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

CENTRAL AMERICA: Gang Violence and Anti-Gang Death Squads

Manuel Bermúdez

SAN JOSÉ, Sep 6 2005 (IPS) - Human rights groups report the existence of death squads that have been killing suspected members of youth gangs in Honduras and Guatemala.

They also criticise the increasingly strong-arm crackdown by the authorities, which they say is not the answer to a problem with deep socioeconomic roots.

In clashes between the two main gangs, Salvatrucha and M-18, 35 inmates were killed in several Guatemalan prisons on Aug. 15. The prisoners were armed with high calibre weapons, including fragmentation grenades.

Salvatrucha and M-18 originated in California after nearly one million Salvadorans fled to the United States during El Salvador’s civil war and settled in impoverished neighbourhoods in Los Angeles where gang violence was rife.

As El Salvador began to recover from the 12-year civil war, which ended with a peace accord in 1992, U.S. authorities began to deport thousands of gang members to the country, where the explosion of gang violence during the late 1990s lifted El Salvador’s homicide rates above those seen during the armed conflict.

The gangs, known in the region as maras, also spread to Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua, and more recently to Mexico.

Youth gangs are seen as a national security problem in the United States, where they are present in most big cities and many smaller ones as well.

In response, mass deportations of suspected Central American immigrant gang members continue. Last month, U.S. authorities announced that some 600 gang members would be sent back to their countries of origin after serving time in prison.

Between 20 and 30 minors a day are deported to Honduras from the United States, Mexico and Guatemala, lawyer Marta Savillón, programmes director at Casa Alianza, told IPS.

Casa Alianza is the Latin American branch of the New York-based Covenant House, a child advocacy organisation.

Government statistics estimate the total number of gang members in Central America at around 100,000.

Although the civil wars are over in Central America, violence remains a serious problem in this impoverished region. 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).

Authorities blame most of the murders on the maras, but human rights groups say many of the killings are the work of off-duty police officers operating in death squads carrying out a sort of “social purge”.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reports that Guatemala now has the highest murder rate in all of Latin America, with 70 homicides per 100,000 population.

At the 26th ordinary assembly of the Central American Integration System (SICA), held in Honduras in late June, the countries of Central America agreed to create a rapid response force and take other joint military and intelligence actions. Costa Rica, however, opposed the agreement.

In El Salvador and Honduras, tough anti-gang laws make it possible to throw young people in prison for years merely because they belong to gangs, and police have been given broad powers of arrest, hauling young people in simply because they bear tattoos or communicate using certain hand signs.

Gang members identify themselves with tattoos, bandanas of a certain colour, military-style haircuts, secret code words and hand signals. To join, a would-be gang member must go through initiation rites, which usually involve violence among members or against outsiders.

But human rights organisations say the increased repression is generating greater violence, and is pushing the youth gangs to develop more complex structures as a survival strategy. Some gang leaders have reportedly forged new links with the world of drug trafficking and organised crime, in search of protection from the stepped-up police action.

In El Salvador, 1,000 soldiers began to patrol the streets of the capital on Sep. 1 along with the police, in “anti-gang task forces”. The authorities said the new units are to be made up of three soldiers and two police officers. The function of the soldiers is to accompany the police for security, not to engage in law enforcement.

The initiative forms part of the “Super Mano Dura” (Super Iron Fist) strategy that the Salvadoran government of Antonio Saca began to implement last year.

Savillón said the joint task forces tracked down their “victims” like hunting expeditions. She complained that they have only made it more difficult for groups that reach out to young people, because gang members who in the past were identifiable and therefore accessible to those engaged in social work and rehabilitation now go to pains to hide themselves away.

The arrests have also swept up ex-gang-members who were in the process of rehabilitation, she added.

In Honduras, organisations like London-based Amnesty International and Casa Alianza have also reported that death squads are killing youngsters suspected of belonging to gangs, often merely because they sport tattoos.

Savillón told IPS that Casa Alianza has documented 2,778 murders of young people below the age of 23 between 1998 and last July. Most of the victims were members of maras.

Because these murders are usually not investigated, the perpetrators enjoy total impunity, said the activist. She underlined, however, that there is no evidence pointing to the direct participation of the state in the ongoing killings.

A 2003 report by Amnesty International, “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.”

President Ricardo Maduro has acknowledged the problem of the killings and set up a special unit to investigate. But in two years of efforts, the unit has only been successful in getting the courts to convict eight of the killers.

Ricardo Díaz, the head of the Security Ministry unit in charge of investigating the deaths of minors, said police and members of the military were implicated in the extrajudicial executions of young people. His office has brought charges against 285 people.

At night, the “death squads” patrol the neighbourhoods frequented by gang members, seize suspects and take them to the outskirts of the cities to kill them, said Díaz.

Guatemalan human rights prosecutor Sergio Morales has also repeatedly complained of a social purge, reflected by the frequent killings of suspected gang members in that country as well.

The first regional conference of human rights defenders, which ended Sep. 2 in the Guatemalan city of Antigua, concluded that the increasingly hard-line anti-terrorism, anti-drug and anti-gang policies pose a grave threat to human rights in the region.

The causes of the spiralling violence are social and economic, say activists and legal experts, who argue that a short-term, exclusively penal approach will not eradicate the problem.

They point out that at least half of Central America’s total population of 38 million lives below the poverty line, a proportion that rises as high as 70 percent in countries like Nicaragua, according to unofficial figures.

El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala rank at the bottom of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) human development index in Latin America.

In the communities where the maras recruit their members, social safety nets and state support are extremely weak.

An Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) report, “Marginalised in Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Panama”, states 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.”

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