With increasing frequency, Mara Salvatrucha, Barrio 18, and other violent street gangs in Central America are women and teenage girls to not only transport drugs and collect extortion payments, but to work as enforcers.
Gang violence: Police officers in San Salvador secure a crime scene where the dismembered body of a female Barrio 18 gang member was found on May 30, 2013. Central American gangs are recruiting more women and teenage girls to work as enforcers
Gangs in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica are using more women and teenage girls than ever before, according to Jorge Santos, coordinator of the International Center for Human Rights Research (CIIDH) in Guatemala.
Street gangs in those and other Latin American countries are using women and girls to commit more violent crimes than ever, Santos said. However, Mara Salvatrucha (which is also known as MS-13) and Barrio 18 appear to be gangs which use women and girls with the greatest frequency, Santos said.
“Children, adolescents, and women are being trained by MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs in handling weapons so they can be used as hitmen and in criminal intelligence work,” Santos explained.
Even very young female gang members are participating in violence. For example, in July 2013, Guatemalan security forces arrested a 13-year-old girl on suspicion of participating in the killing of a man near Guatemala City. She was arrested with two other minors, both of whom are male. Security forces took two handguns from the suspects.
During a conference in Honduras in August 2013, judicial representatives from the countries which comprise the Central American Integration System (SICA) agreed to develop a uniform policy to fight gangs and other organized crime groups in Central America.
“This initiative is about working together, and there is talk about unifying the types of criminal offenses, since there are nine, in order to tackle them in the same manner within SICA member countries,” said Erick Laguna, a Nicaraguan judge who presides over organized crime cases.
In July and May 2013, security forces from Guatemala and El Salvador, in a joint operation, captured 200 suspected gang members. During the operations, security forces captured a high-ranking leader of MS-13, Angel Roberto Interiano Calderon, a Salvadoran who is known as “El Capo.” Security forces also captured two alleged Barrio 18 leaders, Nery Leonel Reyes Carranza, of Guatemala, and Adonias Joel Martinez, of Honduras. Martinez is known as “Cara Quemada.”
Female gang members increasing
Gangs are still predominantly male, but the number of women and teenage female gang members is rising.
The 2007 study “Maras and Gangs, Community and Policy in Central America,” found that 40 percent of Central American gang members were women or teenage girls. The study was conducted by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).
The number of female gang members varies from country to country, according to studies. For example, in Honduras, an estimated 20 percent of gang members are women or teenage girls, InsightCrime.org reported. Almost all of the gang members in that country belong to MS-13 and Barrio 18.
Some 22,000 gang members operate in Guatemala, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). At least 15 percent of the gang members in Guatemala are women or teenage girls, according to the Guatemala National Civil Police (PNC). The number of women prisoners in that country has doubled in eight years. Most of the female inmates were incarcerated for theft or homicide.
Women gangsters must be tough
Women and teenage girls who want to join a gang must show courage and loyalty, endure initiation beatings, and complete “missions” to pass their “check-up” before they are admitted to the gang, according to the report “Violent Women and Violence against Women”, by Interpeace, an independent international organization based in Switzerland.
To join MS-13 or Barrio 18, women and teenager girls must endure beatings that last 13 seconds and 18 seconds, respectively. Or they can join by having sex with several gang members, according to the report. Women who choose to be beaten are given greater respect within the gang.
MS-13 and Barrio 18 require lifelong loyalty from their members. Leaving the gang is considered a betrayal, which the gangs punish with death. Many women decide to try to leave a gang when they become pregnant or after they have given birth, according to the report.
“It is very difficult for women to leave the structure of the criminal organization because they are dominated by the gang, dominated by their partner, and in the condition of becoming a mother, which (in some cases) leads them to remain within the gang,” Santos said.
Lucía Pérez, a high-ranking member of MS-13, told her story to La Vanguardia in September 2013. Pérez said she was recruited into MS-13 at the age of 12. She was given the nickname “The Devil.”
“I was tough and brave. I earned a spot within the ranks,” Pérez said. Her back was covered in tattoos, which represented the “achievements” of the gang, she said.
At the age of 20, Pérez has two children – and is serving a 35-year prison sentence for murder, robbery, and kidnapping. The Devil’s case is far from unusual: As is the case with most gang members and organized crime operatives, most women gang members end up incarcerated or die violently.