SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador—Esmeralda Aravel Flores Acosta drove up to the curb in front of the local registry office in the small town of Santa Ana, an hour outside of San Salvador.
“There’s your husband,” she said to an apprehensive-looking woman in the back seat, as she pointed to a man standing outside the government office that issued marriage licences.
She ordered the passenger, Monica, to get out of the car. Monica, whose real name has been withheld in court documents to protect her identity, did what she was told. She approached the man and took his hand. They didn’t speak. It was the only time in her adult life that she’d taken the hand of a man she’d never met before.
Monica would learn that her husband-to-be was Melvin Ostmaro Reyes Rosa, 31. He believed the deal he had made with Flores Acosta to marry Monica would translate into the papers he needed to live and work legally in the United States, a dream for many impoverished Salvadorans.
But Monica didn’t have a U.S passport. And what Reyes Rosa didn’t know is that when he married Monica that day in September 2016 he innocently signed away his life: Just over a month later, at a bus stop not far from where they were married, he was shot dead by members of the MS-13 street gang.
When police investigators found his body, it was full of bullet holes: Reyes Rosa had been shot in the face and the back of the head, as well as his abdomen, left shoulder, thigh, and knee, according to the autopsy report. His face was so deformed by the attack that Monica—who had only been with him three times before, including on their wedding day—struggled to recognize him when she was called to identify the body. She recognized him for the clothes he was wearing when he was killed, she said.
The gang had tried to make the murder look like a robbery by taking Reyes Rosa’s phone and wallet. But there was nothing random about the killing.
Elaborate scheme run by women
The unholy union was part of an elaborate scheme hatched by a human-trafficking ring led by Flores Acosta with two of her sisters and other women, and backed by the muscle and terror of MS-13. The objective? To force women to marry men the gang would later kill so that the group could claim their life insurance money.
The macabre work of El Salvador’s “Black Widows” serves as a unique example of women’s role in criminal enterprises fueled by the brutally violent street gangs that dominate large swathes of Central America.
Over the past few decades the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs have metastasized across the Northern Triangle countries Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Formed on the streets of the United States, in the mid-1990s thousands of foreign-born gang members were deported home to Central America, and took the gangs with them to form new cells.
Women are present in great numbers in the “Mara Salvatrucha” gangs, but rarely in leadership roles. They most frequently help move drugs and weapons around—police tend to suspect them less—and also work to enforce extortion schemes, according to a study on their structure by Interpeace.
But the Black Widow Flores Acosta took the role of women to a whole new level.
Black Widow Esmeralda Flores Acosta took the role of women working with the MS-13 to a new level. Photo: El Salvador's Attorney General's office.
“Esmeralda not only established a criminal enterprise, but she established a working relationship with one of the most misogynist, powerful criminal enterprises in the region [the MS-13]. I’ve never seen a woman like that here in El Salvador,” said Juan José Martínez d’Aubuisson, an anthropologist who has studied the gangs for years.
“It’s not usually the way women work in gangs,” he said. “They’re rarely protagonists in this way and they are rarely in powerful positions, which gives this story a special touch within a society that is so macho and so aggressive with women, and above all within this criminal world— a criminal world in which women are generally harassed and treated like cattle.”
Little is known about Flores Acosta and her relationship with the MS-13; court documents give nothing away about her life other than her activities as a Black Widow. Sonja Wolf, an assistant professor affiliated with the drug policy program at the CIDE university in Mexico, cautioned against assuming Flores Acosta was a powerful ringleader acting independently, given the track record of women in the Mara gangs.
“Even if some women have ostensibly adopted the role of a victimizer, they may themselves have been victimized, and this experience may be important to explain how they come to victimize others,” said Wolf. “If Flores was in a relationship with a clique leader, to what extent might she be seen as another victim in the Black Widows scheme, rather than a ringleader?”
Monica first met Flores Acosta when the Black Widow offered her live-in domestic work in July 2016 through a mutual friend. She had no work at the time, she later told prosecutors, so she decided to try it out for a monthly salary of $250, which was below the minimum wage.
She moved in with Flores Acosta and her young children, as well as their mutual friend Magdalena Patricia Lucha Lopez. But one day Monica glimpsed Lucha Lopez in the shower and saw that her back was full of bruises—evidence, she presumed, of beatings from Flores Acosta.
Frightened, Monica decided to invent a story to get out: that a member of her family had fallen sick and she needed to return home to look after them. “OK,” her boss replied.
The next day, Flores Acosta asked Monica to help her take a plate of food to a house on the next block. As they walked past the house’s front window Monica saw a tall and muscular man inside with tattoos covering every inch of his skin, including his face. Monica knew those tattoos were a declaration of his membership to MS-13. The only part of him not covered in ink were his hands, where his white skin showed.
As they walked through the door, the man pounced on her and put a gun to her head.
“You’re going to do exactly what Esmeralda tells you to do and if not, we’re going to kill your whole family—your mother, your sister, and your son; we have photos of all of them,” he said through gritted teeth as he stared at her from yellowed eyes surrounded by the tattoos that made his skin appear dark green.
Monica dropped the plate of food that she had in her hand, and it smashed onto the tiled floor. “Why are you doing this to me?” she said.
We want you to do a job for us, Flores Acosta told her, and then we’ll let you go. I’ll explain everything to you as we go along, but you’re not going home again until the job is done. “The only response to this is yes or yes,” she finished, before she smacked Monica in the face.
Flores Acosta, 37 at the time, was a former hairdresser, and photos in video sessions during her trial show a striking woman with jet black hair, and dark skin and eyes. She was much taller than Monica, and had a bunch of tattoos on her body. (Hers weren’t related to the gang—MS-13 does not officially allow women as members.)
Wilbur Javier Caceres Benitez, or “El Guay” (Whitey), a member of the MS-13, provided the muscle Flores Acosta needed to coerce some victims and kill others. Photo: El Salvador's Attorney General's office.
The man was Wilbur Javier Caceres Benitez, or “El Guay” (Whitey), who Flores Acosta was in a sexual relationship with, according to court documents. She also outsourced her terror tactics to him.
Monica knew she was trapped in Flores Acosta’s web. After she married Reyes Rosa and he was killed, she reported him missing to the police and played the grieving widow at his wake, as she was ordered to do. Monica then claimed his body and later his life-insurance payments—money that she subsequently turned over to Flores Acosta.
From Monica’s marriage alone, Flores Acosta and her collaborators made more than $60,000 according to court documents,—a small fortune in El Salvador, where almost a quarter of families live below the poverty line. In another forced marriage alleged by a different victim, “Mateo,” the Black Widows also killed the husband and forced Mateo to claim his life-insurance payments, which was a $150 pension every month.
Monica said in court she was never paid a cent by Flores Acosta, and that she beat her and other women in the house with a heavy wooden bat. It wasn’t until Monica was claiming her dead husband’s insurance money that she realized her captor had no intention of letting her go home to her family once the job was done. The bank that gave her the payout wanted to give her a free life-insurance policy. When Flores Acosta asked Monica if she had signed up for it, she replied that she didn’t have all the documents at the time, and Flores Acosta flew into a rage.
That’s when Monica understood she was next on Flores Acosta’s hit list. That the Black Widow would force her mother to claim the insurance money her murder would release.
On a day in late January 2017, Flores Acosta told Monica to go see her family and tell them she was never coming back. But when Monica left the house that day, she did nothing of the sort. Instead, she finally went to the police, and took with her all of the evidence that she had collected over the last year: copies of Reyes Rosa’s death certificate, their marriage documents, the insurance payouts, as well as photos of herself covered in bruises from the beatings she said were from Flores Acosta. Added to that were death threat messages left by Flores Acosta when she realized Monica had disappeared.
Flores Acosta didn’t have time to get to Monica’s family, who were presumably placed immediately under police protection: She went underground, abandoning the house shortly before it was raided by the police. The police rescued the other women who had been held captive there. Three of them later testified to the same treatment that Monica described—one had been held captive for three years.
It wasn’t until 10 months later, in November 2017, that Flores Acosta was finally arrested. In May 2019, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison, going down in ignoble history as the first case of forced marriage on Salvadoran record.
Bryan Avelar contributed to reporting.