Gang Violence and the WPS Agenda: Analyzing Gendered Realities in Central America and the Caribbean

People detained by national police in the department of La Libertad stand in a truck as they are taken to a detention center in Soyapango, El Salvador, Friday, Oct. 7, 2022, during the state of the emergency. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

The New Agenda for Peace policy brief from the United Nations Secretary-General acknowledges that violence perpetrated by gangs and criminal groups, “even outside of armed conflicts,” threatens lives and livelihoods around the world. This acknowledgment has implications for the United Nations (UN) community, as violence perpetrated by gangs and other organized criminal groups is often treated separately from the traditional understanding of  “armed conflict” and its impacts. Yet, research shows that gang violence causes disruptions to daily life which mirror the challenges experienced during wartime. As noted in the brief, organized crime was responsible for as many deaths between 2015 and 2021 as all armed conflicts combined in the same period.

Given its unclear position within the study of armed conflict and threats to peace and security—which is key to the mandate of the UN Security Council where the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda originated—gang violence has not been adequately considered by the agenda, which aims to address the impact of conflict on women and foster their participation in peacebuilding. Thus, an evolution of the WPS agenda is required—one recognizing that gendered experiences of violence extend beyond contexts of armed conflict.

The application of the WPS agenda has been hindered in some places in Central America and the Caribbean that are not formally experiencing armed conflicts, but nevertheless are marred by violence. The gender implications of gang-related violence in Haiti received a short mention in the Secretary-General’s annual report on WPS in 2022 and the July 2023 report to the Security Council from the Secretary-General on conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV). The Secretary-General noted that in Haiti,“sexual violence perpetrated by gangs constituted a deliberate strategy to instill fear, subjugate local populations and expand areas of influence and control.”

Before considering how the WPS agenda can be a useful tool in contexts experiencing gang violence, it is essential that militarized solutions are not seen as the solution. The Secretary-General notes in his brief that “eradicating violence in all its forms should not be misunderstood for a call to internationalize domestic issues.” There is a risk that, as observed in other contexts such as El Salvador, militarized interventions may inadvertently perpetuate cycles of violence (including gender-based violence) rather than disrupt them. Rather than advocating for internationally-led interventions, it is necessary to challenge traditional narratives that restrict the applicability of the WPS agenda to countries experiencing armed conflict. Instead, expanding the scope of the WPS agenda should correspond with increased funding and support for women’s rights advocates, alongside political and structural responses, across any context in which gendered violence occurs.

Gender Dynamics in Gangs

Analyzing the gendered dynamics of gangs allows for a better understanding of the tactics used to perpetrate violence against communities. Similar to armed groups, it is well documented that gangs and criminal organizations exploit gender dynamics in their organization and activities. These dynamics are pivotal in establishing hierarchies within these groups and developing tactics for their criminal enterprises. Notably, gender-based violence serves as a central tactic for gangs to exert control, silence opposition, and expand their territorial dominance. Some criminal networks explicitly center gender-based violence as part of their collective identity; for example, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13)’s motto is “kill, rape, control” (“mata, viola, controla”). Victims of rape or sexual violence by MS-13 are often designated as “girlfriends of the gangs,” trapping them in scenarios where they are at risk of continuous victimization from which they have little possibility of escape. In Haiti, gangs engage in campaigns of mass sexual violence, and the bodies of women “are often used as weapons of war” to terrorize communities and challenge rival groups.

While it is necessary to continue investigating how women and girls are uniquely impacted by gang violence and are increasingly participating in gang activities, it is equally crucial to recognize the role of gender norms surrounding men, boys, and masculinities in the maintenance and expansion of criminal enterprises in Central America and the Caribbean. Within contexts overrun by gang violence, norms surrounding masculinities glorify machismo, violence, and militarism. In these environments, men are expected to dominate and act with impunity, while women are expected to submit, intensifying systemic gender inequality in all spheres of society. Moreover, they contribute to structural factors which permeate institutions, culture, and familial structures. This insinuates that even governments, policies, and law enforcement agencies operate through the same patriarchal lens, a hypothesis that is confirmed by high levels of impunity for perpetrators of gender-based violence within many of the Central American and Caribbean countries impacted by gang violence.

Such conceptions of masculinities are harmful to all members of society—not just women and girls. Within gang contexts, men who do not participate in violence can face social exclusion, beatings, and even murder for failing to adhere to gang rules. The pressure to “prove one’s manhood” through enacting masculine strength, power, and disregard for danger has significant physical and psychological ramifications for all involved and works to reinforce violent structures and gender hierarchies.

Leveraging the WPS Agenda in Gang Violence Contexts

The application of the WPS agenda in the region has been inhibited by a disconnect between the agenda and the daily realities of violence and subjugation experienced by women and other marginalized groups. This has led to a sense that the WPS agenda is irrelevant, as it has failed to be applied within contexts not formally designated as armed conflicts. This disconnect is further reinforced by a history of colonization and intervention in Latin America overall, mirrored in international agendas that often treat the Global South as an implementation laboratory. Compared to other regions of the world, the Americas have adopted fewer national action plans (NAPs) to implement the agenda, further illustrating the sentiment that WPS is less applicable. While the WPS agenda as it currently manifests may feel like an imposition of Global North countries, there can be a reconceptualization of the agenda to better address gendered harms that exist across contexts.

To better emphasize the transformative potential of the WPS agenda in the region “requires new ideas, languages, and practices that move beyond the war/peace dichotomy entrenched in traditional WPS formulations.” This is especially crucial in places where a potent security threat against women and girls exists in the absence of a traditional conflict, and a more expansive application of WPS could be lifesaving. Knowing the context is key to addressing gang violence effectively within the framework of the agenda. Moreover, peacebuilding can be made more relevant by centering activities among those who know the context best, i.e., around the knowledge and experiences of local women (and men) peacebuilders.

There are several ways in which the WPS agenda can be leveraged to apply a gender analysis and be linked with efforts to combat gang violence in Central America and the Caribbean. Building on the points established in the New Agenda for Peace, the WPS agenda can start by acknowledging that a large proportion of gendered harms occur beyond contexts of traditional armed conflict. While this was alluded to in UN Security Council resolution 2467, which recognized the continuum of gender-based violence, it has not been widely implemented. One study found that including gang-related violence as an extension of the WPS Index would significantly affect national rankings of women’s status on the index in Central America. In fact, the recently published 2023/2024 iteration of the WPS Index included gang violence as part of its indicators, an update from the 2021/2022 WPS Index which did not mention it at all. This indicates a recognition from the WPS community that women’s lived experiences of violence are not limited to traditional armed conflict.

The WPS agenda, based on the framework set out in UN Security Council resolution 1325, comprises four pillars—Participation, Protection, Prevention, and Relief and Recovery. As illustrated below, each of these pillars can be applied to gang violence, highlighting the pertinence of the WPS agenda in these contexts.

The WPS Agenda’s Four Pillars—Protection, Participation, Prevention, and Relief and Recovery

Recent studies have underscored the importance of linking protection and participation so that women can participate safely in their communities and political processes. Extremely high levels of femicide in Central America and the Caribbean, gang-related gender-based violence, and attacks on women human rights defenders and politicians working to advance women’s rights deter more women from participating in peacebuilding and public affairs for fear of reprisal.

In a forthcoming case study on young women peacebuilders in Honduras1 from the Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice on chronic violence, interviewees reported that street harassment and feelings of insecurity hindered their ability to participate in certain spaces. Gang violence inhibits civil society, which means it inhibits the networks essential to protecting women engaged in peacebuilding activities. The WPS agenda could support safer possibilities for more individuals, women and men alike, to advance gender equality and the protection of women and girls. Approaches to protection from gang violence must also use an intersectional lens, recognizing how violence intersects with different identities, and that Black and Indigenous women are often disproportionately affected. Strategies for alleviating conflict also vary among diverse Indigenous and social groups, and therefore the protection and participation pillars should address the different ways in which individuals from diverse groups choose to participate in conflict mediation and peacebuilding.

Prevention also presents opportunities to address gang violence. Prevention efforts can learn from the engagement of men and boys with the WPS agenda and how socio-economic conditions and dominant ideas around masculinity influence their participation in gangs. Moreover, with more women participating in violent, gang-related activities, additional research is needed around how harmful social norms are reproduced among both women and men. Challenging violent masculine identities and learning from research that analyzes the peaceful masculinities of men engaged in other efforts to create positive change can contribute to efforts to combat gang violence. This also aligns with the call to action in the New Agenda for Peace to dismantle patriarchal power structures and consider the role of men in making transformative progress on the WPS agenda.

Some countries, such as El Salvador, have already made the link between the WPS agenda and gang violence through their NAPs on WPS. Yet in practice, many governments employ punitive and hardline policies that replicate the militarized forms of masculinities glorified within gangs. In the case of El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele’s Plan Super Mano Dura, an anti-gang policy implemented amid an indefinite State of Emergency, has resulted in the imprisonment without due process of over 70,000 individuals assumed to be gang members. As many governments in Latin America seem intent on implementing similar policies, attention should be paid to the ways in which punitive and hardline policies replicate the militarized masculinities exalted within gangs. Addressing masculinities as part of responding to gang violence requires advocating for a change in response that is feminist, pro-peace, and addresses systemic factors that promote machismo and militarism. Replicating violent hypermasculine models will do little more than entrench the characteristics that allow current iterations of violence to remain pervasive.

Finally, efforts can apply lessons from relief and recovery initiatives and recognize women’s existing peacebuilding work. For instance, in Honduras, violence interruption projects through the Spotlight Initiative, and the work of the Peacebuilding Fund, underscore that efforts aligned with WPS priorities are already underway. Recognizing the work that women and men are already doing in their communities can help expand conceptions of what peacebuilding entails. Transitioning to a more peaceful society will require linking with other international agendas, such as Youth, Peace and Security and disarmament initiatives. Lessons learned from WPS can also apply to reintegration for ex-gang members, and for supporting those displaced by violence.

Applying WPS to situations of gang violence in Central America and the Caribbean represents a natural evolution of the agenda and illustrates that WPS can be and is relevant far beyond the confines of traditional armed conflicts. This shift not only reflects the daily experiences of women facing violence, but also recognizes the invaluable peacebuilding efforts they are already undertaking within their communities. Most importantly, it underscores the urgent need to contextualize international frameworks to align with the realities of violence.

While gang activity is one source of violence experienced by women outside of traditional armed conflict, there are many instances where the WPS agenda should be localized to be more applicable to issues that are too often considered irrelevant because they have not been designated armed conflicts. Expanding the scope of the agenda in this sense can be a step towards reclaiming some of the transformative potential of WPS. It necessitates a thorough examination of the gendered and racialized assumptions about who the WPS framework should apply to and challenges any “branding” that disregards women experiencing violence outside of armed conflict. For instance, many Global North NAPs are outward-facing and focus on conflict that occurs “over there.”

However, considering the changing landscape of what violence looks like beyond armed conflict provides opportunities for future NAPs to address challenges faced by women in all contexts—from domestic violence, to migration, and more. Acknowledging the international community’s role in the “eradication of violence in all its forms,” as stated by the Secretary-General in the New Agenda for Peace, is a critical first step to implementing WPS in a way that addresses gendered violence in all contexts.

[1] Elena B. Stravrevska, Nattecia Nerene Bohardsingh, María Dolores Hernández Montoya, Tania Cecilia Martínez, Briana Mawby and Aliza Carns. Forthcoming 2023. “Addressing Chronic Violence from a Gendered Perspective: Fostering People-Centered Approaches.” Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice.

Evyn Papworth is a Policy Analyst for the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) program at the International Peace Institute (IPI). Kiki Hunegs works as part of the WPS team at IPI.

The authors would like to thank Tania Cecilia Martínez for her insights and contributions to this piece.

This article is part of a series reflecting on the 23rd anniversary of the WPS agenda.