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El Salvador Gangs' Brutal Sexual Violence Against Girls, Women

Image: Woman cleans the grave of a relative at a cemetery in the eve of All Saints Day in San Salvador
A woman cleans the grave of a relative at a cemetery on the eve of All Saints Day in San Salvador October 31, 2014. STRINGER/EL SALVADOR / Reuters

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador -- The bodies of women and girls pulled from clandestine graves, raped, battered and sometimes cut to pieces attest to the abuse committed by members of street gangs who take girlfriends, discard them when they know too much, then deliver them to group rape and murder.

U.S. immigration attorneys say there has been a dramatic increase in the number of women and girls from Central America seeking asylum in the United States after having been kidnapped and raped. Most of the violence is the handiwork of the Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street gangs, which were formed by immigrants in the United States, then returned home and grew into warring forces of tens of thousands of gangsters.

"The Maras come looking for girlfriends and they follow you," said Sandra, who fled to Los Angeles because her mother could not protect her and is awaiting an immigration hearing.

"We are seeing an exponential increase," said Lindsay Toczylowski, a lawyer with Catholic Charities in Los Angeles. "It's the evolution of gang warfare. ... It's what we see in other war situations around the world where rape is used as a weapon."

El Salvador has the world's second highest murder rate. And though official numbers show just 239 women and girls among the murdered so far this year and 201 others reported missing, the World Health Organization says only about 20 percent of rapes are reported, and that percentage is likely lower in El Salvador.

Criminologist Israel Ticas, who digs up clandestine graves for the Attorney General's Office, says more than half of the 90 sites he has excavated in the last 12 years contained the remains of murdered women and girls. "For sure there are hundreds of these cases and maybe thousands out there," Ticas said.

His field notes, augmented by interviews with protected witnesses, provide a window into the abuse:

"April 21, 2014 in Ahuachapan, I worked on the body of a young woman who was about 18 years old, killed 43 months before. She was mummified, her painted red fingernails had been perfectly conserved. She was halfway buried in the middle of a sugar cane plantation. She had been killed by asphyxiation, with multiple nooses pulled in different directions by various men. She had been gang raped...How many more do you want?" Ticas asks, pointing to a dozen journals filled with photographs, drawings and notes. "Any girl or woman who gets near this world sooner or later will be collectively abused by the gang."

El Salvador's Security Ministry has registered more than 1,500 gang cliques.

"All of the gang members victimize women. All of the cliques behave this way," said Silvia Juarez, a lawyer with the Gender Violence Observatory. "If there are 60,000 or 70,000 gangsters, imagine how many women they have abused."

In this Oct. 23, 2014 photo, police investigators work on the scene where Elba Magdalena Alvarez, 17, was found dead by the side of the road in San Salvador, El Salvador, after she was allegedly pulled out of a bus by gang members and then shot, according to an eyewitness on the bus.AP

--The Associated Press