Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

EL SALVADOR: Gangs Recruiting Younger and Younger Members

Eric Lemus

SAN SALVADOR, Mar 28 2008 (IPS) - Youth gangs in El Salvador are changing their recruitment methods, targeting ever younger potential members in the slum neighbourhoods of the capital, authorities report.

The “maras” (gangs) Salvatrucha and 18 have modified their strategy in order to survive police raids and maintain control over the neighbourhoods where they operate.

The police reported that more than 7,000 suspected gang members were arrested in 2007 alone, as part of the Antonio Saca administration’s “súper mano dura” or super hard-line policy against crime

Both gangs have done away with their traditional initiation rite, known as a “jump in”, which in the case of the Mara Salvatrucha required putting up with blows and kicks from gang members without resisting for 13 seconds, and in the case of Mara 18 involved 18 seconds of such treatment, aimed at showing an ability to tolerate pain.

The two maras also ban new members from using tattoos on their torsos, forearms or faces, in what would appear to be a strategy designed to avoid intimidating children and younger adolescents, and to prevent them from being easily identifiable as gang members.

“The entry age into gangs has gone down in the last few months,” a Mara Salvatrucha “calmada” told IPS.

In gang jargon, a “calmado” or “calmada” refers to a member who is basically retired but who has not left the gang, because “you only leave the mara when you’re dead,” said the young woman, who did not give her real name and merely referred to herself as “Fénix”, for safety reasons.

Fénix now works for a government institution, after nearly four years in the Mara Salvatrucha.

“I asked for permission to become a ‘calmada’ because I was pregnant and had joined an evangelical church, but I waited for them to give me permission; otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to get out,” she said.

Fénix has undergone tattoo removal, but has done so in secret, “because if the members of my clique find out, they would take it as an insult and kill me.”

The National Public Security Council (CNSP), the government agency in charge of violence prevention, says the typical age of entry has gone down from 14 to 12. And a U.S. State Department report presented to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights says the maras recruit children as young as nine years of age.

According to Óscar Bonilla, president of the CNSP, the cliques, which control specific areas within neighbourhoods, offer “brand-name shoes and clothes, money and anything else that is attractive to kids.”

In his view, the strategy is two-pronged: to rebuild the strength of the gangs, many of whose members are in prison, and to recruit members who are too young to face legal charges.

“Under the legal system that emerged from the peace agreement, minors cannot be tried, even when they commit serious crimes like homicide,” Bonilla told IPS.

He was referring to the peace deal that put an end to El Salvador’s 12-year civil war in 1992.

The law on juvenile delinquents, which has been in effect for 15 years, is aimed at educating and rehabilitating young offenders under the age of 18. Under that law, they can only be sentenced to juvenile detention centres, by juvenile courts.

But the police argue that the law is overly lenient.

With 49 homicides per 100,000 population, El Salvador had the highest murder rate in the region last year, according to the Central American Observatory on Violence.

The forensic medicine institute reported that the average daily number of murders was 9.3 in 2007.

But the participation of gang members was only proven in less then 12 percent of all murder cases that made it to court in 2006.

So far this year, 39 minors accused of extorting protection money from bus drivers were arrested in Soyapango, a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of San Salvador, said police chief Oscar Aguilar.

Aguilar said that both the Mara Salvatrucha and the Mara 18 use minors to collect protection money from bus drivers and businesses in outlying slum districts.

The head of the CNSP said the gangs also employ minors as lookouts during arms and drug dealing operations, “because no one suspects a kid.”

But Salesian priest Pepe Morataya, who heads a rehabilitation programme for former gang members in Soyapango, said “the maras have grown because they have taken advantage of society’s inability to tackle the problem in an integral manner.”

Soyapango is the most populous municipality in the country after San Salvador, and the second-most violent.

Morataya, the head of the Don Bosco industrial training skills centre, told IPS that in El Salvador “approaches towards resolving the gang problem have been party-based or religious in nature,” which he described as “badly applied medicine.”

Marcela Smutt, coordinator of the Democratic Governance programme in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), said that “as it has evolved, the gang problem has become more and more complex.”

“Some researchers actually have the impression that the gang phenomenon has aged over the years. But we have no reliable data enabling us to say that the number of younger members joining up has grown or shrunk,” said Smutt.

Although it is true that some gang members are now as old as 30 or 40, most older active gang members are dead or in prison.

Young boys and girls in poor neighbourhoods in the capital live alongside the gangs in their day-to-day lives.

Eight-year-old Adonai, who lives in Soyapango, told IPS that gang members shot one of his friends “when he was playing piscucha,” the name given to kites in El Salvador, because he did not want to help the gang.

“The ‘mareros’ (gang members) sometimes give me ‘coras’ (quarter – 25 cents of a dollar) for carrying messages,” he said.

For five years, the CNSP had been carrying out a pilot project to improve the situation in the neighbourhood. But the shortage of funds and the arrival of new gang members doomed the project to failure.

Research shows that the root causes of gang culture are economic and social in nature, such as marginalisation and unemployment.

According to the Economy Ministry, around 43 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and 19 percent is extremely poor.

The Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18 originated in California in the 1980s, when nearly one million Salvadorans fled to the United States during El Salvador’s civil war and settled in impoverished neighbourhoods in Los Angeles, California where gang violence was rife.

The maras began to spread to Central America in the 1990s, when most of their leaders were deported from the United States. They are now also active in Honduras, Guatemala and southern Mexico.

The United States considers them “transnational organisations” and the Salvadoran police say they are organised crime groups involved in the trafficking of drugs, arms and persons.

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