Women’s participation in organized crime groups is not uniform. The diverse roles that women play in criminal economies allow us to characterize different types of participation, forming a spectrum that ranges from subordinates and victims to protagonists, leaders and perpetrators.
Although this makes it possible to verify the very high rate of victimization of women within the analyzed criminal economies, as well as the concentration of domestic tasks they take on at lower ranks of the criminal hierarchy, it also rejects the assumption that women do not voluntarily participate in criminal or violent activities, or take on leadership roles. It concludes that violence and criminal leadership while being expected of men due to patriarchal stereotypes are not purely masculine acts.
On the contrary, the participation of women in organized criminal economies is not exceptional and does not occur only in minor labor or subordinate positions. In fact, there is an abundance of examples of female leadership in organized criminal economies. The purpose of this section is to present the profiles of seven women in leadership positions in the selected criminal economies, as strong examples. The crossing-over of leadership and violence in this section is intentional since both of these characteristics associated with women deviate from socially accepted and recognized standards within organized crime, a matter which requires further analysis.
*This article is part of an investigation by InSight Crime and Universidad del Rosario’s Colombian Organized Crime Observatory into the complexity of female roles inside organized crime, questioning the tendency to present women only as victims, or in some cases, as victimizers. Download the complete “Women and Organized Crime in Latin America: Beyond Victims and Victimizers” report here.
The use of violence by some of the women examined in these criminal profiles contradicts the stereotype that women are natural caregivers rather than life-takers. The following case study regarding gangs in El Salvador complements the discussion by illustrating that both men and women regularly exercise the use of violence.
Case Study 2 – Women in Gangs in El Salvador
The Northern Triangle country of El Salvador saw the formation of some of the most violent and infamous gangs in Latin America: the Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS13).
While a lot has been written at length about these structures and how they operate in countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the role women play in these groups has not been fully explored.
However, as occurs in other spheres of criminal activity, the agency developed by women within Salvadoran gangs like the MS13 and Barrio 18 is on the rise. Fieldwork conducted in the country has allowed InSight Crime to analyze the dynamics and compile interviews that outline the role of women within these gangs.
The gangs, or maras as they are commonly referred to within the country, are attractive to young people that live in neighborhoods with high rates of poverty and violence. Issues with abuse, abandonment or labor exploitation at home, resulting in the absence of the home as a protective space, leads to gang life becoming a substitute safe space.
According to some women, school was the environment where they found the most support, as opposed to their homes. Nevertheless, this developmental stage is when youth are most likely to join a gang. The conclusion shared by many investigators is that, in most cases, the school environment is not the ideal space to escape family issues, while the gang offers them protection, affection, resources and identity documents.
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In this context, gangs also provide an opportunity to earn cash, largely through extortion, petty theft and street-level drug sales. Other reasons mentioned for joining one of these criminal structures include retaliation or revenge against an aggressor, as well as simple interest or curiosity.
As Carolina Sampó from Universidad Nacional de La Plata in Argentina explains, “the appeal of drugs, weapons, sex [and] money” motivate members with the idea of a “better” lifestyle, despite the fact that it has been demonstrated that conditions within gangs do not always lead to a better quality of life for women.
Romantic ties with male gang members are one of the ways in which women are linked to the group. The gang members prefer to find women that are not associated with the gang, particularly underage girls around 13 or 15 years old. Female companions of gang members are often known as “jainas.” They often end up pregnant, leaving them few options outside of their relationship with the gang member.
Women can achieve different statuses within the gangs depending on the way they are introduced into the gang. The women that aspire to become members of the gang have two options: sexual relations with one or more of the members of the gang or to submit themselves to a “brincada,” a beating lasting between 13 and 18 seconds that aspiring members must endure in order to obtain a higher status.
These women are immersed in a profoundly patriarchal and chauvinist environment that exalts traditionally masculine behaviors. They are outnumbered by males. Considering the different interviews conducted with incarcerated male and female gang members, for example, women never exceeded 22 percent of the sample demographic. This translates to women having greater difficulties in earning the respect of their fellow mareros, the term used for gang members, in order to demonstrate their abilities and what they are capable of. This is part of what it means to be a minority within the mara.
For years, the study of women’s participation in organized criminal structures focused on debates surrounding the sexual nature of their role, concentrating on women as victims of sexual violence within these structures. Although sexual violence certainly persists within these groups, to only focus on women as victims is an analysis that over-simplifies their roles within the gangs.
Agency Within the Gangs
As research from Central American University points out, women play active, direct and varied roles within the gangs and their roles can evolve over time. At first, they are involved in “operational” tasks, and as they demonstrate their capabilities, they are included in activities related more to the criminal economy of the organization. The most recurrent assignments for women include surveillance, collecting extortion payments and activities related to the drug trafficking chain. Meanwhile, many of them are trained to commit murders and mass robberies.
Among the first tasks assigned to women are surveilling the gang’s territory, an activity known as “posteo,” which consists of keeping the rest of the gang informed about any activities occurring within said territory. As one source told InSight Crime, another one of these initial assignments consists of identifying potential subjects for extortion and communicating this with other gang members who will then conduct the operation.
Once the women belong to a “clica,” as small groups of gang members within the same gang structure are described, they perform the same tasks as their male peers and often use violence just like men: they do not leave home without a knife and gun, which will surely be needed for their day’s work. This raises questions about the social expectations of roles assigned to men and women.
In this sense, it is evident that women exercise violence with the same motivations as men, therefore it cannot be considered as a psychological abnormality, as Caron E. Gentry and Laura Sjoberg point out. On the contrary, acting violently is part of autonomous and considered decisions made by women in specific contexts.
The case of Arleth Liliana Torres, alias “Palina,” effectively illustrates this point. She joined the Barrio 18 gang at the age of 12. She started as a postera or campanera before being assigned other tasks, like storing weaponry for the group, a crime for which she was held in a juvenile facility during her teenage years. When she was released from prison, she was trained, along with five other female gang members, to join a team of hitmen within her clica. This led to Palina being arrested and sentenced to 25 years in prison for the murder of Carlos Alfredo Chacón, a soccer coach.
However, women never seem to join the top leadership ranks, or “ranfleros,” who hold power over the gang at a national level. The highest-ranking position achieved by women is as a jaina. The only condition for maintaining their power is to be loyal to the ranfleros, as infidelity is punishable by death. In an interview with InSight Crime in El Salvador, a judicial official stated that when the “boyfriend” of a jaina is imprisoned, she must remain faithful, as she can be killed for getting involved with another gang member.
Women can exercise a leadership role within one of the clicas or “palabreras,” such is the case with Bamby de Teclas, the founder of the “Teclas” clica. Bamby is close to the group’s current leaders. She is responsible for managing the organization’s money within and outside of the country, according to Central American authorities.
Many of the women involved say that, regardless of their status, they are always seen as maternal figures, even when they are younger than their fellow male gang members. According to testimony by former gang members, the women within MS13 and Barrio 18 always assume the same roles as the ones designated by Salvadoran culture: as responsible for domestic chores and caretaking. One woman InSight Crime spoke with stated: “I was like everyone’s mother: I did the laundry, I cooked for them, I organized food packages for them.”
The case of female gang members in Central America illustrates the highly complex nature of the roles women play in organized crime. It is evident that women achieve leadership roles — and often act violently as a result — which inverts the traditional roles assigned to men and women. However, this takes place in a context where masculine values and traits are highly valued and where patriarchal cultural norms persist. While female protagonists are fewer in number than their male counterparts, they remain highly important when trying to understand urban violence and organized crime.
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