assessments

Central American Youth Gangs: This Decade's Crime Lords

6 MINS READJan 30, 2004 | 15:43 GMT
Summary
Central American youth gangs are directly challenging the authority of governments in the region by threatening to kill heads of state. These threats should be taken seriously. A new generation of organized Central American criminal enterprises is evolving rapidly, with roots stretching from Colombia to the U.S.-Canadian border.
A multinational Hispanic youth gang, called Mara Salvatrucha (MS), recently warned new Guatemalan President Oscar Berger that it would begin slaughtering civilians indiscriminately if he does not immediately call off a police crackdown against street gangs known regionally as "maras." Separately, police in neighboring Honduras recently arrested MS members on charges of conspiring to assassinate President Roberto Maduro and head of Congress Porfirio Lobo. Both incidents highlight the greatest security threat confronting Central America: Increasingly sophisticated, heavily-armed maras, like MS, are challenging government crackdowns on gang-related violence, drug trafficking and other criminal activities. In recent months, El Salvadoran police security forces arrested close to 8,000 suspected maras members and Honduran authorities arrested more than 1,000 youths for suspected membership in maras. The security sweeps have disrupted lucrative drug-trafficking enterprises and enraged MS leaders in both countries. Now it appears that MS has decided to strike back. So far, no attacks against political targets have been successful. However, widespread availability of automatic weapons and explosives in Central America suggest it is only a question of time before mara gunmen strike senior officials. Central Americans, including foreign residents, also face increased risk of becoming victims of politically motivated gang violence if the maras carry out their threats. A street war between gangs and governments likely would undercut prospects for more robust economic development resulting from the recently signed free trade agreement (FTA) between several Central American states and the Bush administration. Although the U.S. Congress has yet to approve the FTA, its Central American proponents hope the deal attracts a flood of new foreign direct investment. However, maras could scare off many potential foreign investors if they begin attacking civilian targets indiscriminately. The risk that maras might make good on their threats should be taken seriously. Unlike Mexican and Colombian drug-trafficking syndicates operating in Central America, the maras would rather confront the authorities violently than adopt a low profile and seek negotiations with potentially corrupt public officials. This predisposition to violence is an integral part of mara street gang culture, which requires bloody retaliation against any perceived act of disrespect against mara members or any threats to their "territory." Initially, the idea that youth street gangs could assassinate a head of state seems ludicrous. Street gangs in the United States engage in drive-by shootings and even have gunfights with police, but they do not normally attack elected officials. However, the MS members arrested recently in Honduras possessed detailed information about the daily movements of both President Maduro and Congress President Lobo. The information the police seized reportedly included the private office and home telephone numbers of officials and extensive details about the daily movements of their wives and children. Police said the plot to kill Lobo called for a gun or grenade attack in the street or in a restaurant. That MS gunmen had such detailed intelligence indicates that the gang has achieved an extraordinary degree of organizational sophistication that normally is not found in poor Central American youth gangs. It also suggests that MS likely has links to bigger, more experienced Colombian and Mexican crime syndicates that could be supplying the maras with such intelligence because recent crackdowns against the maras also are affecting the drug-trafficking activities of the large Colombian and Mexican crime organizations. Both Maduro and Berger threaten the Colombian and Mexican syndicates because they have vowed to root out drug-related corruption in Honduras and Guatemala. Police sources in the United States, Mexico and El Salvador told STRATFOR recently that MS and other street gangs like Mara-18 (M-18) — created in Los Angeles years ago — are directly involved in providing transportation and protection services for Colombian cocaine shipments to North America. This puts them in direct contact with Colombian and Mexican drug cartels, for which MS members, in particular, now provide contract murder services. The maras are paid in cash and cocaine. They control drug trafficking in their respective Central American countries and use the profits from their drug-related activities to recruit and arm new members. Although MS began in Los Angeles two decades ago as an El Salvadorian street gang, it now actively recruits new Hispanic members from Mexico to Panama. The country of origin is not an issue within MS, which demands only complete lifelong gang loyalty. Any gang member whose loyalty is perceived as wavering even slightly is killed. These brutal methods ensure the continued loyalty of surviving gang members and also enforce security against police or rival gang infiltration. Nicaragua's National Police Chief Edwin Cordero warned recently that MS and other Central American gangs have organized procedures for moving new recruits from Nicaragua to El Salvador and Honduras. The new recruits are trained in mara organization and tactics and then sent home to establish new branches. Cordero also said that maras are combining organizational skills used by such U.S. street gangs as the Crips and Latin Kings with indoctrination and training skills that former Central American Marxist groups — Sandinista National Liberation Front in Nicaragua and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front in El Salvador — used during the 1980s. If Cordero's assessment is accurate, it implies that some maras could be evolving very rapidly into major league criminal cartels like Colombia's Valle del Norte cartel or Mexico's Juarez cartel. The spread of MS throughout Central America also coincides with its expansion throughout the United States. In recent years, MS branches have sprung up in places as diverse as Charlotte, N.C., Fairfax County in northern Virginia, and in Austin, Texas. Mexican police in recent months also have arrested known MS members in the port city of Veracruz and the northern border city of Nuevo Laredo, which means that MS is likely operating now in El Paso, Texas. Central American governments are moving belatedly to organize themselves better to combat MS and other fast-growing maras in the region. On Jan. 15, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua signed a comprehensive security agreement that allows authorities to arrest any suspected gang members in any of these countries, regardless of their nationality. The agreement also establishes procedures for the speedy extradition and deportation of anyone arrested on suspicion of being a mara member. It also establishes a framework for cross-border intelligence-sharing and the creation of a centralized database on maras. Although this is a good preliminary start toward controlling the spread of maras, regional police authorities are at a considerable tactical and strategic disadvantage. For example, no one knows for certain how many maras are operating regionally. MS and M-18 are the largest and best-known gangs, but authorities have confirmed the existence of nearly 1,000 known street gangs with about 65,000 known members. However, this could be just the tip of the iceberg. Some independent El Salvadoran security analysts estimate that the region's maras might have up to 600,000 members. Most of these members are probably just impoverished teen-agers armed with assault rifles and swamped in hopelessness. However, the evolution of a few MS-type gangs hints that the maras might follow the 1980s Colombian cocaine cartels and the 1990s Mexican cartels as this decade's new lords of organized crime.

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