Like with terrorist organizations, women join gangs for the same reasons as men. Both women and men in Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) are exposed to multiple individual, family, relational, economic, and social risk factors that can put them at higher risk of joining gangs. In previous posts, I discussed how there is not a terrorist profile and that people from all walks of life can become radicalized. In the case of violent gangs in Central America, the profile is usually that of a young male who lives in a marginalized area with gang presence, and who has or is exposed to multiple risk factors at the different levels of the socioecological model of human development. A main difference between violent gangs and terror groups is that people do not join the former due to ideological or religious beliefs.
In 2009 and 2010, a team from Interpeace Central America interviewed active and former women gang members in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to understand why women join these groups. The reasons cited included the need for belonging, the search for protection and affection, economic opportunities, and the desire for recognition, among others. The need for an identity and belonging to a group was found to be a predominant risk factor in both men and women. These risk factors are worsened or enabled by other social and family risk factors, such as lack of economic opportunities, dysfunctional families, or lack of parental supervision.
In a previous post, I discussed how women, who want to join a terrorist group that is mainly conformed by men and that is not inclusive of women for ideological, societal, or misguided religious views, gain access to it through a man they know. However, when these terror groups are starting to collapse, they are desperate for people and start recruiting women. Also, some terror groups force women to join them to play what they describe as support or secondary roles. In the case of gangs, it is not easy for women to join them either. Women have three options if they want to join a gang, and these include:
Beatings: as with men, women are beat for 13 seconds (MS-13) or 18 seconds (18th Street), and if they can withstand the beating, they enter the gang.
Sexual relations: a woman must sustain sexual relations with multiple gang members for the same amount of time as the beatings.
Romantic relationships: a woman can automatically join a gang if she is in a romantic relationship with a gang member.
Not all options are the same. Women who withstand the beating are respected by gang members and have a voice in the gang when decisions are made. Women who join the gang through the second option are not respected or valued by other male or female gang members. They are also discredited and used as “bait” or human shields when they engage in conflicts with rival gangs. Women who join gangs through the third option are usually the most respected because they are girlfriends of gang leaders. Gang leaders usually like women outside the gang who are very young, between 13 and 15 years of age. Unfortunately, this leads to many teen pregnancies. Women gangsters can only find a partner within their gangs because gangs prohibit them from having a relationship outside of it.
In a gang, women need to prove their loyalty more than men. If women are found to be disloyal to the gang or to a gang member they are killed. On the other hand, men who have affairs with many women are seen as powerful and are respected by other gang members. Women also need to work extremely hard to maintain the gang’s respect for them even after they are accepted to it. A former gang member said that she had to do drugs, fight, and transport drugs to be respected by her peers. This made her become a cocaine addict.
Violent gangs in Central America operate under the same patriarchal norms of the societies they are a part of. This means that women’s roles in gangs are those that are traditional in these societies and include, taking care of children, cooking, taking care of the sick, and taking care of their partners. These are machista societies where “good” women must be caring, protecting, feed their families, cover up crimes, assist, support, defend, obey, accept, tolerate, concede, and be loyal to their men.
As is the case with terrorist groups, women are not perceived as a threat by society or law enforcement, so gangs use this to their advantage. In robberies and assaults, women are the ones who carry guns because they are less likely to be stopped and searched by law enforcement. Women also work as informants for kidnappings and extortions, and are able to enter prisons. There, they are part of gang drug businesses, and bring money and drugs in and out of these places. Although not at a great scale, women are starting to commit more murders according to police departments of the three Northern Triangle countries.
As for men, it is very difficult for women to leave a gang. The price for leaving a gang is death. One of the accepted reasons for leaving a gang is becoming an active member of a church. Women usually want to leave a gang when they are pregnant because they do not want their children to be part of the gang world. However, this is not an accepted reason for leaving the gang, and gang members are usually supportive of pregnant women. Widows and their children also receive economic support from the gang, creating a dependence relationship and a never-ending cycle of gang affiliation for women and their children.
There are similarities and differences between gang- and terror-group-joining. To prevent women from joining these groups and committing violent acts, women must be seen a possible perpetrators of violence too. Taking this approach will also help change gendered views of women’s roles and will allow violence prevention programs to include women in their interventions. In the case of gangs, reentry into society is very difficult for women. If they are not killed, society does not accept them because of the stigma that brings having been part of a gang. Given that many women in gangs are mothers, programs should also provide support to women so they can take care of their children. If not, gangs will fill this void and the cycle of violence will continue indeterminately.