SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – In a country terrorized by gangsters, it is left to the dead to break the silence on sexual violence.
Rather, to the bodies of dead women and girls pulled from clandestine graves. Raped, battered and sometimes cut to pieces, they attest to the sadistic abuse committed by members of street gangs.
Those who gather statistics say there are no reliable numbers on sexual violence in El Salvador. Threats prevent many from reporting attacks. Others who have grown up amid abuse may not recognize rape as a crime. Still others flee the country rather than seek justice from a system that more often delivers impunity.
U.S. immigration attorneys say there has been a dramatic increase in the number of women and girls from Central America seeking asylum in the United States after having been kidnapped and raped.
"We are seeing an exponential increase," said Lindsay Toczylowski, a lawyer with Catholic Charities in Los Angeles. "It's the evolution of gang warfare. ... It's what we see in other war situations around the world where rape is used as a weapon."
El Salvador's 6 million residents suffer the second highest per capita homicide rate in the world after neighboring Honduras. In a land of lakes and volcanos, clandestine graves appear like wild mushrooms after a rainstorm. In the evening, the cacophony of San Salvador traffic gives way to the squeals of wild parrots and, sometimes, to wails of grief.
Most of the violence is the handiwork of the Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street gangs, which were formed by immigrants in the United States, then returned home and grew into warring forces of tens of thousands of gangsters.
The official numbers show just 239 women and girls among the murdered so far this year, about a tenth of the number of men, with 201 others reported missing. Through August, 361 rapes were reported. But the statistics don't begin to tell the story. Worldwide, women generally report only 20 percent of rapes, according to the World Health Organization, and that percentage is likely lower in El Salvador. The missing and dead also may be under-reported.
Criminologist Israel Ticas, who digs up clandestine graves for the Attorney General's Office, says more than half of the 90 sites he has excavated in the last 12 years contained the remains of murdered women and girls. "For sure there are hundreds of these cases and maybe thousands out there," Ticas said.
His field notes, augmented by interviews with protected witnesses, provide a window into the abuse. He randomly selects a case from one of his journals:
"7 June 2013 in Santa Tecla, the girlfriend of a gang member recruited two friends to go to a party. The gangsters suspected that one of the girls betrayed them, talking to a rival gang. Eight men raped the girls. First two were killed with multiple knife wounds. The third was held for 24 hours while they asked for ransom, but when they couldn't get the money they killed her, too. The three were dismembered. They were 12, 13 and 14 years old."
Ticas closes the worn book and opens another:
"27 October 2011, Colonia Montes, San Salvador. A 16-year-old girl approached a gang member out of curiosity. She wanted to be his girlfriend and they had sex. After, he turned her over to his clique as a prize. After they raped her, they cut her in pieces.
"April 21, 2014 in Ahuachapan, I worked on the body of a young woman who was about 18 years old, killed 43 months before. She was mummified, her painted red fingernails had been perfectly conserved. She was halfway buried in the middle of a sugar cane plantation. She had been killed by asphyxiation, with multiple nooses pulled in different directions by various men. She had been gang raped, with serious damage to her sexual organ, and we never could identify her. She went from a clandestine cemetery only to end up in a common grave."
"How many more do you want?" Ticas asks, pointing to a dozen journals filled with photographs, drawings and notes. "Any girl or woman who gets near this world sooner or later will be collectively abused by the gang."
At the Joaquin Rodenzo public school in San Salvador, six teenagers spoke on condition of anonymity about gang control of their neighborhoods. Asked whether they knew anyone who had been raped by a gangster, three raised their hands. "We don't talk about that. Whoever that has happened to keeps quiet," one said.
Sandra, 18, is among those who escaped. Offering only her first name and speaking in Los Angeles, where she was awaiting an immigration hearing, she described violence as a part of life in El Salvador. First, a classmate became pregnant by a gang member. Then, the cousin of another classmate disappeared.
"The Maras come looking for girlfriends and they follow you," said Sandra, who fled because her mother could not protect her.
Young gang members are initiated into rape and murder to prove their mettle and ensure their silence about crimes.
"The youth are theirs, the streets are theirs, the walls are theirs, the people are theirs," says anthropologist Juan Martinez.
El Salvador's Security Ministry has registered more than 1,500 gang cliques.
"All of the gang members victimize women. All of the cliques behave this way," said Silvia Juarez, a lawyer with the Gender Violence Observatory. "If there are 60,000 or 70,000 gangsters, imagine how many women they have abused."
Associated Press writer Marjorie Miller contributed from Los Angeles.