El Salvador's Gangs Are Targeting Young Girls

And the Trump administration’s immigration policies are certain to make it worse.

Red Cross volunteers help Claudia at the Red Cross in Apopa, on the outskirts of San Salvador July 6, 2013. Claudia was raped and battered by alleged members of the Mara Salvatrucha street gang and then thrown into a ditch left for dead. (REUTERS/Ulises Rodriguez)

SAN SALVADOR—At dusk on a dusty soccer field in San Salvador last April, three girls sat together on a bench. Dani, 12, and Sofia, 16, regularly played soccer with the boys; Diana, Sofia’s 14-year-old cousin, came to watch. What else do you do for fun?, I asked them. They scuffed their shoes in the dirt, uncertain how to respond. So I told them what I did at their age: Played in my suburban neighborhood, or drove around town. Sofia’s eyes grew wide. “At night? Without your parents?” Dani asked. “So cool!” Diana exclaimed. When I told them that American teenagers often took buses or subways to get around town, Dani declared: “You have all the freedom in the world.” To them, such freedom was unfathomable. Their parents only allowed them to leave the house for soccer or school. “Here it’s dangerous because of the gangs,” Dani explained. “You can’t go out now.” Even at school, they felt insecure, Diana added. “Anybody can come in.”

In El Salvador, a small country of some 6.5 million, the defense ministry has estimated that more than 500,000 Salvadorans are involved with gangs. (This number includes gang members’ relatives and children who have been coerced into crimes.) Turf wars between MS-13, the country’s largest gang, and its chief rivals, two factions of Barrio 18, have exacerbated what is the world’s highest homicide rate for people under the age of 19. In 2016, 540 Salvadoran minors were murdered—an average of 1.5 every day.

While a majority of El Salvador’s homicide victims are young men from poor urban areas, the gangs’ practice of explicitly targeting girls for sexual violence or coerced relationships is well known. Since 2000, the homicide rate for young women in El Salvador has also increased sharply, according to the latest data from the World Health Organization. To refuse the gangs’ demands can mean death for girls and their families.

These conditions leave them with few options but to flee their country. In fiscal year 2016, the U.S. Border Patrol apprehended a record 17,512 unaccompanied Salvadoran minors. One-third of the children traveling alone to the U.S. border that year were girls, up 10 percent from just four years prior. In fiscal year 2017, which marked a 50-year low for illegal immigration, roughly a third of unaccompanied minors, again, were girls. Yet in listening to President Donald Trump, one might assume that all of these Central-American youth are blood-thirsty male gang members. “MS-13 gang members are being removed by our Great ICE and Border Patrol Agents by the thousands, but these killers come back in from El Salvador, and through Mexico, like water,” Trump tweeted on February 23. “El Salvador just takes our money.”

Last spring in San Salvador, I spoke to more than 20 young women, aged 12 to 30, whose everyday realities suggest a story largely absent from Trump’s narrative. Rather than posing a threat to America, Salvadoran girls are under threat—and U.S. policy seems certain to exacerbate it.

To help justify its immigration crackdown, the Trump administration has pointed to a spate of murders in the United States tied to MS-13, arguing that immigration has dramatically expanded the gang’s American membership. Trump officials tend to omit that the street gang was formed in the 1980s in Los Angeles by refugees from El Salvador’s civil war—a war fueled in part by Washington—and that the gang was effectively exported to El Salvador through deportations from the United States.

Yet the federal government’s current estimate of around 10,000 MS-13 members across 40 U.S. states hasn’t changed in more than a decade, and only a fraction of unaccompanied minors apprehended since 2011 have confirmed gang ties. The Trump administration has endorsed San Salvador’s militarized approach to fighting the gangs, which designates anyone collaborating with gang members as terrorists, too. Human rights officials have excoriated Salvadoran authorities’ use of excessive force and extrajudicial killings, including against teenagers. The White House, meanwhile, has recommended slashing aid to El Salvador, prioritizing combatting the gangs instead.

Such policies do little to help El Salvador’s young women. The gangs’ targeting of girls dovetails with a wider rise in femicide, or killing motivated by gender, in El Salvador. The rate of violent death for women is the third-highest in the world. In 2016, 524 women in El Salvador—one in every 5,000—were killed, with most of them under the age of 30. From the beginning of 2017 through October, there were nearly 2,000 sexual assaults, with about 80 percent of victims 17 or younger, according to the Salvadoran Women’s Organization for Peace. Through November, there were were 429 femicides, according to the Institute of Legal Medicine. In the first two months of 2018, 72 women were murdered, a more than 50 percent increase from the same period last year, Salvadoran police reported on March 2.

But few of the perpetrators ever face justice. Between 2013 and November 2016, the Salvadoran government opened 662 femicide cases, but only 5 percent reached a conviction. With pervasive gender inequality and widespread impunity, part of the reason for the epidemic of violence against women may simply be that assailants believe that they can get away with it.

Yolanda Blanco, a government lawyer who co-founded the soccer club at the dusty San Salvador field where Dani and Sofia play, explained that gang members take revenge on rivals through the murder and rape of their sisters and daughters. “Girls are the objects of vengeance for the gangs,” she told me. “They are in the eye of the hurricane.”

A few days after visiting the soccer field, I met Ingrid, a 23-year-old woman from a northern suburb of San Salvador, at a hotel. Ingrid, along with her 3-year-old daughter and her family, had gone into hiding, and needed a safe location to meet. When in the eighth grade, she got a boyfriend and soon dropped out of school. Two years later, he became a member of a faction of Barrio 18, after the gang threatened to go after his sister if he refused to join. “Before joining the gang, he was very loving, taking care of me,” she said. “Almost overnight, he changed.”

Ingrid’s boyfriend soon began to lock her inside their house. He would get drunk, beat her, rape her, and forbid her from using contraceptives, she told me. After one beating, she was hospitalized, and learned she was pregnant. The doctors told her she might lose her child because of her injuries. Yet when Ingrid later gave birth to her daughter, her boyfriend promised to stop the abuse, and pushed her to get married. Shortly after, the beatings started anew, and she ultimately left her then-husband. Still, he eventually found them.

When I spoke to Ingrid, she told me she had considered applying for a visa to travel to the United States. She had even mulled the possibility of traveling north with her baby, either to claim asylum at the border, or enter America illegally. “My plan is to give her all the love and care I can,” Ingrid said, “and get as far away as I can.”

Magdalena Arce, the president of a network of women’s shelters in the foothills of San Salvador, argued that the violence against women comes down to machismo. As academics have argued, the sexism that devalues Salvadoran girls is so ingrained—in El Salvador’s politics, culture, even its religion—that many young women “don’t even know they have rights,” Arce said. That includes the right to safely leave abusive partners and report sexual and domestic violence, or even the right to higher education or economic opportunity.

Celina de Sola, who runs a community-development NGO called Glasswing International, emphasized that girls are not inherently vulnerable. Instead, she said, the violence in El Salvador is exacerbating existing external factors—like high rates of school dropouts and teen pregnancies—to further imperil young Salvadoran women. While one-third of Salvadorans live in poverty, the unemployment rate for 16-to-24-year-olds is double the national average; 300,000 in that age group neither work nor study. Many girls face these long odds with young children: A quarter of young women between the ages 15 and 19 have already become pregnant, the highest rate in Latin America.

Amid all this, the Trump administration has cut annual refugee acceptances for people from the Caribbean and Latin America from 5,000 to 1,500. It also ended two programs for Central-American minors, which enabled those with family in the United States to apply in their home countries for refugee status or humanitarian parole. The abrupt termination of these programs stranded thousands of children in imminent danger. Most of the 13,000 applicants came from El Salvador.

With their chance of obtaining refugee status diminished, more Central-American women and girls may risk the journey north—and the sexual violence that often comes with it—to claim asylum at the border. U.S. law affords them protection if they can prove they have been persecuted on account of race, religion, nationality, political beliefs, or membership in a particular social group. Though victims of rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence may qualify for special visas, these criteria, derived from the 1951 Refugee Convention, have effectively become outdated for young Salvadoran women caught in the current wave of gang violence. In its first year, the Trump administration, which vowed to crack down on asylum “abuse,” lowered approval rates for asylum. According to several lawsuits, the administration has also illegally turned away asylum seekers at the border.

Per the 1980 Refugee Act, U.S. authorities can legally return immigrants to a country where they are in danger only if they have been convicted of a serious crime or officials “reasonably” determine they threaten national security. Yet under Trump, hundreds of thousands of the 2.1 million Salvadorans already in the United States, the overwhelming majority of whom are not criminals and pose no threat, now stand to lose protections that allowed them to stay in the country without fear of deportation. The Salvadoran government has argued that it cannot absorb these imminent returnees, on top of the 40,000 forcibly deported the past two years alone.

Once these people arrive in El Salvador, gangs target many of them for attacks and extortion, believing that returnees have more money and fewer connections to the community. Young people, often alienated from a country they barely know, can be vulnerable to the gangs’ aggressive efforts to recruit minors. For young women who fled El Salvador for the United States and now face deportation back to their home country, the situation is even more dire, Salvador Carrillo, president of the National Network of Returned Entrepreneurs of El Salvador, told me. “When they come back, they can experience retaliation [ranging from] from rape to assassination,” he said.

In April, Ingrid told me she knew Trump didn’t like Latinos, but argued that those coming to the United States were not all “bad hombres,” as the president  suggested. “We deserve a chance, because we [leave] out of necessity,” she said of Salvadorans. “We have to get out of this country.” Today, she is still in El Salvador, raising her daughter while on the run.

Trump’s moves to block desperate Salvadorans from escaping their country while also removing them from the United States are likely to feed the gangs more young recruits and victims—turning them into an even greater danger to  Salvadoran women and girls. In other words, Trump may well wind up undermining his own stated goals of curbing immigration and bringing down gangs like MS-13.

Today, El Salvador is holding municipal and legislative elections. These elections will serve as something of a response to Trump’s policies, and as a referendum on the government’s mano duro, or iron fist, approach to combating the gangs, which depends on U.S. support.

The first time I went to the dusty soccer field, I met Sofia’s grandmother, Maria Lucia Paz de Artiga. The 78-year-old woman’s gold teeth glinted when she laughed, and the words I love grandmother were written in English on a white cast on her arm. During El Salvador’s 12-year civil war, which took 75,000 lives, she and her children fled the countryside for San Salvador. She’s grateful her children are grown-ups now, because it’s difficult to raise kids today, especially girls, she said. “Gangs are starving for them.”

El Salvador today is worse than during the war, Lucia told me. “During the war, at least we could roam freely,” she said. “Nowadays, you have to get permission. If you enter gang territory and nobody knows you—te vas pa el norte,” she said, laughing at her own double meaning. Typically, when Salvadorans say el norte, or “ the north,” they’re referring to the United States. Instead, to explain her meaning, Lucia pointed to the blue sky overhead. She preferred to use the slang for homicide, my fixer said. Te vas pa el norte—they’ll send you up.

Reporting for this article was funded by an Adelante fellowship from the International Women’s Media Foundation.