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  Number 317 | Diciembre 2007
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Central America

The Gangs of Central America: Major Players and Scapegoats

They’re called pandillas in Nicaragua, and maras in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Where did these violent, organized young people spring from? The one thing that’s absolutely clear is that they are major players, born as the smoke of Central America’s military conflicts was lifting. What must be made equally clear is that they are also scapegoats for those who concentrate power in our highly unjust and profoundly unequal societies, which offer no opportunities for these youths.

Dennis Rodgers

Although the last of the revolutionary conflicts that plagued Central America during the 1970s and 80s was formally brought to an end in 1996, violence has continued to affect the region unabated, to the extent that it currently suffers some of the highest homicide rates in the world. Indeed, the levels of brutality are generally higher than during the decades of military conflict, although one significant difference between past and present forms of violence is that contemporary brutality is principally criminal rather than political in nature.

For example, the annual number of homicides in Guatemala today regularly exceeds the yearly tally of war-related deaths suffered by the country during the height of the war in the 1980s, while the United Nations Development Programme estimated the economic cost of crime in El Salvador to be US$1.7 billion in 2003; at 11.5% of the gross domestic product, that is significantly higher than the country’s estimated average annual loss of 3.3% of the GDP due to war during the 1981-85 period. Perhaps not surprisingly, a 2007 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) identified criminal violence as the major obstacle to the realization of sustainable development objectives in Central America.

Are the gangs the major problem?

The new criminal violence in Central America is particularly associated with youth, and more specifically with young men. To a certain extent, this isn’t surprising; statistically, most criminal acts around the world are committed by young men between the ages of 15 and 24. Furthermore, over half of Central America’s population is under 24, so it logically follows that the greater the share of a population that falls within this demographic group, the greater society’s vulnerability to violence. At the same time, however, the young gang members have specifically emerged as a major concern in contemporary Central America.

Although gangs have long been a feature of the region’s societies, they came to the fore as a social concern in an unprecedented manner during the past two decades, and are accused of a whole slew of crimes, ranging from mugging, theft and intimidation, to rape, assault and drug dealing. There have even been attempts to link them to revolution and global terrorism. A 2005 US Army War College publication contended that Central American gangs constituted a “new urban insurgency” whose ultimate objective is “to depose or control the governments of targeted countries,” while Anne Aguilera, head of the Central America office of the US State Department’s International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs branch, asserted in an interview published in the Salvadoran newspaper La Prensa Gráfica on April 8, 2005, that gangs are “the greatest problem for national security at this time in Central America.”

What defines a genuine gang?

Youth gangs, of course, are by no means uncommon social phenomena. They can be found in societies all over the world, although the vast majority of what are identified as gangs are often little more than ephemeral groups of youth who gather on street corners and engage in behavior frequently labeled “anti-social” but is really little other than a fundamental part of growing up.

Gangs in the proper sense of the term are much more definite social organizations that display an institutional continuity independent of their membership. They have fixed conventions and rules, which can include initiation rituals, a ranking system, rites of passage and rules of conduct that make the gang a primary source of identity for members. Gang codes often demand particular behavior patterns from members, such as adopting characteristic dress, tattoos, graffiti, hand signs and slang, as well as regular involvement in illicit and violent activities. Such gangs are also often—but not always—associated with a particular territory and their relationship with local communities can be either oppressive or protective (indeed, this can shift from one to the other over time).

Central American gangs clearly correspond to this second type of institution, at the same time that they remain profoundly misunderstood. Sensationalist myths and stereotypes about them abound, as the claims linking them to insurgency and terrorism starkly illustrate.

Reliable information about gangs is extremely scanty, with official statistics particularly problematic due to chronic underreporting, deficient data collection and issues of political interference. While official figures suggest that some 70,000 gang members are operating in Central America, estimates by NGOs and academics suggest that the number could be as high as 200,000.

They are definitely major players
in Central American violence

Although little trustworthy quantitative data is available, an increasing number of qualitative studies collectively suggest that gangs constitute primary actors within the contemporary regional panorama of violence. Estimates of the proportion of total Central American criminal violence attributable to gangs range widely: from 10% to 60%.

These studies also highlight the widely varying distribution of violence among the different countries in the region. El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are clearly experiencing much greater levels of gang violence than Nicaragua and particularly Costa Rica. Guesstimating on a rough scale of 1 to 100 based on these qualitative studies, if El Salvador, the most violent country, were ranked 100 in terms of gang violence, Honduras is likely to rank around 90, Guatemala 70, Nicaragua 50 and Costa Rica 10.

An urban phenomenon

One thing all countries have in common is that the overwhelming majority of gang violence occurs in urban areas, particularly the capital cities. Gangs are very much urban manifestations, partly because a critical demographic mass of youth is necessary for a gang to be able to emerge.

Studies have reported that up to 15% of youths in gang-affected communities can end up joining a gang—although most studies suggest that the figure is somewhere around 3 to 5% on average—with gangs having anything between 15 and 100 members and the average size tending towards 20-25 members. Most gangs emerge in poorer urban neighborhoods, although not necessarily always in the poorest ones; indeed, a study in Guatemala City found that neighborhoods falling within the metropolis’ bottom quartile of impoverishment suffered less gang-related crime than neighborhoods falling within the next quartile up.

The demographics of gang members

The vast majority of gang members are male, even if female members do exist. Nonetheless, there is some evidence of all-female gangs operating in Nicaragua and Guatemala.

The age range of gang members is highly variable, although a 2001 study based on nearly 1,000 interviews with gang members by researchers at the University Public Opinion Institute (IUDOP) in El Salvador found that the average Salvadoran gang member was 20 years old, with a mean age of entry into the gang of 15 years of age. Nicaraguan gang members have been found to fall between 7 and 23 years old, while the age range in Guatemala and Honduras is between 12 and 30 years old.

Why join a gang?

The IUDOP study also asked gang members why they joined a gang, to which 40% answered that they had done because it was “the thing to do,” 21% because they had friends in the gang, and 21% to get away from family problems. The study also found a partial correlation between youth unemployment and gang membership, as only 17% of gang members were employed, and 66% actively characterized themselves as “unemployed.”

Generally, though, most studies of Central American gangs have highlighted the difficulties of systematically pinpointing factors explaining gang membership. Stereotypical “determinants” such as family fragmentation, domestic abuse or a particular psychological make-up are not consistently significant. The only factor that has been reported as systematically affecting gang membership is religious, insofar as evangelical Protestant youths in Nicaragua tend not to join gangs (it can be speculated that this is because the totalizing nature of evangelical Protestantism is such that churches constitute a complete organizational framework for their members that is institutionally equivalent to that provided by the gang).

Links can be found to a range of more structural factors, including the pervasive machismo (many gang codes are clearly heightened expressions of a certain way of understanding masculinity), high levels of social exclusion and inequality, the long history of war, the unregulated availability of weapons (it is estimated that there are over two million unregistered small arms in Central America), as well as the widespread absence of the state and concomitant “local governance voids” that gangs seek to fill.

These factors have to be seen more as contextual variables than determinants, however, considering that they affect Central American youth universally, but not all become gang members. A more significant structural variable is migration, which has affected gangs in the region differentially, insofar as there are two types of gangs in Central America.

Maras and pandillas aren’t the same thing

Even if there is frequently a tendency to talk about Central American gangs generically, a distinction must be made between maras and pandillas. Maras are a phenomenon with transnational roots, while pandillas are more localized, home-grown gangs that are direct descendents of the youth gangs that have long been a feature of Central American societies. Pandillas were initially present throughout the region, but are now only really visible in Nicaragua, and to a lesser extent Costa Rica, having been almost completely supplanted by maras in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Pandillas: This gang form initially came to the fore in the aftermath of peace in the early 1990s, when demobilized young combatants returned to their communities and found themselves facing situations of heightened uncertainty, insecurity and socioeconomic flux. Drawing institutionally on a traditional organizational vehicle for collective action by youth, some of these young veterans formed pandillas as localized vigilante-style self-defense groups. It was an instinctual attempt to provide a measure of order and predictability for both themselves and their local communities, often by engaging in patterns of semi-ritual gang warfare regulated by strict codes and behavioral expectations, including in particular protecting local community inhabitants.

As such there were parallels with past gangs insofar as these often emerged as informal defense organizations in illegal squatter settlements. The pandillas of the 1990s, however, were much more numerous and violent than their predecessors, partly due to the legacy of war and insurrection, which bequeathed youth unprecedented martial skills. They were also much more institutionalized than the gangs of the past, giving themselves names—examples from Nicaragua include the Dragons, the Ramparts or the Death Eaters—and developing hierarchies and rules that persisted over time despite membership turnover. To this extent, pandillas can be seen as organic, indigenous and localized institutional responses to the Central American post-conflict circumstances of insecurity and uncertainty, although it is important to note that there were significant variations both between and within different societies in the region.

Maras. This form involves much more uniform organizations with a very definite origin that can be directly linked to particular migratory patterns. There are just two maras, Dieciocho (18) and Salvatrucha, sometimes shortened to MS, which currently operate only in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras within the region, although they have recently begun to extend into Southern Mexico as well.

Their origins lie in the 18th Street gang in Los Angeles, founded in the Rampart section of the city in the 1960s by Mexican immigrants, although it rapidly began to accept Hispanics indiscriminately. The 18th Street gang grew significantly during the late 1970s and early 80s as a result of the influx of mainly Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees, who sought to join the gang to feel included as outsiders in the US.

In the latter half of the 80s, a rival—possibly splinter—group founded by a second wave of Salvadoran refugees emerged, known as the “Mara Salvatrucha” (a combination of marabunta, a “Salvadoran” insect, and trucha, which means quick-thinking or shrewd in Salvadoran slang). The Dieciocho and the Salvatrucha rapidly become bitter rivals and frequently fought each other on the streets of Los Angeles.

In the aftermath of the 1992 Rodney King riots, California implemented strict new anti-gang laws and prosecutors began to charge young gang members as adults rather than minors, sending hundreds to jail for felonies and other serious crimes. This was followed in 1996 by the US Congress’ Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Non-US citizens sentenced to a year or more in prison were now to be repatriated to their countries of origin, and even foreign-born American felons could be stripped of their citizenship and expelled once they served their prison terms. As a result, the US deported nearly 46,000 convicts to Central America between 1998 and 2005, in addition to 160,000 immigrants caught without the requisite permit.

Mara cliques reproduced “back home”

El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras received over 90% of these deportees. Many of them were members of the 18th Street and Salvatrucha gangs who had arrived in the United States as toddlers but had never secured legal residency or citizenship, and had joined the gang as a way to feel included in a receiving country that frequently actively impeded their integration.

Following their expulsion from the US and arrival in countries of origin they barely knew, it is not surprising that they reproduced the structures and behavior patterns that had provided them support and security in the US. Deportees rapidly began to found local “clicas,” or chapters, of their gang in their communities of origin, which in turn rapidly began to attract local youth and supplanted local pandillas. Each clique explicitly affiliates with either the Mara Dieciocho (as the original 18th Street gang is known in Central America) or the Mara Salvatrucha and cliques from different neighborhoods affiliated with the same mara will often join together to fight other groupings claiming allegiance to the opposing mara. Nonetheless, contrary to media projections, neither umbrella gang is a real federal structure, much less a transnational one. Neither the Dieciocho nor the Salvatrucha gangs in Central America answers to a single chain of command. Their umbrella nature is more symbolic of a particular historical relationship than demonstrative of any real unity, be it of leadership or action.

Indeed, in many ways, the federated nature of the maras is more an imagined emergent social morphology that relies on a steady flow of deportees from the US sharing a common language and reference points. The maras are perhaps best conceived as loose networks of localized gangs that do not necessarily communicate or coordinate either within or between countries.

What makes Nicaragua different?

There’s no evidence of any cooperation between maras in El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras, and even less with the original maras in Los Angeles. Rather, any ties that exist are founded on a common experience of gangsterism in Los Angeles and deportation from the US, which are probably crucial factors explaining why Nicaragua does not have maras. Not only does Nicaragua have a very low deportation rate from the US—less than 3% of all Central American deportees are Nicaraguan—but Nicaraguans who have emigrated to the United States have mainly settled in Miami and other parts of Florida. According to US Census data, only 12% of them have settled in Los Angeles, where they account for just 4% of the Central American population, while they represent 47% in Miami. Miami has a different gang culture than Los Angeles; while there are Cuban gangs, they don’t let Nicaraguans in.

This reality also helps explain why Nicaraguan pandillas aren’t as violent as maras. There’s no evident exportation to Nicaragua of US gang culture, something that has clearly proven to be more brutal than traditional Central American pandilla culture, perhaps because it’s less rule-bound.

Sensationalist crimes not so much…

Contradicting numerous sensationalist accounts linking Central American gangs to migrant trafficking, kidnapping and international organized crime, the various qualitative studies of Central American gangs indicate that both pandillas and maras are mainly involved in small-scale crime such as petty theft and muggings. These are most often perpetrated on an individual basis, although the maras in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras also collectively racketeer buses and taxis going through the territory they control and extort protection money from businesses.

Admittedly, both pandillas and maras use weaponry that includes firearms such as AK-47s and explosives such as fragmentation grenades, with often dramatic consequences for both themselves and the wider population. The 2001 IUDOP survey of Salvadoran gang members mentioned above found that 25% of those questioned admitted to having committed a murder in the past year, and another 25% refused to answer the question.

Much of this violence tends to be circumscribed to the poorer, local communities from which the gangs emerge rather than richer neighborhoods. Indeed, most gang violence is in fact against rival gangs, as is starkly illustrated by the tit-for-tat prison wars that occur between incarcerated gang members in Guatemala, where gang members sometimes actively get themselves arrested so they can try to kill imprisoned detainees from opposing gang. On August 15, 2005, newly imprisoned members of the Dieciocho attacked members of the Salvatrucha in El Hoyon prison near Guatemala City, killing 30 and leaving more than twice that number seriously wounded. A retaliatory attack by members of the Salvatrucha in the San José Pinula juvenile detention center a month later killed at least 12 and wounded another 10.

…but drug trafficking yes

Over the past decade, however, both pandillas and maras have become increasingly involved in drugs trafficking and dealing. This is not surprising considering that drug use has long been associated with the gang lifestyle and that Central America has become a transit point for over 80% of the total cocaine traffic between the Andean countries and North America.

Drug trafficking within Central America is decentralized, however, with shipments passing from one small, local cartel to another, each of which takes a cut of the product as profit. The role that both maras and pandillas have begun to play in this process is mainly as the local security apparatus of these small cartels, or as small-time street peddlers connected to them informally. The gangs themselves are apparently not involved in the large-scale movement of drugs, or in wholesaling, although certain studies in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua have highlighted that the local cartel leaders are often ex-gang members who have “graduated.” In general, maras seem to be more involved in the drug trade than pandillas, perhaps because they have a tighter grip on the monopoly of local violence, but strong evidence suggests that involvement in drug trafficking and dealing is leading to both types of gangs evolving towards more violent behavior patterns.

Central American states
declare “war on gangs”

A factor that has clearly intensified mara violence is the implementation of a declared “war” against them by Central American states over the past several years.

“Get tough” policy in El Salvador: The opening salvo of this veritable regional conflict was El Salvador’s adoption of a get-tough policy known as Mano Dura in July 2003, which advocated immediate imprisonment for two to five years of youths age 12 and up simply for having gang-related tattoos or flashing gang signs in public. Between July 2003 and August 2004, 20,000 gang members were arrested, although 95% were eventually released without charge after the Salvadoran Supreme Court declared the Mano Dura law unconstitutional for violating the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

A new “Mano Super Dura” package of anti-gang reforms was rapidly pushed through, which respected the provisions of the Convention but stiffened the penalties for gang membership to up to five years in prison for ordinary gang members and nine years for leaders. Although the Police needs to have some proof of active delinquent behavior in order to arrest an individual under the new law, El Salvador’s incarcerated population has doubled over the past five years, from 6,000 to 12,000, 40% of which are gang members.

“Zero tolerance” in Honduras: Almost simultaneously, Honduras implemented a comparable policy called “Zero Tolerance” in August 2003, partly inspired by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s (in)famous policy. Among the measures this package promoted was a reform of the penal code and adoption of legislation that established a maximum 12-year prison sentence for gang membership—later stiffened to 30 years—as well as provisions for better collaboration between the Honduran police and army to root out the mara members. This collaboration extended to joint urban patrolling, sometimes even using tanks.

“Operation Broomsweep” in Guatemala: Guatemala likewise adopted its “Plan Escoba” (“Operation Broom-sweep”) in January 2004, which while not as draconian as the Salvadoran or Honduran versions, still contained new provisions allowing minors to be treated as adults and deployment of 4,000 reserve army troops in troubled neighborhoods in Guatemala City.

“Softer” measures in Nicaragua: Nicaragua regularly implemented a range of anti-gang initiatives from 1999 onwards, although these were of a significantly softer nature, partly because of the less violent nature of the pandillas compared to the maras and partly because the National Police have a very limited presence in many barrios and urban squatter settlements due to a lack of patrolling capacity.

Although these crackdowns have been very popular with the general public, they have been vigorously opposed by human rights groups concerned with the potential abuse of gang suspects. Even more ominously, Amnesty International has presented evidence—corroborated by the US State Department—that paramilitary death squads exist in Honduras and Guatemala that are deliberately targeting gang members and often youth more generally.

Multi-country anti-gang
alliances and coordination

Less extrajudicially, Central American states have also begun to engage in unprecedented forms of cooperation to deal with gangs, which a September 2003 regional summit of heads of state declared to be “a destabilizing menace, more immediate than any conventional or guerrilla war.” On January 15, 2004, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua agreed to lift legal barriers to the cross-country prosecution of gang members, whatever their nationality, while on March 18, 2005, Presidents Tony Saca of El Salvador and Oscar Berger of Guatemala agreed to set up a joint security force to patrol gang activity along their common border.

The Central American states have also sought to involve the US in their anti-gang initiatives, which was reticent to participate until the Honduran minister of Security, Oscar Alvarez, rather ludicrously claimed in June 2004 that a suspected Saudi member of Al Qaeda, Yafar Al-Taya, had arrived in El Salvador to meet with gang leaders. Although an unfounded assertion, by December 2004 the FBI had created a special task force focusing on Central American gangs and in February 2005 announced the creation of a liaison office in San Salvador to coordinate regional information-sharing and anti-gang efforts. Following a new and no less ludicrous claim by Alvarez to have thwarted a Colombian FARC-mara plot to kill President Ricardo Maduro in April 2005, the region’s military leaders formally called on the US Southern Command for assistance in creating a multinational force to tackle organized crime and youth gangs, although this has yet to be implemented.

It only made things worse

While the different anti-gang initiatives initially seemed to reduce crime quite significantly, there is increasing evidence that this was a temporary state of affairs as gangs have become both less conspicuous and more radical. Several studies have reported that gang members have begun to use less obvious signs and symbols, in particular getting rid of tattoos, to avoid being picked up by the Police. Gangs have also begun to reorganize themselves along more vertical lines, coordinate more with other gangs and generally resort to more intense forms of violence.

This was well illustrated by the exchange of violence that certain mara groups engaged in with the Honduran government following the implementation of Mano Dura. On August 30, 2003, a month after the promulgation of the new anti-gang legislation, gang members attacked a bus in the Northern city of San Pedro Sula in broad daylight, killing 14 and wounding 18. They left a note for President Ricardo Maduro ordering him to repeal the law. The following month, in the town of Puerto Cortez, a young woman’s head was found in a plastic bag, again with a note addressed to President Maduro, this time saying that it was a response to the extrajudicial police killing of a gang member. Over the course of the following year, more than 10 decapitated corpses were left in various cities with similar messages from gang members to the President, each time in response to a putative extrajudicial killing. And on December 23, 2004, in Chamalecon, gang members again attacked a bus and killed 28, this time leaving a message claiming revenge for the May 2004 death of 105 gang members in a prison following a suspect fire.

Opening opportunities seems a better solution

It seems clear in light of such events that the attempts of the region’s governments to arrest themselves out of their gang trouble are not working. Indeed, the repressive approach the’ve adopted has only enhanced the problem, radicalizing the gangs and precipitating a spiral of violence. The new criminal justice initiatives are obviously failing as deterrents, partly because defiance of the state has become a key feature of the gang member ethos following the “war on gangs” waged by the governments, but also because repression simply doesn’t remedy the underlying problems generating the gangs.

At their most basic, the gangs can be said to be about creating a sense of belonging and inclusion for their members and sometimes their wider community, as well as constituting vehicles for resource accumulation. Seen in this light, it’s not surprising that experience in the world has consistently shown opportunity-providing initiatives taking this into account to be more effective in reducing the phenomenon.

Scapegoats for unjust societies

Although there has been some limited implementation of such schemes in Central America, the real problem is that social policy inevitably reflects the political sentiment of a given social context. Arguably the biggest obstacle to dealing coherently with Central America’s gang problem is the deeply entrenched oligarchic nature of its societies and the concentration of power in the hands of a small elite that actively excludes the majority. This results in more than simple policy paralysis, as the oligarchic Central American governments are actively using their highly publicized crackdowns on gangs to avoid taking action on other issues of broader significance such as social exclusion or inequality.

Gangs have thus become convenient scapegoats on which to blame the isthmus’ problems and through which those in power attempt to maintain a particular status quo, but it can be argued that they also simultaneously embody the risks of violent social reaction that is likely to erupt in the face of such attempts to preserve an unjust society.

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