San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Gang Experts Say ‘Iron Fist’ Not Working

MIAMI – Programs aimed at preventing young people from joining gangs in the first place are more effective than the draconian measures Central American governments have adopted to battle the criminal bands, analysts say.

Former Honduran Defense Minister Federico Breve, who currently heads the department of politics and security of the democracy-promoting foundation set up by the consulting firm Fundemos S.A., has experienced gang violence up close.

His country is one of the main areas in Central America, along with El Salvador and Guatemala, where the phenomenon is posing a serious problem for authorities, although it is present to a lesser extent in Nicaragua, Mexico and the United States.

According to Breve, in Honduras it is calculated that there are between 20,000 and 25,000 people belonging to gang organizations – known as ‘maras’ – among which are the infamous and super-violent Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18.

“Of all the criminal organizations, the maras have the skill to have very clear structures and a hierarchy,” he said.

Breve said that the repression being used by the authorities in their policy of a “heavy hand” against the gangs has not only proven ineffective, but has forced the gangs to reorganize themselves and change their behavior, growing stronger in the process.

“A lot of emphasis has to be placed on prevention, not on rehabilitation which is costly and shows few results,” said the ex-minister, who called for the collaboration of the state, the private sector and civil society in combating the problem.

The view held by Geoff Thale, director of programs for Central American gangs in the Washington Office on Latin America, is that the “iron fist” policy has weakened respect for the law and hampered efforts to professionalize the police forces in Central America.

Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, evolved on the streets of Los Angeles during the 1980s, with most of its members young Salvadorans whose parents fled their nation’s then-civil war for the United States.

Because many of the gangsters were born in El Salvador, they were subject to deportation when rounded up during crackdowns in California in the 1990s.

Sent back “home” to a land they barely knew, they formed gangs in San Salvador that spread throughout the small nation and to neighboring countries in Central America, where membership is now counted in the tens, or even hundreds of thousands and gangsters are engaged in murder, drug dealing, kidnapping and people smuggling.

In Central America, Breve said, the gangsters found a “propitious environment,” gathering in the poor neighborhoods where jobs are lacking, educational systems are deficient and there are high levels of poverty.

“They stick together and manage to grow by believing in their principles or through reprisals,” the former minister said, adding that the “astonishing” growth of the gangs in recent years has placed them on a par with the drug cartels.

In fact, according to Breve, after extortion, which the gangs use as an instrument of repression to obtain funds and to be able to circulate without being attacked, drug trafficking has become the most productive business of the gangs.

“The Colombian cartels use the gangs to sell their surplus drugs that remain in the country,” he said, adding that the drug connection provides the gangs with more resources and the ability to arm themselves.

In Nicaragua, police have employed an early intervention program to demobilize gangs and reinsert them back into society.

The four-year-old program has been wildly successful, as police have managed to demobilize most of the gangs and prevent the MS-13 and other transnational gangs from making any inroads in the country (NT, Oct. 19).

But in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, the trend appears to be going in the other direction. Breve predicted continued growth in the number of gang members, in part because women are becoming more active in the maras.


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