MIME-Version: 1.0 Content-Location: file:///C:/4069C638/gangs_special-issue_october_2008.htm Content-Transfer-Encoding: quoted-printable Content-Type: text/html; charset="windows-1252" Special Issue October 2008: Central American gangs

Special Issue October 2008: Central American gangs

Gang viole= nce is a major problem in Central America, especially in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Youth gangs, maras, engage in extortion, robbery, theft, drug and weapons trafficking, bribery, rape and contract and random killings. What seems to be a security problem at first implies vario= us social dimensions.

Gang viole= nce certainly threatens the lives and overall well-being of the population. Sti= ll, the effects are much worse for the gang members: Life expectancy of a marero is extremely low. Often they die before= they are 18. Victims of mara aggressions are predominantly other gang members. Rivalry and acts of revenge between the t= wo major maras – Mara = Salvatrucha and Mara 18 – cause high numbers of casualties. Gang members regard rival killing and the neighborhood protection of thei= r neighborhoods and homies<= /span> as their duty and honor.

Adequate statistics on exactly what percent of criminal activity in these countries = can be ascribed to youth gangs do not exist. Yet, they are blamed for a large portion of crime, including violent acts committed by other aggressors. Pol= iticians tend to place a large amount of emphasis on the problem while the mass media fill programs with sensationalized reproductions of violent events. The res= ult is widespread panic that has drastic effects on the everyday life.

Trans-national network

Crime itse= lf is a fundamental problem: Its perception, however, worsens the situation. Discus= sions about crime combine media reports, personal and second-hand experience. The escalation of violence and its perception has profoundly harmed the foundat= ion of society. Public places are avoided, and those who can afford to, live in gated communities and heavily protected houses. Public confidence in democr= acy is low. Democratic political culture and, as a consequence, integration and participation of all citizens can barely evolve. In addition, internal instability impedes foreign investment and the overall economic climate.

The reason= s for the existence of Central American youth gangs are as wide-ranging as their impact on social life. Mara Salvatrucha and Mar= a 18 were originally founded in Los= Angeles, US, by mo= stly Central American immigrants. Voluntary returns but mainly deportations in t= he 1990s brought gang members to Central America. Governments ignored this influx in its early stages.

Maras are attractive to children and teenagers for different reasons. Hopelessness and lack of opportunities, which many Centr= al American adolescents face, are just two. Combined with a longing for acceptance, respect and belonging, maras= might appear as an attractive alternative. Youth gangs offer a strong social netw= ork and solidarity – including capital punishment when this solidarity is viola= ted.

Identifica= tion with the mara is very high among its mem= bers. Brutal initiation rituals, symbols like tattoos, dog tags, slang vocabulary and ha= nd signs, as well as changing a new member's name to a marero name contribute to this identification. The individual loses significance w= hile the group always comes first. This also means that leaving the gang can be fatal.

Hence, not= only the effects but also the causes for the existence of <= i>maras can be found in Central American societies. Maras are not a direct result of poverty; mareros do not steal to eat. Neither are they a direct result of the political regime;= maras are not guerilla groups planning a coup d’état. The criminal act is the end in itself. Thus,= it can be considered as an indirect effect of poverty and the political regime: the lack of education, opportunities and social advancement are to some ext= ent responsible for the attraction of the youth gangs. While this cannot be considered a unique Central American phenomenon, causes and effects are very drastic in this region.

= No sustainable policies=

Central Am= erican governments seem to be unable to cope with maras. Political response has been almost exclusively repressive. Although there h= ave been some short term decreases in violence, the policies do not contribute = to any sustainable solution. On the contrary, the governments forgo fundamental principles of rule of law and human rights while ma= no dura, the strong hand, misses the mark. Mil= itary forces are deployed inside the cities. Together with the police, they detain suspected mara members without any evide= nce. A tattoo may be a sufficient reason to identify gang membership, which itself= is considered a crime.

Prisons are internally controlled by gangs while crime and recruitment continue outside= . In addition to official repressive policies, vigilantism is common, along with drive-by shootings of suspected gang members in mar= a-dominated neighborhoods. These cases of random executions= are hardly ever solved. It is uncertain if and how these death squads are linke= d to official powers.

Support for repressive policies is not hard to find in a scared population. For years, elections have been won on "zero tolerance" campaigns. Yet, as a reaction to the failing mano dura-policies, new initiatives have been introduc= ed such as intervention and prevention strategies. However, other developments such as the reinstitution of the death penalty in Guatemala represent a failure= to change the policy of repression.

It remains= to be seen if new policy initiatives will be successfully implemented. Prevention strategies, social rehabilitation efforts and long term structural and soci= al reforms must follow from the recognition that youth gangs are more than a security threat.

= Resources on Central American gangs=

Official perspective

Committee on Hemispheric Security<= /a>
The Committee on Hemispheric Security of the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States highlights issues concerning
gangs involved in criminal activities. Resolutions and Special Meeting documents are available on the website.

United Nations Development Programme (UND= P)
UNDP is the UN's global development network and has offices in
El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The UNDP carries out projects and studies on violence.

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime = (UNODC)
UNODC conducts research and projects in Central Amer= ica on drugs and crime. The study
Crime and Development in Cen= tral Americ a includes a cha= pter about youth gangs.

= Academic perspective

Institute of Latin American = Studies (ILAS)
ILAS, part of the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA), analy= zes political, economic and social development processes in Latin America and t= he Caribbean. Its current research project, “Public Sp= aces and Violence in Central America,” examines the social discourses on crime i= n Costa Rica, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
<= /p>

Inforpress Centro= americana
Inforpress Centroamericana= offers weekly news and analysis of trends and events throughout Central America. Various publications discuss viole= nce, crime and political reactions.

Latinnews.com
Latinnews.com is a subscribers-only source of political, strategic, economic and business intelligence on Latin America. Central American youth gangs are discussed in several publications.

Latinob= árometro
Latinobárometro carries out an annual public op= inion survey in 18 Latin American countries. The organization offers data, analys= is and publications.

Revista Quórum=
The Revista Quórum = is an Iberoamerican social science journal. Central American youth gangs are discussed in the 16th edition.

Universidad Centroam= ericana "José Simeón Cañas" (UCA)
The Universidad Centroamericana "José Simeón Cañas" (UCA) = and its
Instituto Univer= sitario de Opinión Pública<= /span> (IUDOP) i= n San Salvador offer publications and surveys on topic= s of relevance in Central America including violence.

= Private perspective

Amnesty International (AI)
AI highlights the failings of Central American governments and societies on human rights issues.

América= Central, by Fried= rich Ebert Foundation
Projects on “Seguridad Ciu= dadanaare key activities of the Friedrich Ebert Founda= tion, a German political foundation in Central America.

Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA<= span class=3DGramE>)
WOLA aims to promote human rights, democracy and social and economic justic= e in Latin America and the Caribbean. WOLA ru= ns a Central American Youth Gang program and offers several related publications= .

Commentaries

A new UN body tries to fix a= broken justice system, by The Economist
The 19 March 2008 article describes the malfunctioning of the Guatemalan justice system.

Centroa= mérica, sitia= da entre el crimen y la repr= ession, by El País
This article by Juan José Dalton in El País on = 14 April 2008 outlines the problem of mara = crime in El Salvador and how repressive policies have failed to improve the situation.

How the Street Gangs Took Ce= ntral America, by Foreign Affairs
This article by Ana Arana in Foreign Affairs Ma= y/June 2005 presents an overview of the Central American gang problem being an US-import.

= For more r= esources on Central American gangs visit the ISN website.

<= o:p>