Girls & Gangs

Preface: This is my first day of guest-blogging and I am looking forward to it a lot. I have done it before @ Feministe but this time it will be for longer and I am thankful to Jill for this opportunity. I’m a university student in a south-western town in England called Bristol but my origins lie in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. I hope you enjoy my posts!

I watched a program about MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha), one of the largest gangs in the entire world that is predominately based in the US and Central America. The programme discussed many issues about at the scope of violence that is involved in some spheres of the gang and even went to El Salvador to discover how the gang is spreading its’ influence in central America.

What struck me the most of the whole programme was the lone female name who was mentioned. Her name was Brenda Paz. She was a gang member and in exchange for leniency after being caught by the police for trying to steal a car, she decided to become a police informer. Unfortunately, her death was ordered by MS-13 and her own friends stabbed her to death. Brenda Paz was in the 5th month of her pregnancy at just 17. (One of the killers was interviewed and was remorseful).

It is a tragic and sad story – the underlying question I have from this is do you think that gangs exist because it is society-at-large’s fault or do individuals essentially know what they are doing and effectively are marking themselves for life? According to this Reader’s Digest article, Paz was 12 when she dropped out of school and became part of the gang.

I wondered why she and many other young girls would be drawn into being in a gang. Is it the security, reputation…or the power of being affliated gangs?

Another story from the Reader’s Digest article hints at the female experience within a male-dominated gang:

At 14, she was “jumped in” by four older MS-13 members, who pounded her mercilessly for 13 seconds. When it was over, she felt like she finally belonged. “They’re like your brothers,” she says of her posse. “They take good care of you.”

In my opinion, the symbolism of her beating (besides the fact that it is an initiation ritual) has to do with male force being exerted over a female body, thus “crushing” the stereotypical view that a man should never hit a woman. Her gender and the image of her as a woman is punched and essentially given a K.O. Where does it leave her? Does it make her a “boy” like the rest of MS-13? I am not sure but I think it just goes to show not only how brutal initiation rites such as this are but how much people want to feel part of a group and be liked.

One of the more harrowing factors of gang initiation in MS-13 according to the RD article include “New female members may be “sexed in” — gang-raped by as many as half a dozen men.”

Another report noted that female gang members also feared violence and sexual abuse from members of their own gang, the study said. a 16-year-old told the interviewer of having to dance scantily clad on tables, make Playboy-type videos, perform oral sex in front of other gang members, and have sexual intercourse on demand.

Asked if it was humiliating, she replied: “It is, but it comes with the show.”

This article notes of the Spider Girl gang in Chile and how even though 2 members were heavily pregnant, they still continued one of their main activities of burglaring. The fact that they were pregnant is a trend that I have noticed while reading up on articles about girl members in gangs: many have/had children. Does that hint to a desire to create their own families and avenues for giving and receiving love or am I reading too much into it?

It looks like a losing battle. Gangs are a worldwide phenomenon, not unique to the Americas or Europe. They are spreading. What does everyone think?


BBC radio documentary about girls and violence

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14 comments for “Girls & Gangs

  1. VK
    October 18, 2007 at 9:22 am

    I’m a university student in a south-western town in England called Bristol but my origins lie in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania.

    Ooh, I’m at UoB! *waves*

  2. ElleBeMe
    October 18, 2007 at 9:28 am

    I live in the DC area where Brenda Paz was murdered and her story made the news for quite some time here. She was taken out of teh city and driven to the Shenandoah valley under the guise she would go fishing with two fellow gang members. They took her out there and well…you know what happened next.

    As to why girls join gangs? I think there is a multitude of reasons from being part of “something” that is perceived as powerful, rebellion, and having a surrogate family when one’s own has let them down for some reason.

    One thing IS for certain however that the girls initiated into the gangs – their roles have already been defined. They are there for sex, and panhandle to raise cash for that night’s hotel room (many don’t sleep at home – they steal/panhandle at day to earn enough for the whole gang to sleep in a room at night).

    As for these girls having children – I once worked witha former corrections officer who told me that many of these gang kids were raised in a family where mom and/or dad was in a gang and it is just a cyclical continuation of what THEY did. The parents can be just as complicit and if someone has been given the “green light” (code for someone has been marked for death) – if that person comes into a gang’s home, the parents too report the intended’s activities.

    See, Brenda didn’t know she had been “green lighted” Word came down about her informant activities and instead of wiping her out ASAP, she was assigned a mentor – someone who would shadow her and accompany her wherever she went. Brenda KNEW her mentor and it was her mentor’s job to orchestrate her murder and make her believe she was safe at all times – so she never knew what fate awaited her when her mentor proposed they “go fishing.”

  3. October 18, 2007 at 9:38 am

    “The underlying question I have from this is do you think that gangs exist because it is society-at-large’s fault or do individuals essentially know what they are doing and effectively are marking themselves for life?”

    “I wondered why she and many other young girls would be drawn into being in a gang. Is it the security, reputation…or the power of being affliated gangs?

    I think one sentence from the piece starts to answer those questions for me:

    “Young kids see the gang members as role models,”

    In a society which could be accused of letting our young people – both male and female – down, the logic of this role model argument makes sense to me. For me, it’s also about lack of opportunities for young people and media glamorisation of violence (particularly in this case violence towards women). As ElleBeMe said above, familial trends and influences are also important; and of course peer pressure plays a huge part. Ultimately, gang life has become part of the dominant culture in many parts of the world.

  4. October 18, 2007 at 10:15 am

    I imagine that the fact that female gang members are often expected to have sex on demand — essentially, are regularly raped — has a hell of a lot to do with the high pregnancy rate. The childbirth rate is probably so high from those pregnancies both from a lack of access to abortion and the normalization of teenage birth in many low-income communities. When you drop out at school at such an early age, as a woman, motherhood may seem like the only option left. And if you don’t see yourself ever going back to school or pursuing a career, what would you see as the point in waiting?

  5. October 18, 2007 at 10:36 am

    One of my suspicions is that gangs are on the rise for the same reason that fundamentalism is on the rise: they’re formed by the people who feel alienated from the larger culture and form their own little societies to feel as though they belong. As far as I know, gangs are always made up of a single ethnic/racial group, and there are frequent clashes with gangs from other ethnic/racial groups.

    And pretty much every immigrant group forms gangs: in my area of California, we’re dealing with Armenian gangs, because that’s the largest immigrant group where I am. Up north, they have a lot of Asian gangs. Plus we have the already-existing Mexican and African-American gangs.

  6. Adverb
    October 18, 2007 at 11:23 am

    I thought your idea that the “symbol of beating” represented a gender-based power dynamic was a bit of a stretch. I had always understood that women and girls join gangs through a sex act (with significantly more than a half-dozen partners), so reading the gender dynamic into this when she is beaten in like one of the boys seems to be a stretch.

    What I read from that is the general dehumanization that happens in gangs. Individuals’ wants and dignity are meaningless before the what the group (or the group’s leadership) wants. The violation of your body, by beating or gang sex, is the symbol of initiation. And given the culture of violence and widespread misogyny, it isn’t surprising that women end up on the bottom of the power structure, taking one for the team on a regular basis as “part of the show.”

    I’m worried that what these girls want has little or nothing to do with getting pregnant. How much control over their bodies do that have in this situation?

    You certainly didn’t say that women are the only losers in gangs, so I’m not calling you out here for framing the gang issue in exclusively feminist terms. It seems to me, though, that there are larger problems with this entire phenomenon, in which women are some of the worst-but-not-only losers.

    Ultimately, what you’re writing about strikes me as entirely a consequence of dehumanization. Misogyny? Not so much.

  7. October 18, 2007 at 11:32 am

    There have always been gangs just like there has always been crime. Gangs are a way to gain power and control (and as indicated by the article, the strict heirarchy in the gang itself is a form of control…the older males ordering younger males and females to do bidding) Gangs, like any other criminal organization (ie mafia) view themselves as predators and society as legitimate prey.

    Many of the gangs in So. Cal have a long, multi-generational history and they self-perpetuate. When my father was growing up in East LA in the 30-40’s, there were gangbangers. However, the one thing that has changed has been the access to easy mobility that modern life has brought, so Los Angeles gangs are now even influencing East Coast gangs.

    So much of gang activity really runs under the radar because most of it isn’t reported in newspapers. The LATimes article yesterday on the Florencia 13 gang, which is engaged in “ethnic cleansing” of blacks from the Florence-Firestone area of So Cal, was both unusual and maddening. Unusual because they actually did a fairly lengthy article and maddening because it didn’t really get into how widespread gang activity is and how a lot of it is getting very sophisticated.

    A lot of female gangbangers are not just used for sex, but if they are “clean” (no rap sheets, no gang tats) they will be directed to get jobs where they have access to information useful to the gang … such as credit card/personal info that can be used in identity theft crimes. They even try to place these girls within police/judicial civilian jobs so they have access to court/criminal records.

    Fortunately a lot of So Cal police agencies are meeting together with prosecution staffs to share info, trends, problems and strategies.

  8. October 18, 2007 at 11:35 am


    There is quite a few Asian gangs in So Cal, too. Some of them are quite sophisticated and funded from outside the country.

    They are suspected as being behind all the recent pot-growing homes that were busted in places like Diamond Bar.

  9. October 18, 2007 at 1:32 pm

    Unfortunately, as Darleen says, gangs or their equivalent have been in existence as long as there have been cities…the “Blues” and the “Greens” in the time of Emperor Justinian, the “molls” of the 1920s…I think a further wrinkle to the problem is that no matter how victimized the women who join or ally themselves with these gangs are, at least within their aegis they are protected from the potential of worse victimization. Amongst the atomized and alienated poor, the worst position is to be without protector, no matter how brutal that protector might be.

  10. AD
    October 18, 2007 at 1:47 pm

    They are suspected as being behind all the recent pot-growing homes that were busted in places like Diamond Bar.

    Yet another reason to legalize marijuana — cutting off gang funds.

  11. Estelle
    October 18, 2007 at 2:52 pm

    Taking away the crime element – which, I realise, is the main point of being in a gang – how is joining a gang any different from joining a frat/sorority? I think the impetus for joining anything, be it a club, a gang, or a mailing list, is that you want to belong. If the only clubs available in your area are gangs, then you join a gang.

    Gangs aren’t just the most available, they are the “coolest.” They give you an image, a sense of self (however false and messed up it may be). If your brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, mom and dad are in gangs, exactly why shouldn’t you be?

    My parents are still pissed I didn’t marry a good Jewish boy (sarcastic, but not really, but still a bit).

    love reading you all!

  12. Karna
    October 18, 2007 at 2:57 pm

    you make a lot of excellent points. In regards to the gender dynamics of beating in, I would ask if that is only for females(as I assume being “sexed in” is) or if it happens to everyone? I just don’t know enough to speculate there.

  13. October 18, 2007 at 3:09 pm

    Karna: I would use a “hazing” analogy in this case. Recruits are often subjected to brutal and/or humiliating conditions to see if they can “cut it”; those who endure such treatment are accepted into the group. It is considered a means to gain respect, of ensuring group identity (“us vs. them.”) I would imagine that the treatment of fraternity plebes or military recruits may be considered less brutal than a gang initiation, but then again, given the number of hazing-incident deaths which happen with irritating regularity perhaps not. And, I would add, that hazing often has, to some extent, a subdued sexual component – the humiliation often being sexually degrading and/or suggestive – even among groups which self-identify as male and heterosexual. Given those sorts of behavior patterns, I’m not surprised that female inductees into these gangs are subjected to more overt sexual domination.

  14. cKate
    October 19, 2007 at 9:55 am

    The gang rape of female initiates seems like a way of ‘claiming’ or making the women’s bodies into tools to be used as the leaders or male members see fit. The pregnancies also make me think of abusive hetero relationships in which the male partner refuses to use birth control with the aim of impregnanting his girlfriend/wife, etc. The resulting offspring may serve to further cement ties to the father and, in the situation you described, to the gang ‘family’.

    Mnemosyne, I completely agree with your analysis as to the reason behind the rise of gangs. In times of flux, whether positive or negative, there seems to be a rise in so-called deviant behavior. When people are presented with the possibility of the unknown, they turn to the absolute for stability. (This is pulled from what I remember from a college class so if it reeks of privilege, don’t hesitate to call me out on it.)

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