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The MS13 Will Never Be a Gang for Women

EL SALVADOR / 15 JUN 2022 BY INSIGHT CRIME EN

The Mara Salvatrucha was never a welcoming place for women. The gang controls their bodies, their sexuality and their behavior. Despite this, Flaca devoted her life to the gang, living by its laws and enduring abuse and violence. Until she couldn't take it anymore.

Flaca considers herself to be a tough woman, capable of bearing anything: hard labor, marginalization, domestic violence, hunger and heartbreak. Even the floggings of the Mara Salvatrucha in El Salvador.

When she joined the gang, she was whipped for thirteen seconds and withstood the pain, despite just being a teenager.

She chose to be beaten up. Better that than the trencito (little train), a form of gang initiation exclusively for women in which they are penetrated by a succession of homeboys one after the other.

*This story is the second in a two-part investigation about how gender, violence and religion intersect in the harsh world of the MS13 gang in El Salvador. It also forms part of InSight Crime's ongoing series on gender and organized crime in the Americas. Read our full coverage here.

Rather, Flaca demonstrated the tough and unwavering character that the gang's image demanded. She didn’t want to give “gifts of love,” as she calls them. That would have meant starting off on the wrong foot.

So, she made an effort to blend in: to walk, dress and talk like the guys from her neighborhood, without having an appearance that was too masculine. The homeboys do not like a woman to look machorra (butch).

The homegirls "should fullfill the same role as a man but she shouldn't look too manly," said Frog, an old gang member.

Finding that balance is difficult.

***

Flaca decided to join the gang at the age of 13, for two reasons.

The first is the same reason given by most of the men when asked that question: “El vacil,” a slang term meaning the time gang members spend together, smoking marijuana, listening to music and even fighting. 

The second reason was revenge. Flaca was tired of seeing her stepfather hit her mother, leaving her to take care of her two brothers. This sense of anger led her to seek a space in which she could get her own back, not necessarily against her stepfather, but against the whole world. She found that refuge in the MS13.

The tattooed hands of a woman in the MS13. Source: El Salvador Police.

After her initiation, Flaca received her taka, or nickname, which we will not reveal for her safety.

She was made aware of the MS13's basic street rules: members must represent the gang at all times, control territory and kill chavalas (a slang term for girls which the MS13 uses to refer to its enemies). 

Another rule was crystal clear: see, hear and keep quiet about gang affairs. Over the years, Flaca has seen and heard a lot but that rule remained with her. Even now, when talking about aspects of her past, she goes pale.

All the leaders, known as ranfleros, were men. Despite that, upon entering her new family, she heard the hackneyed rhetoric promising that homegirls would be treated the same as men. If someone crossed a line with her, she would be defended. And if she was told to pull a trigger, she would have to do so at the same time as any man. Flaca was more than prepared to do so.

But the truth is that women have never been treated equally in the MS13, when she first joined the gang, she said the protection given to her by her male peers felt fetishistic, due to the fact that she was a virgin. Many men wanted to take her virginity and tried to control her.

"They didn’t let me have a boyfriend or anything. That's how they were, they didn't allow me to go out with anyone because I was a virgin. I grew up with the gang teachings, which stated that I had to know my place. Otherwise, they would use force to teach me respect,” said Flaca while sipping a coffee, years later. 

She described how one high-ranking leader in the MS13 developed an obsession with smelling her hair. The day he learned that Flaca had lost her virginity, he stopped talking to her.

An added difficulty is that leadership and hierarchy in the gang were attained through violence and respect. But earning respect in the MS13 was particularly tricky for women. 

SEE ALSO: How MS13 Gang Members in El Salvador Control Their Partners from Prisons

They had to withstand constant harassment while remaining stoic but, paradoxically, said harassment couldn't be allowed to continue unchecked for long. According to Flaca, some homeboys would get angry if the female gang members did not stop their advances. If they did not protest, then it was a sign the women "liked" it and they were blamed for it.

Despite these heavy constraints, Flaca loved life in the gang. She became violent and emotionless. She learned to defend herself. Killing was not a problem for her, especially rapists. She described how she dealt with one man who had allegedly abused a young girl. 

"I put him on a platform. I grabbed him and I tied him up. I told the guys to bring me a broomstick. 'Feel what the girl felt,' I told him. I put him in a squatting position and moved the girl away. I put the broomstick in his butt and taught him a lesson. Then I put his dick in his mouth," she told InSight Crime, with a hint of pride. She confirmed she killed the attacker. 

***

But Flaca soon realized that the demands within the gang were becoming increasingly complicated for women. They were forbidden from having romantic relationships outside the group. The homeboys only allowed the homegirls to have relationships with other gang members. According to Flaca, this was out of fear that a relationship with a paisa (civilian) could divert their attention and lead to them giving up, or even betraying, the gang.

Flaca recalled that one girl who was discovered to have a secret relationship with a paisa was severely beaten as punishment. 

This type of control leaves its mark. Flaca has continued to have a hard time dating anyone who is not a gang member. It simply becomes natural to fall in love with a homeboy. 

"We have to stay in the neighborhood as we are women," another female gang member told InSight Crime, as if to justify herself. And none dare to denounce the abuse and violence they receive. 

It became impossible for these women to enjoy their sexuality without facing stigmatization or condemnation. A history of dating different men is criticized. But not being engaged is also grounds for abuse. 

"They don't like easy women. They told me they were going to cut my lady parts like a fish, if I did something with someone [they didn't approve of]," Flaca explained. 

And then she became pregnant. But she didn't want to be a mother - that would be leaving the life she'd built behind. Despite the control, the violence and the abuse, she loved the gang and she did not want to lose it. 

How to Deal with Pregnancy

Abortion was the first option she thought of. Both she and the homeboys believed that having a baby would cut her off from gang life. That was the last thing she wanted. Her life revolved around the two letters, M and S. She saw her battles as being fought on the street, not inside the home. 

During a medical visit, she asked the doctor to abort the child but he refused. 

In El Salvador, abortion is illegal and getting a clandestine abortion is fraught with risk. Terminating a pregnancy has led to mothers being charged with "aggravated homicide," with a sentence of up to 30 years in prison.

El Salvador is one of the few countries in the world to have imprisoned women for terminating a pregnancy when the mother was at risk and in cases of rape. One woman, Evelyn Hernández was jailed in 2016 after her baby was stillborn. She was cleared of these charges in 2019.

With nowhere to turn, Flaca went so far as to ask a homie to beat her in order to kill the child. But nobody did. The MS13 does not agree with abortion.  

When her son was born, Flaca didn't want to look at him. 

"Take it away," she snapped at the nurse. "I don’t want to see it."

But she said that, as soon as their eyes met, "I went soft." Her gang-built outer shell had cracked. 

At the time, the MS13 was going through a difficult time. The Salvadoran government was implementing repressive policies against the gangs that were reflected in their names: mano dura (Iron Fist) and súper mano dura (super Iron Fist). Homeboys and homegirls were imprisoned like never before, sometimes for just having a tattoo or gathering on a street corner.

Flaca avoided prison while raising her son and honoring her duties to the MS13. 

But things soon got even more complicated for the homegirls. When the Mara Salvatrucha began to grow rapidly in El Salvador, leadership was left in the hands of the locals, instead of the original leaders from the United States. For Flaca, this marked the time when the gang became even more sexist and gender-exclusive. First, women were banned from participating in certain meetings then forbidden from entering certain cliques. According to several gang members we spoke to, the MS13 began dramatically lessening the roles women could play sometime around 2005.

Still, Flaca remained in the gang for at least another decade.  

***

In 2006, Flaca had her second child. As with her first pregnancy, the father was an MS13 member. 

This second child was born on December 13. She was happy at this and felt a special affection for it. Thirteen is an important number for the Mara Salvatrucha, representing the letter 'M.' This contrasted with her firstborn whose birthday was on October 18. Flaca had tried hard for him to be born a day earlier. 

The number eighteen is associated with the MS13’s greatest rival, Barrio 18, or the 18th Street Gang. As a consequence, she has never celebrated her child's birthday on the day itself. 

As for relationships, Flaca said she has experienced some love within the gang but fleetingly. The father of one of her children beat her, often making her bleed or knocking her out. Domestic violence has been a constant. 

And while sexual abuse and rape is prohibited by the rules of the MS13, she said few obey. Flaca told InSight Crime of how she once tried to defend herself from a beating only to be knocked out. She awoke tied to a pole. Several gang members wanted to kill her but the man who had beaten her stopped them. "Let’s have fun with her,” he said, before beginning to rape her.  

"Everyone watched as he raped me. These are things that nobody wants to talk about and that nobody cares about," she recalled. 

In 2008, she was sentenced to prison. It opened her eyes. Relations with the other inmates were positive, as homegirls mixed with regular women. Under Salvadoran law, children under five whose mothers are in prison can live with them, and so gang members even cared for each other's children. 

"They were all aunts, even if they are not from the same neighborhood," she said.

She also discovered a talent for tattoos and became a sought-after artist, often inking other prisoners.

Female inmates watch fellow inmates attending a mass. Source: AP

There were darker sides. Some homegirls sent videos of themselves, naked and masturbating, to gang members in the United States in exchange for money. She also witnessed gang members in lesbian relationships, going against the MS13's violent stance against any form of homosexuality. Flaca admitted she denounced these girls to the gang and beat up anyone who dared harass her. 

"I don't like them, it makes me angry," she said about these women.

But by the time she left prison in 2015, her love for the gang was rapidly beginning to fade. 

Flaca was a changed woman. She no longer identified with the hardened homegirl she had once been. She no longer had the same appetite for violence. And so, she soon turned to the only place she could. 

God Over Gang

Flaca had always denied the existence of God. She said this changed one day when a homeboy she was close to went missing. In despair, she prayed to Jesus, telling him that "if you really exist, bring him back to me." To her surprise, the homie soon made a return.

But she still remained distant from religion for a time. "I didn't give God my heart," she said. Nevertheless, this was her first experience with God and it opened the door to her faith.

It was not easy for Flaca to be accepted into the Christian community. The first few times she attended church people shunned her. When I went to a church to visit, I sat on the church bench and everyone got up from it," she explained to InSight Crime.

For this very reason, she ended up joining a church made up of converted gang members "because not all churches see us in a positive light."

She came to the painful conclusion that her life had been a waste. She regretted most of her past, the things she had done and her transformation by a handful of homeboys who told her she would be part of the MS13 forever. 

"I was just there to serve them,” she concluded reluctantly.

In 2018, three years after leaving prison, Flaca left the gang to find shelter in the Church. MS13 members called her to find out if she had really "left the gang for God."

"Some encouraged me, wished me the best and said it was for the best. Others told me I was a coward,” she explained many years later, in 2021, when InSight Crime spoke to her. By that point, she was steadfast in her faith and had decided to serve God.

***

As in the MS13, evangelical churches with congregations consisting of former gang members are led by men.

Flaca immediately understood that going from gang to the Church would not improve her condition. In her congregation, for example, she is the only woman.

The pastor is the spiritual leader, similar to the ranflero who led her gang clique. The only difference is that the pastor leads the congregation down the right path. She goes to church every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. But if she does not, they ask her where she was, make her feel guilty and tell her she is not committed to her faith. 

This discipline is omnipresent and the rules are many. She has stopped smoking, drinking and having sex. She explained that she fears failing God. She has begun speaking more formally. She can only wear long skirts, she cannot show too much skin, or wear too much makeup or jewelry. From once seeking an abortion, she has now become a vehement pro-life defender. 

SEE ALSO: The Omnipresent Business of the MS13 in El Salvador

There have been aspects of evangelical life that troubled her. Flaca told InSight Crime she does not understand why open displays of affection are frowned upon or why she needs to go out and preach the Word of God to people with a megaphone. She doesn't see anything wrong with wearing makeup. 

But while Flaca has felt the Church can be too conservative, she still finds comfort in the Bible. Her pastor has been satisfied with her shift from being a gang member to a god-fearing Christian. Religion has soothed her anger. But control of her body has ostensibly passed from one institution to another. 

Female inmates, one of them holding her baby, attend a mass. Photo: AP

And she had not wholly escaped the scrutiny of the MS13. Converting to the Church is allowed but a member who does so gives up any criminal income and remains under the control of the gang.

"They watch you and examine you, ensuring that you do not make a misstep that would give them reason to kill you," said Flaca, adding that the life of a converted gang member is to "read the Bible and keep quiet."

Besides the Church, she has spent her days devoted to her children. As a single mother, her life has been hard. Finding a job has been difficult as much of her life was spent in the gang. She has worked as a delivery person, a porter and a maid to support her family.

Her life has a well-planned routine, she goes between work and home or between church and home. Nothing else. Flaca said she has abandoned all connections to anyone in the MS13. Details of her life have reached the gang but she said this was because her neighborhood is dominated by the MS13. 

The fear has never gone away: the fear that she might die, or that the gang will take her children, or kill them. 

A handful of homeboys once told her they would be there for her forever. They weren't. Now, Flaca has only the Church. 

*This story is the second in a two-part investigation about how gender, violence and religion intersect in the harsh world of the MS13 gang in El Salvador. It also forms part of InSight Crime's ongoing series on gender and organized crime in the Americas. Read our full coverage here.

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