The ‘Nannies’ of El Salvador’s Barrio 18

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In a neighborhood outside of El Salvador’s capital San Salvador, Barrio 18 gang members are forcing women to take care of their children while they or their partner are in prison. These women become babysitters, “nannies” for the gang. To say no would mean death.

Tony gets special treatment from the homeboys. He’s discreet and doesn’t talk much, even around his mom. In his face you can see the disdainful gaze of a gang member. And he never opens up to strangers.

Tony only shows his true personality in front of the gang. He meets them on the street corner, sits down on a park bench, and laughs at their jokes. He’s comfortable. The Barrio 18 gang members treat him like one of their own. When he asks a neighborhood resident to contribute a dollar to the gang, the guys congratulate him. Tony knows he’s the son of a gang member, and he acts like it.

Tony is quiet. Tony hangs out with the gang members. Tony asks for money in the park. Tony urinates wherever he wants. Tony responds to an alias, his nickname within the gang. Tony fights. Tony throws up gang signs. Tony talks back to his surrogate mother. Tony is the son of a gang member and is almost one himself.

Tony is only four years old.

*This article was translated, edited for clarity and length, and published with the permission of Revista Factum. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.

This four-year-old boy is the son of a Barrio 18 gang member and his girlfriend. Both have been in prison for the last three years, so he was put under the care of Marcela, one of the chosen “nannies” for the gang in this neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital San Salvador.

Tony’s “nanny” is very young. She has to care for a child of the gang who is already behaving like he’s part of it. She never wanted to have him in her care, but now has to raise him as her own son while following the rules of others.

Marcela can’t speak freely. If she wants to move to a new house, she has to ask the gang for permission. If she wants to take Tony somewhere far away, she has to inform the “palabrero” or gang leader for the area. If Tony goes out to play with the gang members, she can’t do anything to stop him.

Marcela lays Tony down in her lap and puts him to sleep. She strokes his hair and fans him with her hands to cool him down. She concedes with a smile that one of the things he likes most is hearing stories about his father from the gang members.

Of all of the children the gang has assigned to “nannies” in this neighborhood, Tony is the clearest example of the problems these children can have after being abandoned by their parents and left under the care of a stranger.

Tony at four years old does not have documentation. No birth certificate or any other paperwork. His only identification is the name that Marcela and the homeboys call him. Faced with this, his new mother doesn’t know what to do.

(Children play as soldiers patrol the Barrio 18-controlled neighborhood where the “nannies” live. Credit: Oliver De Ros / FACTUM-El Intercambio)

In early 2016, Revista Factum visited this San Salvador neighborhood, which won’t be named to protect the “nannies” interviewed for this story.

The neighborhood isn’t very far outside of the capital. It has shopping centers and supermarkets. There is a police post nearby and officers, accompanied by soldiers, patrol the streets almost every day. They stop young people in alleyways and search them. At night, in seemingly endless operations, they bang on doors and search homes. Gunshots are fired. It could give the impression that the state has a presence and control. But they don’t.

In reality, this neighborhood, with its family housing and six main streets, is under gang control. Here, members of the Barrio 18 Revolucionarios faction decide who can enter and exit, who pays extortion and who doesn’t, and who lives and dies.

The gang also influences basic aspects of life. For example, the way young people can dress, the schools children can attend, the styles of music that can be played at high volume and even how late someone can be out at night drinking.

None of these norms are written down anywhere, they are simply known from past experiences. The consequences for not following them are also known. For example, if someone refuses to pay extortion, they die. If someone talks with the police, they die. If someone feeds information to a rival gang, they die. It’s all happened before.

The control of the gang in this neighborhood is latent. Residents know it and obey.

As such, the gang can control some of the most personal parts of residents’ lives, including the women who have become slaves, babysitters, a kind of “nanny” for the gang who raises the children of the imprisoned.

(A group of children play in the Barrio 18-controlled neighborhood where the “nannies” live. Credit: Oliver De Ros / FACTUM-El Intercambio)

Since 2000, the role of women in El Salvador’s gangs has been dwindling. Very few “clicas” or “canchas,” as the MS13 and Barrio 18 gangs call their small local cells, are initiating women anymore. Women’s current roles are mainly as “jainas” or girlfriends, collaborators and sexual slaves.

However, a new phenomenon of “nannies” is emerging. These are women who have been chosen by the gang to be mothers. They have been subjected to a new form of slavery: to raise the children of gang members while under threat and without any legal recourse.

To date, neither the Salvadoran government nor media outlets like Revista Factum have collected data to determine whether or not the practice of planting children with non gang-affiliated women is common among gangs in general, or within the Barrio 18 Revolucionarios faction in particular.

However, Revista Factum has documented the existence of this phenomenon in at least three neighborhoods in San Salvador and Santa Ana. In the previously described community, 12 cases were identified and six “nannies” were interviewed.

Nonetheless, Griselda González, an official in charge of oversight for the National Council for Children and Adolescents (Consejo Nacional de la Niñez y Adolescencia – CONNA), the top authority for guaranteeing the rights of children in El Salvador, told Revista Factum that she is not aware of any reports of cases of this kind and that the state is not aware of this phenomenon.

Asked hypothetically how the institution would respond if faced with such a case, González said that one of the first actions would be to separate the minor from the “nanny,” due to the lack of documents allowing them to have custody. Although CONNA officials appear unaware, separating children from their appointed nannies would very likely lead to the deaths of these women.

In El Salvador, nonprofit organizations with international funding are so far the only outside group paying attention to the nannies and the children of the gangs. Though even this assistance was not intended for nannies threatened by gangs, but rather for women voluntarily raising children of incarcerated women.

*This article was translated, edited for clarity and length, and published with the permission of Revista Factum. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.

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