Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

RIGHTS-CENTRAL AMERICA: Gang Wars – and the War on Gangs

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Oct 4 2004 (IPS) - Every week, mutilated bodies bearing signs of torture appear in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, the victims of an ongoing war between gangs – to which around 300,000 young disadvantaged Central Americans belong – and with those who are trying to exterminate them.

“There is a veritable war raging in the streets of Central America,” lawyer Gustavo Zelaya, with Casa Alianza (the Latin America branch of the U.S.-based Covenant House, a child advocacy organisation) told IPS.

Less than a year ago, a young man seeking refuge in Covenant House in Honduras, where Zelaya works, was stabbed to death by fellow members of his gang just outside the door of the organisation.

Several kilometres away, the body of a young man that had been chopped up into 18 pieces was found on Sep. 13, and a week later, a human head in an advanced state of decomposition was found on a bus. The police blamed the two killings on gangs, which are known as “maras” in Central America.

But many of the murders are actually committed by death squads that kill young people suspected of belonging to maras, often merely because they wear tattoos, say activists.

“In Central America there is an emergency situation, and the governments have failed to respond adequately,” Luciano Lovato, head of the non-governmental Central American Network of Judges, Prosecutors and Defenders for the Democratisation of Justice, said in an interview with IPS.

An average of six people a day are murdered in Honduras (a country of six million), eight a day in El Salvador (population 6.2 million) and 14 a day in Guatemala (population 12 million). The authorities blame most of the killings on the maras.

But the death squads largely made up of off-duty police officers have taken it upon themselves to carry out a “social purge” and wipe out the gangs, say human rights groups.

The violence has taken on such magnitude that Guatemalan President Oscar Berger recently stated his intention to seek a peace agreement with the gangs.

In El Salvador and Honduras, the governments have taken a “mano dura” or “firm hand” approach that makes it possible to throw young people in prison for years simply because they belong to gangs. But the tough new anti-gang laws have drawn fire from activists and legal experts.

The biggest gangs are the violent “Mara Salvatrucha” and “Mara 18”, which first emerged among Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles, California.

The two maras began to spread to Central America in the 1990s, when most of their leaders were deported from the United States.

The impoverished countries of Central America turned out to be a perfect medium in which the gangs could thrive. In Latin America, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala rank at the bottom of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) human development index.

An estimated 300,000 youngsters belong to maras in these four countries.

According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), a regional U.N. body, youngsters between the ages of 15 and 24, who account for 20.3 percent of the population in Mexico and Central America and 33.4 percent of the economically active population, make up 41 to 62 percent of the unemployed.

In addition, the age group of 15 to 19-year-olds, which provides most of the maras’ new recruits, is especially hard hit by poverty and marginalisation.

In the report “Marginalised in Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Panama”, ECLAC stated that factors like “social and economic marginalisation, family problems, school drop-out, under-or unemployment, uncontrolled and unplanned urban sprawl, a culture of violence and transculturalisation push young people to rebuild their identity in youth gangs.”

Zelaya said “Central American governments were inept and allowed the gang situation to spiral out of control, and now they want to crack down on it, but are only attacking the visible consequences,” not the root causes.

Casa Alianza, which provides assistance to street children, reports that more than 2,500 youngsters under 23 have been murdered in Honduras since 1998. Nearly all of them were members of maras slain by fellow gang members, the police, or in “riots” or killings in overcrowded prisons, where conditions are dismal.

Lovato said the strictly police-based approach of “repression” adopted “with great fanfare” to fight the maras has been “a failure and is not leading us anywhere, although it does bring political returns for those who announced the strategy.”

Assistant bishop of San Salvador Gregorio Rosa said that in El Salvador, “young people are hunted down like animals, which generates more hatred, more violence.”

The “super mano dura” policy against the maras, as the Salvadoran government likes to describe its hard-line strategy, has included the creation of a joint body of police and soldiers to track down suspected juvenile delinquents, who can be arrested simply because they wear tattoos or communicate using certain hand signs.

Gang members are distinguished by tattoos, bandanas on their heads, or military-style haircuts. They also use specific words or hand signs. To join a mara, youngsters must go through initiation, which usually involves violence, either among themselves or against outsiders.

A survey by the Jesuit Central American University found that 53.3 percent of respondents in El Salvador believed the “mano dura” policy would help reduce the soaring levels of violent crime.

But “Crime will not be reduced by mano dura or through abuses and violations of basic human rights laws,” argued Lovato.

Zelaya shares that opinion. “The right of presumption of innocence is being violated here, and these youngsters are persecuted merely because of their appearance, or on the basis of suspicion,” he said.

The London-based Amnesty International has criticised the anti-gang strategies followed in El Salvador and Honduras.

In an early September press release titled “Honduras: Two years on and killing of children continues”, the rights watchdog states that “Since February 2003, nearly 700 more children and youths have been murdered or extrajudicially executed in the country.”

“Despite the fact that the government have admitted that police officers have been involved in many of the killings, only two policemen have so far been convicted,” it adds.

A February 2003 report by Amnesty, “Honduras Zero Tolerance…for Impunity: Extrajudicial Executions of Children and Youths since 1998”, says “Most of the victims lived in poverty, on the margins of society, with little education and few job prospects. Honduran society has viewed the deaths of these children and youths with indifference and apathy, some newspapers even suggesting it as a possible solution to the problem of public insecurity.”

In Honduras, the violence and fear have reached such a degree that a large part of the population is in favour of the death penalty for gang members, according to opinion polls.

A Sep. 2-5 survey by the LatiNetwork Dichter & Neira polling firm based on a random sample of 1,208 Hondurans found that 52 percent believed capital punishment should be introduced to help fight the gangs.

The death penalty is openly supported by the president of Congress, Porfirio Lobo, who hopes to become the candidate of the centre-right governing National Party, to succeed President Ricardo Maduro when his term ends in January 2006.

“Central America is killing its young people, because it has condemned them to the stigma of gangs, while it does very little against the poverty, social exclusion, lack of education and destruction of families – the origins of the violence into which they have fallen,” said Zelaya.

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