Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Central America: "Maras" - street gangs terrorise Central America

Republished permission Inter Press Service (IPS )copyright Inter Press Service (IPS) and

"Mutating" Gangs Sow Terror

By Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Jan 18, 2011 (IPS) - "I'm really scared for my four kids, who take the bus to school," said an anguished Alma Valenzuela after a youth gang attacked a passenger bus in the Guatemalan capital, killing nine people, including three children.

The words of this 38-year-old Guatemalan woman who has to go to work every day to support her family reflects the panic triggered by the Jan. 3 attack, in which gang members left a backpack with explosives on a bus, detonating it with a cell-phone.

While in other regions of the world, religious or political extremism is behind terrorism attacks, in the so-called northern triangle of Central America, consisting of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, youth gangs or "maras" have begun to use similar practices to terrorise the public.

"The criminals are taking control over everything, because they know that if they don't get what they want, they can do whatever they feel like," Valenzuela said." They don't even respect the lives of children anymore."

According to the police, the bus was bombed by the Mara 18 gang in a dispute over the divvying up of extortion fees collected from bus drivers. The attack was reportedly in reprisal against one of the owners of the bus company, who was in charge of collecting the "protection payments."

Mara 18 is the local name of the 18th Street gang that was born in Los Angeles, California and took root in this region when Central American gang members were deported from the U.S.

Professor David Martínez-Amador, who teaches a course on organised crime in universities of Guatemala, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico and Mexico, told IPS that the latest violent incidents staged by gangs in Guatemala are a sign that they are being politically manipulated.

"I believe the gangs are being used by the extreme right or others who have an interest in generating a climate of fear and insecurity, and I connect it to the violence that we expected in the run-up to the elections," he said.

Guatemalans will go to the polls in September 2011 to elect a new president and vice president, as well as 153 members of the single-chamber Congress, 20 representatives to the Central American Parliament, and 333 local governments.

The pre-campaign political dispute has been fierce.

"If the evolution of the gangs had been natural the violence would have been continuous," said Martínez-Amador. But incidents like the bus-bombing have been "sporadic," while extortion and murders of bus drivers have continued unabated, he added.

At least 128 bus drivers were killed in Guatemala in 2010, many of them after they were extorted by gang members, according to the Mutual Support Group (GAM), a local human rights organisation.

Martínez-Amador said the Jan. 3 attack on the bus was not a "terrorist act," because no one has claimed responsibility for the bombing and no specific message was sent out.

Gang attacks have also occurred in Honduras and El Salvador, where the civilian population, mainly in urban areas, has been the targets of such activities. On Dec. 5, members of Mara 18 set fire to a bus in the El Sitio neighbourhood of Tegucigalpa, in reprisal against a bus driver who refused to pay protection money. Fortunately there were no victims on that occasion.

But on Sept. 7, 2010, 17 workers in a shoe factory in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, where gunned down in a turf war between Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18 -- the two biggest gangs in the region.

And on Jun. 21, 17 people were killed in two different attacks on buses by gang members in San Salvador. Fourteen of the victims died when the bus they were riding in was set on fire. Left-wing President Mauricio Funes condemned the attack as an act of "terrorism, pure and simple."

In the case of El Salvador and Honduras, the uptick in violence by gangs has been sparked by measures taken by the governments to crack down even harder on the maras, Martínez-Amador said.

A new law in effect in El Salvador since September 2010 banning maras and a similar law in Honduras have triggered a violent backlash by the gangs.

Fires have also broken out in two prisons packed with gang members. In 2004, more than 100 inmates were killed in a fire in Honduras, and in November 2010 a blaze left a death toll of 26 prisoners in El Salvador, Martínez-Amador pointed out.

Reina Rivera, an analyst of security issues in Honduras, told IPS that the increasingly sophisticated and violent methods adopted by the maras "are probably due to the fact that many of them have mutated and can no longer be considered gangs, but instead have become agents of organised crime, like hired killers, drug dealers and drug mules. "Sources with the police and with the U.S. State Department have reported that Mexican drug trafficking mafias have support cells in Honduras, which implies the expansion here of criminal methodologies like massacres, torture, murders, mutilation and dismembering of corpses," she said.

"This is no longer a youth subculture, as we knew the gangs up to now, but a perverse mutation towards the most atrocious organised crime bands," Rivera said.

She also noted that the anti-gang laws in Honduras facilitated massive sweeps of young people, with many of the arrests based merely on physical appearance, including tattoos. In response, the gangs have begun to shift strategies, like abandoning identifying tattoos or moving to less urbanised areas.

The study "Las maras y pandillas como actores ilegales de la región" on gangs as illegal actors in the region, published in 2008 in El Salvador by Jeannette Aguilar and Marlon Carranza, shows that countries in Central America have taken markedly different approaches to the phenomenon of maras.

"While the police in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have deployed all of their resources to carry out massive captures of gang members, the government of Nicaragua has implemented a creative model of community prevention of youth violence," and today maras are now less of a problem in that country than they were in the past, the study says.

"Today we are seeing much more sophisticated, better structured groups with a higher degree of participation in criminal activities," to a large extent "due to the adoption of repressive, reactionary, arbitrary policies that violate the rights of young people," it adds.

Víctor Gudiel with the non-governmental Society for the Development of Youth in Guatemala told IPS that society is facing a new phenomenon in which it is not the maras but criminal organisations whose basic aim is to make money from criminal activities.

The activist said the situation is fuelled by the continued exclusion of young people from the government's policies. "Resources are not allocated to health, education or recreation, which means the youth have no opportunities for development, and they fall into the hands of organised crime," he said.