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Gangs Roil Central America

Indira A.R. Lakshmanan, (17April 2006) “Gangs roil Central America: Trouble tied to US deportees, The Boston Globe A 1,16.



Youthful street gangs among black and white urban youth in the U.S. seem to be diminishing somewhat during the first decade of the 21st century. Recent youthful urban violence is being described as more random and personal. Gangs in U.S. cities seem more prevalent and flourishing among ethnic immigrant groups. This article describes what is happening, especially in San Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, as the U.S. deports criminal types back to their central American countries of origin.


U.S. immigration policies changed in the mid-1990s. According to Homeland Security statistics, more than 34,000 criminals were deported back to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras between 1998 and 2004.


The youthful offenders have taken their gang connections and experience back to their own countries. In El Salvador alone, more than 16,000 suspects had been arrested since the summer of 2004—one in four ending up in prison. Before being released from prison, they make contacts with mob criminals and take these connections back to the streets.


Miguel Cruz, director of the Institute of Public Opinion at the University of Central American in El Salvador is convinced that “gang members thrown into prison without rehabilitation, establish networks they never had, and links with organized crime.”


The street gangs of Central America are called maras—after a deadly ant. Mara 18 originated back in 1960s in Los Angeles when it was called the 18th Street Gang. Another major gang, Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, was started by Central Americans fleeing wars in their homelands during the 1980s but finding no work or protection from hostile gangs in the U.S.


Largely as a result of renewed gang and criminal activity of these moreros or gang members, the murder rate in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras is 10 times that of the U.S. These three countries have therefore resorted to calling the military in to patrol the streets. This concerns some as creating too much reliance on the military. A zero tolerance policy (mano super dura or ultra-hard hand policy) against gang activity has been instated.


Gangs are adjusting to these severe government policies. Oscar Bonilla, president of Salvador’s National Council on Security, says, “They have reduced their tattooing, changed their style of dress, and had fewer open confrontations with other gangs—while maintaining their criminal activities.”


A US official working on anti-gang programs added: “Mano dura policies are ineffective… they have a cucaracha effect of making gangsters scatter like cockroaches and come out when authorities aren’t looking.” Besides, the hard-line arrests “have overloaded the judicial system… and created a revolving door. This has given gang members a feeling of omnipotence, because they were in jail and out three days later, taking reprisals against anyone who opposes them.”


The brazen disregard of hardened gangsters for authority is striking; this month in Guatemala City, three MS-13 defendants on trial for a prison massacre stabbed rival Mara 18 gangsters in front of bailiffs and the judge, using knives they had smuggled into court.


Echoing a common complaint of senior officials in the region, El Salvador’s new police chief, Rodrigo Avila, asserted that the onslaught of criminal deportees from the US is simply overwhelming local law enforcement systems. “More than half the guys with criminal records deported from the US commit crimes here too.”


President Oscar Berger of Guatemala is proposing a mixture of violence prevention, rehabilitation, and prosecution to replace reliance on mano dura policies alone, but the effort is slow in being implemented.


Neighboring countries of Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama have focused on crime prevention programs with families, schools and communities—and have much lower gang membership and violence.


A rehabilitation program in Guatemala City is achieving some positive results. A “dozen former tattooed gang members in a working class neighborhood are studying literacy, computers and technical skills in an unmarked, nondescript house supported by US funds. One of these boys, with the help of his pastor and a chance in this program, is trying to turn his life around.


Byron, a soft-spoken 18-year-old who joined Mara 18 when he was 12, was acquitted of double murder and robbery, but spent two years in a juvenile facility and two years doing community service for lesser crimes. Last year, he left the gang under the counsel of his pastor, and now spends his days taking high school equivalent classes and working in a bakery.


In July, members of his former gang, who were furious that Byron had left them, shot him in the leg and abdomen. He recovered by hasn’t returned home since.


“People join gangs because you find a family there,” said Byron, who says his parents abandoned him at birth. “I finally realized what I was doing was wrong… but police still want to kill me, because they don’t understand that I’ve left the gang.”


Byron dreams of starting a new life, but he suspects his old life will catch up with him first. “Eventually I’ll get killed by the gang or by the police. No one here gets second chances.”




1. What are some reasons we should all take interest in this article?


2. How are all of us in this world becoming closer and closer together? What responsibility do we have for those less fortunate than ourselves in our own country, and in other countries?


3. How would you describe the phenomenon of the rising gang violence in these Central American countries?


4. What most impresses or distresses you in this article? What further discussion do you see needed?

5. What could be your/our response to this problem? What small thing might be done?





1. Comprehensive solutions will be needed to deal with the rising gang violence in these countries – ones that take in account broken individuals, families, communities and nations.



Dean Borgman   cCYS