Mon | Dec 5, 2016

Street gangs target women and girls. 361 raped, 239 murdered

Published:Friday | November 7, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Criminologist Israel Ticas talks on the phone as he stacks his field notebooks at his office in San Salvador, El Salvador. Ticas digs up clandestine graves for the attorney general's office. AP

SAN SALVADOR (AP): In a country terrorised 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 recognise rape as a crime. Still, others flee the country for safety rather than seek justice from a system that more often delivers impunity.

US 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 terrorise the community."

HIGH HOMICIDE RATE

El Salvador's six million people also suffer the second highest per capita homicide rate in the world after neighbouring Honduras. In a land of lakes and volcanos, clandestine graves appear like wild mushrooms after a rainstorm.

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 10th 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 per cent 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.