The Christian Science Monitor
July 6, 2004
Central America takes harder line against gangs
By Tim Rogers | Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor
MANAGUA, NICARAGUA - A decade after peace accords brought an end to the
guerrilla wars in Central America, a new generation of organized
violence has besieged the capital cities here.
Youth gangs are a relatively new phenomenon in Central America, but
gang membership from Guatemala to Panama has swelled to more than
65,000 in recent years. The feared Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street -
gangs born in Los Angeles and exported to Central America in the 1990s
- now account for more than half of all violent crimes committed in
Honduras and El Salvador. Gangs in Guatemala have become the third
leading source of violence there, according to police.
Increasingly, Central American governments are instituting tougher
measures to crack down on the violent bands. Honduras and El Salvador
have implemented "zero tolerance" laws that allow police to arrest
youth just for sporting gang tattoos. The crackdowns have dispersed
members into neighboring countries, where legislatures are studying
Here in Nicaragua, which has one of the lowest rates of gang violence
in the region, lawmakers are weighing a new bill that would stiffen
sanctions for crimes committed by gang members as young as 12. Recent
elections in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, where winning
candidates campaigned on the gang issue, suggest that most voters
support tougher tactics. But police and activists who work with gangs
say that the new democratic governments, if they take a harder line,
would be reverting to the repressive policies of Central America's dark
"The problem of gangs is worse now than it was 10 years ago, but only a
[small] percentage of all crime is committed by gangs," says Silvia
Beltran, director of Homies United, an activist group in Los Angeles
and El Salvador. "Political parties feel the need to be perceived as
tough on crime. Therefore [cracking down on] gangs provides a very easy
way to accomplish this."
Spearheading the outreach approach to gang control is Hamyn
Gurdián, commissioner of the juvenile affairs unit of
Nicaragua's National Police. In 2002, he implemented a coordinated
intervention plan here. Working with government ministries and private
businesses, the plan aims to disarm gangs, convince gang leaders to
become positive role models in their communities, and help youths find
Police insist that the program is working. Last year alone it helped to
disband 30 of the 33 youth gangs in Managua's districts 2 and 6,
effectively demobilizing 400 gang members - almost one-third of the
country's total - Mr. Gurdián says.
"About 90 percent of the gang members we have worked with want to get
into the program; there is an enormous will among these kids to get out
of the gangs and out of the violence," Gurdián says.
Using government and private-sector contacts the program has placed
former gang members in jobs in public works, in factories, and even as
security guards - this in a country with soaring unemployment.
Under Nicaragua's draft bill, gangs are not outlawed, but members of
gangs are subject to harsher jail terms for crimes committed.
Congressman Wilfredo Navarro, author of the bill, says that Nicaragua
needs such legislation to prevent gang violence from spiraling out of
control, as it has in neighboring Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
He dismisses criticism that the law will be used to repress the poor,
insisting that its purpose is to deter young men from joining a gang.
Mr. Navarro does not discount the work police have done with gangs, but
insists that Nicaragua needs a clear policy authored by politicians.
"This is a response to a new type of crime," he says, adding that he
expects the bill to become law before the end of the year.
According to police statistics, there are still an estimated 62 gangs
in Nicaragua, totaling more than 1,000 youths - a drop in the bucket
compared with the 14,000 gang members in Guatemala, 10,500 in El
Salvador, 36,000 in Honduras, 2,660 in Costa Rica, and 1,385 in
Panamá. Despite the "L.A. factor," experts insist the problem is
homegrown - the product of high unemployment, poverty, poor educational
systems, and families divided by immigration.
Honduras last year was the first Central American country to pass
legislation outlawing gang membership, a crime that carries a 12-year
jail sentence. El Salvador's provisional antigang decree is set to
expire this month, though newly elected President Antonio Saca is
lobbying Congress to pass his "superstrong" law. Both countries have
been criticized by activists who claim the legislation violates the
right to free association and throws due process out the window.
Guatemala and Costa Rica are studying similar bills.