At 15, you are a woman, a gang member for the Barrio 18, in a marginal barrio of Honduras. You have kids, you are jailed, police abuse you and you question how to change your future. This is a story about three such women, two teens and one adult, who are living an endless cycle of violence.
Two teen girls look at a pool without any bathers. They are in a part of the city that they don’t know. Impatient, they toss the plastic bags containing their drying clothes over a yellow and white-striped hammock. Reddened from the strong rays of the mid-afternoon sun in San Pedro Sula, they hop on the hot concrete.
They enter the water dressed in t-shirts and shorts. Até, pale with straight hair, grabs ahold of a pool lifesaver. Asteria, brown with curly hair, small eyes, and a slight nose, takes three swipe to clime onboard. They ask to learn to float.
Até lies back toward the sky, trying to make her body resist gravity to let her float. She can’t do it. Neither can her friend. Stubborn and smiling, they try over and over again. For two hours they try until getting out of the water to eat pizza. At least for an afternoon in a private pool, protected from stares, they appear happy even after so many failures.
The situation is improbable. For two hours, telling their own story is a chance to express themselves without the violence and suffocating heat that ferments under their tin-roofed houses where they are anchored to immense poverty, in a barrio surrounded by deadly threats.
The barrio from which Até and Asteria hail is called Cerrito Lindo. The barrio’s ruler is thin and lanky, 19 years old, with his pants tied in a cinch, an enormous white t-shirt, and pounds of jewelry. It’s his way of showing authority. To get to Asteria and Até, we had to speak with him.
In Cerrito Lindo, everyone pays homage to “Mortal.” Neighbors and gang members alike. He is the palabrero, or the local leader of this Barrio 18 cell, the second most violent gang in all of Latin America surpassed only by the monumental Mara Salvatrucha (MS13).
Mortal, the leader of the Barrio 18 street gang in a sector of San Pedro Sula called Cerrito Lindo, tests his gun. He shoots it three times at a bottle but never hits the target.
Mortal, who entered the gang when he was barely ten years old, has been imprisoned three times. The second time was shortly before we met him in July 2018. He escaped but he returned to jail in September. Now an adolescent nicknamed Scorpion runs things.
Through a mouth filled with tiny teeth, Mortal speaks few words. Whatever women have to say is not important to him. And thanks to that disregard, the girls can speak freely, at least in the pool.
In El Salvador and Guatemala, women have not been allowed to ascend within gangs since the 2000s. That leaves Honduras as the last country in Central America in which women can still be gang members, even high-ranking ones. In Honduras, their chance to become leaders is real.
Até and Asteria are civilians — without any formal relationship to the gangs — but since they were ten, they played a role within Barrio 18. Now they are 15. A female gang collaborator is known as a “paisa” and she begins by watching corners, collecting extortion fees from businesses, sharing food with the “homies,” the name for the men in the gang, and caring for those sick or injured. Becoming a boss comes much later.
Asteria and Até thought about becoming gang members, but they never fully joined. More than a year ago they decided to leave the Barrio 18, a gang which they never formally entered, but remain linked to.
“At some point, were you called upon to kill someone?”
(two seconds of silence)
“We don’t talk about that, it’s very secret,” says Asteria, speaking for the two of them.
Asteria and Até are not their real names. We have changed them to keep them out of harm because they risk being identified or confused with other girls. There are many such girls with stories like theirs in this barrio.
The girls say that they don’t work for the gangs. What they do is favors. A favor can be anything, a favor can be doing for free exactly what they did before for $20.
“What does it mean to do a favor when you’re not obligated?”
“If one of them says to me: ‘look, go get me such and such a thing.’ If I want to, I go. If not, I don’t go,” says Asteria.
“But you know that if you do a favor once, you are always going to keep doing it,” adds Até. “And the more you end up doing, the more involved you become.”
They claim to be independent. But they are available to do many things for the Barrio 18. Because they say they want to. To be inside or outside the gang would appear to be the same.
“Why? Because in the eyes of God and the Barrio, we are all equal,” says Asteria.
“One is not better, one is not worse,” responds Até.
“Because we all support it equally,” says Asteria.
“We were supporters,” says Até.
“We still support it. We give our lives for the Barrio,” she confirms.
“What does it imply for you to not be in the group?”
“We are shitting with fear,” responds Até.
The Hotel Pool
Cerrito Linda is in the immense Rivera Hernández sector, one of the largest barrios of San Pedro Sula, the most murderous city in the world until 2015 and now ranked third on the list. Within Rivera Hernández, there are more than 100 districts and settlements. Most residents of San Pedro Sula avoid them if possible.
In 2015, six gangs fought over the sector. Three years later, residents say there are now eight gangs. A war zone sits within the dusty array of flat streets, adobe houses, and small shops, known as pulperías.
The Honduran government knows little about female gang members. In general, the government only has an idea about the groups operating in the entire country. In particular, there is an understanding that within the Barrio 18, there are women who collect extortion debts. The police go after girls like Até and Asteria. The authorities place them in fixed boxes to position them within the gang structure: debt collector, informant, girlfriend. They never mention the possibility of leadership. Not understanding makes things simpler.
Teen girls who live in barrios dominated by Honduras' most feared gangs often find themselves as willing participants within the gang.
Sitting on a porch in the neighborhood, in the afternoon light, we ask Mortal about a strange theme for him: women in gangs. He doesn’t have a prepared answer. He responds that they are like men. The difference is the reason they enter. They enter, at times, because of family issues or to follow a “homeboy.”
Women, he says, are traitors. The boys laugh at his jokes and light their cigarettes until two confident teen girls, wearing shorts, interrupt. Their hair is pulled back, their lips are reddened, and their eyes are smoky.
They were like that when we met them — Asteria with bright eyes and Até with straight hair and a sassy look. Both are trying to flee the gang, the police. If they don’t make it out, Asteria and Até, for having been born in San Pedro Sula, will become Artemis.
Artemis is thin and strict. Nearly 40 years old she directs a small embryo of the gang, in a rival sector of Rivera Hernández. She is the leader of a group of teens that are trying to become gang members, she says. She is both mother and protector to her savage creatures, her boys.
Artemis would not be a leader if her life had not begun like Até and Asteria. If the struggles of poverty hadn’t taken their toll, she would be pretty. Her hair is faded, her hands are worn from washing with too much detergent, and her feet are hardened from walking for so long without shoes. She is similar to Mortal. Artemis and Mortal are two versions of the same problem. They are, also, mirrors into the which Até and Asteria see themselves.
The two girls smoke marijuana, they drink, they’ve used cocaine since they were ten. Até and Asteria met each other in the streets. If anything is like a family to them, it’s the gang. Asteria doesn’t get along with her father, and her mother died when she was ten. She has a brother in the Barrio 18.
Até also had family in the gang. Her father was one of the first members in San Pedro Sula’s Poor Barrio 16, a neutral number between the two dominant gangs in Central America, Barrio 18 and MS13. The 16, from which Até is a descendant, links her to Artemis, the protector. Artemis also belonged to that gang.
Até’s mother abandoned her when she was a baby. Her father was killed when she was just three months old. Her aunts and grandmother raised her. At 14, she was pregnant with a gang member’s baby. He was not with her at the time and still isn’t now. She didn’t realize she was pregnant for three months. Speaking of her son bothers her a lot. She distrustfully admits that the baby was the reason that she didn’t want to belong to the Barrio 18.
Each night, Até goes out to drink and smoke with her male friends, all gang members.
Asteria relates her decision to leaving the gang to having a revelation. She was imprisoned for her alleged participation in the killing of a man. In jail, she couldn’t sleep for nights on end. She was afraid of being alone. She longed for her mother as if she had just died. Two months after going inside, an Evangelical pastor said to her that she wasn’t going to stop being afraid to sleep unless she left the Barrio 18.
“I was saying I’ll never leave the Barrio, I’m going to die for the Barrio,” Asteria said. But she remained paralyzed until midnight in front of the cell’s bars, thinking about the pastor’s words.
“What are the most frequent problems that you, as a gang leader, have with women in the gang?”
“It’s that they are more sentimental, for love they can sell out the gang,” replies Mortal.
In the last five years, the most common offenses for which the police have detained women are assault, possession of drugs and extortion. The tracking of women gang members by police changed in 2015, the year when extortion became a central focus. The police now arrest many more women for their association with criminals.
The two girls became dedicated extortionists for the Barrio 18 during the past four years. Once a week, they visited the small shops, and they asked for between 100 (around $4) and 500 lempiras (around $20), depending on the size of the business. Some shopkeepers shut down rather than pay the so-called war tax.
The National Anti-Gang Task Force (La Fuerza Nacional Anti Maras y Pandillas – FNA-MP) is made up of the police, the army, and the Attorney’s Office, and it has operated since 2013 in Honduras. Raids are common in this sector of Rivera Hernández. During the past five years, a human rights commission has made 60 complaints against the FNA-MP. The most common is excessive force when detaining suspected gang members.
In early 2017, one day after the killing of the man which ultimately led to Asteria being jailed for a year, the FNA-MP knocked down the doors of the house in Cerrito Lindo where she was with a group of “homies.” Asteria says that the agents pushed her against the wall and smacked her hands and butt with a tree branch. She said they told them to pray to god because they were going to die. But the press arrived, and she stopped her prayers.
Saúl Morales, spokesperson for the FNA-MP, said the number of registered complaints are almost too many to count. “There are many, like 300 complaints, I have received so many that I can’t even count them all,” says this young agent with a crew cut and who asks not to be photographed. When I ask him about Asteria’s case, he isn’t surprised. “At times it has gotten out of hand,” he admits as if it were normal to speak about police brutality.
The Enemy of Barrio 18
“Can the women be leaders like you?”
“Yes, there have been. At the moment, no, because they are in prison, but there have been “locas” that have carried weight,” replies Mortal.
In the same sector of San Pedro Sula, in Rivera Hernández, ten minutes from Cerrito Lindo, is where Artemis tries to protect her savage creatures. Before being in charge of this group of armed boys, Artemis was like Asteria and Até, a skinny and clever girl, with a poor family that she was supposed to be in charge of. Once her original gang, the Barrio Pobre 16, was destroyed, she joined up with Barrio 18.
For two years, under her direction, protection, and experience, her shabby group of boys has fought the Barrio 18, the Mara Salvatrucha 13, the Locos Vatos and any other gang or authority that sticks its noses in the few streets and paths they control.
The group of boys who are under the tutelage of Artemis, a female gang leader.
The fight for territory also includes the police, just one more aggressor. Artemis recounts how on several occasions they entered her house shooting and threatening her. The police, she says, also take objects that are supposedly robbed. But what worries her most is not being robbed by police, it’s when they capture her boys and torture them.
Three women. The same trajectory. Até and Asteria are trying to stay afloat in a muddied barrio that is violent. Artemis survives by elimination, like the head of a hydra at war, any day it can be cut, sacrificed, eliminated by Mortal’s men.