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MEXICO: Spread of Central American Youth Gangs Uncurbed

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Nov 3 2005 (IPS) - Authorities in Mexico have made little headway in their efforts to curb the spread of Central American youth gangs known as “maras”, whose members are now active in 24 of this country’s 32 states.

Members of the Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18 gangs have been taking advantage of the destruction and chaos caused by Hurricane Stan in early October in southern Mexico, along the Guatemalan border, to move deeper into Mexico, says an army document leaked to the local press.

The report indicates that many members of the maras, mainly young men from Central America, have exploited the recent disorder and lax surveillance to enter the country and head further north, into central Mexico.

“They are like a plague that spreads easily into places without any ‘vaccines’ or protection against them,” Ignacio Crespo, an anthropologist who works with street children and adolescents in the Mexican capital, told IPS.

Early this year, Mexico’s National Migration Institute reported that members of maras had been detected in eight states. But a report released in July by another government body, the Centre for Research on National Security (CISEN), stated that the maras have already spread to 24 states.

The Secretariat of Public Security estimates that there are around 5,000 Central American gang members in Mexico, in 200 smaller groups, most of which are active in Chiapas, the poorest state, in southeastern Mexico across the border from Guatemala.

Crespo, however, said “I think there are many more than that, if we count the mara members who showed up after (hurricane) Stan, and the gangs that have emerged among Mexican youngsters.”

The expert said Mexico should implement anti-gang policies that put the accent on prevention and rehabilitation, instead of the strictly police-based approach of the strong-arm policies followed in Central America.

“If we only focus on repression, without understanding what the sense of community offered by a gang means to many poor youngsters from broken-down families, with little formal education, the only thing that will be achieved is an expansion of the problem,” he argued.

Mara members are distinguished by tattoos, bandanas of a certain colour, military-style haircuts, secret code words and hand signs. To join one of the gangs, youngsters must undergo initiation, which usually involves violence, either among themselves or against outsiders.

The deep rivalries between the maras sometimes erupt into full-blown gang wars.

Human rights activists in Central America have also denounced the existence of “death squads”, which they say are often made up of off-duty police officers, dedicated to eliminating gang members. Many young men are killed simply because they bear tattoos.

Since 2003, 1,670 youngsters accused of being gang members have been arrested in Mexico, half of whom are facing charges in connection with criminal activity. The other half were deported.

Although there is no consensus on how many youngsters belong to the maras, estimates range from 150,000 to 300,000 in Central America and Mexico.

In the United States, meanwhile, where the maras first emerged, the total number is put at 15,000, since most of the members have been deported.

The Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18 originated in California in the 1980s, 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 maras also spread to Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua, and more recently to Mexico.

“An estimated 25 to 50 mara members are entering Mexico on a daily basis,” according to CISEN.

In a report submitted to the legislature in October, the National Migration Institute acknowledged that so far, the efforts to keep Central American gangs from gaining a stronger and stronger foothold in Mexico are failing.

Despite a sharply scaled-up law enforcement response, the number of gang members in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua has skyrocketed since the 1990s, and violent crime rates are soaring, as gang members rape and murder.

To combat the violent gangs, governments in those Central American countries have passed draconian laws imposing stiff sentences for merely belonging to a youth gang, and have begun to coordinate anti-gang strategies with Mexican and U.S. authorities.

But several of the “anti-mara” laws have come under fire from human rights groups and legal experts, who argue that they have given rise to violations of basic rights.

For instance, the Centre for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), a regional human rights organisation, maintains that the policies applied by the governments of several Central American countries have led to mass arrests of youngsters based merely on the fact that they sport tattoos or are found hanging around in a specific neighbourhood.

In June, government delegates from Central America, Mexico, the United States and Canada took part in a meeting on “Transnational Youth Gangs” held in Chiapas.

The participants agreed to ask the Organisation of American States (OAS) to create a network of contacts among authorities, experts and non-governmental organisations to outline a plan to combat gangs, modeled on the most successful policies implemented up to now.

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