By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, May 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Gangs in El Salvador who force women to wed only to kill their husbands for the life insurance are on notice after a top prosecutor won a landmark conviction of seven gangsters and said more cases were to come.
State prosecutor Violeta Olivares, head of El Salvador's anti-human trafficking unit, said the forced marriage conviction was the first of its kind in the country and in Central America.
"This is a clear message to the traffickers. It shows we have special legislation that severely punishes the crime of human trafficking and that we will continue to investigate and combat this type of scourge," Olivares said.
Fit for a movie script, the scam involved luring country girls to the city, then making them weep graveside after their forced marriages ended in murder, as gang masters looked on.
Earlier this month, seven gang members, including four women and three men from El Salvador's largest gang - the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) - were convicted of forced marriage and given prison sentences of 15 to 30 years, Olivares said.
Known as a fearless lawyer who has secured more than 30 convictions against human traffickers, Olivares began targetting the brutal 'Black Widow' gang after a captive bride managed to escape, and said she now had more gangsters in her sights.
The conviction exposes the role of El Salvador's powerful street gangs in forced marriage, which is a form of human trafficking, and the extreme violence their victims suffered.
The unprecedented case involved three young women who were forced to marry, and whose husbands were killed by gang members after a month or so of marriage, Olivares said.
The widows were made to collect the life insurance - from $30,000 to $60,000 - which was handed over to gang members.
"It was a mode of operation that hadn't been identified before in El Salvador," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
There is no estimate of the tally of victims - neither the number of women forced to wed nor of their murdered husbands.
"The group has been operating for several years .. and in addition to killing men, they also killed the women so that there were no witnesses to say they were forced into marriage."
To force the women into marriage, victims were beaten naked by gang members and told their families would be hurt if they refused. The violence was recorded on video.
"Video evidence was obtained showing how the women were beaten in such an inhumane way that it almost looked liked they had been left for dead," Olivares said.
The so-called "Black Widows" group first came to light in early 2017 when a victim escaped and reported the crime.
More victims are likely to come to light in the coming months, said Olivares, putting the gang on notice of new cases.
Prosecutors are investigating forced marriage involving up to six more possible victims and dead husbands, and a preliminary hearing could start early next year, she said.
"It's not being ruled out that there could be other women victims who could be alive, and also those who may have been killed," Olivares said.
"We're carrying out the necessary proceedings to be able to establish that other women victims who are alive can be located."
Lawyers who gave advice to gangs about how to apply for and collect life insurance are also being investigated, she said.
Gang members preyed on young, poor women aged 18 to 23 living in rural areas, who were lured by false promises of jobs as domestic workers in the capital San Salvador, Olivares said.
"For the victims it seemed like an opportunity to get work to be able to support their families," Olivares said.
Testimony provided by the victims also showed how they were forced by gangs to identify their husband's dead body at the morgue and told to cry and act like convincing widows at funerals attended by gang members.
The U.N. estimates that some 40 million people are trapped in modern slavery, from forced marriages to sexual exploitation.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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