a window on their lives and work
(translated by Carol Polsgrove and Paloma Fernández Sánchez)
The story of the girl given here the name of “Magaly” appeared on July 24, 2011, in Sala Negra, a project of the online El Salvadoran newspaper El Faro, which appended this note: “The names of most of the people that appear in this story, along with some places and other details that could wind up compromising them, have been changed to protect their lives.” The full story, which includes a description of the gang rape omitted in these excerpts, appears in Spanish on the El Faro website.
No fewer than 15 gang members raped Magaly Peña for more than three hours, but that perhaps is the least important thing about this story. I met her more than a year ago, when she had just turned 19. She lived – still lives – in a city of the Metropolitan Area of San Salvador called Llopango in an outlying neighborhood with a strong presence of gangs; of Barrio 18, to be specific, although with the passage of time I understood that facts like what gang did it, if the rapists were 6, 12, or 24, or in what town it happened are circumstantial; I understood that what happened to her is not at all extraordinary in a country like El Salvador; I understood that she could even be considered a fortunate one.
“The gang members went to take me out of school and they raped me,” she let out one morning in July 2010, when we were chatting on instant messenger. “But my family knows nothing because they threatened to harm them if they said anything,” she wrote. “Supposedly, one of them was celebrating his birthday and wanted me as a gift,” she wrote. ” Can you imagine more than 18 men with a single woman??????” she wrote. “That alone demonstrates that there are and will be some dogs dead of hunger for all their damned life,” she declared.
I still have not been able to understand why she told me about it. We weren’t friends, scarcely acquaintances. Maybe she only wanted to unburden herself. In fact, with more than a year now gone by since the rape, neither her mother, her stepfather, nor her older brothers yet know what happened to her. Neither does the National Civil Police nor the Attorney General of the Republic nor the Attorney for the Defense of Human Rights nor the Department of Health. When she told me about it, three weeks had passed, and the consequences were at full boil. Maybe for that reason the coldness with which she expressed herself in that chat surprised me. “”Now that is closed like a chapter of my life that is past and gone.”
We saw each other on repeated occasions in the following months, and each time I found her more confirmed in that idea that it is better not to stir up the past….
No fewer than 15 gangsters raped Magaly for more than three hours and she had to keep silent…
—Magaly, why do you believe that it happened?
—Violating little girls is a gift that the guys make to each other, but, as it is supposed to be a party, everyone has to enjoy it.
—But, why you?
—My crime supposedly was that about fifteen days earlier, when they were violating another, I…
—Wait, wait, repeat that….
—Yes, about two weeks earlier they had raped another young girl in the neighborhood. I do not know how they knew, but the Police carried out an operation and, although they never found the house, the guys believe that I had warned them. Because two days earlier at school I was passing when I heard, right? – because you know that at times one hears things without wanting to, and I was leaving…
—from inside the school…
—They were talking in a little corner, and I don’t remember what I was doing, I think sweeping, and what I heard was that they were going to that to a girl that deserved it….
—To someone from your grade?
—I don’t know if from my grade, but from the school, I was passing….Not paying attention…I heard it because I was there. And it happened that the day that they raped her the Police were in the process of looking for her …
The morning of the day of the rape, Magaly went out to buy something in the store. It was Wednesday. Several gang members approached her, surrounded her, and told her to get ready, in the afternoon they would call for her. That chorus of infant-adolescent voices, almost all known, some companions from school, represented the maximum authority in the neighborhood, the Barrio 18, and she better than anybody knew that, the sentence heard, little or nothing could be done. In the following hours she acted like one condemned to death who resigns herself to her condition.
Magaly is a good-looking young girl. Except for her height – scarcely above one and a half meter – she is the opposite of the stereotype of a Salvadoran woman. Her skin is milky; her face, with angular features, with a snub nose but well suited to her face; her hair, dark, long and smooth, covers a scar on her scalp the size of a centavo where acid fell on her when she was a child. She is very thin, scarcely more than 90 pounds, and is not at all voluptuous. The first time that I saw her was in mid-March of 2010, during an activity of the Department of Education that brought me to Llopango. I had to track down a contact in the zone for the report on that activity, and she was the chosen one. Never did I suspect that that tiny and witty young girl was 19 years old, conditioned perhaps by the fact that we were in a school that only goes to the ninth grade.
The afternoon of the day of the rape Magaly arrived at school, like every day. She arrived there a little before one in the afternoon, accompanied by Vanessa, her little sister. They said goodbye and each one entered her classroom. She was talking with a friend when a classmate – a gang member – approached her to hand her a cellphone. “They’re calling you,” he said to her.
—Aha, you’re the whore that fingered us? asked a loud and menacing voice—. Look, well, the homeboys want to brag.
—With me? And why?
—Don’t play stupid, you know well enough. You kicked them when they carried off that girl. They are going to tell you…
—But I have nothing to say to them.
She did not doubt that she was dealing with the person who from prison relays messages to the gang members of her neighborhood, her school, but she dared to interrupt the call. The telephone rang again.
—Don’t hang up on me again, bitch! You know what is going to happen to you if you don’t….
—Look, but I have nothing to do with you – Magaly used up her last breath of courage –so stop bothering me.
—That’s not for you to say but what we homeboys say. Right now you are going to go where they take you and you are going to spend an hour with five of them.
—But I cannot do that, I am walking with my little sister.
—It’s not what you want to do, it’s what you have to do. If you don’t go, they are going to take you out of your school – and he hung up….
Magaly is almost like a mother for her two younger siblings, especially for Vanessa (and she seems fine with that). Perhaps for that reason, when the menacing voice ordered her to leave the school on the day of the rape, the first thing she thought of was Vanessa.
She could not leave her alone. The two of them left the school, and outside there was a little group of gang members that began to walk ahead. On reaching the passage where the Destroyer was, the house that they used as a point of meeting, they said that Vanessa could not come and that the sister of one of the gang members would take care of her. Magaly handed Vanessa her cellphone, and there they separated.
She did not have to go much farther to reach the house. There were few gang members when she entered – four or five; almost all familiar faces; almost all younger, some schoolmates. They pointed out a room: “Go there and undress, we will be there soon.”
Nobody was in the room, only a large XV3 painted on the wall and a large mattress thrown on the floor, without sheets. She undressed herself. She took off her white tennis shoes with little drawings of skulls, her socks, green blouse, cotton camisole, jeans and trousers. She piled it all in a corner. She sat down on the mattress and huddled there.
In a little while the first of her rapists entered….
Mauricio Quirós is the name that I will give a person who for nine years has been director of the school in which Magaly was studying. It took me weeks before he would sit down to talk about what happened – about what is still happening – in the educational center that he directs; in the end he agreed to do it without recording, under the strict condition of confidentiality and in a public place…. His life must not be easy: he works in a zone controlled by the Barrio 18 and lives in a neighborhood besieged by the Salvatrucha Gang, two bus routes away. Nevertheless, when he was convinced that I knew Magaly’s case in detail, he was like an open book, as if with this conversation perhaps in some way he could compensate for his complicit silence.
“I’ve always liked having a good relationship with the students, only thus could certain things be realized, but the only way that one can do this is to be silent,” said Mauricio, who knew of the rape within a few days. Magaly stopped attending classes – her ninth grade teacher reported it – and, first by telephone and later in the office, Magaly confirmed to Mauricio what had happened. “It is infuriating to know they had done that to a young woman that I have watched growing up….but…what can one do?” he asked me. Responses piled up in me, perhaps because to respond seems simple when one doesn’t know what it means to live under the yoke of the gangs.
El Salvador is a very violent country: we are a little more than 6 million people and in 2010 there were 4,000 murders, of which the National Civil Police attributes at least half to the gangs. The United Nations talks of the epidemic of violence if in one year there are more than 10 homicides for each 100,000 inhabitants, eight being the world average. Morocco, Norway and Japan are below one; Spain and Chile around two; Argentina and the United States about six; and the Mexico of cartels and narcos soars to 18. In El Salvador, the rate in 2010 was 65.
But the violence that characterizes Salvadoran society is not only a question of numbers. El Salvador is a country in which stores serve you through a grill, a country in which they frisk you when you enter a bank, a country in which they shoot you for refusing to give up your cellphone in a robbery, a country in which they recommend without blushing that if you run over someone the best thing to is flee the place, a country in which there are more private security guards than police, a country in which only a fraction of what happens is denounced and only a fraction of what is denounced is judged in court, a country in which teachers know that their students are savagely raped and the most that they do is help them pass the grade.
—But you have to know the gang members that raped Magaly, I said to Mauricio.
—Certainly, nearly all. And believe me, it repulses me when I see them.
Mauricio confirmed the rape of Magaly and spoke of other occurrences before and after. All the teachers know or have an idea of what happens. All keep silent. All are afraid. In schools like the one he directs, the gang members rape systematically. The inevitable excuse shows up earlier rather than later. Neither does it matter if a girl is fat, thin, tall or short. In the picture that he painted for me only ones that escape are the protected of the Barrio 18: the sister of, the girlfriend of, the daughter of. This happens and is not even something that anyone tries to hide. During the conversation, he told me that he had seen gang members in corridors or the patio signal and make obscene remarks to girls of 9 or 10 years old. “From the moment they start having curves, they violate them,” he told me.
In the directors’ meetings called by the Ministry of Education, Mauricio reports nothing of this. In nine years he has known of no one that denounced what he believes what is, with greater or lesser intensity, something habitual in all the schools surrounded by zones where the maras‘ presence is strong. But he has his own theory to explain that silence: “Each director will have his set of circumstances, certainly, but they will do the same thing that I do: keep silent.”
Forensic psychology is a tool that permits translating a psychological evaluation into legal language that is used in the courts. The work of a forensic psychologist consists, then, of treating victims as much as victimizers; listens to them, analyzes them, evaluates them and interprets them. Marcelino Días is a forensic psychologist in El Salvador. He has worked since 1993 in the Institute of Legal Medicine, an institution attached to the Supreme Court of Justice. Through his office of two by two meters have passed violated and violators, uncountable already.
The second time that he received me, when I brought up the topic, he lifted from below the table a large white bag full of stuffed animals. He explained to me that he asks for these from his students at the university, in order to break the ice when he evaluates raped girls, something that occurs with too much frequency.
The conversations with Marcelino turned out to be a succession of headlines, each more cruel and dispiriting. “The gang members have a tremendous hatred for women, based on the destruction they do to bodies”; “the accusations are only the tip of the iceberg of all the rapes there are”; “there are 12- and 13-year-old boys that are now rapists”; “they prefer girls of 14 or 15 years old, they are the ones that most often turn up dead”; “the educational system is a disaster, but it appears that no one wants to point it out”; “I do not see a solution to the problem of the gangs.”
I outlined Magaly’s life and mentioned her apparent emotional strength. Marcelina responded that when one grows up in an environment of constant menace, like a neighborhood dominated by gangsters, a rape does not generate as much trauma because it is assumed that the alternative is death. It is a question of survival, he told me.
—And how would you describe the attitude of Salvadoran society toward what is happening in the country?—I asked.
—The violence is almost rendered invisible: how many communication media here tell the truth?… And not only rendered invisible; also it is naturalized. It is not natural to carve up boys or girls, to kill a grandmother, but here all that has been naturalized. I believe that we Salvadorans have an addiction to death.
On the morning after the rape, the pain throughout [Magaly’s] body and a light vaginal hemorrhage confirmed to her that it had not been a nightmare. In the hours that she passed awake in her bed, until her mother and stepfather left, Magaly reaffirmed what from the day before was still a conviction: she would try to endure this alone. The decision made, and confident that the pains would go away on their own, three main preoccupations emerged: a possible pregnancy, AIDS and the loss of a year of school. She did not even consider the possibility of filing a complaint. “I believe in a god that knows all and can do all, and he is slow but never forgets,” she answered me once when I asked her why.
Of the three problems, the one of her classes is the first she solved. She let several days pass and, first by telephone and later in person, Magaly told what happened to her teacher and later the director. Among them, the three improvised a way to pass the grade doing homework in her house, without attending the school where encountering the rapists was inevitable, and not only the rapists.
Dissipating the doubt about HIV took more time, but certainly this possibility never got to the point of tormenting her because it paled before what Magaly considered the worst worry: pregnancy.
In two days she had to see a doctor for the first time. She noticed a strong inflammation in her uterus, besides bleeding that would last for weeks. Some antibiotics and back home. Magaly began to take something that they told her could have abortive or curative properties: cinnamon water, chinchipince water, bull grass, oregano….Her brother Guille, the only one of the house who knows, became her ally. The light bleeding never stopped. The pains increased. Her mother began to be interested and even took her to a trusted doctor, to whom Magaly told all in contrast to saying nothing to her mother. They referred her to the Maternity Hospital, in San Salvador. [For a while] she had the absolute conviction that one of her rapists had impregnated her.
It was during this turn of events when that morning at the beginning of July she let out to me on messenger that she had been raped….
“Life is beautiful,” Magaly began another chat 18 days [later]. “It hurts me a little, but I am well, I feel as if I am giving birth but that is not so,” she wrote. ” Moreover, the HIV tests turned out negative.
Magaly likes to look at herself in the mirror in the bathroom of her house and talk aloud with her reflection. Perhaps that night in which her three problems were solved she started into her eyes, perhaps she deceived herself and said: thanks to God, everything is over….
It’s Saturday afternoon, and our meeting is in a pastry shop in the commercial center Metrocentro. Magaly now has turned 19 years old, presents herself in tight jeans crowned by a thick belt, a white blouse with buttons and some medium-heeled shoes. She looks pretty, too pretty perhaps for the occasion, as if she were coming to a discotheque. Only the notebooks that she carries under her arm support her explanation that she comes from the institute where she is taking her first year for a baccalaureate in the form of long-distance learning. She could not study in her neighborhood but she registered in a center in San Salvador and attended on Saturdays. “If God lets me, I want to get to the university,” she said another day.
My idea is to talk the least about the rape, but she brings up the topic: a few days ago, two gang members raped Patty, an acquaintance from the neighborhood who she had already told me about. Like each one and all of the misfortunes that happen to her, she recounts this one without the least expression of surprise on her face. In lives like hers, things like that are not something striking.
Her life has changed since the rape. When she is in the neighborhood, she does not go out of the house, and has almost no contact with her rapists. A couple of weeks ago she saw two of them on television, when they were presented after being detained in an operation of the National Civil Police. She also knew of another who was killed in the neighborhood. Magaly calls it divine justice…..
I feel that Magaly goes on being in many respects a child, a child that no fewer than 15 gang members raped for more than three hours and she had to keep silent. Nobody would tell it if they saw her here and there, smiling as almost always. There is much confidence now and I comment that this afternoon she looks especially pretty. She blushes.
—It’s that – can I tell you something?—she says to me.
—I don’t know….It is that…it hurts me to tell you…
—You have told me your entire life, Magaly.
—Then it’s that these jeans cost me only two dollars. It’s that….it is used clothing. .At Christmas we are going with my mama and we are shopping in a place that is called Santa Lucía. It is over there, in Síman center.
Roberto Valencia, a native of Basque Country, has lived in El Salvador since 2001.This English translation of the story on the El Faro website is published by permission of El Faro and Roberto Valencia. The full story in Spanish, “Yo violada,” has also been published by Aguilar in Crónicas Negras: Desde una región que no cuenta (2013).