Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights

EL SALVADOR: Gangs Are ‘Perfect Scapegoats’, Say Experts

Raúl Gutiérrez

SAN SALVADOR, Apr 25 2008 (IPS) - El Salvador, a Central American country of 21,000 square kilometres bathed by the Pacific ocean, is the battleground of a shadowy war between mafias, street gangs and death squads, in spite of having formally achieved peace 16 years ago.

For years, the authorities have blamed the country’s high levels of crime on youth gangs, which have been the main targets of law enforcement efforts.

Drug trafficking and organised crime were hardly mentioned until last year, when the “maras” (gangs) were accused of being “mutant monsters” that had transformed themselves into branches of these types of criminal activity.

“The gangs have brought sorrow and mourning, and have forged ties with organised crime,” said the head of El Salvador’s National Civil Police, Francisco Rovira, at the Fourth International Anti-Gang Conference held in Sonsonate, west of San Salvador.

The Apr. 8-10 conference was attended by more than 250 police officers, prosecutors, judges and officials from Central America, Puerto Rico, Mexico and the United States.

“Street gangs pose a genuine transnational security threat to El Salvador and neighbouring Central American countries. Gang violence hampers economic growth and encourages citizens of the region to leave their countries,” said U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Charles Glazer.

The main gangs in El Salvador are Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18 (18th Street gang). They originated in the United States in the 1980s, when nearly one million Salvadorans, fleeing the armed conflict back home, settled in impoverished neighbourhoods in Los Angeles and other cities, where gang violence was rife.

The 1980-1992 civil war in El Salvador between the insurgent Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN, now a political party) and government forces left 75,000 civilians dead and 8,000 disappeared. A peace agreement was signed by President Alfredo Cristiani and the guerrillas in 1992.

After the armed conflict, many mara members were deported from the United States. Back in El Salvador they founded local branches of the gangs, which over the last decade have expanded throughout Central America and southern Mexico.

At first they were primarily youth gangs, but nowadays many of their leaders are aged over 40, although they recruit children as young as 10.

The police estimate that there are between 10,000 and 13,500 members of the two gangs – which are sworn enemies – in El Salvador, and between 60,000 and 120,000 in the region. Some researchers regard the larger figure as an exaggeration.

Rafael Jordán joined Mara 18 when he was 15. He does not deny that the maras commit “crimes in order to finance themselves” and he acknowledges that “some members might” be contracted by the mafias as hired killers, extortionists, small-time drug dealers and robbers. But he denies that they form “part of those organised crime groups.”

“Some police officers take part in the same (criminal) activities, but we can’t accuse all the police of belonging to the mafias,” which would be irresponsible, Jordán told IPS.

Over the past 10 years, dozens of police officers have been arrested and convicted of robbery, kidnapping, homicide, and belonging to death squads. Sergeant Nelson Arriaza was sentenced to 30 years in prison in January for heading a band of hired killers.

“No gang member has ever been caught with a ton of cocaine, or had a million dollars confiscated,” said Jordán, who maintained that most of the media “distort the facts in their coverage of the gangs.”

His years as a gang member (1998-2004) marked him for life: he has been imprisoned several times for attempted murder. And he cannot forget “the faces of the children, mothers and wives” of fellow mara members who were killed.

Jordán is now the coordinator of the human rights unit of Homies Unidos, a non-governmental organisation which helps former gang members. But although inactive, he will continue to be a “gang member for life,” as membership ceases only at death.

In his view, gangs have become “an expression of Salvadoran culture.” In 2003, then President Francisco Flores (1999-2004) launched his Manodura (Firm Hand) plan and obtained congressional approval for the Anti-Maras Law, which was in force for one year.

When his successor, President Antonio Saca, took office, he said “the party’s over for the ‘malacates’ (delinquents).” A few months later he introduced his Super Manodura plan, although this fizzled out by late 2007.

In early April, Saca admitted that the fight against the gangs would take around 25 years.

The government’s tough on crime stance has been criticised as “counterproductive” by human rights organisations and researchers of the causes of violence.

Between 2003 and 2007, according to statistics from the Institute of Legal Medicine (IML), over 16,000 people were killed and the murder rate rose from 32 homicides per 100,000 population to 57.2 per 100,000, one of the highest in Latin America and in the world.

The IML reports that only 12 percent of the murders committed in 2005 and 2006 can be attributed to the gangs and 18 percent to common criminals, while 67 percent remain unsolved, with motives unknown. But the police disagree with these figures, saying that the Institute has not investigated the connections between the crimes.

“It’s undeniable that the gangs are an important factor in aggravating violence,” but the authorities have made them their “perfect scapegoats” by identifying them as the main culprits and overlooking the activities of organised crime and drug traffickers, said Jeannette Aguilar, the head of the Central American University’s Institute of Public Opinion (IUDOP-UCA), who has conducted several regional research projects on the maras.

“Countries in the region have a preeminently authoritarian vision” of how to combat the gangs, especially the northern triangle comprising El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, she said.

Their assumption that “the gangs are a transnational form of organised crime, and that therefore the fight against them must be regionalised” becomes a “simplistic vision of the phenomenon, used to criminalise poor young people and their relatives and friends, and to consolidate police states,” said Aguilar.

In recent years, many murder victims have been found with signs of torture, bound hand and foot, and shot through the head – hallmarks of mafia-style executions, according to experts.

Roman Catholic priest Antonio Rodríguez, with the Padre Rafael Palacios Centre for Training and Orientation in the poor suburb of Mejicanos on the outskirts of San Salvador, said that young people in the communities he works with “are victims of police operations” which are later presented by the police as “model plans to prevent juvenile violence.”

“Many young people who participate in our prevention programmes have been taken into custody by the police in night-time sweeps. Some of them ask me to let them sleep at my house so that they won’t be hauled in,” the priest said.

“Rather than perpetrators of violence, these young people are victims,” because their basic rights to education and health have been denied, said Rodríguez.

“Being young and poor is equated with being criminal. Young people need love and care, not beatings,” he said.

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