Maira Verónica Figueroa Marroquín leaves El Salvador’s hell for women, Ilopango Women’s Prison

Maira Verónica Figueroa Marroquín and her father embrace

Around the world this week, the news reported that Maira Verónica Figueroa Marroquín was finally free … or at least out of prison. Headlines read “Salvadoran woman jailed for stillbirth set free after 14 years”; “El Salvador woman freed after 15 years in jail for abortion”; “Salvadoran Woman, One of ‘Las 17,’ Freed After Spending 15 Years Behind Bars Following a Miscarriage”. Maira Verónica Figueroa Marroquín is 34 years old. In 2003, Marroquín became pregnant and suffered a late-term miscarriage. She was arrested and convicted of aggravated homicide and sent to Ilopango Women’s Prison. Maira Verónica Figueroa Marroquín has spent more than half her life in Ilopango. This week, her sentence was commuted, though not overturned, and she walked out and greeted her family, friends and supporters. Maira Verónica Figueroa Marroquín was greeted by Teodora Vasquez. In February, Teodora Vasquez was released, after ten years in Ilopango Women’s Prison. Teodora Vasquez is 35 years old. In El Salvador, the intersection of women’s rights, women’s autonomy, and the State is marked by el Centro de Readaptación para Mujeres de Ilopango, the Ilopango Center for Women’s Readaptation. Call it the Ilopango Women’s Prison, El Salvador’s special hell for women.

Starting in 1998, El Salvador banned all abortions. Previously, abortion had been illegal but generally not prosecuted.  El Salvador is one of six countries to ban all abortions. El Salvador opened hunting season on pregnant women; any woman who suffered a miscarriage was suspected of both having had an abortion and of having committed murder. Between 2000 and 2014, over 250 women were reported to the police. 147 women were prosecuted.  49 women were convicted – 26 for murder and 23 for abortion. Salvadoran women’s groups, such as the Citizen’s Group for the Decriminalization of Therapeutic and Ethical Abortion and Abortion for Reasons of Fetal Anomaly and the Feminist Collective, have waged a mighty campaign, and the release of Maira Verónica Figueroa Marroquín and Teodora Vasquez owes much to their persistent organizing.

Meanwhile, the absolute and total ban of abortions is predictably only partial: “The majority of the cases were referred to the police from hospitals—specifically, from public hospitals. Indeed, not a single hospital report to police came from the country’s private practice doctors or private hospitals.” The “totality” of the ban applies only to those women dependent on the public health system.

This is Ilopango Women’s Prison three years ago: “Ilopango is squalid and cramped: Overcrowding stands at nearly 1,000 percent, according to some estimates. Women sleep some 40 to a cell; one prison guard told me that over 100 children under five live there with their mothers.” In 2015, Ilopango held 2000 women; it was designed for 225 women, maximum. Women slept five to a bed, or on the floor. Water was scarce, and medical care even scarcer. Prisoners relied on their mostly impoverished families for pretty much everything. Since then, the situation has only worsened. Everyone “operates between resignation and despair.”

This week, Teodora Vasquez and Maira Verónica Figueroa Marroquín embraced and celebrated freedom. They also decried the 24 women convicted of homicide abortion who remain in Ilopango and promised to “continue supporting those women trapped inside who are paying for a crime we never committed.” For the women who suffered miscarriages, the viciousness of the State is a crime. For the women, all the women, who ended up in Ilopango, the sentence of death-in-life is the crime, not abortion, not miscarriage, not this or that act, not being a woman. Ilopango is the crime.

Ilopango Women’s Prison


(Photo Credit 1: Univision / Reuters / Jose Cabezas) (Photo Credit 2: New York Times / Meridith Kohut)

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.