GUATEMALA CITY – Agustín, 27, left the street life five years ago.
He departed upon realizing “his life was going nowhere” after 13 years in the Mara 18 gang.
His skin still has the markings of his years with the gangs, an indelible stain in an otherwise clean life.
“You get tattooed to remember your loved ones that died,” said Agustín, who preferred not to use his full name and who now works with an organization that helps rehabilitate former gang members. “But some get tattoos to let the other members of the gang know how tough they are. The gang boss doesn’t allow you to get tattooed because you want to or because he wants you to. You have to earn the right.”
But tattoos are not the only means of communication used by the gangs, who rely heavily on them to coordinate their crimes. Words and signs, conveyed by hand signs or by graffiti, are selected carefully, as a misunderstood message can cost somebody’s life, Agustín said.
The nation’s media frequently shows detained gang members making hand signals directly to the TV camera.
The National Action Unit Against the Criminal Development of Gangs (PANDA), which is part of the National Civilian Police of Guatemala, said this form of encoded communication enables gang members to coordinate their crimes, whether they are in society or behind bars.
“Once we realized what the gang members were up to, the authorities began handcuffing them in the back,” said officer David Boteo, 30, who has worked in PANDA since September.
“It’s a clear act of defying the authorities,” says Nidia Aguilar, who directs the Childhood and Adolescence Defense office at the Attorney General Human Rights Bureau.
These cryptic gestures are not simply a way for gang member to identify themselves as members of a specific gang, Aguilar said. The gestures contain encoded messages for their “homies” (fellow gang members) to understand so they can carry out crimes. Gang members have been known to use hand signs to convey the name of the police officer who arrested them to fellow gang members, who can seek retribution.
“Each generation has its own way of expressing inconformity with society,” said Aguilar, adding the members of the youth gangs, also called “Maras,” come “from marginal neighborhoods that are surrounded by extreme poverty and offer no betterment opportunities.”
The gangs use their secret language on the streets – and many go as far as inking its symbols in their skin, Aguilar said.
Street gangs have at least 12,000 members in Guatemala alone, according to the Guatemalan government.
Their members commonly are known as “mareros,” but there’s a difference between gangs. The only gang who rightfully can claim the name “mareros” is the Mara Salvatrucha, whose territory, as well as their members, are marked with the initials MS, authorizes said. Mara Salvatrucha originated in El Salvador in the 1980s.
Their rival gang, the Mara 18, really can’t be considered “mara,” and to call one of them a “marero” is an insult in the eyes of the Mara Salvatruchas, Agustín said. The Mara 18 was formed by Hispanic immigrants in Los Angeles, during the same decade. But the Mara 18 established a presence in Central America when its members were deported from the U.S. to their native countries.
Members of the Mara 18 often can be spotted by the many tattoos, which include the number 18, that cover their bodies. Mara Salvatruchas are harder to identify because most choose to get their tattoos from the waist down, according to law enforcement officials.
“[Mara Salvatruchas] can’t be made out by people because they’re less obvious and dress inconspicuously,” said a police officer in Guatemala who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he feared he would be targeted by gang members for speaking publically about them. “The leaders drive late-model cars with all the proper documents, they don’t carry weapons. They’re into trafficking weapons, drugs and people, as well as kidnappings. The other ones (MS) are easier to recognize and they’re associated with more routine acts of delinquency.”
Tattoos have meaning
Gang members’ tattoos are filled with symbolism. They can pay homage to a deceased gang member or family member, murders they’ve committed, their girlfriends or wives, or as a reference to the gang in which they belong.
The territories occupied by the Mara 18 and the Mara Salvatrucha gangs are sprayed with graffiti that allude to their activities or memorialize those “fallen in combat” (homies who have been killed), according to the Guatemalan police officer.
“It’s a form of communication and a way to express their defiance of society,” said Marco Antonio Garavito, director of the Guatemalan League for Mental Hygiene. “They’re saying ‘here we are’ and ‘we’re the product of you.’”
Garavito acknowledges these messages have an intimidating and aggressive impact on the communities because these gangs have used their violence, robberies, extortion plots, and the sale of narcotics to take over neighborhoods.
The Guatemalan government attributes 60% of the violent deaths that occurred last year to organized crime, and a fourth of these resulted from territorial rivalries among the gangs.
Samples of the gang slang
Clica (Clique): the cell or neighborhood corresponding to a “mara” or a “Mara 18”
Brincar (To jump): To comply with the requirement to become a Mara
Chimbas: Makeshift weapons
Grapearse (To staple onself): To take drugs
Hommies or Jomi: Friends of the maras or their gang “brothers”
Jura: The police
Luz verde (Green light): Sentenced to death
Redra: Crack rock (drug)
Rifa (Raffle): To face a rival gang member
Tirar Barrio (To “show hood”): To give signals or identify oneself with a specific “mara”
Ranfla: “mara” or gang
Ranflero or Palabrero (The one with the words): Mara leader
Segundas Palabras (Second words): Second-in-command
Encargado de Tributo: Hitman
Cabecilla de Cancha (Head of the court): Clique leader
Jugadores o Soldados (Players or Soldiers): Members of the Mara
Perros (Dogs): Rivals
Fanta: Family member
Paro: Someone on the outside who does favors for those incarcerated