The G-thang ain't just a guy thing anymore. Girls can do it too.
In Honduras it's becoming increasingly common for young girls—pre-teens included— to work as "tax collectors" for gang-run extortion rackets. In rough neighborhoods throughout Tegucigalpa, a growing number of high-school girls dabble in extracurricular extortion by collecting money for gangs on the way home from school.
It may sound strangely empowering in an ultra-machista society, but this isn't a step forward for gender equality; it's a step backwards for the rights of children and adolescents. And the problem is worsening, according to authorities.
The number of girls arrested on charges of gang extortion is up 200% since 2013, according to numbers provided by Honduras' Anti-Extortion Police Unit. In the first ten months of this year alone, 45 girls between the ages of 12-17 have been arrested in police raids on extortion rings. The youngest was in sixth grade.
For gangs, young girls are ideal war-tax collectors. It's easier for them to move about the marketplace and shake-down shopkeepers without drawing notice. And as minors, they don't do hard prison time if they get caught.
Plus, girls never have to use force to extract money from merchants. Behind each sweet smile is the threat of gang violence; and if the shopkeeper demurs, the girl makes a quick call to her gang handler and passes the phone. "Here, my boss wants to talk to you."
But in many ways, the girl gangsters are just as much victims as the hapless shopkeepers they're extorting. All youths and adolescents growing up in gang-controlled neighborhoods are highly susceptible to recruitment and exploitation. But girls living in those conditions are even more vulnerable to sexual violence and trafficking.
The situation is even more precarious in the countryside, according to Casa Alianza, an NGO that works with street children in Central America. Investigator Gerardo Rivera says Honduran girls as young as 10 or 11 years old are essentially being "kidnapped" by narco gangs and forced into sex slavery in rural areas. Rivera says families of the departed are warned: open your mouths to complain, and it'll be the last thing you ever say.
In the cities, gangs' recruitment of children usually involves more finesse. Luring young members into gang life can often rely as much on enticement as coercion, experts say. But it's a carrot-and-stick approach; if the promises of gifts, money and respect fail to sway youngsters, the gangs turn to violence and intimidation. And once the new recruits are in, there's usually no way out. For girls, that can mean a life of sexual bondage and criminal exploitation.
"The girls serve a dual purpose for the gangs; they are used for sex and commercial sexual exploitation, but also as mules to collect extortion," says gang expert José Javier Acevedo, of the National Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Cruel and Inhumane Treatment (CONAPREV).
It's impossible to know just how many young girls are involved with gangs in Honduras, but Casa Alianza estimates the number could be somewhere in the thousands.
"It's difficult to get a grasp on the full magnitude of this problem. Most cases are never reported because the gangs threaten the girls and their families with death if they tell anyone," Rivera told me in a phone interview from his office in Tegucigalpa. "But I can say for sure that 100% of the 10,000 kids living on the streets are at-risk of being recruited by gangs. They're on the front lines of all this."