Women in El Salvador’s Gang War Surviving the State of Exception

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Published on: 29 July, 2022

Given restrictions imposed by the state of exception in El Salvador, and the need to protect those women who shared their stories with photographer Ana María Arévalo Gosen, we have decided not to feature portraits in which women imprisoned for gang-related crimes could be identified.


Ever since El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele declared a “state of exception” in March, setting in motion a massive crackdown on suspected gang members, images of allegedly violent men have streamed through the government’s communication channels. 

The campaign was the Bukele government’s response to a gang killing spree that left 62 Salvadorans dead in just one day. Characterised by brutal “mano dura (iron fist) policing and disregard for due process and other rights, the crackdown is popular with the general public. Salvadorans see it as just deserts for the gangs they hold responsible for flaring violence and the pervasive extortion rackets that afflict poor communities. Inspired by the social media-savvy president, the police use their Twitter feed to give live updates on their #GuerraContraPandillas (#WarOnGangs), posting close-ups of detained suspects and accounts of their ostensible misdeeds. Mugshots of tattooed and despondent boys and men dominate. Women appear rarely, and those who do often shield their faces from the camera or hover behind male suspects. This conflict appears to be largely between men, pitting overwhelmingly male police forces in balaclavas against their targets. 

In some cases, entire families belong to gangs. This young girl’s parents are serving sentences, and her grandparents are part of the groups’ support networks.

But both the crackdown and the conditions that underlie it are far from a male-only affair. Indeed, by 1 June, official sources said 5,114 women had been arrested amid raids and round-ups in gang-controlled areas since the state of exception was declared on 27 March. In one sense, the number seems modest: for every woman arrested, roughly six men are captured. Yet the rise in the number of female prisoners has been breathtaking. Salvadoran prisons were home to 2,710 women in 2021, a number that reflected steady growth over the past two decades. But because of recent mass arrests, that figure stands to triple in a matter of months. It even outpaces the increase in male prisoners, which has roughly doubled over the same period, with El Salvador now home to the largest prison population per capita in the world.

Between January and April 2021, Ana María Arévalo Gosen, a Venezuelan photographer, visited Salvadoran women being held in prison to help capture their stories. Her photos accompany this account by Floor Keuleers and Natasha Mulenga Hornsby of how Salvadoran women are swept up in gang life and navigate the shoals of crime and punishment amid the violence and misogyny that surrounds them. 

A Man’s World 

Born into a deeply patriarchal society, Salvadoran women and girls face risks in every sphere of life. The country has one of the worst rates for killings of women and girls in the world, according to the UN, though it has steadily decreased under the Bukele administration, which pushed down murder rates sharply in its first years in power (reportedly through informal negotiations with the gangs). The victims are often young; according to government figures, almost one in five women murdered in 2019 was under the age of 20. 

A 15-year-old girl who is trying to escape from the gang she belongs to cries in the arms of a friend
who is giving her refuge.

Everyday life for Salvadoran girls and women is fraught with the risk of violence. The government reported 3,419 instances of sexual violence between January and June 2021, of which more than 60 per cent were against girls under eighteen. In 310 cases, the victims were younger than ten. Teenage pregnancies are rife, some also affecting girls as young as ten. Abortion is illegal under all circumstances, including for pregnancies arising out of rape or incest, or presenting danger to the woman’s life. Women who undergo an abortion risk a long prison sentence, as do others who suffer miscarriages or obstetric emergencies. In late June, 21-year-old Lesly Ramírez was convicted of aggravated homicide and sentenced to the maximum of 50 years in prison after giving birth in a latrine in her home when she was just nineteen. Feminist activists say Ramírez, who was born into a poor farming family as the third of seven children and lived in a home without electricity or water, was unaware of what was happening to her body due to poor sex education. The authorities accused her of having stabbed her baby; according to civil society activists, she simply tried to cut the umbilical cord herself, in the dark. 

There is little by way of economic opportunity. While both men and women struggle to find jobs, the situation is particularly dire for women. In 2020, the UN found, almost four in ten Salvadoran girls and women aged 15 to 24 were neither working nor studying, more than double the rate for young men. 

Gang Life

In a place where both physical security and economic opportunity are hard to come by, many girls and young women join gangs to protect themselves and assert control over their lives, seeing them as a refuge from violent and abusive families. Asked in a 2017 study why they joined a gang, women were much more likely than their male counterparts to respond “to run away from home”. “There were people in the gangs who had perhaps experienced abuse and mistreatment like me. [They had] absent fathers, absent mothers”, one female prisoner told Arévalo. “So I felt like I identified with them and at last someone understood me and paid attention to me. I could be myself and I didn’t have to hide anything, but in [regular] society I have to hide certain things”. Yet gang membership comes with steep costs, including submission to a hypermasculine culture, with all the risks that it entails, and embracing extreme violence as the path to protection, status and respect. 

Unlike their male peers, who usually undergo severe beatings to formally become gang members, the initiation ritual for women may involve having sex with several gang members, known as the trencito (little train). Sometimes a woman is allowed to choose which initiation route she prefers. Most choose the beating, hoping to preserve their dignity and prove they have the toughness required to earn the gang’s respect. Other women are not given a choice. One former gang member said: “If you were cute, probably you’d be raped”. Women forced to have sex as part of their initiation are likely to remain highly vulnerable to sexual violence at the hands of gang members, suffering dire consequences if they resist.

Once she becomes part of the gang, policing of a woman’s body and sexuality only becomes more intense. Romantic or sexual relationships outside the group are generally forbidden, a constraint not faced by male peers. Having a boyfriend within the gang can provide a certain level of protection, especially if he has some influence in the group, yet it also creates new risks. Regarded as little more than property, girlfriends are used to prove loyalty or curry favour. As Silvia Juárez from the Organisation of Salvadoran Women for Peace (Ormusa) explains, a gang member looking to pay tribute and show his allegiance may offer a conjugal visit by his own girlfriend to a leader in prison. In past turf wars between rival gangs, girlfriends were common targets for those looking for revenge.

Although gangs often speak about gender equality within their ranks, in reality there is a heavily gendered division of labour. Women, especially those who are involved with the gang but not full members, carry out domestic chores and care work, such as taking food to prison when a member has been arrested. In the words of a woman interviewed by the country’s University Institute of Public Opinion (IUDOP) in 2008, in what is still the most in-depth study of women and gangs in El Salvador: “Me, in the group, I was kind of everyone’s mother: I washed for them, ironed for them, cooked for them, organised food packages for them. I had to look after them, even if I was younger than some of them”.

The gangs have their own form of a glass ceiling. While women’s support is vital to the groups’ operations, and it is possible for female members to achieve a certain level of status and leadership, ultimate authority tends to be concentrated in the hands of men. In an example of such power dynamics, when Crisis Group interviewed a group of three former Salvadoran gang members in 2019, the one woman among them would wait for a nod from the men before answering our questions.

Families in Limbo

A mother fixes her girl’s hair in the Izalco prison, the only jail in the country that allows
incarcerated women to live with their kids.

Rather than actively choosing gang life, some women become entangled with it indirectly through their ties to male gang members. According to the authorities’ estimates, the broader social network attached to the country’s 70,000 or so active gang members may consist of as many as half a million Salvadorans, many of them wives, girlfriends, mothers, daughters, sisters and cousins.

The Granja Izalco prison holds women who have earned a transfer for good behaviour and mothers who live with their children.

These support networks have taken on a new visibility recently, as women come together to support family members rounded up in the government’s unfolding crackdown. The state of exception decreed at the end of March, and as of July prolonged four times, allows for detention for up to fifteen days without charges. Many detainees have been kept incommunicado for weeks. Human rights watchdogs have detailed how, among other human rights violations, the families of those arrested are routinely kept in the dark on the whereabouts of their loved ones, sometimes learning after the individuals have perished in the brutal conditions of the nation’s jails. In a case reported by Human Rights Watch, the family of a 21-year old received no information on his whereabouts following his arrest on 3 April, until they were told on 19 April by hospital authorities that he had died that day. In another, it was an undertaker working for a funeral parlour who informed 23-year-old Sandra that her fiancé had died, a few weeks after being detained.

Desperate for information about their relatives and a chance to either secure their release or help make the conditions of their detention more bearable, hundreds of people, almost all of them women, have been converging outside the gates of El Salvador’s prisons. Some do not even have confirmation that their husband, boyfriend, son or brother is held at the facility outside which they are standing vigil. All they can do is hope they have come to the right place. With jail windows boarded shut to prevent communication with the outside world and prison help desks providing few meaningful updates, the families of the detainees frantically try to find answers when there is a transfer of inmates to another facility or the odd release of a handful of people.

The women standing in wait usually come armed with bags of documents, which they hope will prove that their relative is a law-abiding citizen rather than a gang member or collaborator. 

The women standing in wait usually come armed with bags of documents, which they hope will prove that their relative is a law-abiding citizen rather than a gang member or collaborator. At the police temporary detention centre “El Penalito” in San Salvador, stalls sell plates of food and basic necessities for delivery inside the detention centre – all authorised by the state, in an apparent admission that they are not able or willing to cover the prisoners’ basic needs. For $5, a woman can get her partner or son a toothbrush and toothpaste, soap, shampoo, toilet paper and a face mask. An extra $7 will buy the “complete package”, including a shirt, shorts, underwear (all in mandatory white) and flip-flops.

With arrests taking place across the country, women often travel long distances to get to prisons. While they stand in wait outside, their normal lives – running their households, bringing in income through jobs in the informal sector – come to a halt. In many cases, the person arrested was the main or only breadwinner for the family. Their imprisonment, which in most cases is likely to last for months, if not years, plunges entire families into even greater economic hardship and uncertainty, especially once any meagre savings run out. 

Women and children bear the brunt of the social and economic unravelling of families that the mass arrests are prompting, further raising the risk that the latter get drawn into the gangs’ orbit as they seek protection from often abusive authorities. As Norbert Ross, who runs non-profit Actuemos on the outskirts of San Salvador, put it: “[The crackdown] creates a lot of resentment in the community. It creates fear. It creates economic necessity. And these are all the ingredients that created the gangs in the first place”.

Crowded Jails

As for Salvadoran women who find themselves behind bars, the conditions they face are grim. In 2021, Arévalo spent four months in two Salvadoran prisons, the Izalco penitentiary farm for women, in the western department of Sonsonate, and sector D of Ilopango prison, close to San Salvador, interviewing imprisoned gang members. Like the women rounded up in the recent wave of arrests, the inmates she met – some of whom are photographed here – live in crammed cells, in unhealthy conditions and with limited access to basic hygiene.

El Salvador has the largest prison population per capita in the world.

Even well before the recent mass roundups, women’s prisons were among the most overcrowded in the country. In 2015, the Rehabilitation Centre for Women at Ilopango, one of the few jails that exclusively hosts women, held 2,000 inmates, although it was built to hold only 550. This number was an improvement over previous years, when it sometimes outstripped official capacity nine times over.

A gang member hugs her three kids. She joined the gang at 13, looking for protection after a
neighbor raped her and her father frequently beat her up.

Female inmates often live with their young children, who are allowed to stay with their mothers in prison until the age of five. Motherhood deeply shapes women’s experience of prison. Female detainees interviewed for the 2008 IUDOP study often described being a mother as the best gift life had offered them. Yet, while some women with babies and toddlers noted that their jail sentence gave them more time and freedom to care for them, childcare in Salvadoran prisons mostly comes with tremendous challenges. Women with long jail sentences live in the knowledge that their children will eventually be taken away from them. Others are cut off from older sons and daughters upon entering jail and depend on the willingness of relatives to bring them to the prison for visits. The women in the study almost unanimously lamented their inability to be present and care for their children as the most difficult part of their prison experience. “I’m not playing my part as a mother”, said one of them. “I can’t give her my love, affection, care. I don’t watch her grow, what she’s learning, her fears, what she likes, what she doesn’t like, I can’t help her … I don’t know much about her”.

Female gang members also say they are judged more harshly by friends and family than male gang members, making their isolation from life outside more acute. As in other patriarchal societies, Salvadoran women are generally expected to be peaceful, submissive and caring. Female gang members have not only broken the law, they have doubly failed. A researcher specialising in women in Central American gangs told Crisis Group that male gang members in prison can usually count on the support of their mother or girlfriend, while female detainees are much more likely to be abandoned altogether by their families. For gang members in El Salvador, there are virtually no legal ramps back to a law-abiding life. The women in the Izalco farm prison photographed by Arévalo are learning farming and tailoring skills. Those in Ilopango, like the majority of inmates, receive no education or job training, limiting their chances of securing a livelihood for themselves and their children when released.

A group of women pick tomatoes in the prison’s farm, where they also raise animals.

The New Normal?

Days passing by without any murders, once a rarity in El Salvador, have become common under the state of exception, according to figures produced (and massaged) by the authorities. To a population plagued by crime for decades, they are a breath of fresh air. The government brandishes them as proof that its clampdown is bearing fruit. But it is a brittle and brutal calm, not least for the country’s girls and women. In homes, schools, prisons and streets, structural harm to them persists. As long as it endures, truly breaking El Salvador’s cycle of violence remains an unfulfilled goal.