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CENTRAL AMERICA: Gangs Flourish as &#39Zero Tolerance&#39 Measures Fail

Inés Benítez

GUATEMALA CITY, Feb 20 2008 (IPS) - Around 40 percent of the members of youth gangs in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are women, according to a new study that says governments have failed in their struggle against these groups that are employed as "labour power" by drug traffickers and organised crime.

Participation by women in the "maras", as youth gangs are called in the region, is significant, although they occupy a subordinate position within the gangs, said Swedish Ambassador to Guatemala Ewa Werner-Dahlin.

The report, titled "Maras y Pandillas, Comunidad y Policía en Centroamérica" (Maras and Gangs, Community and Police in Central America), is based on 3,402 interviews with mara members at liberty or in prison, former gang members, relatives, neighbours, police, shopkeepers and victims.

Some maras in Guatemala are made up entirely of women, according to 19 percent of the women mara members in the interview sample.

Policies aimed at prevention should take into account the particular needs of these young women, advises the report, which was carried out by Demoscopía, a consultancy, and sponsored by the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (BCIE), the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The study shows that maras are the instruments of mafias in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and reveals the complicity of the police, who supplement their low wages with bribes from gang members.

The iron-fisted or "zero tolerance" anti-crime policies applied so far in Central America are not a solution to the problem, said Werner-Dahlin, who is in favour of prevention and rehabilitation programmes, together with community support measures.

"Mano dura" or strong arm approaches and the death penalty do not work, she said.

Guatemala’s social democratic President Álvaro Colom said on Feb. 13 that he would not commute the sentences of inmates on death row, thus reinstating capital punishment, which has not been used since 2000.

Last week a new law reinstated the executive branch’s power to pardon or commute the sentence of a convict facing the death penalty, which opened the door to the resumption of executions by filling a legal vacuum that had prevented them from being carried out. It was approved almost unanimously after maras killed at least 10 bus drivers from whom they were trying to extort "protection money."

The study released on Tuesday showed that the respondents held a poor opinion of the police.

It also highlighted the much milder problem with maras suffered by Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

The most critical scenario is that of Guatemala, where nearly 70 percent of respondents said they were dissatisfied with the police: 48 percent said that the police do not take action to control gangs in low income neighbourhoods, and 50 percent said that the police are actually accomplices of the maras and provide them with weapons.

In Guatemala, 51 percent of the population of 13 million lives below the poverty line according to official figures, although non-governmental organisations estimate that up to 80 percent of the population is poor. The high levels of violence and the fragility of the country’s justice system lead to widespread impunity.

The study suggests concrete steps, such as increasing police salaries and training and improving their relations with local communities, as well as adopting mechanisms to enable anonymous reporting of corruption.

The researchers also concluded that the latitude accorded gang members in prisons may be an exacerbating factor.

"The maras have an enclave of power within the prisons," said Jorge Sanabria, one of the experts who helped draw up the report.

Werner-Dahlin pointed out that the prisons are extremely overcrowded, with high levels of violence, and serve as schools for crime in which the maras consolidate their structures.

Testimonies from gang members referred to the funds that mara members outside the jails provide for their imprisoned members, who therefore have access to drugs, cell phones, and in certain cases, firearms.

"The ties between maras and drug cartels are constantly growing and rapidly intensifying, as a result of the withdrawal of the state and political, economic and social corruption," the study says.

Over the last four years, the maras "have developed both military and business structures," it adds.

One of the most common ways the gangs finance themselves is by charging for protection and imposing "taxes" on residents and shopkeepers, says the report, which also emphasises that "maras" will often describe what they do as defending the barrio where they extort bribes.

At least 10 bus drivers have been murdered so far this year for refusing to hand over money to gang members, and hundreds of people have been forced to leave their barrios and close their shops because of threats by the maras.

To avoid the danger of being easily identifiable by the authorities, mara members said there is now a trend towards giving up their symbols of identity, particularly tattoos, one of the most visible signs of membership.

"Society attaches a stigma to young gang members with tattoos. When people see a tattooed youngster they assume he or she is a criminal," said a member of the Honduran Supreme Court of Justice, according to the study.

The report analyses the quality of available information about the gangs, and concludes that it is not reliable. There is a marked bias towards spot news that magnifies and sensationalises the phenomenon, as against using several different sources and journalistic angles that go beyond what is instantly newsworthy, it says.

UNDP deputy country director Chisa Mikami said at the launch of the report that viable proposals for an integrated approach to the phenomenon are needed, since young people are driven to join the maras to achieve a sense of belonging, in the face of the vacuum left by the state and the lack of opportunities.

When we talk about gangs we are talking about young people and the future of our countries, she said.

Werner-Dahlin said that mara members are also normal young people, spending their time, like the rest of their generation, working and contributing to their family budget. They are young people first, and gang members later, she stressed.

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