Report Details How El Salvador Gangs Use Rape As Weapon

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An article on sexual violence and femicide in El Salvador demonstrates the alarming extent to which gang members use rape to terrorize local communities and the degree to which this practice forms a part of gang culture.

According to an Associated Press investigation, members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 gangs in El Salvador typically subject their girlfriends to gang rape and even killings, in addition to kidnapping and abusing women and girls who are not affiliated with the group.

Official figures indicate that 239 women and girls have been killed so far this year in El Salvador and that by mid-October, 201 had disappeared. In addition, between January and August, 361 women — of which two-thirds were minors — reported being raped. The AP argues that these figures only represent a fraction of the actual totals because victims are afraid to report crimes perpetrated by gangs.  

US immigration lawyers told the AP they had seen a significant increase in the number of Central American women and girls applying for asylum who had reported being victims of kidnapping and rape.

“It’s a phenomenon seen in other conflict situations around the world in which rape is used as an instrument to terrorize the population,” one lawyer said.

In addition, new recruits are encouraged to participate in gang rapes and murders as part of their initiation into gang culture. The perpetration of sexual violence has become so common in some communities that, according to one expert, rape is perceived as a rite of initiation into adulthood.     

InSight Crime Analysis

As illustrated by the AP, violence against women has reached endemic proportions in El Salvador. In 2012, the country had the highest rate of femicide in the world, with many of the murders attributed to gang members.

In the Northern Triangle region, which is comprised of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, femicide is the leading cause of death for young women. Women associated with a particular gang are often targeted by rival groups, and others are raped and killed as part of gang initiation rites or as a means of strengthening ties between gang members.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

There are also women who join gangs voluntarily. According to a study on gender roles in Central American gangs, female gang members are often used to smuggle drugs and other illegal items and spy on rival groups because of a belief that they will attract less suspicion than men. However, even these women still commonly suffer abuse at the hands of their male counterparts, according to the study.

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