Spread of Central American Youth
Authorities in Mexico have made little headway in
their efforts to curb the spread of Central American youth gangs known
as "maras", whose members are now active in 24 of this country's 32
states. Members of the Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18 gangs have been
taking advantage of the destruction and chaos caused by Hurricane Stan
in early October in southern Mexico, along the Guatemalan border, to
move deeper into Mexico, says an army document leaked to the local
The report indicates that many members of the maras,
mainly young men from Central America, have exploited the recent
disorder and lax surveillance to enter the country and head further
north, into central Mexico. "They are like a plague that spreads easily
into places without any 'vaccines' or protection against them," Ignacio
Crespo, an anthropologist who works with street children and adolescents
in the Mexican capital, told IPS.
Early this year, Mexico's National Migration Institute
reported that members of maras had been detected in eight states. But a
report released in July by another government body, the Centre for
Research on National Security (CISEN), stated that the maras have
already spread to 24 states. The Secretariat of Public Security
estimates that there are around 5,000 Central American gang members in
Mexico, in 200 smaller groups, most of which are active in Chiapas, the
poorest state, in southeastern Mexico across the border from Guatemala.
Crespo, however, said "I think there are many more
than that, if we count the mara members who showed up after (hurricane)
Stan, and the gangs that have emerged among Mexican youngsters."
The expert said Mexico should implement anti-gang
policies that put the accent on prevention and rehabilitation, instead
of the strictly police-based approach of the strong-arm policies
followed in Central America. "If we only focus on repression, without
understanding what the sense of community offered by a gang means to
many poor youngsters from broken-down families, with little formal
education, the only thing that will be achieved is an expansion of the
problem," he argued.
Mara members are distinguished by tattoos, bandanas of
a certain colour, military-style haircuts, secret code words and hand
signs. To join one of the gangs, youngsters must undergo initiation,
which usually involves violence, either among themselves or against
outsiders. The deep rivalries between the maras sometimes erupt into
full-blown gang wars.
Human rights activists in Central America have also
denounced the existence of "death squads", which they say are often made
up of off-duty police officers, dedicated to eliminating gang members.
Many young men are killed simply because they bear tattoos.
Since 2003, 1,670 youngsters accused of being gang
members have been arrested in Mexico, half of whom are facing charges in
connection with criminal activity. The other half were deported.
Although there is no consensus on how many youngsters
belong to the maras, estimates range from 150,000 to 300,000 in Central
America and Mexico. In the United States, meanwhile, where the maras
first emerged, the total number is put at 15,000, since most of the
members have been deported.
The Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18 originated in
California in the 1980s, after nearly one million Salvadorans fled to
the United States during El Salvador's civil war and settled in
impoverished neighbourhoods in Los Angeles where gang violence was rife.
As El Salvador began to recover from the 12-year civil war, which ended
with a peace accord in 1992, U.S. authorities began to deport thousands
of gang members to the country, where the explosion of gang violence
during the late 1990s lifted El Salvador's homicide rates above those
seen during the armed conflict.
The maras also spread to Honduras, Guatemala and
Nicaragua, and more recently to Mexico. "An estimated 25 to 50 mara
members are entering Mexico on a daily basis," according to CISEN.
In a report submitted to the legislature in October,
the National Migration Institute acknowledged that so far, the efforts
to keep Central American gangs from gaining a stronger and stronger
foothold in Mexico are failing.
Despite a sharply scaled-up law enforcement response,
the number of gang members in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and
Nicaragua has skyrocketed since the 1990s, and violent crime rates are
soaring, as gang members rape and murder.
To combat the violent gangs, governments in those
Central American countries have passed draconian laws imposing stiff
sentences for merely belonging to a youth gang, and have begun to
coordinate anti-gang strategies with Mexican and U.S. authorities. But
several of the "anti-mara" laws have come under fire from human rights
groups and legal experts, who argue that they have given rise to
violations of basic rights. For instance, the Centre for Justice and
International Law (CEJIL), a regional human rights organisation,
maintains that the policies applied by the governments of several
Central American countries have led to mass arrests of youngsters based
merely on the fact that they sport tattoos or are found hanging around
in a specific neighbourhood.
In June, government delegates from Central America,
Mexico, the United States and Canada took part in a meeting on "Transnational
Youth Gangs" held in Chiapas. The participants agreed to ask the
Organisation of American States (OAS) to create a network of contacts
among authorities, experts and non-governmental organisations to outline
a plan to combat gangs, modeled on the most successful policies
implemented up to now.
4 November 2005