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Latin Gang Grows To 300,000 Members

by Diego Cevallos

Central America Awash in Weapons

(IPS) MEXICO CITY -- Carlos Ramirez, from El Salvador, says he wouldn't care if his sister were raped and murdered, as long as the crime was committed by a member of his gang, the 'Mara Salvatrucha' -- a violent Central America-based youth gang that has recently spread to Mexico.

A member of a 'mara' (gang) "has to have many things, like 'cojones' (courage), and he has to learn how to kill, and to give his life for a 'carnal' (buddy)," says Ramirez, 21, who is proud to belong to the Mara Salvatrucha, which first emerged in Los Angeles in the U.S. in the 1980s among Salvadoran immigrants.

After many members were deported, the mara spread throughout much of Central America, and it now has more than 300,000 members in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. The gang has also expanded from California to a number of other states in the United States, and to Canada and Mexico as well.

Ramirez has been in prison in the impoverished southern Mexican state of Chiapas, on the border with Guatemala, since late last year. He was arrested and accused of taking part in the gang-rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl, whose body was dumped in a culvert.

Although he has declared himself innocent in connection with that particular crime, he says he would not have any problem killing someone for his mara.

Members of the Mara Salvatrucha and another large Central American gang, the Mara 18, have shown up in eight Mexican states. That makes the gangs, whose presence in the country was marginal until last year, a "national security problem," a source at the National Migration Institute (INM) told IPS.

In January, the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua signed an agreement to cooperate in their efforts to combat the youth gangs. In Mexico, the Center for Investigation and National Security -- the highest-level intelligence agency -- was put in charge of the gang problem.

The Mara Salvatrucha and other gangs involved in theft and small-scale drug and arms trafficking often target undocumented Central American migrants trying to make their way through Mexico.

The migrants often carry money to pay 'coyotes' or people traffickers to take them into the United States, and they are especially vulnerable to attack, as they are travelling without legal documents.

The migrants "should know that we rule here," Douglas Lopez, a 23-year-old Guatemalan arrested last year for attacking and robbing Central American immigrants on highways in the state of Chiapas, told police. Lopez, like Ramirez, belongs to the Mara Salvatrucha.

No one knows exactly how many youngsters, most of them under the age of 25, belong to the gang in Mexico, but the INM believes the number is already in the hundreds.

"The marginalization and poverty of thousands of young Mexicans provides fertile ground for the Central American gangs to put down roots and become 'Mexicanized,'" Marco Calderon, a researcher of social movements with La Salle University, told IPS.

"With the Mara Salvatruchas, we have to do prevention work, but it is also necessary for the police to mount a full-scale, in-depth effort, because these are very violent groups that stop at nothing," he said.

The police blame some 200 murders committed last year in Chiapas on youth gangs. One-third of the victims were tortured or raped before they were killed.

"I hope the Mexican government will act wisely with respect to the gang question, putting an emphasis on education, sports and employment opportunities for young people," Roman Catholic priest Pascual Campos, who works in a Mexico City slum neighborhood, said in an interview with IPS.

"The best antidote against the violence is working with the youngsters, rather than repression," said Campos. He added, however, that the police must not pull out of areas where gangs have begun to sow terror.

A report by the INM states that "the 'maras' have no honest livelihood, and as socially maladapted individuals with addictions, they are potential agents of crime."

Gang members identify themselves with clearly visible tattoos, bandanas of a certain color, and secret code words and hand signals. To join, a would-be gang member must go through initiation rites, which usually involve violence among members or against outsiders.

Police authorities in Chiapas say hundreds of gang members have crossed the border into Mexico, fleeing efforts to crack down on maras in other parts of Central America, where governments have passed legislation giving police broad powers to arrest youngsters on the grounds of mere suspicion of membership, often based on the presence of tattoos.

In Honduras, penal reforms approved last year make it possible to punish gang members with up to 12 years in prison. Since the measures were adopted, the Mara Salvatrucha has launched a wave of violence, warning that it will go even further if it continues to be persecuted.

According to Campos, dire poverty and the breakdown of the social fabric create a breeding ground for the gangs, which provide their members with an identity and a sense of belonging, expressed in the tattoos and their way of dressing, talking and even walking.

My "tattoos are like saying I have this last name, that I'm part of a family," Alan Mendez, a 20-year-old Honduran doing time in Mexico for a number of offenses committed along the border with Guatemala, told the weekly publication Cambio.

Some say 'mara' comes from 'marabunta', a word used in El Salvador to refer to a rough, noisy crowd, and that 'salvatrucha' comes from 'salva', for Salvadoran, and 'trucha', for sharp or clever.

But researchers say 'marabunta' comes from a 1970s U.S. film about huge killer ants that invade a city.

In December and January, 159 gang members were arrested in Chiapas, 60 percent of them Mexicans and the rest Central Americans. The INM says gang members are mainly found in Chiapas, but also -- although to a much lesser extent -- in the state of Mexico near the capital and other areas.

Although there are no signs of the maras in Mexico City, the municipal Secretariat of Public Security set up a special task force this year to investigate how the gangs operate, in order to develop an early reaction system.

"There is alarm over the arrival of the Mara Salvatruchas, and there is good reason for that, because it is a security problem that Mexicans could face for decades," said La Salle University's Calderon.

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Albion Monitor February 20, 2004 (

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