Gang members' romantic partners are often also their victims, subordinate to the whims of their companions. MS13 members have been able to exploit these connections to dominate the lives of their wives and girlfriends, even when they are in prison.
Lourdes Ambriz is not her real name. But then, her life didn't really seem to be hers.
Her life was controlled by her husband, a mid-level leader of the feared Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) street gang in El Salvador, who exercised his power over her despite being behind bars. The pair have two children together but they never sleep in the same bed. She wakes up in her room, while he wakes up in a prison cell.
*This article is part of an ongoing series on the lives of the women affected by the MS13 gang, as well as being part of InSight Crime's new InDepth focus on Gender and Crime. Lourdes' name has been changed to protect her identity.
For years, Lourdes has lied to her children. She tells them their father is working in the United States and sends them money from there. She cannot stomach telling them the truth: that their father was sentenced to 75 years in an El Salvador prison for murder and that the money he provides is tainted with blood. They also don't know that their mother is victim to an exploitative social and criminal network imposed by MS13 members on their sentimental partners, and Lourdes will perhaps never tell them how she smuggled drugs and weapons on their father's orders.
Lourdes has her freedom but she does not feel free. Her life is dictated by the whim and will of her husband and there is little she can do. And yet, she still loves him.
SEE ALSO: MS13 Profile
An Atypical Love Story
It started by accident. One of Lourdes' friends had grown tired of her boyfriend, an imprisoned gang member in the San Francisco Gotera jail in eastern El Salvador.
Bored of flirting by text, she asked if Lourdes could impersonate her while she dated someone else. Lourdes accepted, and what began as a favor evolved into long calls and mutual feelings.
The gang member quickly caught on to the ruse, but he found Lourdes captivating and asked if she would visit him in prison, offering to cover her travel costs. Something about gang members had always intrigued by Lourdes - their thoughts, emotions, ambitions - so she accepted the offer.
– “I wanted to talk to someone like that, someone from the gang,” she told InSight Crime, sitting in her living room.
– “I don't know, it just really grabbed my attention…I wanted to experiment.”
The experiment led her to the San Francisco Gotera prison. There, with hanging blankets providing the sole division between inmates, the pair made eye contact for the first time.
That is when the controlling began. Before she knew it, Lourdes was visiting the prison every Sunday without fail.
Over time, the relationship became a courtship and the visits became conjugal. It seemed to be going well and Lourdes discovered the perks of dating a gang member: She felt safe and respected because others feared the gang. MS13 members were quick to retaliate if someone hassled their girlfriend, often with violence. Lourdes euphemistically describes this protection as “puffing out their chest.”
– And how does [your boyfriend] puff out his chest from jail?
– “They tell [gang members] on the outside: 'Someone hit my woman, they messed with her.’ They ask [their girlfriend] for an address, what [the person] looked like, or if they can take a photo to identify them. That person is taken out."
– And has he ever puffed out his chest for you?
But protection came with a catch. Lourdes has had to deal with tantrums and outbursts throughout the relationship.
Then, there is the issue of money. She married a prisoner and bore two children with him, though he may never help raise them. Instead, he provides her with $150 every two weeks, using funds from extortion rackets managed behind bars. In his view, the money grants him the right to control her.
The money arrives via a third party, Lourdes says. “A woman arrives [at the bus station] who is going to visit the prisoners. She lets me know when she gets to the [meeting point] and I go there. They give me the money and then head off,” she explains.
The MS13 believes its ability to control people and territory stems in part from the gang's role as a protector and provider. Lourdes has realized this over time, with her husband forbidding her to work in or visit certain parts of the city. She is also forbidden from visiting relatives living in territory controlled by the MS13's rival gang, the Barrio 18.
Distrust among gang members is excessive, even more so when they are behind bars. Confined to their own thoughts, they are often highly suspicious of what is happening on the outside.
“They are jealous. They don't like to find out that you're dating someone else or be told that ‘so-and-so spoke to me,’" Lourdes explained.
'What the hell? Why does he need to talk to you?' comes the response. "They control us!”
Cell phones are key to exercising control. In Lourdes' case, if she didn't return a text or a call, she was accused of infidelity. It tormented her husband and he threatened her.
“One time, he told me that 'the day we stop talking and I find out that you're with someone else, I will have...you killed," she said.
Lourdes fell silent upon hearing her boyfriend's words.
One time, she dared to confront him and told him she could do whatever she wanted with her life. He became outraged.
"No! That's wrong...most people who think like that end up dead, because your life is no longer yours, you don't make your own decisions. You have to tell us about your every movement. If I say you're going somewhere...you have to go!” he told her.
Lourdes has suffered due to her husband's anger. Because of his impulses, she has suffered physical violence and spent time in jail.
"[During one visit] we were talking and suddenly he got up and hit me," Lourdes said. "[My face] was bleeding, he grabbed me and said: ‘See what we do. You don't come here and give us orders. Here, we do what we want.'”
Aside from violence, the wives, girlfriends and lovers of MS13 gang members are sometimes forced to commit crimes on behalf of their partners. Able to operate under the radar, these women may be used to transfer weapons, drugs or money.
Lourdes has been coerced into committing numerous crimes. She has collected extortion money and smuggled it into her husband's jail, and has also used public buses to deliver firearms disguised as gifts on his behalf.
With the police occasionally inspecting buses, Lourdes has often feared she would end up in jail.
“I was afraid that [the police] would ask me to show them what I was carrying," Lourdes said. "But [my husband] told me that whenever a policeman gets on the bus, I should place the package under the seat, throw it away and that nothing will happen to you.’"
Lourdes has also used the most intimate parts of her body to carry contraband into jail.
“I smuggled in a gun and some marijuana...Vaginally, not anally," she told InSight Crime. "I got through...When I got to where [my husband] was, I went to the bathroom and gave them to him."
Lourdes says she has also smuggled phones, SIM cards, and even yeast for preparing alcoholic drinks.
One time, she was caught trying to smuggle a small quantity of cocaine into prison and spent three years in prison.
Despite this, she still wants to stay with her husband.
For many women, marrying or dating a jailed gang member often means raising a child with little help, a heavy burden further complicated by the task of explaining the situation to the children.
– How do you plan on forming a family when your children's father is in prison?
– “Well, my children don’t know he's in jail. I have never taken them there and he knows they are not going to visit. I think it's bad for a child, because you see things there that a child shouldn’t have to see.”
– Like what?
– “Most women have intimate relations with their partners there during their visit, so taking a child to see that is not right. The kids would leave with that in their heads and [tell their friends at school].”
– What have you said to your children? Do they know who their father is?
– “They know, but I've told them he's in the United States and that he sends me money from there."
– And what do you tell them you're doing when you visit him in jail?
– “I tell them I'm going on a day out.”
– How long can you keep it up without telling them?
– “I know I can’t for too long.”
– And still, you like having a relationship with a gang member?
This article is part of an ongoing series on the lives of the women affected by the MS13 gang, as well as being part of InSight Crime's new InDepth focus on Gender and Crime. Lourdes' name has been changed to protect her identity.