Why you should care
Because breaking free from a dangerous love is not easy.
Andrea Barrios and I met in a nondescript parking lot in the mountain city of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, after a four-hour drive from the capital through slate gray peaks adorned with rich green forests. Car headlights pierced the thick, early-morning fog that lingered like a light blanket over the treetops.
Barrios, 44, has done the drive many times to visit some of the 140 inmates of a women’s prison called Xela, located in a colonial building that was once a school. She often comes as she did that day — with her girlfriend, Ana Ingrid Zelada, 46, who spent 15 years behind bars in a Guatemalan prison for her role in a kidnapping. They met when Zelada was still incarcerated and Barrios was doing outreach work in her prison.
Guatemala has seen its female prison population spike in recent years — extortion is their most common crime — in part as a result of the relationships between male gang members in prison and their women, who at least initially are on the outside. Their hearts, rather than their minds, are pulling them into a life of crime.
“It is the test of love in Guatemala,” says Barrios. “Proof of love used to be when women had sex with their partners, when women succumbed and gave their virginity. But now these women have to show their love by committing crimes for their partners.”
Both the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 gangs have a strong presence in Guatemala, and as more gang members are incarcerated, they have increasingly called on their women to do their dirty work. In 2009, there were just 591 women in prison in Guatemala. Today there are 2,705 female inmates, according to government figures. More than a third (1,097) are in for extortion.
A 2009 change in the law increased the punishment for an offense that is now the main source of income for the brutally violent street gangs in Central America. Then came a crackdown that saw mass arrests of groups of women operating extortion rackets, driving up the prison population.
The emotional connection they have to these men is tremendous, as they can carry on acting for them in prison.
Barrios, born in Guatemala City, grew up with her father and grandparents, but despite the absence of her mother, she had strong women role models from the start. Her grandmother was a social worker and helped with teenage orphans who had been raised around violence. Her grandmother’s sister was involved in the struggle for women’s right to vote. “They’ve really been the light that has led me,” says Barrios, who started working on human rights issues when she was a teenager, teaching marginalized women how to read and write.
Barrios was greeted like an old friend at the Xela prison, and although I had to leave my tape recorder outside, security measures were minimal. The courtyard of the once-beautiful building was crowded with women of all ages sitting around, and some had their children playing at their feet. The law allows children to stay with their mothers in prison until the age of 4.
A golden-haired 3-year-old tottered around the legs of his mother Dulce, 34. She had tattooed eyebrows and was in for the second time — she did six years the first time around. Her boyfriend, a gang member, was also in prison. Julia, 57, was in for receiving money in her bank account and taking it to her son, a gang member, in jail. It turned out to be money from extortion. (The women asked their last names not be shared for fear of reprisal from the gangs.)
And Ana, 26, shared her bank details with the boy she fell in love with. “When I met him he wasn’t involved [in the gangs]. I had problems at home and I fell in love with him. He gave me the love I never found at home.”
All manners of love behind bars are bringing women into the criminal mix. In a couple of hours, I spoke to some 20 women. Nearly everyone had a tie to a gang member — a boyfriend, a brother, a son or a neighbor.
“Unfortunately women tend to work in the part of the criminal chain that is most visible,” says Barrios, explaining how the women will collect from the victims. “I have met women who say that they do it for less than $10 to go collect the money — a lot of young, single mothers who need the money to eat day to day and are connected romantically with the extortionist.”
What Barrios struggles to understand, she says, is why women make the same mistake twice. She thinks prison has become normalized, and even attractive, to certain sectors of the population with little means, social mobility or opportunity. “The emotional connection they have to these men is tremendous, as they can carry on acting for them in prison. There are women who work inside and then send all their money to their men,” she says. Barrios does emphasize, however, that she doesn’t see the women as simple victims. Most of them know what they’re getting themselves into.
Although she commended Guatemala’s focus on bringing down extortion rackets as a way of attacking the gangs, Barrios says that criminalizing women at the lowest level of the organizations fails to punish the ringleaders. What is lacking, she says, is an attempt to address the social situation of women in Guatemala — violence, repression, discrimination and, crucially, poverty.
“What is so interesting about her work is her understanding of patriarchy and the macho culture, and this cultural understanding of women and love and relationships that are part of the organized crime dynamics and not really addressed in any policy or responses given by institutions,” says Siria Gastelum, who works for the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime and has overseen investigations on extortion in the region.
Barrios’ 13-person organization, Colectivo Artesana, works to make women’s access to basic services and needs in prison automatic, while also pushing to influence public policy around the way the penitentiary system functions. She also says she has helped get several women freed who killed their violent partners in self-defense. Her nonprofit was involved in the successful push for Guatemala to adopt the United Nations Bangkok Rules — international standards for the treatment of women behind bars, such as providing proper health care and not shackling them while giving birth.
But she acknowledges that her work with women can hit a wall.
“Although it pains me to say it, the tough thing is that we can’t generate job opportunities for them when they get out,” says Barrios. The gang world is all they know, and it draws them back in. “Their life revolves around the men inside.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of female inmates in Guatemala’s prisons.
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