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

POLITICS: Crackdown on Latin Youth Gangs Misdirected

Guthrie Gray

WASHINGTON, Feb 9 2007 (IPS) - Sensational accounts by the media, politicians and police have exaggerated the connection between Central American youth gangs and drug trafficking, international organised crime and terrorism, according to a report released this week by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

Conducted by researchers at the Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico (ITAM), the year-long study focused largely on so-called “maras”, Central American youth gangs that originated among immigrant populations in Los Angeles.

The study attempted to shed light on an international gang problem that threatens public security in Central America, where there are an estimated 100,000 mareros.

Mara activities have also received an increasing amount of attention in the United States due to the gangs’ activities in Los Angeles and Washington DC. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has estimated that there are between 8,000 and 10,000 members in the United States.

The mareros, whose tattooed faces and arms make them convenient objects of demonisation, have been widely characterised as an international criminal organisation responsible for human trafficking, drug smuggling, and arms dealing.

The study found that, instead of hardened international criminals, mareros tend to be youth from desperately poor families, and in need of protection.

The report, “Transnational Youth Gangs in Central America, Mexico and the United States”, found that the precise character of the youth gang problem varies dramatically in each of the six countries addressed in the study, and that “community-specific” prevention programmes, such as those used in Nicaragua and the Washington area, have been the most effective.

The study also found that harsh, “zero-tolerance” anti-gang policies known as “mano dura” (hard hand), such as those employed in El Salvador, and U.S. deportation and anti-immigrant policies have led gangs to become “more organised and less visible” without reducing the threat to public security.

“They [the mareros] are turning into what they were initially claimed to be, that is, more violent, more organised,” Jeanette Aguilar, a researcher at the University of Central America in San Salvador, said at a press conference to launch the report Thursday.

While transnational connections exist between maras in Central America, Mexico, and the United States, those connections have not been nearly as centralised as depicted by the media and law enforcement agencies, the study found. According to the report, 86 percent of mareros in El Salvador said they had no contact with fellow gang members outside the country.

While Maras pose a grave threat to public security in the Northern Triangle of Central America – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – the study found that mara activities in Mexico are relatively limited compared to indigenous street gangs and organised crime.

In the United States, the portrayal of mareros as “hardened criminals and brutal murderers” in the media, coupled with the popular conception that maras operate within a vast transnational network, has been fuelled by both anti-immigration and national security debates, according to Connie McGuire, research and outreach coordinator for Central America Youth Gangs Project at WOLA.

“There is a temptation to see it as a post 9-11 threat,” says Geoff Thale, programme director and senior associate for Cuba and Central America at WOLA. “The problem needs to be demystified.”

Maras originated in Los Angeles as refugees of the Salvadoran civil war (1979-1992) fled to the United States. Finding themselves in the hostile territory of pre-existing Chicano and African-American gangs, Salvadoran youth formed their own gangs, such as the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13).

Returning to El Salvador after the civil war, members of maras had a powerful influence on the gang scene in Central America. Deportations from the United States swelled the ranks of the gangs, and by the late 1990s most youth gangs in Guatemala and Honduras were affiliated with either MS-13 or Barrio 18, another Los Angeles export.

By the year 2000, MS-13, and Barrio 18 to a lesser degree, had established a presence in Washington, DC.

In recent years, the activities of Central American street gangs with ties to Los Angeles have become a growing concern within the United States, and efforts have begun to deal with the gangs through international cooperation.

On Wednesday, for example, law enforcement officials gathered in Los Angeles at the International Chiefs of Police Summit on Transnational Gangs charged that the gangs had spread to 40 states and seven countries.

“Los Angeles is ground zero for modern gang activity,” said J. Stephen Tidwell, a senior FBI official in Los Angeles, at a press briefing Wednesday. “They are more dispersed and more dangerous than ever.”

Meanwhile, Central American police officials complain that aggressive U.S. deportation practices have overwhelmed police and jails with mareros in the Northern Triangle.

“I cannot blame the United States for deporting them,” said Rodrigo Avila-Aviles, El Salvador’s police chief, according to the BBC. “However… we need to look out for new mechanisms so we have more control over these guys.”

In a meeting with delegates from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize in San Salvador to coordinate strategies for dealing with the gangs Monday, U.S. Attorney-General Alberto Gonzales announced the creation of an FBI-trained transnational anti-gang unit (TAG) to address the problem.

Sceptical of such measures, Thale told IPS, “You don’t solve the problems of gangs by locking everybody up.” He then stressed the importance of violence prevention programmes, which, in his opinion, come only as an afterthought in Gonzales’s plan.

Indeed, “locking everybody up” has had alarming consequences.

Three years ago, the governments of the Northern Triangle of Central America began to put into effect harsh, zero-tolerance policies which, in practice, declared open season on young people accused of belonging to maras.

In El Salvador alone, police records show that some 60,000 young people were jailed in the country since the start of these policies.

But these programmes strengthened the gangs’ organisations in jails, and now their acts of violence, such as burglary, kidnapping and massive extortion, are directed from within the prison walls, according to a report released last year by the Central American Coalition for the Prevention of Youth Violence.

In some countries in the Northern Triangle, homicide rates have increased by as much as 40 percent since the inception of these policies, according to Aguilar. (ends/ips/gg/07)

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