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Financial extortion in El Salvador spares neither women nor men. But women simultaneously suffer from a more insidious form of extortion shaped by the threat of sexual violence that blurs the lines between extortion, slavery and human trafficking.

Maria* was 23 when she first sought out the gang leader in her neighborhood in 2010 as a last resort against extortion.

“The father of her child lost his job so they couldn’t pay the extortion anymore, the daily installment one had to pay to live in the area,” Celia Medrano, chief of operations at the Cristosal human rights non-profit, recounted.

*This article is part of an investigation on various types of extortion in Central America and was carried out by InSight Crime as a joint project with the Global Initiative. See the rest of the series here.

“The gang started to threaten to kill her companion, so this very beautiful young woman with an 18-month-old toddler goes to complain to the authority in the area, the gang leader.”

In a surprise decision, the gang leader proved himself understanding. But what started out as a reprieve from extortion until her husband got back on his feet turned into a nightmare of sexual exploitation that lasted for years.

“After a while, the leader showed up at the house demanding that she do his laundry, and little by little he began to stay there, and eventually he moved into the house. The companion had to leave, Maria had to stay with her baby and her mother and he [the gang leader] took over as the owner of the house and her ‘husband’,” Medrano says, describing the case that Cristosal has brought to El Salvador’s Supreme Court.

Maria would endure nearly three years of sexual and physical abuse. Twice she would succeed in escaping. Twice the gang would track her down and force her to return by threatening to hurt her child and her mother.

Sexual Violence: The Threat

A majority of extortion victims in El Salvador are men, but women are by no means spared. Some estimates suggest up to 85 percent of Salvadoran households are single mother households, suggesting that the financial burden of the so-called “renta” (systematic extortion for residing in gang territory) is, in the vast majority of cases, taken on by female individuals.

But in addition to this economic harm, women are also subject to violence of a sexual nature, both within the extortion framework and beyond, as gangs have come to exploit the threat and use of sexual violence as a tool in their struggle for territorial control.

“Women’s bodies have become a battleground,” said Miriam Bandes, responsible for UN Women’s program in El Salvador, who reminds that gangs target women related — either directly as members or more often as companions — to rival gangs.

Under the perennial threat of sexual violence, women in gang-controlled neighborhoods reportedly adapt their behavior to mitigate the risk. Evidence suggests that women modify their daily behavior, from minimizing their presence on public transport and community spaces, to purposefully falling pregnant to avoid being claimed by a gang member, or getting ahead of what they deem inevitable and seeking out a stable relationship with a higher-ranking gang member.

Bandes assures that it is common for gangs to threaten to rape the daughter of an extortion victim, for instance, to ensure that payment is delivered. And the fear of being raped has fueled a wide-range of types of extortion in which the nature of the threat of violence is sexual. Payment can vary from offering house cleaning or kindergarten services to collecting extortion money from other victims and stashing the proceeds.

All experts consulted by InSight Crime — including police and judicial officials — agreed that the coerced nature of many women’s participation in gangs’ criminal activities must be taken into account during judicial proceedings. Yet the reality does not reflect this, as punishments are not adapted to women that were coerced into carrying out or aiding in a crime. Rather, authorities may have begun to specifically target female suspects in their efforts to dismantle extortive structures.

Maria’s suffering continued, this time at the hand of the state. When she first went to authorities in 2016 with the help of Cristosal, El Salvador’s attorney general’s office considered Maria a repenting criminal rather than a victim.

“Because she had spent three years immersed in the criminal structure, they told her that they could only help her if she accepted to testify under a plea agreement. And they started to interrogate her so that she would give up everything she knew about the gang members in the area,” Medrano explains.

Coerced from all sides, women have little institutional resources at their disposal. El Salvador has created government centers dubbed “city of women” (Ciudad Mujer) that group together services ranging from filing an official police complaint to banking services and health attention. But the UN official said that funds are too limited and institutional coordination too weak to really have any impact.

The issue is also often deeply rooted in reactionary entrenched mentalities. Sex workers, for instance, extorted financially and sexually by gangs and corrupt security forces alike, told InSight Crime that their access to these attention centers was generally denied due to the stigmatized nature of their work.

Sexual Violence: The Payment

While sexual violence stands as a powerful and efficient threat within an extortive scheme, it also constitutes the required payment in other cases, such as Maria’s. And her suffering is not an isolated incident. Medrano said Cristosal is currently handling four other court cases of a similar nature, dubbed “the girlfriend cases.”

“The issue here is how, when the [monetary] extortion can’t be paid, negotiations begin to see what other obligations can be fulfilled. And from our perspective this is [human] trafficking,” Medrano argued.

The term “sexual extortion” does not carry any legal weight, confirmed a Salvadoran judge who has for years handled extortion cases. But it does serve to describe a situation where a person is forced to act in a way that is detrimental to their sexual integrity.

The notion also comes to mind when considering earlier reports in 2010 that the Barrio 18 had threatened parents into handing over their underage daughters, who were taken to prisons to be sexually exploited by gang leaders for a period of time before being returned to their homes. The scandal surrounding the revelation of these crimes forced then-Interior Minister Carlos Menocal to restrict minors’ visits to prisons.

Such cases as Maria’s or the underage raping of girls may slide over into the criminal domains of slavery and human trafficking, particularly from a judiciary perspective. Maria’s case is hence being brought as a human trafficking case to the Supreme Court by Cristosal, while El Salvador’s attorney general’s office has filed the case as one of sexual assault and kidnapping. But they stand as poignant reminders that extortion can have a terribly more insidious nature when harming women.

*The name of the victim was modified to protect her identity.

Top Image: AP

*This article is part of an investigation on various types of extortion in Central America and was carried out by InSight Crime as a joint project with the Global Initiative. See the rest of the series here.

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