A new report suggests women are increasingly playing an active role in the extortion activities of Central American gangs – part of a larger pattern in which women's roles in crime groups are expanding.
Women have shifted from being on the periphery of extortion activities, such as collecting payments, to being more central, according to a report published in April by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC), a Geneva-based research group.
"This change is largely due to their more discreet profile in comparison with male gang members," the report's authors write.
The report points to several examples where women were central to violent gang activities, including a woman setting off a grenade in an attack on a public bus in Guatemala, and another involved with killing a bus driver in Honduras. It also highlights a Barrio 18 gang cell in Guatemala composed mostly of women, along with a female MS13 gang ringleader in Honduras. The report provides one rare example of female leadership in El Salvador, where a woman rose in the ranks of the MS13 over twenty years.
The report also emphasizes the factors that make women vulnerable to becoming a part of crime groups. Difficulties in accessing education and formal work, romantic ties with members of criminal groups, and economic needs related to single motherhood were among the causes cited.
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The increasing involvement of women in extortion rackets does not necessarily translate to them having more agency in Central America's violent street gangs. Both MS13 and Barrio 18 are deeply misogynistic organizations whose internal hierarchy excludes women from adopting leadership roles in almost all circumstances.
Women, however, have been known to carry out higher-level tasks, depending on their experience and prestige within the gangs. Activities include providing surveillance, participating in targeted killings, and even directly coordinating the collection of extortion payments.
And women can be assets in criminal groups, which is evidenced by their evolving roles and rising numbers of arrests.
In Guatemala, some 1,900 women are in prison for crimes related to extortion, according to data published by Prensa Libre in April 2021. Among the detainees are women who served as traditional collectors, as well as women who lent their bank accounts for receiving funds without being aware that they were engaging in illegal activity.
According to a Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) report on women and drug trafficking published in February, the number of women incarcerated for crimes related to drug trafficking increased by 59 percent between 2000 and 2020. It has only increased by 20 percent for men.
The increasing participation of women in extortion activities is occurring across Latin America.
A 2019 report published by the Venezuelan prisoner's rights organization, A Window to Liberty (Una Ventana a la Libertad), detailed how some women have begun to assume criminal leadership roles within jails, including demanding fees of other inmates to guarantee their safety.
In Mexico, a Colombian woman was accused of leading a “gota a gota,” or “drop by drop,” loan scheme alongside criminal groups in 2017. According to an investigation published by Milenio, Ángela Adriana Alzate Ayala, alias “Angie,” relied on the cooperation of police, who, not only offered her group protection but also provided them with false paperwork.
In 2019, there were more than 300 women incarcerated in Mexico for extortion activities, according to data from the 2020 National Census of Government, Public Security and State Prison System.
However, not all women in prison for crimes related to illicit economies hold important positions within a criminal hierarchy. Nevertheless, many receive harsher sentences than their male counterparts for the same crimes, according to WOLA's report on women and drug trafficking.