Central America counts cost of deadly export from Los Angeles

Poor neighbours fall prey to US gang culture

The signs of the influence of the United States on Central America are everywhere: McDonald's and KFC, movies and sportswear. Less easy to spot is one export which has a devastating effect on the region: gang culture.

Six years ago, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act was introduced in the US, which allowed the "expedited removal" of immigrants who had committed crimes.

This has led to the deportations to Central America of thousands of gang members, mainly from the Los Angeles region, who arrived in the US as children with their parents. Back in Central America they are retaining their structures. Gang "franchises" have taken hold in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

The influence of US gang culture is evident in poor neighbourhoods or barrios across Central America. There are local variations on a dress code of baggy clothes, baseball caps and chains, a defined taste in music (much of it Latino rap and hip-hop), a semiology in tattoos, graffiti and hand signs, and a slang peppered with imported words like broderes (brothers) and "homies". Most damaging is a fashion for extreme violence that has found an easy home in countries with violent histories.

In El Salvador, with a population of 6 million, a survey put gang membership at 20,000. Gang members are thought to be responsible for 10% of El Salvador's annual murder rate of 120 killings for every 100,000 people. The economic impact is huge: a study commissioned by the Inter-American Development Bank found that 12% of GNP is spent on dealing with violence and its consequences.

In Guatemala, with a population of 13 million, the police calculate that there are more than 300 gangs with a total membership of 200,000. In Honduras, with a population of 6 million, there are said to be 60,000 gang members.

The two major international "franchises" are the MS (Mara Salvatrucha) and the Mara 18 (also known as MS-18 and Calle 18). Local branches of these gangs are involved in major crime from smuggling drugs and weapons, to kidnapping and car-jacking.

The spread of the gangs has its origins in the conflicts that have racked Central America during the past 25 years. In the early 1980s, more than 1 million refugees fled to the US during El Salvador's civil war, which killed 75,000 people.

Some had ties with La Mara, a street gang from the capital, San Salvador. Others had been members of groups such as the leftwing Farabundo Marti National Liberation front. Many settled in Los Angeles and found themselves in conflict with local Latino gangs.

Al Valdez, a district attorney investigator for Orange County in California specialising in gangs, said initially the gangs had been formed for self-protection, but "quickly developed a reputation for being organised and extremely violent". According to Mr Valdez, Mara Salvatrucha has expanded across the US, Canada, and Mexico.

"MS is unique in that, unlike traditional US street gangs, it maintains active ties with MS members and factions in El Salvador. Mara Salvatrucha is truly an international gang."

Deportations to El Salvador began after the immigration act was passed and now about 300 arrive from the US every month. It is a similar story in Guatemala and Honduras, where the latest annual figures show that 8,000 have been deported from the US.

Miguel Cruz a Salvadorean academic and author said: "Only a few of the deportees are criminals, but they have a significant influence on the local gang members. They quickly become leaders and role models for the youngest."

Increased sophistication is one thing the deportees bring. Oscar Alavarez, Honduras minister of security, said a police raid on one gang last week uncovered a book which detailed all their transactions, from the costs of transport to ammunition. "They communicate on the internet, they run the gangs like a business."

On April 5, 69 people were killed in El Porvenir prison in La Ceiba, Honduras, of whom 61 were members of Mara 18. Most were shot by guards. Many bodies had been burnt. President Ricardo Maduro has ordered an investigation but relatives claimmost were killed after they surrendered.

Jorge Hernandez, Honduras minister of the interior, said the influence of the gangs now permeated the country's way of life. The government is spending $30m (18m) a year on projects to take people out of the gangs but the gangs are growing.

The official response in Central America has been a mix of repression and attempts to open a dialogue with gangs and young people: about a third of the region's population are under 10. Half are under 20. In Nicaragua, the police set up "prevention committees" and began visiting gang members and their families.

The hope is to prevent MS and Mara 18 taking hold there. The organisation Ceprev has worked with more than 3,000 pandilleros (gang members) over the past six years in one district of Managua with the aim of improving their relations with their families. Its director, Monica Zalaquette, says: "The problem is not economic poverty, it is the poverty of our family culture - that's what we have to change."

Bruce Harris of Casa Alianza, which works with at-risk young people in Central America, said: "For years, the authorities have left young people without hope, without access to school or jobs and the only governmental response to youth dissent has been repression. We have forced the kids to the extremes of society and they have responded with violence. Gangs can no longer be ignored, especially if we want to live in peace."

'He is chained to stop him being killed'

Jose, 17, is chained by the ankle to an iron ring set into the floor of his parents' wooden shack. He spends his days in a chair, a few feet from a tiny black and white television. At night he is chained to the frame of his bed. He is freed only to perform what his mother calls "his bodily needs".

Jose is a member of Los Puenteros, a street gang from a poor neighbourhood in southern Managua, Nicaragua's capital. He is addicted to crack cocaine. To pay for it he breaks into people's houses or robs on the streets armed with a machete. He once took and sold his young cousins' school shoes and rucksacks. "I don't know how long we will keep him there," Dona Wilma, Jose's mother, said. Jose says nothing and doesn't take his eyes off the cartoons. "But what else can we do? If we didn't he would go out on the streets and be killed or arrested."

Without the chains, Jose would be on the run from the police with other members of Los Puenteros who were at a bar on May 17 when their leader, Tres Ojos (Three Eyes), killed a member of a rival gang with two machete blows to the head.

Inter-gang violence has increased to the point where an unofficial curfew operates in most of Managua's marginal neighbourhoods where more than 100 gangs operate.

In this city of 1.2 million people, police made more than 40,000 arrests of gang members in 2001.

Although the gang franchises have not spread to Nicaragua because there have been relatively few deportations from the US, the Los Angeles culture has fuelled the growth of organised crime.

After dark, people close their doors and windows and the streets become a battleground between rival gangs armed with stones, machetes, pistols, and home-made mortars.

Nelly Rodriguez, a resident of the area known as Las Americas II, said: "When they start to fight, stones start flying in every direction. So many hit the roof of the house it feels like it is going to cave in and I get under the table with my children."

The risks to non-combatants are real. In March Yolanda Molina, 12, was shot dead in her home during a gunfight between rival gangs.

Rupert Widdicombe in Managua and Duncan Campbell in Tegucigalpa
2 June 2003


http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,3604,963951,00.html

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