El Salvador gang violence stifles progress on gender killings: top prosecutor

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A year after El Salvador created a special unit to tackle the country’s high rates of killings of women, gang violence stands in the way of getting convictions, a top prosecutor said.

El Salvador, a country of 6 million people, has one of the world’s highest rates of femicide - the killing of a woman by a man because of her gender - according to the United Nations.

One woman has been murdered on average every day so far this year, the latest police figures showed.

Victims of femicide usually have a long history with domestic violence, and perpetrators are often current or former partners, with many killings taking place in or near the home.

But in El Salvador, gangs are also behind the killings of women, said the chief prosecutor on femicide, Ana Graciela Sagastume, who heads the Women’s Coordination Unit set up by the attorney general last May to combat mainly gender violence.

Getting witnesses and the families of victims to come forward remains a key challenge because many fear reprisals from gangs who control city neighborhoods, she said.

The government blames much of the country’s violence on turf wars between Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and rival gang Barrio 18, who are involved in drug trafficking and extortion rackets.

There are about 60,000 gang members across El Salvador, according to government estimates.

“With high levels of crime in El Salvador and the issue of gangs, where gangs dominate certain areas, people are afraid to help with investigations for fear of reprisals from gang members,” Sagastume said.

“Women are killed because they reject a gang member, they don’t want to be the girlfriend of a gang member. Gang members see a women’s body as an object to fulfill their desires,” Sagastume told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

According to the rights group Organisation of Salvadoran Women for Peace (ORMUSA), violence, including rape, against women in gang-controlled areas is fueled by a deep macho culture that permeates gang culture as it does society as a whole.

“The ability of women who are victims to put limits on the violence carried out by groups like gangs is next to nil,” said Silvia Juarez, a lawyer at ORMUSA.

The number of women killed in El Salvador fell in 2018 to 385 cases, from 471 cases in 2017, according to police figures.

Efforts by prosecutors to investigate femicides, along with more police units focused on addressing gender-related crime could account for the decline, Juarez said.

But the number of reported cases of overall violence against women - mainly domestic violence - rose by nearly 15 percent to 6,673 in 2018, up from 5,781 in 2017, according to ORMUSA.

El Salvador’s 2012 law against femicide, which carries a prison sentence of 20 to 50 years, requires prosecutors to prove the death of a woman is motivated by hatred or contempt based on gender.

Across El Salvador, there are six women judges who have been specifically trained to prosecute cases of femicide and violence against women, Sagastume said.

But the justice system is “slow” and cases of femicide can take up to two years and more on average to get to trial, she said.

To build a case, prosecutors are now looking more on social media and on the victims’ cell phones to see if they had received prior threats, and are using footage from street security cameras.

“What we are doing now that we didn’t do in the past is to use technology and forensics more in our investigations,” Sagastume said.

According to the U.N., Latin America is home to 14 of the 25 countries with the world’s highest rates of femicide, and 98 percent of femicides go unpunished.

Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Jason Fields. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit