Growing Influence of Women in New York Latino Gangs

Berenice Medel now counsels former female gang members. (Photo via El Diario)

At 13 years old, Berenice Medel was not playing with dolls but with firearms in the streets of the Bronx. Being the girlfriend of a gang member did not spare her from a savage initiation ritual. She was forced to prove that she deserved to be a part of Los Traviesos – “the rascals” – a Mexican gang based in Upper Manhattan.

It was a matter of respect and of achieving a certain degree of power as the only woman in the clique, which was formed by more than 30 men, all of them students of the [I.S. 218] Salome Ureña school. Berenice, of Mexican descent, allowed them to “jump”– brutally beat – her for one minute, the longest and most painful in her life.

She suffered lacerations and bled profusely. However, her endurance not only earned her the acceptance of her peers but also the chance to control the gang’s female subgroup. In addition, over time she also led a number of “missions.”

Tags painted by the gang to which Berenice Medel belonged. (Photo via El Diario)

“I was not just the girlfriend of a gang member: I had an identity of my own in the gang, I made decisions, I was listened to,” said Berenice, who turned her life around five years ago thanks to the guidance of the Calvary Christian Church – Misión Cristiana El Calvario – in the Bronx. “There were few women in the gang because they would not let them in. We women can be extremely territorial in an environment such as this one.”

Berenice, now 26, explained that men in the gang could be bribed easily with alcohol and drugs, but women were more demanding and tougher with the new members, particularly if they were also women.

“Not even my cousin made it into the gang so easily,” she said. “We would kick out the girlfriends of the gang members; they were afraid of us. We did not want any infiltrators from other gangs or any problems with the police. The men gave us control of who came in or went out.”

The young woman, now a leader in her religious community, said that, despite the widespread myth of a “wild” lifestyle in gangs, female gang members did not snatch power through violence but acquired it organically. The men delegated command believing that it was their decision, but the reality was that the women implemented strategies in order to seize it.

Still, during fights and shootings against rival gangs, gender is of no importance. What matters is survival, said Berenice, who also belonged to the 205 gang, a subgroup of La Gran Familia Mexicana – “the great Mexican family” – which operates in Manhattan and parts of the Bronx.

“We did not wear the colors of the gang; we had no visible tattoos or walked a certain way. Rather, we wore formal clothing in order to evade the police and to infiltrate parties thrown by rival gangs,” said the young woman, referring to the stereotypes surrounding the look of gang members.

Through Misión Cristiana El Calvario, Berenice has become a voice of hope for young women who want to get their lives back.

Women in gangs and their struggle for power

In 2012, the role of female gang members gained visibility in New York City after the police arrested over 40 members of the Dominican gang Trinitarios in the Bronx, including women of the subgroup “Bad Barbies.” The police did not reveal if the subgroup is still active.

The lack of academic investigation surrounding gangs and their struggle for power led Dr. Dana Peterson – associate professor at the University of Albany-SUNY’s School of Criminal Justice – to delve into the underworld of these street groups.

(Photo provided to El Diario)

Peterson, co-author of studies such as “Gender, Sexuality, and Gangs: Re-envisioning Diversity,” explained that young women and men express similar reasons for joining a gang, citing protection, sense of belonging and status, among others. Still, women have also experienced gender violence at home, at school and in their neighborhoods, making them vulnerable to sexual abuse, harassment and/or aggression inside the gang.

“Young women tend to leave gangs earlier than the men. However, there are adult women in gangs,” said the professor.

Peterson pointed out that, although the research available does not explain how a gang is structured and what kind of leadership women exert within it, some of these academic reports state that hierarchy is defined partly by cultural traditions surrounding gender roles.

“Inside Mexican or Puerto Rican gangs, the research suggests that there are variations depending on factors such as the relationships a young woman has inside the gang – such as whether she has brothers or other relatives in it or a boyfriend with a high status – and the way she enters the gang […],” said Peterson.

The academic said that women generally are a subgroup within male gangs, but that there are some mixed gangs. Peterson pointed out that all-female gangs are rare, although African-American women [in gangs] tend to join this type of group.

From oppressed to oppressor

In 2012, a former member of Brooklyn Mexican gang Escuadrón-Los Panchitos told El Diario that women seeking to join the group were forced to have sex with members or prostituted for money to buy drugs and weapons.

However, the passive, sexual role of female gang members – which was common during the 1990s – began to change in the early 2000s, said Sergio Argueta, founder of S.T.R.O.N.G. Youth, an organization that provides services to former gang members on Long Island.

Argueta said that, now, women opt to be “jumped” in order to earn the respect of the gang.

In many gangs, if the aspiring female member chooses to have sex with the members, she earns minimal respect. A woman who endures the initiation beating is accepted and has a better chance to earn some power within the gang,” said Argueta. “Contrary to popular belief, gangs no longer have leaders. In order to evade the attention of the police, they do not choose one. Today, leadership is natural, and women are taking part in it.”

He added that, at least on Long Island, there are no female-only gangs but subgroups within gangs. The female members perform roles such as serving as decoys to earn power.

That could be the case with the much-feared MS-13. In January, Laura Christina Campos, a suspected member, led Julio César Gonzales-Espantzay, 19, to his death by promising him marijuana and sex.

According to the Suffolk County police, the 28-year-old woman ambushed Gonzales-Espantzay with the purpose of increasing her stature inside the ruthless gang. The young man’s body was found in March in the Massapequa Preserve.

The police said that the accused drove the victim in her car to the area, where he was killed by gang members Carlos Portillo and Kevin Granados-Coreas.

“They thought [the victim] was associated with a rival group, which was not true, but then he basically became a pawn for someone else to earn status,” explained Detective Lt. Stephen Fitzpatrick, from the homicide squad.

Argueta said that most female gang members have endured “unimaginable violence,” which may start at home or in their countries of origin and intensify when they join gangs in our area. The academic and activist mentioned the case of a young Central American woman who was raped by gang members and ran away to Long Island escaping threats to her life, only to be identified there by other members of the same gang.

“She had to join a rival gang to defend herself and feel protected, although she was also forced to take part in violent acts,” said Argueta. “These young women are constantly violated, even if they have a certain status inside the gang.”

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