The number of imprisoned women in Guatemala has quadrupled in the past five years, influenced by an increase in police mega-operations yielding more arrests for extortion and related crimes.
One of the many suspects arrested and jailed, an alleged gang collaborator told her story, illustrating how Guatemala’s judicial system more easily targets women.
Her glitter-polished nails flashing as she clung to the bars, “Hera” (her name has been changed for safety) stepped around the women on the floor in the cell. She came over to say that her husband could not come that day because he was at home with their son.
Accused of collaborating with street gangs, Hera stood by her innocence, saying that she is simply a good neighbor who greets everyone in her community, and that is why the authorities arrested her.
She was lying. But that would not come to light for another week.
Six months pregnant and 24 years old, Hera is from the neighborhood of Canalitos, where residents walk along dirt alleyways and live in houses made of sheet metal and wood. It sits across a gully that marks the end of an upper-middle-class neighborhood in the capital of Guatemala City. Canalitos could be considered the wild part of town, but not in terms of nightlife, in terms of bloodshed.
Hera was waiting inside a narrow holding cell that reeked of urine and was dark as a dungeon, while the cars of judges sat in the daylight just outside, waiting for their owners to return from their work at the Guatemala City courthouse. All around her, some 30 other jailed women endured the conditions the best they could while sharing their cell with a clogged toilet.
In ancient Greek mythology, Hera is the wife of Zeus, king of the gods of Mount Olympus. And the pregnant woman with the painted nails in the jail cell had more in common with her than she may have thought.
Prosecutors accused Hera of three crimes in her alleged collaboration with the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), the most powerful gang in the world. The crimes were related to extortion, an illegal practice sweeping Central America in which the perpetrators demand money from their victims upon threat of death. It is one of the most common offenses the Attorney General’s Office uses to put gang members behind bars.
Handcuffed to another woman, Hera walked out of the cell and waited in front of the elevator, avoiding the stairs due to her advanced pregnancy. She shared the elevator with other detainees and several policemen, crammed into a box measuring no more than four square meters. It was chained shut to deter escape attempts. Despite the uncomfortable ride, Hera held her head high throughout. A view of the mountains in the distance greeted her when she entered the courtroom. She sat on a bench with the other accused and stared at the empty chair in front of her. She did not know it yet, but the hearing would eventually be suspended.
“Each time more women are tried,” Judge Mynor Moto said with a resigned air from the armchair in his office the day after he ultimately ruled against Hera.
The number of women in prison in Guatemala, especially for crimes related to extortion, grew exponentially in the last five years, quadrupling from 36 to 144.
Arrests of Women Suspected of Extortion Continue to Rise
Back at the first hearing, the judge eventually showed up, and Hera’s free lawyer from the Criminal Public Defense Institute (Instituto de la Defensa Pública Penal – IDPP) requested a medical exam for her pregnancy. The judge granted it, stating that the only right of hers that had been limited was her freedom. He said it seriously. At times paternal, he ran the hearing with a disciplined neutrality devoid of jokes, irony or sarcasm. The courthouse suffered occasional power outages, and some of the accused were not provided counsel like Hera was.
A week later, Hera returned to the courthouse from the Santa Teresa women’s prison in Guatemala. She and 10 other people faced charges related to allegedly extorting money from public transportation drivers.
The cells inside the courts building of Guatemala City measure between 10-15 square meters, with just one bathroom at the back. Sometimes, over 30 detainees wait in these cells for their court appearance.
As far as the Attorney General’s Office knew, Hera’s level of collaboration with the gang was known as “active check-up” (chequeo activo), a trial period during which she handled small jobs for the gang in order to gain entrance into the gang’s criminal network.
Many of the incarcerated women’s situations are paradoxical. As a woman, Hera was barred from joining the gang itself. But the Attorney General’s Office was nonetheless able to charge her with managing one of the gang’s extortion rings. A guilty verdict would mean a judge determined she was the one who collected the extortion money and, under orders from the gang’s area clique leaders, divvied out payments in descending amounts through the gang’s hierarchy.
At her second hearing, Hera was not handcuffed to anyone else. She faced the same judge but in a different courtroom, one where the justice system tries the country’s more serious cases. She had a different public defender, and her haughtiness had faded. Hera’s husband was at home again caring for their son; she said that was why he could not come to bring her food before the hearing. In the courtroom, none of the women were accompanied by boyfriends or spouses, only mothers, fathers or aunts. By contrast, many of the male suspects had spouses at their trials.
The husband back at home does not exist. The last romantic relationship Hera had before her arrest was with a man in prison. At least, that is what she wrote in the records of over a hundred visits she made to Julio César Mejía García, whom Hera herself would never mention. Mejía García is currently serving his sentence in the southeast of Guatemala.
Power over the gangs rests in the hands of incarcerated men. The tip of the MS13’s hierarchy consists of a board of directors called the Council of Nine. They give the highest orders, which then trickle down through the criminal organization. The MS13’s style is more strategic and less grisly than that of its enemy, Barrio 18.
Female gang members are scarce in Guatemala, and those who still exist are incarcerated. The days when women submitted to the traditional 13-second beating to enter the MS13 have been gone since the mid-2000s, when gangs stopped letting women join their ranks.
Now, women who associate with the gangs perform tasks such as opening bank accounts and moving and laundering money. They provide a face and a name that the gangs can use to hide their illegal profits. But they are at the bottom of the totem pole and easily replaceable. Once a woman is jailed for gang-related crimes, it does not take long for another to be roped in to take her place.
It was only in 2009 that Guatemalan authorities began to decisively strategize to combat the country’s gangs, despite the fact that the two largest — the MS13 and Barrio 18 — have been present there since the late 1990s. The creation of two elite groups, one in the police and the other in the Attorney General’s Office, served to identify them, map out where they operated and determine how they made their money and how they committed their murders.
They went from slews of unsuccessful cases against individual suspects to closing smaller numbers of mega-cases against hundreds of alleged gang members at a time. The secret to the authorities’ success was a combination of wiretapping and gang members willing to betray their compatriots and become informants. And they got results. They began to reach the top level of the gangs’ hierarchy.
A prison guard checks a woman facing extortion charges, while she waits for a court hearing.
Between 2016 and 2017, Guatemala launched five mega-operations against gangs. If the structures were identified and their leaders — always men — were incarcerated, it was time to take out the bottom rungs. That is where authorities found people like Hera, who did not actually belong to a gang but allegedly worked for one.
The arrests of women in the mega-operations began to catch people’s attention. They went from invisible to visible, and the number of female collaborators orbiting the gangs was tremendous. The phenomenon continues to this day.
Officials thought that arresting and charging the gangs’ workforce would cripple them, but they were wrong. The female collaborators, low-level workers who generally did not identify with the criminal groups because they simply worked for the money, were easily substituted. And because they were not members, the gangs did not feel obligated to pay for their legal representation when they were arrested.
By the end of 2017, Operation Regional Shield (Operación Escudo Regional), which consisted of three operations over two years, had hit the MS13 and Barrio 18 in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala with approximately 200 arrests. Half of the suspects were women. Hera was arrested on April 18, 2018.
In the gangs, women take on liability but have no authority. They receive and implement orders from the organization without belonging to it, without contributing at the decision-making level. The anti-extortion unit of the Attorney General’s Office has been following the logic that the gangs abandon women to the authorities, but at the same time, it prosecutes the women as though they were gang members. It is difficult to investigate the MS13 structurally, but it is easy to get to the female collaborators. Picking off someone carrying a phone or collecting money is simpler than tracking down and building a case against someone giving the orders and enjoying the fruits of the collaborators’ labor from afar.
Hera allegedly collaborated with a local MS13 clique called the Pewees Locos Salvatruchas. Since 2010, Canalitos, which is located on the outskirts of the city in Zone 24 and has struggled with poverty and violence, has been its center of operations. The investigation against Hera and the others arrested with her was based on three witnesses: a former female collaborator with the gang, the owner of a motorcycle taxi and a business owner. None of the witnesses could provide details for any alleged incidents of extortion for the MS13 like times, places or methods used. None of them even described Hera; they simply named her without providing any evidence.
In the courthouse a week after the first hearing, which had been suspended, the white shirt of the IDPP lawyer struggled to contain his corpulent, clumsy body. It was the first time he saw his defendants: Hera and two other women. He requested pregnancy assistance for a woman who was not there. He tried to refer to Hera, but he did not know who was who. The women stared at him. They widened their eyes, trying to tell him something but it did not get through. The man barely made any arguments at the hearing.
The attorney works for a women’s legal defense unit created in 2005 in the IDPP that targets gender bias with tools for defending women accused of crimes. At the time this article was written, the unit’s task list had amassed 1,400 files on women in the capital alone.
Edith Ochoa is in charge of the women’s legal defense unit and its 30 lawyers. She explains that they cannot handle 90 percent of the cases that come to them because the accused do not speak to them, whether due to fear or other reasons. Ochoa’s team has secured “three or four” acquittals for its defendants in the last three years.
Hera’s lawyer at the hearing never spoke to her and knew nothing about her life, her thoughts or feelings or what she could have contributed to her own defense. He also did not see the gender bias. He did not believe that Hera had been forced to do anything nor that her family had been used to pressure her into working for the gang, that her poverty or other vulnerabilities had been taken advantage of. His only defense strategy was for her to exercise her right not to testify.
There was another IDPP lawyer who should have defended Hera: her official defense attorney, the one who did know about her case, but this attorney had not attended any of Hera’s hearings. That means a total of three lawyers — the official attorney for the case, the attorney at the first hearing and the one at the last hearing — were working on Hera’s case under Ochoa, who believes her unit cannot win its clients’ cases.
“El Flaco” and “El Voltio” run the Pewees Locos Salvatruchas clique from prison. Second in command is El Voltio, whose real name is Julio César Mejía García. He is the man Hera visited at the El Boquerón prison, where she sometimes signed in as his wife. In 2017, he was sentenced to 150 years in prison for five crimes including murder and rape. Added to a previous sentence, his total time in prison is now up to 213 years.
A year later, Judge Pablo Xitumul, who sentenced El Voltio, admitted seeing a change in the gang’s pattern of operations.
“We noticed that the ‘patojos’ [younger gang members] were reeling the women in.”
He explained that he feels touched by the women’s plight and that he always gives them the minimum sentence of six to eight years. But, act of empathy or not, that still means a conviction and several years behind bars.
Neither El Flaco nor El Voltio were present at Hera’s hearings, but their presence was felt nonetheless. The prosecuting attorney spoke about them. So did the judge. When he read the list of visits they received in prison, Hera’s name also came up. While prison visits cannot be used as evidence, they can serve as the basis upon which a judge might deny a suspect’s release from jail while awaiting trial.
The only person who did not mention the clique leaders was Hera’s defense attorney. He spoke little because he knew little.
The first time Hera went to see El Voltio in prison was in March 2015. She signed in as his girlfriend for two years. Then, during the first four months of 2017, she visited as his wife, after which she switched back to signing in as his girlfriend. One month before she was arrested, already pregnant, the Hera visited El Voltio for the last time. The date was March 20, 2018. It was their 102nd visit, and they spent eight hours together.
The Attorney General’s Office only had enough evidence to get one of the charges against Hera to stick. The judge dropped the other two. So, Hera returned to pretrial detention on the charge of illicit association, a particularly difficult one to challenge in court.
Hera’s story leaves off, then, with her back in jail still accused of running an extortion operation for the MS13. When she pleads her case before yet another judge, will her defense attorney know her name?