The Truth About “Gang Girls” and Women’s Violence

A 1992 murder still haunts John Hagedorn. The criminal justice professor has spent more than nine hours interviewing the convicted killer, Jacqueline Montanez, and nearly half his life researching other women like her: women who turned to gang life after years of abuse at home.

Convicted of first-degree murder, Montanez killed rival gang member Hector Reyes when she was just 15 and is serving life in prison without parole. Hagedorn and Montanez’s other allies argue that Montanez’s history of sexual and physical abuse warranted a lesser charge, and that a life sentence without parole for a minor is unconstitutional.

“I’m extremely angry at the defense attorneys at the time who never even thought that something had happened to her…she just kept being demonized as a monster,” says Hagedorn, who teaches at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “It was a miscarriage of justice. Not that she shouldn’t have been punished, but if you think about how she had been raped as an 8 year old, shouldn’t that factor in?”

Montanez and her fellow gang girls are largely forgotten by modern discussions of street violence. No one would know from Spike Lee’s controversial film Chi-Raq that women both perpetrate and fall victim to gang violence in a far more complicated fashion than the sexual bribery Lee depicts based on the Greek comedy Lysistrata.

“We’re looking at something that we haven’t seen in 40 years,” Hagedorn explains, noting that the fall of street hierarchies in the 1990s and evolving gender norms altered how female gang violence plays out. Hagedorn and his colleagues agree: Gang girls are often running from sexual or physical abuse. “The gang is seen as a safe haven for girls much more than it is for guys. What is expected for girls is for them to be home, but they can’t be home because they’re molested.”

Hagedorn says the new “sorority of the streets” is a response to the same frustration with violence explored in Chi-Raq. The film operates on the premise that the gang impact on women extends only as far as the bedroom when they make a celibacy pact until their men give up their street wars. In real gang neighborhoods, women both take and fire their own bullets—an oversight in Chi-Raq that perpetuates ignorance, according to some local gender violence advocates.

Maribel Romero keeps a list of how many women have shared stories of gang violence with her, but she isn’t sure of how long it is anymore. As a case manager and supervisor at the Alliance of Local Services Organization (ALSO), which works to curb youth violence in Chicago, she’s seen the connection between domestic abuse and gang violence for years. “The men are the head of the households. The women are supposed to be silent and do what the men say,” Romero says. “And that ties into the violence.”

The National Gang Center, a research group funded by the Department of Justice, found women made up 7.4 percent of gang membership nationally in 2010. However, the center also notes discrepancies between their data and research independent of the government, which places female gang involvement consistently between 30 and 40 percent.

The data affirms the connection between abuse history and later violence by women. That is far more valuable to criminologists than estimates on how many gang members are women, experts say.

Hagedorn found in his Milwaukee research that 74 percent of women in gangs experienced some kind of violence or neglect in the home. Within that group, 48 percent of those women grew up in families where gang participation was normal, while the other 52 percent came from families with a wide range of abuse issues.

Romero and her colleagues at ALSO belong to a small niche of service providers targeting women impacted by gang violence. Regular domestic violence organizations often refer the few women who come forward elsewhere, since they need additional legal aid and protection, according to Maritza Rocha, the youth services director at the Chicago nonprofit organization Mujeres. Rocha knows of only three women impacted by gang violence who have come to the organization since she joined in 2012, but she knows that there are many more who don’t seek help.

The inconsistent data and experiences reflect the reality of lives deeply intertwined with violence, according to Romero. “Communication is the first thing they lack based on intimidation or fear of the perpetrator. Sometimes that perpetrator has friends that keep the woman doing what they’re doing,” meaning gang activities, says Romero. “They’re crying out for help when they were not able to do that outside of this office. It’s the community. It’s where you’re from. It’s who you are.”

Stephanie Hausen, an intern at ALSO, echoes Romero’s experiences. Women who are gang members or the sisters, mothers and daughters of gang members all report a fear of sexual violence as a form of retaliation or punishment. “This is another reason why these women and girls are so fearful of speaking up and reaching out for help,” Hausen says.

For the few women who ask for help, the path to safety is long—full of false starts and glances behind.

“Many stay within the community,” Romero says. “They start out into the community, they end up incarcerated, they get out and they end up back in the community.”

Women touched by gang violence rarely turn to Bertha Lara, the family service director of Chicago’s Fellowship House. And when they do, she often does not know what to do to help them. “I just tell them to move,” Lara says. “I tell them, ‘Get out of here. Move far away.’”

While Lara considers her responses concessionary, Romero actually agrees that new environments can help women affected by gang violence more than anything. “These are individuals who haven’t been exposed to what’s outside of the neighborhood. They’re caught up in what they have been taught. What they are used to,” she says. “When I get these individuals through my door, what I tell them is that, ‘There’s life outside the neighborhood.”

Hagedorn, his colleagues and groups like Amnesty International say that sentencing a minor to life without parole violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the U.S. ratified in 1992. Compliance with the covenant and a different approach to gang-affiliated women could ultimately give abused women like Jacqueline Montanez a chance at “life outside the neighborhood,” Hagedorn says.

“All violence is paid for. If violence happens to you, there is a response,” Hagedorn says. “Sometimes it erupts in violence against others.”

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user haribote licensed under Creative Commons 2.0



Morgan Gilbard is a Masters student at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism