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MEXICO/CENTRAL AMERICA: Understanding the Maras

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Feb 19 2007 (IPS) - Understanding the world of youth gangs in Central America and Mexico is difficult. Some studies assert that their power is exaggerated and that they are closely related to poverty, others say poverty is not a determining factor, and there are also those who say the gangs are dangerous organisations that cut across national borders.

But despite the differences, most research studies agree that adopting a hardline approach to wiping out the gangs or maras, as they are known in Central America, will not solve the problem, and moreover it will cost the state too much money.

According to Nils Kastberg, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the absence of conclusive studies and the spread of erroneous, misrepresented, biased or unfounded information about the gangs is damaging to all young people.

“Teenagers are blamed for the problem and they are violently attacked, when it is adults who are really responsible,” since they are behind crime and violence, and also hold the reins of state power, Kastberg told IPS in a telephone interview from Panama, where the regional UNICEF office is located.

There is no consensus as to the number of people who belong to the maras. Estimates vary from 80,000 to over 300,000 in Mexico and Central America alone.

“I don’t know what methodology other researchers have used, but between February and November 2006 we interviewed 134 gang members, mostly Central Americans, in prison in Mexico, and we discovered that the mara is growing, and has international connections and sophisticated communication mechanisms,” University of Guadalajara researcher and psychologist Héctor Sánchez told IPS.

Sánchez is coordinating a study on “Personality Traits in Members of the Mara Salvatrucha Gang,” financed by the Central American University Consortium which includes universities in Mexico, Honduras and Nicaragua.

The research has not yet been published, but on the basis of the interviews and other evidence, its coordinator said that the maras are active throughout Mexico, and that many of their members have put aside the typical tattoos and clothing that identify them, “in order to infiltrate everywhere,” he said.

“Their main business in Mexico is trafficking Central American immigrants into the United States, but they also work for drug traffickers or as hired killers. They are one of the most organised mafias in the world, and I found no humanity in them at all,” Sánchez said.

These conclusions are different to those from another study, “Transnational Youth Gangs in Central America, Mexico and the United States”, by the Mexican Autonomous Technological Institute (ITAM) in collaboration with academic centres in Central America and one in the United States.

This study, carried out and released last year in Central America and re-released in Washington this month, holds that the power and presence of maras in the region is exaggerated. It recognises that the problem is serious in some Central American countries, but says that is not true in Mexico, and indicates that the criminal and transnational characteristics of the gangs are overstated.

Instead of experienced international criminals, mara members tend to be teenagers from desperately poor families, the study says.

In contrast, the study “Maras, Gangs, Poverty and Self-Control”, sponsored by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and released in 2006, affirms there is little correlation between the emergence of youth gangs and poverty.

Besides, there are plenty of young people from well-off homes in the maras, but they are not included in the studies and they hardly ever go to prison, the study said, while claiming that much research on the subject is biased.

The report “Transnational Youth Gangs in Central America, Mexico and the United States” is also at odds with documents from Mexican military intelligence and government bodies, made public in 2005.

These documents stated that the gangs were a threat to national security, and that their members, many of whom were Central American, could be found in 24 out of Mexico’s 32 states.

Sánchez was critical of the ITAM study. “Perhaps they have an interest in downplaying the problem, I don’t know, but their conclusions are very dubious,” he said.

The maras originated in the 1980s among Salvadoran immigrants living in Los Angeles, California. They spread to Central America when gang members were deported back to El Salvador, and later spread to other countries like Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.

Youth gangs are the focus of regular meetings between police and government authorities from Mexico, Central America and the United States, who discuss efforts to pursue and severely punish mara members.

In Kastberg’s opinion, however, “the meetings between government and police authorities have only exacerbated the problem.”

“Tough measures are not the answer, everyone knows that this approach is just making things worse. What needs to be done is to win these young people round, and combat the violence that they suffer at home and at school. This violence is the real source of the problem, because it occurs with impunity,” he said.

The studies sponsored by ITAM, the IDB and the Central American University Consortium produced different estimates of the size and impact of the gangs, but they all concur that a punitive approach is misguided, and they recommend that governments put more effort into prevention and providing care for families in areas with a high level of violence.

The IDB study stated that each dollar spent on prevention would lead to savings of seven dollars in law enforcement and control measures in the future.

The total cost of the violence represents between five and 25 percent of gross domestic product in the affected countries, according to the IDB.

But in Central America and Mexico it is the punitive approach that prevails, not prevention. And the media tend to encourage that strategy by providing high-profile coverage of the alleged crimes attributed to gang members.

UNICEF warned that media and political mishandling of the maras issue has created a climate of opinion in which young people, especially the poor, are blamed for the increase in insecurity and violence.

Yet young people are not responsible for the majority of crimes. In Honduras, El Salvador, Panama and Mexico, crimes committed by juveniles are between five and 10 percent of the total, and they are for the most part misdemeanours.

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