El Salvador’s Black Widows – Female Leadership in MS13

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An MS13 linked gang in El Salvador known as the Black Widows has been convicted of forcing women to marry men and then killing their new husbands as part of a complex life insurance scheme — a case which helps shed light on women in organized crime in Central America.

On March 4, seven of the Black Widows, a group with male and female members, were sentenced to up to 20 years in prison on charges of sexual exploitation and forced marriage. The gang’s ringleader was Esmeralda Aravel Flores Acosta, a woman who had been convicted previously on similar charges, according to a news release from the Attorney General’s Office.

The Black Widows tracked down and deceived wealthy men into marrying certain women, under the guise that the marriages would help them obtain legal residency in the United States. A life insurance policy was also a “pre-requisite” for the US residency, according to the scheme.

The group subsequently had MS13 members murder the husbands and force the wives to collect the life insurance payouts. The BBC reported that the Black Widows collected at least $100,000 from this scheme.

SEE ALSO: The Mara Women: Gender Roles in CentAm Street Gangs

The women, between 18 and 23 years old, were kidnapped after being lured by Flores Acosta with offers of domestic work. They were then forced into the marriages and even made to behave as grieving widows after the men were killed.

Violeta Olivares, head of El Salvador’s Unit Against Illegal Trafficking and Human Trafficking, told the BBC that only 50 to 60 cases of human trafficking are registered in El Salvador each year, the majority involving sexual exploitation or forced labor. Until recently, no human trafficking through coerced marriage had ever been identified — let alone prosecuted — in Central America, according to the BBC.

InSight Crime Analysis

The Black Widows’ case represents a type of covert violence less frequently seen in the region, as it relies on female trickery, deception, and psychological control. This type of human trafficking has received comparatively little attention in the country.

The female leader of the Black Widows also serves as an example of a woman linked to the MS13 who acted with same freedom and murderous tendencies as her male counterparts. 

But while examples of such female leadership are increasing, this case is not representative of the less prominent positions women have usually played in the gang, involved in micro-trafficking or working as drug mules.

Female members continue to be relegated to the MS13’s periphery and have limited autonomy when it comes to decision-making, said Juan Martínez d’Aubuisson, an anthropologist and author of various studies on the MS13. “In the event that they are given a voice, women most often derive their agency from male members who are incarcerated or in hiding,” he told InSight Crime.

SEE ALSO: MS13 News and Profile

But more recently, women in the MS13 have begun to take on more active roles by participating in robberies, kidnappings, and targeted killings alongside male gang members, UCLA anthropology professor Jorja Leap told Univision. An InSight Crime report on the role of women in organized crime, published in March 2020, also pointed to the Black Widows as an example of women who have increasingly adopted positions of leadership within criminal structures.

The Black Widows’ successful life insurance fraud scheme certainly lends credence to the latter argument, challenging assumptions that female participation in organized crime is either always passive or caused by men compelling them to act.

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