Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

CENTRAL AMERICA: Youth Gangs – Reserve Army for Organised Crime

Danilo Valladares*

GUATEMALA CITY, Sep 21 2010 (IPS) - In El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, the expression “de rodillas ante las pandillas” is not just a catchy rhyme referring to youth gangs bringing the countries to their knees but is an accurate description of reality today: these criminal groups, born and evolved in violence, wield ever-increasing power.

The “maras”, as youth gangs are known in the three countries that make up what is known as the Northern Triangle of Central America, have stepped up their violent activities in recent weeks, as governments try to find ways to deal with the situation.

Death threats from the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Mara 18 (M-18) gangs, which are arch enemies, against bus companies brought public transport partially to a halt Sept. 7-9 in San Salvador, a city of 1.5 million people.

One person was killed, more than 80 were arrested, and three buses were destroyed during the strike which was ordered and enforced by the gangs to protest a new law making membership in a mara a crime.

The new law, which went into effect Sunday Sept. 19 after leftwing President Mauricio Funes signed it into law on Sept. 9, provides for sentences of up to 10 years for gang members.

It also declares gangs illegal and gives prosecutors and judges the authority to freeze bank accounts and seize the ill-gotten assets of gang members.

But Jeannette Aguilar of the Central American Coalition for the Prevention of Youth Violence told IPS that the new law “will be ineffective because it does not address the roots of the problem; it is merely a response to the public’s demands for tougher measures against crime, but it will not provide a solution.”

Furthermore, “this law throws everyone in the same bag — the gang member who is 40 or older, and nine and 10-year-old kids,” says Aguilar, who described this as “a huge mistake because it is not the same thing to deal with an experienced man as with a child who has recently been initiated into the life of the gang and has a better chance of social reinsertion.”

In recent years, recruitment by gangs, which used to target preteens, has expanded to include both older and younger members

While the chaos caused by the three-day forced bus strike reigned in San Salvador, 18 people were killed in an attack on a shoe factory in the city of San Pedro Sula in northwestern Honduras on Sept. 7.

The police said the shootings were the result of a turf war between the MS-13 and MS-18 gangs.

The Northern Triangle of Central America has the highest homicide rates in the world, according to the annual report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), released Jun. 23.

The U.N. agency reported that the murder rate between 2003 and 2008 averaged 61 per 100,000 population in Honduras, 52 per 100,000 in El Salvador, and 49 per 100,000 in Guatemala.

This is compared to a global average of less than 8 per 100,000 in 2004.

Other sources of violence in these countries, besides youth gangs, are drug groups and other kinds of organised crime, as well as death squads made up of retired and active duty members of the police and military.

Honduras already has an anti-gang law, in effect since 2003. But it has failed to curb the problem of youth gangs, and instead has pushed the maras into a range of alternative criminal activities.

Jesuit priest Ismael Moreno told IPS that as a result of Honduras’s anti-gang law, which “stigmatises any young person with tattoos or wearing baggy clothes,” the maras “have undergone a kind of mutation.

“Now they are more closely associated with organised crime than with common criminal activities,” said the priest, who is involved in social work in slum neighbourhoods.

Honduran Security Minister Óscar Álvarez concurred. “They have become the labour force and reserve army for organised crime,” he told IPS.

In San Pedro Sula and the capital, Tegucigalpa, entire neighbourhoods are controlled by the gangs, which act as if they own the place, according to local residents.

Lourdes Pineda is a 22-year-old hairdresser who lives near the Bella Vista neighbourhood in Tegucigalpa. “After seven at night, you won’t see a soul on the streets here, no one goes anywhere, because the maras come out and take control,” she says.

“They distribute drugs and the police know it,” she says. “The ‘mareros’ (gang members) who know you don’t do anything to you, they take care of you, if that’s what you can call it. But you better not go out after seven or eight at night, because if they don’t recognise you, they shoot you.”

Hard statistics are not available. But in 1998, an estimated 60,000 people belonged to gangs in Honduras — a figure that is assumed to be higher today.

The situation in Guatemala is equally alarming. For example, bus drivers are killed nearly every day, often for refusing to fork over “protection” money to the gangs.

Police figures indicate that this year, 57 drivers, 30 conductors and other assistants, and 36 passengers had been killed by July. And last year, 146 transport workers were murdered, according to the Mutual Support Group (GAM), a local human rights organisation.

Civil society organisations estimate that youth gang members, many of them from broken-down families, number around 20,000 in Guatemala.

Along the lines of the “zero tolerance” legislation passed in Honduras and El Salvador, the conservative Patriot Party in Guatemala introduced a bill in Congress this month that would create penalties for belonging to a gang.

According to PP Congressman Gudy Rivera, the bill “is designed to prevent activities by illegal groups, by penalising groups that exist to commit crimes.”

In the meantime, social democratic Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom is pushing for the harmonisation of his country’s anti-gang laws with those of El Salvador and Honduras to clamp down on the problem as a bloc.

But the PP draft law has drawn fire from social organisations. Emilio Goubaud, director of the Alianza para la Prevención del Delito (APREDE – Alliance for the Prevention of Crime), says the bill, like the anti-gang laws in El Salvador and Honduras, are “repressive measures that do not offer a solution to the problem.

“The bill has absolutely no social focus; all it will do is throw people in prison and stiffen the sentences they are given, and it will be a complete failure because it doesn’t attack the causes of the problem, but the effects,” the Guatemalan activist told IPS.

Goubaud says that what young people need are jobs, education and health care. “Regrettably, it is organised crime that has discovered their potential, and has become an economic alternative, becuase there is no access to real opportunities for their development” as functional citizens, he said.

A study on “Maras and gangs in Central America”, published in 2008 by a programme focusing on coming up with “a regional public policy to prevent youth violence”, found that zero tolerance laws and strong-arm tactics have only fuelled the activities of gangs, which now serve as cheap labour for drug trafficking mafias and other organised crime groups, for instance as collectors of “protection” payments from local residents, shopkeepers and bus drivers.

To improve public safety, the country must strengthen the justice system and the police force’s capacity to investigate crimes, something that cannot be achieved through tougher and tougher anti-gang laws, Zoel Franco, with the Guatemalan Institute of Comparative Studies in Penal Sciences (ICCPG), told IPS.

The problem of youth gangs also extends to southern Mexico, mainly in the impoverished state of Chiapas, where Central American maras have expanded to extort, rob and rape migrants on their way north to the United States, and participate in other criminal activities, like drug trafficking, according to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission.

The maras actually originated in California after nearly one million Salvadorans fled to the United States during El Salvador’s 1980-1992 civil war and settled largely in poor neighbourhoods in Los Angeles where gang violence was rife. After the armed conflict, U.S. authorities began to deport thousands of gang members to El Salvador, where the escalation of violence drove the murder rates above those seen during the war.

The maras then began to spread to Honduras and Guatemala, and later to southern Mexico.

* Thelma Mejía in Tegucigalpa and Edgardo Ayala in San Salvador contributed to this article.

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