“I can tell a woman that she should report domestic violence, but she will ask me, ‘Who will support me, who will protect me?’ and I can’t answer those questions.”
-Judge, Tegucigalpa, Honduras
The Northern Triangle of Central America, which includes El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, is one of the most violent regions in the world. Along with staggering homicide rates, all three countries have extremely high rates of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), including rape and sexual assault, domestic violence, human trafficking, sexual exploitation, and sexual abuse of children. The three countries also have some of the highest rates of femicide, or the gender-motivated killing of women and girls, in the world, and rates have risen dramatically over the past several years. In El Salvador, a woman was murdered every 16 hours in 2015. In Honduras, gender-based violence is the second leading cause of death for women of reproductive age. On average, two women are murdered each day in Guatemala, and the number of women murdered each year has more than tripled since 2000.
The rise of violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala is in large part attributable to gangs that have grown increasingly powerful in all three countries. These gangs employ brutal forms of violence to maintain control over the territories where they operate. Gangs dominate urban areas of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala and have increased their presence in rural and semi-urban areas in recent years, leaving children and youth in these areas vulnerable to gang violence. This intensified gang violence has a particularly severe impact on women, children, and LGBTI people who are vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence within their homes, schools, and neighborhoods, and find little hope of receiving protection or justice from the state.
Rates of SGBV in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala are extremely high, and in the vast majority of cases, violence goes unreported and unpunished. When victims of SGBV live in gang-controlled areas or when perpetrators have gang affiliations, crimes are even more likely to result in impunity. Many victims do not report violence because they do not trust authorities or because they know that doing so will put them, and their families, at greater risk of retaliation by gangs. Those few who do report violence confront the unwillingness or inability of the state to provide either protection or justice. With no place to turn, many of these women and children are forced to flee their country to save their lives. Whether they ultimately reach Mexico, the United States, or any other country, they need–and in many cases should qualify for—refugee protection.
This report examines the relationship between gang violence and SGBV in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. It describes common forms of SGBV in the gang context and the ways in which gangs use SGBV to exert and maintain control over populations and territories in the areas where they operate. It also explains the factors that prevent reporting and prosecution of SGBV, both when the perpetrator is a gang member and when the victim lives in a gang-dominated area. The report briefly outlines government efforts to address violence and impunity. It provides recommendations on how the governments of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala can work to reduce gang-related SGBV and increase assistance and justice for survivors, which in turn will provide affected individuals and families with alternatives to forced migration. The report also makes recommendations to the U.S. government on how to direct and prioritize aid to Central American countries to effectively bolster efforts to prevent and address SGBV.