A REPORT FROM MEXICO CITY
Gang Wars — and the War on Gangs
Every week, mutilated bodies bearing signs of torture
appear in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, the victims of an ongoing
war between gangs -- to which around 300,000 young disadvantaged Central
Americans belong -- and with those who are trying to exterminate them.
”There is a veritable war raging in the streets of
Central America,” lawyer Gustavo Zelaya, with Casa Alianza (the Latin
America branch of the U.S.-based Covenant House, a child advocacy
organisation) told IPS.
Less than a year ago, a young man seeking refuge in
Covenant House in Honduras, where Zelaya works, was stabbed to death by
fellow members of his gang just outside the door of the organisation.
Several kilometres away, the body of a young man that
had been chopped up into 18 pieces was found on Sep. 13, and a week
later, a human head in an advanced state of decomposition was found on a
bus. The police blamed the two killings on gangs, which are known as
”maras” in Central America.
But many of the murders are actually committed by
death squads that kill young people suspected of belonging to maras,
often merely because they wear tattoos, say activists.
”In Central America there is an emergency situation,
and the governments have failed to respond adequately,” Luciano Lovato,
head of the non-governmental Central American Network of Judges,
Prosecutors and Defenders for the Democratisation of Justice, said in an
interview with IPS.
An average of six people a day are murdered in
Honduras (a country of six million), eight a day in El Salvador
(population 6.2 million) and 14 a day in Guatemala (population 12
million). The authorities blame most of the killings on the maras.
But the death squads largely made up of off-duty
police officers have taken it upon themselves to carry out a ”social
purge” and wipe out the gangs, say human rights groups.
The violence has taken on such magnitude that
Guatemalan President Oscar Berger recently stated his intention to seek
a peace agreement with the gangs.
In El Salvador and Honduras, the governments have
taken a ”mano dura” or ”firm hand” approach that makes it possible to
throw young people in prison for years simply because they belong to
gangs. But the tough new anti-gang laws have drawn fire from activists
and legal experts.
The biggest gangs are the violent ”Mara Salvatrucha”
and ”Mara 18”, which first emerged among Salvadoran immigrants in Los
The two maras began to spread to Central America in
the 1990s, when most of their leaders were deported from the United
The impoverished countries of Central America turned
out to be a perfect medium in which the gangs could thrive. In Latin
America, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala rank at the
bottom of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) human
An estimated 300,000 youngsters belong to maras in
these four countries.
According to the Economic Commission for Latin America
and the Caribbean (ECLAC), a regional U.N. body, youngsters between the
ages of 15 and 24, who account for 20.3 percent of the population in
Mexico and Central America and 33.4 percent of the economically active
population, make up 41 to 62 percent of the unemployed.
In addition, the age group of 15 to 19-year-olds,
which provides most of the maras' new recruits, is especially hard hit
by poverty and marginalisation.
In the report ”Marginalised in Mexico, El Salvador,
Nicaragua and Panama”, ECLAC stated that factors like ”social and
economic marginalisation, family problems, school drop-out, under-or
unemployment, uncontrolled and unplanned urban sprawl, a culture of
violence and transculturalisation push young people to rebuild their
identity in youth gangs.”
Zelaya said ”Central American governments were inept
and allowed the gang situation to spiral out of control, and now they
want to crack down on it, but are only attacking the visible
consequences,” not the root causes.
Casa Alianza, which provides assistance to street
children, reports that more than 2,500 youngsters under 23 have been
murdered in Honduras since 1998. Nearly all of them were members of
maras slain by fellow gang members, the police, or in ”riots” or
killings in overcrowded prisons, where conditions are dismal.
Lovato said the strictly police-based approach of
”repression” adopted ”with great fanfare” to fight the maras has been ”a
failure and is not leading us anywhere, although it does bring political
returns for those who announced the strategy.”
Assistant bishop of San Salvador Gregorio Rosa said
that in El Salvador, ”young people are hunted down like animals, which
generates more hatred, more violence.”
The ”super mano dura” policy against the maras, as the
Salvadoran government likes to describe its hard-line strategy, has
included the creation of a joint body of police and soldiers to track
down suspected juvenile delinquents, who can be arrested simply because
they wear tattoos or communicate using certain hand signs.
Gang members are distinguished by tattoos, bandanas on
their heads, or military-style haircuts. They also use specific words or
hand signs. To join a mara, youngsters must go through initiation, which
usually involves violence, either among themselves or against outsiders.
A survey by the Jesuit Central American University
found that 53.3 percent of respondents in El Salvador believed the ”mano
dura” policy would help reduce the soaring levels of violent crime.
But ”Crime will not be reduced by mano dura or through
abuses and violations of basic human rights laws,” argued Lovato.
Zelaya shares that opinion. ”The right of presumption
of innocence is being violated here, and these youngsters are persecuted
merely because of their appearance, or on the basis of suspicion,” he
The London-based Amnesty International has criticised
the anti-gang strategies followed in El Salvador and Honduras.
In an early September press release titled ”Honduras:
Two years on and killing of children continues”, the rights watchdog
states that ”Since February 2003, nearly 700 more children and youths
have been murdered or extrajudicially executed in the country.”
”Despite the fact that the government have admitted
that police officers have been involved in many of the killings, only
two policemen have so far been convicted,” it adds.
A February 2003 report by Amnesty, ”Honduras Zero
Tolerance...for Impunity: Extrajudicial Executions of Children and
Youths since 1998”, says ”Most of the victims lived in poverty, on the
margins of society, with little education and few job prospects.
Honduran society has viewed the deaths of these children and youths with
indifference and apathy, some newspapers even suggesting it as a
possible solution to the problem of public insecurity.”
In Honduras, the violence and fear have reached such a
degree that a large part of the population is in favour of the death
penalty for gang members, according to opinion polls.
A Sep. 2-5 survey by the LatiNetwork Dichter & Neira
polling firm based on a random sample of 1,208 Hondurans found that 52
percent believed capital punishment should be introduced to help fight
The death penalty is openly supported by the president
of Congress, Porfirio Lobo, who hopes to become the candidate of the
centre-right governing National Party, to succeed President Ricardo
Maduro when his term ends in January 2006.
”Central America is killing its young people, because
it has condemned them to the stigma of gangs, while it does very little
against the poverty, social exclusion, lack of education and destruction
of families -- the origins of the violence into which they have fallen,”
4 October 2004