‘el pase’, el cual antes se le otorgaba a los pandilleros que se hacían cristianos o después de cumplir sus compromisos se querían dedicar a sus familias –algo que sí existe en Estados Unidos, pero no es un proceso formal en Centroamérica–. ‘La mejor manera de compararlo sería cuando a un soldado le dan de baja honorable del ejercito’, anota.

Susana had earned the right. She fulfilled her commitments to the gang, she suffered a gunshot wound at the hands of a rival gang in Los Angeles, and she was imprisoned in a maximum security prison in California. Now she is able to walk peacefully and without fear that someone wants to kill her. She was given ‘the pass,’ which is traditionally given to gang members who become Christians, or after they have fulfilled their duties and want to dedicate themselves to family – a process that is customary in the United States, but is not formally recognized in Central America. ‘The best comparison is the way that a soldier is given an honorable discharge from the army,’ she notes.

Her life after the gang experience is now aimed at helping vulnerable groups who may fall into the world of violence:

Ahora ella se dedica a abogar por niños y jóvenes indocumentados en Estados Unidos, a través de educación pública, de abogacía a nivel política pública, y provisión de servicios directos. Su trabajo consiste en evitar que otros chicos tengan su misma suerte e ingresen a las pandillas. La ‘vida loca’, explica, sólo tiene tres salidas: prisión, hospital o muerte. Ella previene que pase esto.

Now she is dedicated to advocating for children and young undocumented immigrants in the United States, by means of public education, advocacy at public and political levels, and providing direct services. Her work is devoted to preventing other kids from succumbing to the same fate and joining gangs. The ‘crazy life’, she explains, only has three ways out: prison, hospital, or death. She keeps this from happening.


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