Academic journal article Military Review

Are the Maras Overwhelming Governments in Central America?

Academic journal article Military Review

Are the Maras Overwhelming Governments in Central America?

Article excerpt

VIOLENCE IN CENTRALAMERICA has grown so much in the last half decade that Colombia is no longer the homicide capital of the region. In fact, it now ranks fourth in that ignominious distinction behind El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. (1) The violence is mostly due to the phenomenon of street gangs, also called pandillas or gangas, but most often maras. They have grown in number, sophistication, and stature and have largely overwhelmed the security forces of Central America's fledgling democracies. Altogether, these maras represent a significant threat to the security of the countries in the region. Numerous national, binational, multinational, regional, and hemispheric conferences have sought to address the problem.

Origins of the Maras

The maras emerged from conflicts in E1 Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua during the 1980s. Thousands of people fled north, including a large number of young men who had fought on the governments' side or with the insurgents. Many of these young men went to Los Angeles, but because they were poorly educated, few were able to find work. In a city already structured in terms of gangs, their familiarity with guns and armed combat was their one advantage. Some were incorporated into such neighborhood gangs as the African--American Crips and Bloods; the Mexican-American, illegal-immigrant gang EME; and the Mexican Mafia. Some of the men, especially those from El Salvador, joined the multi-ethnic 18th Street Gang. Other Salvadorans founded the Mara Salvatrucha (Group of Smart, or savvy, Salvadorans) 13, or MS-13, to compete with the 18th Street Gang because they believed the Salvadorans in that gang were traitors. (2) (The new gang gave itself the number 13, as in 13th Street, where many Salvadorans had settled.) As most of what the maras were (and are) involved in was criminal activity, they were arrested and put into prison, where they further defined their gang identities and honed their criminal skills.

When federal anti-immigration laws toughened and the civil conflicts in E1 Salvador and Guatemala ended, many gang members were deported to their countries of origin as soon as their prison sentences ended. (3) Once they returned to San Salvador, Guatemala City, or San Pedro Sula, the maras established themselves in the countries' war-torn societies. Clicas (cliques, cells, or groups) deported from the United States established MS-13 in San Salvador in 1992, replacing less violent and less sophisticated gangs. The 18th Street Gang became M-18 and was established in El Salvador in 1996 with three clicas.

Location, organization, and numbers. El Salvador's National Police (PNC) say there are 36,000 gang members in Honduras, 14,000 in Guatemala, 11,000 in El Salvador, 4,500 in Nicaragua, 2,700 in Costa Pica, 1,400 in Panama, and 100 in Belize. That's nearly 70,000 in the region. (4) In addition to MS-13 and M-18, there are Los Cholos (The Half Breeds), Los Nicas (The Nicaraguans), and Los Batos Locos (The Crazy Boys) in Guatemala; La Mau Mau (derived from the name of rebels in Kenya and a New York gang in the 1950s) and La Maquina (The Machine) in El Salvador; La Mau Mau, Los Batos Locos, and Los Rockeros (The Rockers) in Honduras; and the Gerber Boys and Los Charly in Nicaragua. (5)

The maras are not just a Central American phenomenon; they are transnational. MS-13, for example, reportedly has 20,000 members in the United States, 4,000 members in Canada, and a large presence in Mexico. (6) The numbers fluctuate--mara membership is dynamic, and gang membership is difficult to gauge.

Mara organizational structures are elaborate, flexible, and redundant. A leadership cadre often has another cadre to back it up. The maras can function as networks, with extensive transnational linkages. They have internal functional branches specializing in recruiting; logistics; attacks; intelligence collection and propaganda; and murder, drug trafficking, and extortion. …

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