By Dr. Dennis Rodgers
Dr. Dennis Rodgers is a political anthropologist and a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Manchester’s Brooks World Poverty Institute in the United Kingdom. He is also an Associate Fellow of the University of London Institute for the Study of the Americas, and a Visiting Senior Fellow in the Crisis States Research Centre at the London School of Economics.
Yet, it is his extensive research on the rising gang phenomenon in Central America that has garnered him the most recognition and attention to his work.
Having been a member of a Nicaraguan youth gang for one year, Dr. Rodgers has a unique perspective on the inner workings and motivations of gangs and has been able to correlate the rise of gangs in Central America to the deportations from the United States.
Dr. Rodgers is the author of the upcoming title Youth Violence in Latin America: Gangs and Juvenile Justice in Perspective due to be published in October 2008.
As a special favor to Latina Lista, Dr. Rodgers traces the US’ role in Central American gang development and exposes the next chapter in this evolving phenomenon that poses a security threat to both sides of the US border.
Over the past few years, Central American youth gangs known as “maras” have become a ubiquitous feature of US media and policy reports. These have particularly focused on what is sensationally characterised as a veritable “invasion” of North America by Central American gangs, with the FBI and the Department of Justice estimating that there are some 40,000 Central American mareros operating across the US. Perhaps not surprisingly, the State Department recently declared the maras a critical national security threat.
The mara phenomenon is more complex than a simple South-North exportation of violence, however. Its origins lie in the 18th Street gang in Los Angeles, which was founded by Mexican immigrants in the 1960s, but grew radically during the late 1970s and early 1980s as a result of the influx of Central American refugees, to the extent that in the latter half of the 1980s, a splinter group – mainly composed of a second wave of Salvadoran refugees – broke off, taking the name of mara Salvatrucha.
The mara Salvatrucha and the mara Dieciocho – as the 18th Street gang came to be known –rapidly become bitter rivals, and fought frequently. In the aftermath of the 1992 Rodney King riots, California implemented strict anti-gang laws, and minor gang members were charged as adults, with hundreds sent to jail for felonies and other serious crimes as a result. The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act meant that all non-US citizens sentenced to a year or more in prison were to be repatriated to their countries of origin.
Between 1998 and 2005 the US deported 46,000 convicts to Central America, in addition to 160,000 immigrants caught without the requisite permit. Many of these deportees were members of the Dieciocho and Salvatrucha gangs who had arrived in the US as toddlers but had never secured legal residency or citizenship, and had often joined the gang seeking a form of inclusion in a receiving country that frequently actively impeded their integration.
Following their deportation and arrival in countries of origin that they barely knew, these LA gang members perhaps not surprisingly re-created the structures that had provided them with support and security in the US. Deportees rapidly began to found local “clicas”, or chapters, of their gang in their communities of origin, which in turn rapidly began to attract local youth.
Contrarily to media projections, however, although each clica explicitly affiliates itself with either the Dieciocho or the Salvatrucha, neither gang is a real federated structure, and much less a transnational one. Neither has a single chain of command, and their umbrella nature is more symbolic of a particular historical origin than demonstrative of any real unity, be it of leadership or action.
The putatively transnational nature of the maras is more of an imagined social morphology that derives from the steady flow of deportees sharing common reference points. Certainly, there is no evidence of any large-scale cooperation between maras in Central America, and even less with the original maras in Los Angeles.
The exportation of LA gang culture to Central America significantly affected patterns of violence in the isthmus, however. Although gangs were not new to Central American societies, the traditional “pandillas” were much less violent than the maras, largely because they were home-grown, socially embedded institutions. Many studies have shown, for example, how pandillas were often localised vigilante-style self-defence groups that sought to provide a measure of order for their local communities in weak state contexts.
Pandillas were completely supplanted by the maras in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, although they are still present in Nicaragua, mainly because the different migratory patterns displayed by the latter’s population means that there are no maras there. Migrants tend to go to Miami rather than LA, and therefore encounter a very different gang culture, and they also suffer much lower deportation rates. The absence of maras also explains why levels of violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are much higher than in Nicaragua, despite all four countries sharing long histories of war and conflict.
Having said this, evidence is emerging to suggest that both pandillas and maras are radicalising in the face of the repressive anti-gang policies being adopted by Central American governments. A veritable “war on gangs” has been implemented by Central American states over the past 5 years, the opening salvo of which was El Salvador’s adoption of a “Mano Dura” policy in 2003, inspired by California’s draconian anti-gang laws and Rudy Giuliani’s infamous “zero tolerance” policy in New York City.
El Salvador was rapidly imitated by both Honduras and Guatemala, and to a lesser extent Nicaragua, and a series of extremely repressive measures have been taken against gang members, including imprisonment without trial, extended prison sentences, and violent crackdowns. These policies have also precipitated a spiral of tit-for-tat violence between maras and government authorities.
They have also led to a rise in marero emigration, as gang members seek to escape what is increasingly emerging as a veritable campaign of extermination against them. At the same time, however, the contemporary migration of mareros from Central America to the US must first and foremost be considered in light of the fact that they are part of a wider population that has very high rates of migration to the US. It would be surprising if the US migrant community did not include a certain proportion of mareros, all the more so considering that the typical gang member profile – young, poor, and male – corresponds very much to the typical migrant profile.
To this extent, far from constituting a South-North exportation of violence, the original direction of exportation of the contemporary mara phenomenon was in fact from the North to the South, and the principal driving force for contemporary patterns of marero emigration are arguably principally the policies of repression and containment that have been adopted by Central American governments, inspired by and with the active support of the US.