Experts say that as many as 100,000 gang members rule the streets of Central America, most of them in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. The gangs have affiliated groups in Mexico and the United States, creating an international net of lawlessness. How many of the members are girls is not clear, though a recent study said that as many as 40 percent of the region's gang members may be females, showing off their sexuality even as they learn to strut and throw a fierce punch.
To join one of Central America's fierce street gangs, Benky, a tiny young woman wearing heavy mascara and with tattoos running up and down her arms, had to have sex with a dozen or so of her homeboys one night. She recalls sobbing uncontrollably when the last young man climbed off her and everyone gathered around to congratulate her on becoming a full-fledged member of the Mara Salvatrucha.To stay in the male-dominated gang, her leader ordered her to rob buses, grab chains off people's necks and even kill a girl from a rival gang. She always complied, although Benky is not sure if her female rival lived or died from the bullet that she fired into the girl's back.Girls in the midst of the deeply machista, or male chauvinist, gang culture thriving in Central America often find themselves straddling the line between victims and victimizers. It is abuse in their home lives that often propel them into the gangs in the first place, and those gangs often continue the abuse under the veil of protection. The gang is their adopted family, they say, offering what proves to be an unpredictable mix of affection and aggression."If a girl is getting abused by her father, the gang will step in and end it," said Gustavo Cifuentes, a streetwise former gang member with an extensive rap sheet who now works for Guatemala's government, trying to lure gang members to better, law-abiding lives.
If the girls do not follow the directions of the leader, Cifuentes acknowledged, a beating or even worse will be the result.
"There are a lot more women and girls than anyone imagined," said Ewa Werner Dahlin, the Swedish ambassador to Guatemala, whose government helped finance a Central America-wide study that included interviews with more than 1,000 past and present gang members, male as well as female. "It's a surprise to the experts, and it shows that the authorities have been reacting to gangs without really understanding them."
There are only a handful of girl-only gangs in the region, experts say, with girl gang leaders. Far more common was Benky's reality - a few young women in a sea of tough, sexually charged young men.
With four jail stints behind her, Benky, 23, is now experiencing a new phase of life, but one that is proving just as rough as those she has endured before. Getting out of a gang can be as challenging as getting in or staying in. In Benky's case, when her fellow Maras learned she was trying to abandon them, they shot her six times.After nine months of hospitalization, she now limps through life, selling candy on the buses she used to rob because her gang tattoos disqualify her from most other forms of employment. Most of those in her gang have died in shootouts with the police, she said, but one of the few still living, a man, spotted her recently on the street and yelled out a threat on her life. He was surprised that she had survived the hit."It looks so good from the outside," remarked Benky, who like others in this article asked to be identified by first names or nicknames to avoid stirring up trouble on the streets.To understand her sentiment, one must know how grim her childhood was, and those of many other gang girls. She began living on the streets, at the age of 6, with an older brother. She is not sure what happened to her mother, but she recalls her father having no interest in raising them.
Her brother was shot by a member of the 18th Street gang, which prompted her to join the other giant gang in the region, the Mara Salvatrucha. "I thought it would be like my family," she said. "I thought I'd get the love I was missing. But they'd hit me. They ordered me around. They told me I had to rob someone or kill someone, and I did it."
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