In a nation terrorized by gangsters, it is left to the dead to break the silence on sexual violence.
Rather, to the bodies of women and girls pulled from clandestine graves, raped, battered and sometimes cut to pieces. They attest to the abuse committed by members of street gangs who take girlfriends, discard them and then deliver them to group rape and murder.
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 might not recognize rape as a crime. Still others flee to other nations.
US immigration lawyers say there has been a dramatic increase in the number of women and girls from Central America seeking asylum in the US 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 live with the second-highest per capita homicide rate in the world, after neighboring Honduras. In a land of lakes and volcanoes, 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 suspected to be the handiwork of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and 18th Street gangs, which were formed by immigrants in the US, then returned home and grew into warring forces of tens of thousands.
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. However, worldwide, women generally report only 20 percent of rapes, the WHO said, and that percentage is likely lower in El Salvador.
The missing and dead also might be under-reported.
Criminologist Israel Ticas, who digs up clandestine graves for El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office, says that more than half of the 90 sites he has excavated in the past 12 years contained the remains of 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 could not 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.”
“How many more do you want?” Ticas said, 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 teens 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 is 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,” anthropologist Juan Martinez said.
“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.”
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