The culture of violence consuming El Salvador is rooted in patriarchy and machismo, encouraging violence against women and girls. Located in what is termed the “Northern Triangle”, El Salvador, along with Honduras and Guatemala, is one of the most violent areas of the planet. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in 2011 the homicide rate was 69.2 per 100,000 with a total of 4,308 murders. In 2011, 630 violent deaths of women were reported. ORMUSA, the Organisation of Salvadoran Women for Peace, counted 580 deaths in 2010 and 592 in 2009.
But suddenly, from March 2012, El Salvador has seen a 40 per cent drop in crime. While in early 2012 there were on average of 16 killings per day in late March the number dropped to fewer than 5 per day, a tendency sustained to date. This is a positive development for women because femicides have decreased by almost half, with 320 violent deaths of women reported in 2012 down from 630 in the previous year.
The Salvadoran government claims that violence in El Salvador is decreasing and that their efforts to appease gang-related violence are paying off, following peace talks with gang leaders held in 2012 and the resulting truce. President Mauricio Funes of the once revolutionary Farabundo Martí National Front of Liberation (FMLN) has called all violence against women an act against the whole society and the homeland — and the gangs appear to have listened to him. Is this a miracle or a mirage?
The history of the Maras
The privatisation of national businesses and the free trade agreements with the U.S. that were implemented in the 1990’s exacerbated the already high disparities in commercial and political relationships, and led to an alarming increase in poverty and inequality in El Salvador. Hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans were forced to migrate in search of better opportunities, the vast majority going to the U.S. Many of these migrants settled in Los Angeles where inadequate integration policies meant they were unable to access training and employment opportunities. Marginalisation led many to band together and to create their own identity as a defence mechanism in a hostile environment. Because of the lack of opportunities they developed criminal activities such as robbery, extortion and trafficking of arms, and this gave way to rivalries between gangs, each of them competing to dominate strategic territories and to carry out their illegal activities. Many of these gang members were later deported to El Salvador, where they formed their own gangs (known as maras), where they continued their criminal activities. The gangs have extended their reach across national boundaries in the region. The largest gang is Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS 13) which has more than 70,000 members in Latin America, competing with the Mara Barrio 18 (M 18) their main rival.
The hyper-masculinisation of gangs
The maras reproduce and amplify an extremely macho (or sexist) society and their culture of violence is rooted in patriarchy and encourages violence against women and girls in particular. The maras have created an identity for themselves based on hyper-masculinisation, which is expressed in extensive tattoos and specific type of clothing. This idea of the alpha-male is built around violence and the hierarchical power structure of the gangs. Mareros, the members of the maras, adhere to a cult of weapons and violence with ultra-violent rites of passage, including being serious beaten by their peers in order to demonstrate their ability to endure pain.
Gang-related violence against women
Initially the maras only recruited men but it gradually became increasingly common to find women in their ranks. Women gang members tend to supress their femininity, incorporating traditional alpha-male attributes such as aggressiveness and power-based relationships.
Women have different roles, they can be mareras, women who are active within the gang, hainas, the girlfriends of gang members, or victims, who are the most numerous group.
Mareras—female gang members
Gang rites for mareras are different than those for men: they can choose to be beaten up or to be gang raped. Once part of the gang, women tend to pair up quickly to avoid being forced to have sex with other mareros. But it is common for their partners to ‘offer’ them as payment in return for a favour. Women who want to leave the gang are punished with sexual assault or sometimes they are killed.
The role of the mareras is closely linked to the traditional gender division of labour, acting as carers for their partners and the group, cooking and looking after the injured or ill. Other roles include being messengers, following potential victims, conducting surveillance and receiving payments for activities carried out by their male peers such as extortion, assault and trafficking. In recent years mareras have progressively undertaken roles such as acting as channels of communication between the maras and their imprisoned members. Women who rise to positions of power in the gang continue to replicate the patriarchal structures, although a marera cannot access the highest positions of power such as that of the ‘Clica leader’ who controls a specific patch or territory.
Hainas—girlfriends of gang members
Young women who are attracted by the power of gang members and pair up with one of them gain recognition from mara members, protection, and a prosperous life, thanks to profits from criminal activities. These girlfriends are called hainas and have a number of obligations such as taking care of the group, delivering messages, and not denouncing what they see. If their partner is jailed they are expected to wait for him to be released, to visit him and take him money. If a haina decides to end the relationship while her partner is locked up she is likely to be assassinated.
The story of Karla: a haina in El Salvador
Salvadoran newspaper “El Faro” published the story of the murder of Karla in January this year.
Karla was just a girl when she started a relationship with a leader of the mara, who was ten years older than her, and at 16 she fell pregnant. When her partner was imprisoned, she decided to change her life and distance herself from the mara. Karla found a job in a local bar and continued to take care of her daughter. She stopped visiting her partner and broke off communication with other gang members. Soon afterwards her assassination was ordered and she was shot dead in front of her daughter.
Victims—women outside the mara
Women in the community outside the maras are also subjected to extreme violence from gangs. Revenge or retaliation against an enemy is often taken out on women. Violence in these cases tends to be extremely cruel and sadistic and the victims’ bodies are objectified and used as a means to convey a message of terror. Gang rape of women and girls to ‘celebrate’ the birthday of a mara member or a victory are also common: women are a gift, a trophy. Many of these sexual violations result in the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies and there is no access to abortion for rape victims, as Sara García, from the Citizen’s Group for the Decriminalisation of Ethical, Eugenic and Therapeutic Abortion told CAWN:
“In El Salvador, abortion is punishable under any circumstances and therefore, many of these girls will have to go through with such pregnancies. Those who are able to, and are willing to try, go to a centre where they can have an illegal abortion but where they will face extremely serious health risks”.
El Salvador has become a catchment area and transit country for trafficking networks and it is an enormously lucrative business for the maras. The majority of victims are vulnerable women and girls who are sexually exploited or put into forced labour, for example as domestic slaves.
Trafficking of women in Central America and Mexico
In a recent briefing paper CAWN highlights the root causes of trafficking of women and girls within and outside the region such as: links between corpocracy, militarisation, inequality and State connivance.
Poverty and the demand for cheap and unprotected labour in the global economy are major structural forces leading to massive migration from poorer to wealthier regions. Lack of opportunities and extreme poverty in Central America force people to seek to improve their livelihoods and many use risky means to migrate. This and restrictive migration policies in the receiving country lead to many immigrants coming under the control of smugglers and traffickers.
The peace process and the reduction of homicides
The Salvadoran government has used various strategies to tackle the maras problem. In 2003, President Francisco Flores launched “Plan Mano Dura” (Iron Fist Plan) and an “Anti-gang law” that allowed arbitrary arrests and even the imprisonment of suspects on the basis of their tattoos or social environment. However, these measures had little success. A change in strategy was laid out in the “Plan Mano Amiga” and the “Plan Mano Extendida” (The Friendly Hand and the Extend a Friendly Hand Plans) which aimed to reintegrate gang members via educational and employment programmes. Due to the lack of resources and opportunities for those gang members who participated in the programme this strategy had a short life.
A new series of talks with leaders of the gangs was initiated in 2012 by the government of President Funes. There was a dialogue between Fabio Colindres, the ex-guerrilla Raul Mijango, civil society representatives and the gang leaders. In March the major gangs issued a joint statement which declared that:
“We reiterate our determination to involve our structures in the processes that will be pursued in each of these municipalities… that will aim to achieve abandonment of criminal activity.”
The maras have offered to abandon violence in exchange for their reintegration into society through employment opportunities and educational programmes. An example of reintegration can be found in a Salvadoran city where a sign says “18 Welcome” and where a bakery now employs 20 young people, previously gang members of the Mara Barrio 18, who are now making and selling bread.
Morena Herrera, from the Feminist Collective in El Salvador, told CAWN explained that the terms of the peace accords are unknown. “We are concerned because the commitments made by the government in this process are not public; people are uneasy about negotiations with criminals”, she said.
What about machista violence?
The women’s movement has expressed its mistrust of the negotiations, despite the fact that these seem to have had an immediate impact the on violent murders of women and that the principal mara leaders issued a statement (July 2012) responding to the president’s call to stop the killings of women. Following the murder of a 16-year-old athlete, called Alison Renderos, who was believed to have been targeted as a consequence of rivalry between maras, the statement read: “In response to the call of the President of the Republic to cease all forms of violence against women, we report that we have issued precise instructions to contribute positively to that demand”.
During the first two months of 2012 there were 176 violent deaths of women. Following the agreements the number went down to 144 deaths for the remaining 10 months of the year. Women’s organisations question whether this means there has been a reduction of violence against women more widely within society.
Morena Herrera suggested that these statistics on “the decrease in violent murders of women reflects a reduction in violence against women within the maras”. Sara García agreed, “It seems plausible that those women linked to the maras have benefited from their declaration to stop violence against women, “not just mareras and hainas, but also those women forced to collaborate with them”. Indeed, ORMUSA’s statistics indicate that the most vulnerable to femicide are those in the age range 10-19, coinciding with the age when girls and women are captured by gang members, either to join gangs, become hainas or be victims.
Both the Feminist Collective and the Citizen’s Group are careful to point out that violence against women goes beyond murders and femicides and that other forms of violence are on the rise. “We have, for instance, a 50 per cent increase in reports of sexual violence. But we can’t in all certainty attribute this to an actual rise in that type of violence, as a change in women’s attitude could be a contributing factor. There has also been an increase in the number of violent murders of women accompanied by extreme cruelty, which are normally linked to the activities of the Maras”, said Morena. Although they welcome the reduction in the number of homicides and hence of violent murders of women, their analysis draws attention to the fact that the peace negotiations don’t seem to address the hyper-masculinised nature of violence, rooted in the machismo that dominates Salvadoran society.
Morena highlighted the undertakings the government appears to have given to the maras in exchange for less criminality: “Although the terms of the negotiations are not public we have been told by senior prison staff that young girls are brought in to the cells of maras leaders to be prostituted, even though child prostitution is illegal.” Sara also mentioned the case of a Member of Parliament whose wife reported him to the police after he attacked her but he is now in the process of being readmitted into Parliament. “Often violence against women comes from the hand of the state and its policies, such as the criminalisation of abortion. Impunity gives a signal to machistas that violence against women won’t be penalised” —a criticism voiced by Sara that reflects the wider opinion within the Salvadoran women’s movement.
Homicides might have decreased but for women this is hardly a miracle. Hyper-masculinised violence in a society that sanctions machismo continues to be an ever-present threat to all women, both within and outside the maras. A reduction of violence against women will continue to be a mirage as long as this is not made a priority for the Salvadoran state.