Gang violence rages in Central America

Gang violence, fueled by the drug trade in Latin America, Central America and the Caribbean, is having a serious effect on people’s lives and threatens to alter the social fabric of the countries in the region. Central American gangs, also called “maras,” named after the voracious ants known as “marabuntas,” are involved in a wide range of criminal activities such as arms and drug trafficking, kidnapping, human trafficking, people smuggling and illegal immigration.

In Latin America, gang violence is not limited to the Central American region. Gang activity has intensified throughout the continent and has even reached Argentina. In Japan, gang violence is also present. In recent times it has involved violence between gangs for control of territory and resources.

One of the best known Central American gangs, Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, has an estimated 70,000 members that are active in urban and suburban areas. It originated in Los Angeles in the 1960s and then spread to other parts of the United States, Canada, Mexico and Central America. The gang’s activities have gotten the attention of the FBI and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which have conducted raids and arrested hundreds of gang members. The FBI called MS-13 “America’s most violent gang.”

MS-13 has been particularly active in Los Angeles County; the San Francisco Bay area; Washington; Long Island, New York; and the Boston area. Their code of conduct includes fierce revenge and cruel retribution. Members of this gang were originally recruited by the Sinaloa in their battle against the Los Zetas Mexican cartels in their ongoing drug war south of the U.S. border.

Many gang members living in the U.S. have been deported back to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, adding to the already serious social problems in those countries. They brought with them crack cocaine and, predictably, drug-related crimes were soon on a steep increase. The gang members deported from the U.S. enlarged the local groups and found easy recruits among the local disenfranchised youth. Today, most of the members are in their 20s, while their leaders are in the late 30s and 40s.

The gangs’ battles with the police for control of working-class neighborhoods were met in each case with strong-hand tactics by the police. These tactics proved unproductive, since they unleashed more random violence and terror. As a result of each government’s efforts to eliminate them, many gang members returned to the U.S., where they continued their involvement in criminal activities.

Today, the gangs have expanded into southern Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, calling for a more organized effort to combat them.

Because of the great loss of the lives they cause, the Pan American Health Organization and also the World Assembly of the World Health Organization have defined violence as a “public health problem.” They proposed an epidemiological approach to address it that consists of a) definition of the problem and gathering of information, b) identifying causes and risk factors, c) development and trial of specific interventions, and d) evaluation of policies’ effectiveness.

In the past, this approach was used successfully in Colombia where, in the 1990s, an agreement was signed between government officials and the leaders of gangs that had been operating in Cali. As a result, the gangs’ leaders stopped their criminal activities and the government officials made a commitment to provide loans and technical training to gang members.

A similar approach is now being used in El Salvador where the government is trying to curb gang activity through an ambitious jobs program complemented by other social measures such as training and provision of jobs that could be followed by the other countries in the region.

Successful approaches suggest that controlling gang violence demands long-term action, even when it might not show immediate results. In addition, prevention activities must be aimed at the youngest sectors of the population, particularly those suffering from abusive conditions at home and that because of poverty and no formal education lack the conditions for fulfilling their basic needs and finding jobs.

An adequate set of actions involves providing job training and psychological assistance, as well as job opportunities and loans to those youngsters. The use of a multifaceted approach may be the best guarantor against the social scourge of gang violence in the Central American region.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant and the author of Violence in the Americas: The social pandemic of the 20th century, a publication of the Pan American Health Organization.

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