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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 who take girlfriends, discard them when they know too much, then deliver them to group rape and murder.
Even 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 rampant abuse may not even recognize rape as a crime. Still others flee the country for safety 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 last year in the number of women and girls from Central America seeking asylum in the United States after having been kidnapped and raped, much like the women who are fleeing war in Africa.
"We are seeing an exponential increase," said Lindsay Toczylowski, a lawyer with Catholic Charities in Los Angeles. "It's the evolution of gang warfare, what's going on in Honduras and El Salvador. It's what we see in other war situations around the world where rape is used as a weapon to terrorize the community."
El Salvador's 6 million people also 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 for the dead.
Most of the violence is the handiwork of the Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street gangs, which were formed by migrants 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 the number of men, with an additional 201 reported missing. Through August, 361 rapes were reported, two-thirds of them against minors. 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 underreported.
"We have cases in which the mother knows how her daughter died, but she cannot talk because the gangsters who raped and killed her have come to the wake to offer condolences for their girlfriend," said Silvia Juarez, a lawyer with the Gender Violence Observatory. "In this context, the state is incapable of offering protection."
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 have 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 underworld of 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 hand-written notes on the exhumations. "Any girl or woman who gets near this world sooner or later will be collectively abused by the gang."
The Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street gangs are the most powerful of six major gangs in El Salvador, and those who study them say it is not uncommon for gang members themselves to be the offspring of rape. Many targets of their sexual violence do not willingly approach the gangs, but rather are stalked by them.
Few come forward to discuss their ordeal.
Girls who grow up around such sexual violence often don't realize it is abnormal, says Jeanne Rikers, a gang expert from the nonprofit human rights organization FESPAD. It is not uncommon for girls as young as 8 or 9 to begin having sexual relations with "a boyfriend," she said, and they may take up with a gang member in the belief it will protect them from other men.
"All of the gang members victimize women. All of the cliques behave this way," said Juarez, the lawyer with the Gender Violence Observatory. "If there are 60,000 or 70,000 gangsters, imagine how many women they have abused."
At the Joaquin Rodenzo public school in downtown San Salvador, with an armed guard at the door, 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 of the students said.
Sandra, an 18-year-old from La Libertad department, is among those who escaped. Offering only her first name and speaking in Los Angeles, where she is awaiting resolution of an immigration hearing, she described violence as a part of everyday life for schoolgirls in El Salvador. First, a classmate became pregnant by a gang member. Then, the cousin of another classmate disappeared. They were all at the park, Sandra said, a car drove up to the entrance and called the girl. She got into the car and never came back.
"The Maras come looking for girlfriends and they follow you," Sandra said.
Even from the safety of Los Angeles, Sandra begins to cry about a mother who couldn't protect her from gangsters who drove her out of the country. The brother of her mother's boyfriend was a gangster who began to pursue Sandra on the way home from school, telling her he could "take me whenever he wanted ... as many times as he wanted." Then the mother's boyfriend grabbed her in the kitchen one afternoon.
Sandra reached out to her aunt in the United States, who sent her money for the illegal journey north — a journey the aunt made herself after becoming pregnant from a rape.
Toczylowski, who is one of Sandra's lawyers, says she has interviewed many girls in the U.S. in the last year who told of being gang raped back home. They are among the thousands of Central Americans who turned themselves in to U.S. authorities when rumors spread that minors would be allowed to stay while awaiting hearings.
She said the gangs tell their victims "that if they report it, it will happen again or to their little sister."
Young gang members are initiated into rape and murder as a means to prove their mettle and ensure their silence on crimes in which they participated. Neighborhoods are dominated by terror.
"The youth are theirs, the streets are theirs, the walls are theirs, the people are theirs," says anthropologist Juan Martinez.
Associated Press writer Marjorie Miller contributed to this report from Los Angeles.