COJUTEPEQUE, El Salvador — Shortly after midday on Monday, August 19, Evelyn Hernández emerged from the courthouse to thunderous applause.
For a split second, the screams and whistles overwhelmed her so much she froze. One of Hernández’s lawyers, steadying her as they walked side by side, took her right hand and raised it into a fist.
As she stepped onto a makeshift stage set up in front of the gates of the courthouse, Hernández smiled timidly, wiped tears from her eyes, and gripped the microphone. “There are many women still in prison,” she said. “I ask that they, too, be freed soon.”
Hernández and the women she was referring to are the target of a campaign in El Salvador that often criminalizes women living in poverty when they have pregnancy- or birth-related complications. In the tiny Central American nation, which has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, the traumatic experience of having a miscarriage or the death of a newborn baby can often be compounded by serious jail time.
In a region wrestling with alarming rates of gender-based violence, El Salvador stands out for its relentless persecution of women suspected of having abortions or killing their newborn babies.
Since 2000, at least 129 women have been imprisoned following pregnancy- or birth-related complications in El Salvador, a country of approximately 6.5 million people and one of a handful in Latin America where abortion is totally banned, even when the woman’s life is at risk. Some of these women have been charged with aggravated homicide and sentenced to as many as 40 years. (Having an abortion, on the other hand, carries a maximum sentence of eight years.) By contrast, the maximum sentence for men charged with femicide, or killing a woman because of her gender, is 35 years.
Their stories are all different: Some pregnancies were the result of rape, including from family members; other women had eagerly awaited having a child. Often, the women were alone during at-home deliveries, and what happened during those critical hours can never really be known. What is clear is that the state wants them to pay a heavy price.
Women’s rights activists see it as little more than a war on women living in poverty. Many of those women languished in prison, largely forgotten until 2014, when activists requested a presidential pardon for 17 of them and launched a global campaign to demand their release. But despite growing international attention, the Salvadoran state has continued, and even escalated, its criminalization of these women.
To understand what is happening in one of the most oppressive nations for women and girls, BuzzFeed News spoke to eight women persecuted by the state following birth-related complications — including three who remain in prison and two whose babies survived distressing at-home deliveries — as well as judges, doctors, and police officers.
For Hernández, the nightmare began in 2016, when she delivered a baby boy she says she didn’t know she was expecting, and who died soon after. She hemorrhaged severely during the delivery at home, in a small, isolated shantytown, and had to be carried to a pickup truck and then driven to the emergency room, where the 18-year-old was hospitalized for six days. She was accused of aggravated homicide and put on trial. In July 2017, after intimate details of her injuries were discussed at length inside the courtroom, Hernández was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
For nearly three years, Hernández remained in jail as the last of her teenage years disappeared. Meanwhile, her legal team appealed the court’s decision. In December 2018, the appeal was accepted, her sentence was annulled, and the judge called for a retrial.
In February, Hernández was granted conditional release; according to Salvadoran law, she had exceeded the 24-month limit under which those accused without a conviction can be held in prison. For now, at least, Hernández could go home, but her future was still out of her hands.
Riddled with anxiety, she returned to court in August for the retrial, which stretched over several days. At last, the judge made up his mind: Hernández was innocent. The celebration outside the courthouse that day was echoed across the world, as her case had attracted global attention for months. Now 21, Hernández was finally free to start over.
But 18 days later, the attorney general’s office delivered a new blow: It would appeal the judge’s decision, opening the possibility of a third trial.
The cautious smile on Hernández’s face outside the courtroom in August has since vanished, replaced by crying fits. She's now plagued by nightmares fraught with threats.
“I thought about not living anymore,” said Hernández, “so that this can end.”
The metal handcuffs clinked every time Jacqueline Castillo shifted in the white plastic chair.
It was a typically humid September morning, and Castillo, 31, was sitting inside the Centro de Detención Menor para Mujeres en Izalco, a women’s prison near the country’s Pacific coast. Wardens had set up an impromptu interview room in a fenced-off area to the side of the main, open-air courtyard. Recently opened, the jail appeared to be still unfinished as hundreds of inmates milled around and shot curious glances over at Castillo.
Castillo’s eyes darted between the three guards standing a few feet away from her. After more than eight years locked away, wardens still made her nervous. Castillo lowered her voice as she started to describe what happened on July 20, 2011.
It started with an urge to urinate and a routine trip to the latrine at her father’s house in Cuscatancingo, a municipality of the capital, San Salvador. Featuring a hole in the ground several feet deep, latrines are pit toilets, common in rural areas in developing countries where access to water and basic sanitation are scarce.
Castillo knew she was still six weeks away from her due date, so when she heard a wail, she said she went into shock. When her father arrived and heard the cries coming from the bottom of the dark hole, he called 911.
But when the police officers turned up, they didn’t take Castillo to the hospital, despite her complaints of acute pain. Sitting in the back of the patrol car, she heard one of the cops say into a radio that he was taking her to the station for attempted homicide. At the station, Castillo remembered that at the station, a doctor asked her to lie on top of an office desk to examine her. The doctor said she needed to be rushed to an emergency room because she still had pieces of her placenta inside her uterus. “She deserves to die for what she’s done,” one of the cops there responded, according to Castillo.
Meanwhile, the baby, a girl, was taken to a local hospital, where she was treated for minor lesions.
According to Castillo’s legal file, she wasn’t admitted to the emergency room at the National Maternity Hospital until past midnight. In the morning, just before 8:30 a.m., she was sedated and wheeled away to the operating theater to have a dilation and curettage, a procedure to clean the uterus.
Afterward, officers took her back to a police station. There, Castillo said a cop tried to intimidate her by asking whether she preferred to be placed with the “letters or numbers,” alluding to the two main gangs in the country, MS-13 and Mara 18. El Salvador’s gangs have wreaked so much havoc on the country that in 2015, the country’s Supreme Court designated them as terrorist groups.
During the trial, three people testified against her, according to Castillo’s case file. Two of them were the officers who detained her; the third was one of Castillo’s neighbors, a 74-year-old woman who said she had asked Castillo on numerous occasions if she was pregnant; Castillo had denied it. During an interview with police, the woman accused Castillo of throwing a previous newborn baby into the latrine.
A rumor reached Castillo inside her cell during the trial that the neighbor had been coerced by prosecutors to lie in exchange for $25. Nearly five months after she was arrested, Castillo was sentenced to 15 years for the charge of attempted aggravated homicide.
Meanwhile, her baby had been named by a staff member at the hospital where she had been taken, according to Castillo’s file: Erika Sofía. But more was taken from Castillo than the right to name her daughter.
One day, an unnamed visitor asked Castillo, who had attended school until eighth grade, to sign a document. She did. Later, Castillo learned that she had signed a document to place Erika Sofía for adoption. She’ll likely never meet her daughter.
Still, Castillo said she hopes to find her when she gets out of prison, though she has no idea who adopted her or how to track her down. Recently, Castillo entered her ninth year in jail. She still has six years left.
As Castillo spoke and the heat grew unbearable, two other women, Kenia Hernández and Sara del Rosario Rogel, sat quietly within touching distance. After a while, Hernández stood up to braid Rogel’s hair. Then they tried to wiggle the handcuffs half an inch down their wrists to curve their fingers into a heart shape — they wanted to be photographed like that so their families could see the pictures and know they were OK. The two women are serving aggravated homicide sentences after their newborn babies died following at-home births.
Kenia Hernández, 24, was 17 when she got pregnant with her boyfriend. Her first thought when she found out was My father will hit me. He eventually did discover she was pregnant, but she said he came to terms with it. Months later, she was cleaning the house when her father started chasing her, angry that she wasn’t being diligent enough. She tripped and fell, and her father fled the house, she said. She went into labor, alone, and delivered her own baby, who died not long after delivery. Hernández was sentenced to 30 years.
Rogel said she was washing dishes at home one night shortly before her due date in October 2013 when she slipped, fell, and passed out. When she woke up in the hospital, the nurses wouldn’t answer her questions about her baby — she had died. Rogel remembered the name she had chosen for her daughter: Alexandra Sarai. Rogel, too, was sentenced to 30 years.
Castillo, Kenia Hernández, and Rogel have grown close in prison, where other women single them out as the abortistas, or women who choose to have abortions. They said that when they first came to prison, they were often beaten up by other inmates, until they decided to fight back.
While incarcerated, the women also came to know Evelyn Hernández before her release this year.
But news hadn’t reached them of what had happened to their friend. They were thrilled to hear that Hernández had been acquitted — but deeply concerned by the prospect of her having to face a third trial.
“Every time another one is freed, a new door opens for the rest of us,” said Castillo, “for another one of us to get out and tell her story.”
The two and a half hours allotted for the interview were quickly up, and the three women stood up reluctantly. They walked over to the chain-link fence for a thorough search by one of the guards before joining the long line of inmates waiting to collect their lunch.
In the other direction, past a set of gates, was the administrative office. A handwritten banner hung on the wall near the bathrooms:
“Who can find a virtuous woman? Prov 31:10.”
The shantytown where Evelyn Hernández lives is so small and isolated that it doesn’t appear on most maps.
Getting to her parents’ house, where she lives, takes effort: a drive up a winding road, a walk down a narrow, unpaved road, and a hike up a hill, located on the outskirts of a poor neighborhood with little cell reception.
Off to the side of the house is the latrine the family uses. Flanked by corrugated metal sheets on three sides and a black plastic sheet stretched out across the fourth, it offers little privacy. A wall of dense, tropical foliage, full of grasshoppers and spiders, towers high above the makeshift bathroom.
Her neighborhood is unwelcoming for another reason: Rival gangs have forced most residents to stay indoors as much as possible. During a recent visit, several locals cautioned against staying long or venturing far from the twisting, paved main road.
In 2016, Hernández spent most of her time at home, except to go to school and to meet with a Catholic group that paid visits to sick people. At the start of the year, a rumor began to circulate among Hernández’s friends that she was pregnant, according to a social worker who testified in her trial, and whose testimony is included in Hernández’s case file. The file, like that of several other women in similar conditions, was posted online by an anti-abortion group based in San Salvador.
In a sign of how confusing and contentious these cases can be, a local health care worker testified that she visited Hernández’s house three times in an effort to verify the rumors that she was pregnant. Hernández, who said she didn’t know she was pregnant, denied that these visits ever took place.
On the morning of April 6, Hernández, then 18, delivered the baby. According to her, she went to the bathroom where she felt something unusual come out. She lost so much blood that, shortly after, a neighbor had to carry her down the hill to a van while she was barely conscious. The baby’s autopsy revealed no signs of trauma.
“Evelyn has probably committed a crime, but it is not a crime that is included in the penal code,” said Arnau Baulenas, one of Hernández’s attorneys, during her trial in August. “And that is that she lives in a rural community.”
“Her crime is probably that she has a latrine and not a proper bathroom,” Baulenas went on. “This, in the eyes of the prosecutor’s office, means she is a person who must spend 40 years in prison.”
Hernández’s story is replicated across the country’s rural landscape. Yenni Marroquín, a police deputy inspector who responds to emergency calls in Cuscatlan, the region where Hernández’s village is located, knows this well.
Marroquín said she’s lost count of how many at-home births she’s been called to: There was the 13-year-old — “probably, since she still did not have any pubic hair” — who delivered a baby while lying on top of old newspapers. Then there was the 14-year-old whom Marroquín and her partner saw walking down a dirt road alone one day, carrying a dead baby in her arms. They drove the girl to a hospital. Days later, when they returned to deliver a mattress to the girl’s home, they met her mother, who had a black eye. Some of these girls were probably raped by their stepfathers, said Marroquín offhandedly.
Troubling attitudes toward women have deep roots here: It is such a patriarchal society that when a girl is born, she’s sometimes referred to as “an item for gentlemen.” Even Marroquín, who is familiar with the precarious living conditions common to most girls prosecuted for obstetric complications, implies that women must, above all, be good mothers.
Even when a young woman is in the most dire situation, Marroquín can’t accept that an abortion would be the right decision. “Why would they do it? Why don’t they wait until the babies are big?” she wondered, sitting in front of a bookcase prominently displaying a Bible and a cross at the police station.
The prejudices are also religious, and the circumstances of these women are often seen through the lens of the church’s strict views on women’s rights and their societal roles. In the staunchly Catholic country, religious biases “will come through not just among police and doctors, but also the prosecutors, judges, and even the defense,” said Martín Rogel Zepeda, a deputy Supreme Court judge.
Cases like Hernández’s “are viewed with a lot of prejudice, starting at the hospitals, where women who arrive bleeding are seen asabortistas, denounced to the authorities, and processed under a predetermined idea,” added Rogel Zepeda.
Abortion was legal in El Salvador until 1998, when legislators gave in to pressure from the church to ban it. Efforts to roll this back have failed in recent years: In 2017, Johnny Wright Sol, a former lawmaker in El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly, submitted a petition to legalize abortion under certain circumstances. “All the planets had aligned,” he said. At the time, there was a left-wing government that Wright Sol said had promised to vote in favor, combined with a wave of decriminalization across Latin America. But the petition didn’t get enough votes. And while the current president, Nayib Bukele, has said that women living in poverty should not be presumed guilty after having a “spontaneous abortion,” he has not spoken about Hernández’s case.
Last month, María Eugenia Barrientos, a general practitioner whose patients include pregnant women, published an op-ed in La Prensa Gráfica, a national newspaper, titled “Undeniable Truths About the Case of Evelyn Beatriz’s Recent Newborn.” In it, Barrientos questioned Hernández, who has maintained that she did not know she was pregnant, and accused her of delivering the baby somewhere other than the latrine.
Barrientos said the op-ed was well received. She smiled softly during a recent 90-minute interview, even while explaining her theory about Hernández and other women in similar situations: that they are all lying as part of a plot by feminist groups. “Why do they all use the same word to describe what happened to them — ‘something tore inside me’ — which isn’t a word that poor people ever use?” she wondered. “A simple person would simply say something fell out of them.”
A doctor for the last 27 years, Barrientos added that some of her patients have expressed their gratitude after she’s delivered their babies, even when the pregnancies were a result of rape.
Those babies “are wonderful people now,” said Barrientos. “When they come to my clinic, I can hug them and kiss their cheeks and think that they have every right to be a firefighter, or a cop, or a teacher.”
For the women who have been imprisoned, life will never be the same again. They are forever branded — permanently judged and often isolated in their own communities.
Some of those women have decided to fight back.
They are led by Teodora Vásquez, who knows what it’s like to serve time after losing a baby.
In 2007, Vásquez was close to her due date when she felt an unusual pain while working. She said she called for an ambulance at least six times; by the time it showed up, she had passed out. When she woke up, Vásquez remembers being surrounded by police, who she said beat her up.
Vásquez still didn’t know she had lost her baby. “You’re a bitch for killing your son,” Vásquez said a woman police officer told her. “Even animals take better care of their offspring.”
She was convicted of aggravated homicide and sentenced to 30 years.
In 2014, her case became a cause célèbre in El Salvador when a group of lawyers requested a presidential pardon for Vásquez and 16 other women. Activists launched a global campaign for the group, which came to be called “Las 17.” A judge commuted Vásquez’s sentence last year.
Almost right away, Vásquez, 36, embarked on a trip across the country to find other women like her. They weren’t easy to find, but Vásquez, dogged and strong-willed, eventually tracked down more than a dozen.
Soon after, she and three others from the group moved to a house in San Salvador, where they created an environment that welcomed women who had been similarly punished. They provide therapy sessions, legal counsel, job training, and music classes. Vásquez is currently trying to master “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” on the violin.
The house is painted in bright colors and decorated with blown-up photographs of some of the women in prison. In one, Castillo and Hernández appear, along with 11 others, dressed in their all-white prison uniforms.
The women have ignited a social movement demanding the release of the others: They organize social media campaigns, stage street protests, and demonstrate outside courtrooms and prisons whenever there is a hearing or a woman is released.
But the harder Vásquez and the others push back, the more relentless the state becomes. During Hernández’s retrial in August, prosecutors asked the judge for 40 years, instead of the 30 that she had been initially sentenced to.
Activists organized a sit-in outside the attorney general's office three days after it announced it would appeal Hernández's appeal. Dozens of women showed up, some of them wearing blue T-shirts that said “Las 17.” A protester, her face covered with a balaclava and a clown nose, yelled into a microphone: “For being machista and patriarchal, we declare the prosecutor’s office guilty!” Soon the crowd began throwing hollowed-out eggs filled with confetti at the gates.
As the hourlong protest started to wind down, a couple of demonstrators threw balloons filled with red paint at the building’s glass door. Within minutes, the crowd dispersed, the demonstration over. But the media war between the women’s movement and the Salvadoran state was about to intensify.
As night fell, the prosecutor’s office began posting a series of photographs that showed several protesters’ faces on Twitter. Attorney General Raúl Melara, who declined to be interviewed for this article, accused demonstrators of obstructing people from visiting the office during the hourlong protest.
“They’ve run out of legal arguments,” tweeted Melara, along with photographs of the splashes of red paint on the building.
Hernández’s future remains precarious as she nervously waits to hear whether the state’s appeal will be accepted — and whether she’ll have to return to court, and potentially to prison.
On a recent afternoon, she visited La Casa de Todas, the headquarters of the San Salvador–based activist group Feminist Collective for Local Development, to talk about her case.
Hernández climbed the stairs to the second floor and stopped at the entrance to one of the meeting rooms. She didn’t want to speak to the media, but listened quietly to four questions, agreeing to answer only the ones she felt comfortable with.
She didn’t want to answer the question about why the prosecutor’s office was going after her again. “I feel sad and angry,” she said finally.
Afterward, she walked to the patio and greeted a friend who knew what she was going through. Cinthia Rodríguez was found guilty of homicide after having what she said was a miscarriage and spent nearly 11 years in prison before being released in March.
The two hugged for several minutes, their tearful faces buried in each other’s hair.