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Girls and Gang Violence in El Salvador

If you want to survive, never leave your house. This is what teenage girls in El Salvador are told. The gang violence in many parts of the country, including the capital of San Salvador, is so bad that staying at home is the only way for girls to stay safe.

Civil War and the Rise of Gangs

Between 1980 and 1992, many people fleeing El Salvador’s civil war came to the US. Los Angeles was one of the most popular destinations. Once they arrived, many of the young men started to form gangs. The initial goal was to protect their communities. In fact, many gangs had a saying, “Vivo por mi madre, muero por mi barrio,” which means “I live for my mother, I die for my neighborhood.”

The two main gangs to emerge out of this climate were Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18. As gang violence became more prevalent and violent in Los Angeles, the US started to deport gang members back to El Salvador.

The El Salvador that these young men returned to was very different from the one they had left. The civil war was over, but there was no organization, resources, or infrastructure. The country had only just begun to form a national police force. As the country struggled to rebuild, the gangs were able to grow unchecked.

Today, much of the country is now controlled by MS-13 and Barrio 18. Some of the members are as young as seven, but the average age of initiation is between the ages of 12 and 16. In this violent environment, someone is killed every hour in El Salvador. The killings tend to involve turf wars or revenge; however, sometimes innocent bystanders are the victims. Many times, these innocent victims are girls.

Caught in the Crossfire: Girls in El Salvador

Girls are killed by gang members daily in El Salvador. They’re most commonly killed for refusing to help the gang or for refusing to be a gang member’s girlfriend. The simple act of saying no has deadly consequences. As a result, some girls find it easier to just give in to the gangs; however, this rarely ends well. Gang members view women as disposable objects and often discard them once they’ve served their purpose.

With such a terrifying environment outside, girls are often told to stay at home, where they’ll be safe from gang violence. While self-imposed lockdown sounds like a horrible way to live, many girls think this is the best option after watching their friends and family members lose their lives to the gangs.

Some girls take avoiding the gangs a step further and try to leave El Salvador for the US. Many of these girls make the dangerous journey to the US alone. The migration route takes them through Mexico, and it’s a route where women are commonly raped, kidnapped, robbed, and murdered. Even if a girl is lucky enough to avoid violence on her trip, most girls are caught by Mexican immigration officials and sent to the deportation center in San Salvador.

While some girls are trying to live their lives without fleeing or giving into the gangs, it’s not easy and often it’s just a matter of time before the gangs interfere with their lives.

Is There A Solution?

A number of solutions to widespread gang violence have been proposed. One solution that has been suggested is to exterminate the gang members, an attempt to solve violence with violence. This solution is often proposed by the more affluent citizens of El Salvador, those least impacted by gang violence. On the other hand, people who have been victimized by the gangs want justice, but they also want to respect human rights. In their eyes, extermination isn’t a viable option.

Other people thought that a truce between the gangs was the solution. This truce became a reality in March 2012 when the government brokered a truce between MS-13 and Barrio 18. Homicide rates did drop, but ultimately the truce broke down and the gangs emerged even stronger.

The solution that has been proposed by religious leaders and NGOs is dialogue. The history of gangs in El Salvador is complicated. Gang violence has social, familial, and economic causes that need to be discussed and examined before it can be changed. This isn’t an overnight solution, but, then again, the gangs aren’t a problem that appeared overnight.

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