San Salvador, El Salvador — From afar, it looked like a breakdown. A few cars gathered at the side of a highway on a Tuesday morning.
But this gathering, made up of police patrolmen and photographers, disguised a ghastly but all too common fact of daily life in El Salvador — the murder of a young woman.
In this tiny Latin American country, women bear the brunt of a brutal gang culture. They are the drug mules and forced foster parents of children of gang members who are either in jail or dead.
Sometimes women are forced into the gangs themselves, subjected to violent initiations that can comprise rape, beatings and murder.
That morning, on the side of a highway in Apopa, a district north of the capital San Salvador, lay the body of 22-year-old Jennifer Landaverde, her exposed painted red toenails poking out from a white sheet.
Neighbors say Landaverde was “in trouble” with the local gang, Barrio 18. She had left home at dawn to walk to her job at market stalls in the city. Her mother heard the gunshots and then found the body.
Landaverde had been shot eight times. Police say there was no sign of the sexual assault that blights many communities in El Salvador.
But pictures of her body, snapped by news photographers at the scene, showed her clothes around her ankles.
Officers dragged Landaverde into the back of a police pickup. The dead woman’s shoes were handed to her mother, who wept as she received them.
At the wake the next day, in a tiny village in Apopa where a few years ago the gangs would never have bothered extending their tentacles, little more was said about how Landaverde came to be there.
A woman is murdered in El Salvador every 19 hours; a murder — more generally — occurs every two hours.
Yet this slight statistical advantage does not lessen the brutality women face in a society where 10% of people are, according to one government estimate, said to be in a gang or under the influence of one.
The United Nations’ special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Agnes Callamard, told CNN that women’s “bodies are treated as a territory for revenge and control. Gangs are male-dominated and girls and women parts of the territories they control.”
Callamard also noted that about one in 10 murders of women results in convictions.
“I also received troubling information of increased numbers of enforced disappearances of women and men alike, which may indicate even higher numbers of killings,” she said.
“It is of concern that this number may be underreported due to lack of complaints being lodged because of fear of reprisals,” added Callamard.
Gangs are not exclusively male however, and female members convicted of crimes end up in prisons such as Centro de Readaptación para Mujeres, in Ilopango, central El Salvador.
The women’s prison is a large, sprawling series of compounds, littered with laundry, and — oddly — the constant buzz of light aircraft that appeared to swoop from the sky throughout our visit.
Aerobics. Haircuts. More laundry. The courtyard bustled with activity, the women keen to get out of their tiny dormitories.
There was a time here when the gang members were kept apart from the normal prisoners. Now they are mixed together. Back then, Roxana was the de-facto head of the women’s gang section.
Roxana, who was wearing a bright blue bandana on her head and matching eyeliner, said her father died when she was young and her alcoholic mother left her to care for her five siblings. She ended up on the streets, easy prey to the gangs.
“I thought it was a game but… in the end it was… Sometimes you’re forced to walk the streets and you are being discriminated for being what you are, so you’re forced to rob or kill people… and sometimes things happen because of the alcohol and drugs,” she said from behind a wire fence.
“We’re drunk and drugged and did many things that I now regret having done,” she added.
Roxana recalled the moment when she committed the murder that left her incarcerated for the rest of her life.
“It was a rival gang and if I didn’t do what they asked me to do there were consequences for me,” she said.
“So, I was obliged to do it in that moment. What I did to him he wanted to do it to me,” she added of the man she killed. “So, I had to defend myself. Yes, I had to defend myself.”
Since she has been in jail, Roxana has lost not only her mother, but also her son, Rafael.
Rafael spent some time in jail, and was murdered shortly after he got out, four months ago to the day before we talked with his mother. His name is tattooed on the inside of Roxana’s right upper arm.
“It was very painful for me because I didn’t want him to follow my very same path but, before I realized, he had become a gang member already and I wasn’t able to do anything for him,” she said.
Roxana said she was initiated into the infamous gang Barrio 18 through an 18-second beating — in keeping with the obsession gangs have with inflicting punishments that honor their name.
“Eighteen seconds… I got kicked out and hit, that was necessary to be part of it. There are women that go through worse,” she said. “Sometimes they’re raped, beaten up, mistreated.”
Roxana said she has now retired from the gang culture. “When I started in the gang I didn’t have children and thought everything was pink and sweet. I was just a teenager,” she added.
“But as time passed I realized this wasn’t just a hobby — with the killings and murders,” she said. “By the time I wanted to leave the gang I couldn’t, my life was in danger. Maybe I should be thanking God to have brought me to this place.”
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