Central American Gangs, a Mafia With a Thousand Heads

By Dialogo
September 22, 2010

The organized-crime gangs that plague Central America, known as ‘maras,’ keep various governments on edge as the latter multiply laws and regulations to combat the thousands of members of these groups, which arose a quarter of a century ago in the Hispanic neighborhoods of Los Angeles.

The ‘mara’ phenomenon is concentrated in the so-called Northern Triangle, made up of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, countries characterized by poverty and by family disintegration due to migration.

“The research carried out during the last fifteen years demonstrates that these gangs are the result of the confluence of social, economic, political, institutional, and geopolitical factors,” the director of the Public Opinion Institute at Central American University (UCA), Jannet Aguilar, declared to AFP.

Aguilar, a sociologist, explained that the maras are also the result of “dysfunctional families that do not carry out their role of guardianship” and of states that privilege repression and do not encourage “true” educational and employment opportunities.

In El Salvador, where the phenomenon is strongest, the maras are true mafia organizations that are involved in trafficking drugs and arms, extortion, and kidnapping and gave a demonstration of their power at the beginning of this month when they imposed a three-day bus strike in order to try to prevent the promulgation of a law banning them.

This law establishes that “so-called gangs or maras such as Mara Salvatrucha, MS 13, Mara 18, Mara Máquina, Mara Mao Mao are illegal and are banned” and sets prison terms – for membership alone – of seven to ten years for leaders and six years for others.

There are currently around 7,000 gang members imprisoned in El Salvador, but it is estimated that there may be between 9,000 and 20,000 more on the streets, since many teenagers are recruited every day, according to the police.

Mara 18 and Mara Salvatrucha, the two most famous gangs, arose in the 1980s in the “Latino” neighborhoods of Los Angeles and became widespread in Central America following the deportation of thousands of immigrants from the United States to their countries of origin.

The “maras,” an abbreviation of “marabunta,” a voracious ant from the Amazon, have thousands of members in countries such as Guatemala and Honduras, where crime rates are also among the highest in Latin America.

“For the government, it’s necessary to increase control over groups of this kind (gangs) in order to implement measures to make it possible to combat and prevent violence,” Salvadoran president Mauricio Funes declared.

Nevertheless, the human-rights ombudsman, Oscar Luna, has played down the impact of the law.

Luna has called on the authorities not to create “false expectations” that the law will put an end to gangs, which are accused of a large share of the country’s high number of homicides: an average of thirteen a day.

Some Salvadoran judges have also warned that the law “does not solve the problem of crime,” while other Central American countries – Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua – fear that it will lead Salvadoran gang members to emigrate there.

For example, Guatemala, which is plagued by Mexican organized crime operating on its territory, has strengthened its vigilance to prevent the arrival of members of the Salvadoran maras.

Gang members’ activities are added to those of the drug cartels. Mexican and Colombian drug traffickers have for years had “linkages” by way of Central America, a transit corridor for the cocaine they ship from South America to North America, causing a deterioration in the level of security.