The Role of Females in Latin American Gangs

By Steffica Warwick

Photo by Lasaye Hommes on Unsplash

‘The difference in Guatemala between the death of a man and the death of a woman is that the woman is raped before she is killed, she is mutilated…This does not happen to men’

However dangerous being involved with a gang may be, often girls have no choice. 

‘Having a partner in a gang can be perceived as something that is much safer than being on the street alone. Girls do it out of fear’, said Alejandra Colom, Senior Program Director at the Population Council in Guatemala.

To strengthen their protective forces, some girls go so far as to enter into marriage with gang members. But whereas being coupled with a gang member may give the girl and her family some level of protection from one gang, it may leave them more vulnerable to rival gangs. Girlfriends, sisters, and mothers are often targeted by rival gangs as a way of getting through to their male connections. Female relatives of imprisoned gang members often make easy targets for revenge killings, as the male cannot protect them.
What is more, as ‘possessions’ of male gang members, they are open to attack from fellow gang members if their partner is being punished. 

Central American gangs operate through a code of honour, whereby if a member betrays or abandons his own gang then their most vulnerable ‘possession’ is attacked. This usually means the rape or murder of his sister or wife. The same rule applies if a female gang member has sexual relations with anyone except her husband or partner – an honour killing or revenge killing would not be unusual.

But the mass murder of females is not necessarily quick and clean. The often-studied case of Mexico‘s city of Juárez, which saw 400 femicides between 1990 and 2005, is illustrative the symbolic nature of these killings. The murdered women in Juárez were found to have undergone torture, rape, mutilation, especially of the sexual organs and breasts, and decapitation. Guatemala's Attorney General Thelma Aldana stated that these brutal tactics employed in organised crime are an expression of misogyny.

‘The difference in Guatemala between the death of a man and the death of a woman is that the woman is raped before she is killed, she is mutilated…This does not happen to men…It is clear to see how misogyny is present up until the moment of a woman's death’.

Joining a gang can also give girls a new sense of purpose. They may join to escape a life of domestic drudgery, poverty and violence, including sexual abuse. Sometimes they follow the footsteps of another family member to gain access to the gang.

However, although an estimated 20-40% of gang members are women, seldom can they occupy senior positions. Young women do not typically engage in more masculine activities such as fighting and committing crime, mainly because they are not permitted to. Instead, they are used for menial tasks.

Within organized crime, patriarchal structures and traditional gender roles continue to be reproduced, meaning that women will cook, clean and do domestic work to nurture the gang.
But because women are generally less suspicious, they are often used in more dangerous activities such as smuggling illicit goods and weapons into prisons, or gathering intelligence on rival gangs. But this work as a mula or drug mule is an expendable role. It can often lead to poisoning or death if the drugs enter the woman‘s bloodstream, or she could be killed by the gang if she gets caught.

Even though research on female gang involvement has expanded in recent years, little is still known and more comprehensive research on the female role needs to be explored. But one thing is certain: living in a gang is hard, and leaving it behind can be just as difficult.

This article is extracted from the Research paper titled 'Silent Voices: Violence against the female body as a consequence of machismo'  in Chapter 4 of the Safety Report by SAFIGI Outreach Foundation 'Safety First for Girls'.

The Safety Report by SAFIGI is a two-fold Open research on 'Core Issues Affecting Safety of Girls in the Developing World.' The first part of the Safety Report is a Research Paper. The second part is a detailed Data Analysis. 

The Safety Report Research paper is titled: 'Core Issues Affecting Safety of Girls in the Developing World.' The paper starts with an abstract before focusing on subjects in the key regions of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. A total of 7 Research papers make up the safety Report (sans the introduction and conclusion), including:

  1. The psychological effect of mass sexual harassment on girls in Egypt (P.24) by Heba Elasiouty.
  2. Safety concerns in relation to social media: Growing up female in an increasingly digital world (P.45) by Karin Temperley.
  3. Psychosocial challenges faced by parents raising children with physical disabilities in Oshana region (P.68) by Misumbi Shikaputo.
  4. Gender-based violence and subsequent safety challenges experienced by Rohingya women (P.119) by Shucheesmita Simonti.
  5. LGBT policies and overall safety in Brazil (P.141) by Alinne Lopes Gomes.
  6. Silent voices‘: Violence against the female body as consequence of machismo culture (P.177)  by Steffica Warwick.
  7. America‘s Public Policy on Sexuality: The Repression of Girls in Vulnerable Populations (P.208) by Dr. Christina Sisti.

SAFIGI Outreach Foundation Ltd, a volunteer-based and youth led NGO registered in Zambia, implemented the Safety Report in order to understand the multifaceted concept of safety and how it applies to the female gender in diverse settings. And therefore, further prove safety is intrinsic, and that vices in society stem from an intimate level of the human being before its manifestation. This way, when we create safety solutions, whether it be in a developing nation, conflict zone, refugee camp, or patriarchal society, the problem is resolved from a deeply rooted cause. Such that, we treat the disease itself and not mere symptoms.

This study is as a result of collaborative effort pursued in the spirit of volunteerism via UN Online Volunteers.


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