Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 406 | Mayo 2015


Central America

Youth in territories marked by violence

The Jesuits of Central America and Panama held the Provincial Social Apostolate Commission’s annual seminar in San Salvador in September 2014. This time it focused on three interrelated issues: Central American youth, violence and organized crime. We listened to national, regional and international views and heard the violence-related experiences of young people and the perspectives of organizations working to prevent it. We offer this summary of the meeting’s main contents.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

Organized crime—particularly the illegal drug business, one of whose main branches is trafficking—covers many other crimes: arms smuggling, trafficking of children and women, tax evasion and avoidance, production and distribution of child pornography through the web, systematic torture in police stations and jails, and generally speaking an extensive scheme of state corruption and influence peddling. Roberto Saviano’s book Gomorrah introduces us to the varied outrageous forms of organized crime, but the seminar focused on drugs and their trafficking.

From Prohibition to the DEA

From Panama to Belize and Mexico, Central America forms a corridor that extends from Colombia, the world’s main cocaine producer, to the USA, that drug’s main consumer, which fights drugs through its Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). But the main stages of this fight are outside the United States: in Colombia, the Central American corridor and Mexico. In the 1920s, the United States tried to illegalize the sale of alcohol in its territory via “Prohibition,” initiated by the 16th Amendment of the US Constitution, ratified in January 1919. It took effect in January 1920 and was repealed in 1933 by the 21st Amendment. The mafias, especially those of Italian and Irish origin, made huge fortunes clandestinely selling all kinds of alcohol. Both mafia leader Al Capone and Joseph Kennedy, patriarch of the famous US political family, made their fortunes during Prohibition, although Capone wound up in prison as a symbol of intolerable criminality, while Kennedy fathered the country’s first Catholic President, John F. Kennedy, assassinated in November 1963.

Given the failure of Prohibition, during which so much blood of both law enforcement agents and mafia members was shed, the United States changed its policy toward alcoholic beverages. But in the case of drugs, of which it is apparently less tolerable even though alcohol is responsible for many more deaths in the world, it decided to wage the strategic fight outside of its borders.

The United States experienced war in its own territory during the War of Independence against the British Empire and again in a very cruel form during the Civil War between North and South over the emancipation of the country’s black slaves. Since then, the only outright combats in its big cities were against the Prohibition-breaking mafias. From then until today, US troops have fought outside of their territory, which is what the DEA is currently doing in Central America, Mexico and Colombia. And we are paying most of the costs of that war.

The United States is the biggest drug consumer, but the US governments don’t confront the big recipients or big distributors of trafficked drugs, protected as they are by very powerful influences. At most, they battle those responsible for retail-level drug dealing and poor consumers of color. It’s well known that there was once a pact between the big Colombian drug traders and their country’s government to allow them to do their time in Colombian jails if the national police caught them rather than be extradited to the USA. “Better a grave in Colombia than a prison in the United States,” as the Extraditables used to say. President Belisario Betancur (1982-86) broke that pact and big Colombian drug barons began to be extradited to the United States, including the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers and Carlos Lehder. The only big baron who complied with the slogan “better a grave in Colombia” was Pablo Escobar.

Mexico’s cartel wars

Mexico’s case is the most complex. Various cartels there are disputing territories, the best known being the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel in Guadalajara, the Michoacan Family, the Sinaloa Cartel, the Gulf Cartel, the Juárez Cartel, the Tijuana Cartel, the Knights Templars and Los Zetas Cartel.

The war between 2006 and 2012 declared by President Felipe Calderón against certain cartels, particularly the Zetas, allying with other cartels—perhaps with Sinaloa—led to the fragmentation of Los Zetas and maybe others, according to some researchers. It’s no longer possible to talk about Los Zetas as a cartel, as it has been fragmented into groups that act independently, including extorting Central American migrants en route to the USA, among other crimes.

The capture on February 24, 2014, of Sinaloa Cartel chief Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in a Mazatlán hotel could lead people to imagine it a success that heralds the decadence of Mexican drug traffickers. But El Chapo has yet to be extradited to the United States and Mexico’s cartels have well-established succession mechanisms to fill the vacant leadership, although the fall of big chiefs can lead to fragmentation of those cartels.

The drug cartels are now
transnational businesses

Along with other traffickers (in arms, people…), the big drug cartels are among the world’s largest transnational businesses. They work with the same objective shared by many other transnationals: profit above all else. What distinguishes them is that they move outside of the capitalist system’s legal framework. By so doing, the drug transnationals produce much more favorable cost-benefit balances for their “businesspeople” and partners.

It is these transnational drug businesses that recruit and use Central American youth gangs, or maras as they are known in certain countries, for the retail-level of the drug trade and above all as notorious “front men.” When Central Americans wonder where the violence comes from, the usual answer is “the maras!” But while the violence they unleash is closer to the people—particularly the extortion of transport workers and all kinds of legal small trader businesses, not to mention homicides among the maras themselves—this doesn’t hold a candle to the macro-violence of the multinational drug businesses. The latter are capable of real massacres, such as those carried out in 2010 in the Guatemalan Petén region against dozens of peasants employed by drug trafficking families that were disputing territories.

Honduras: The world’s most violent country

Violence was another of the issues examined in the seminar. Honduras is considered the most violent country in the world due to its homicide rate of 90 per 100,000 inhabitants, whereas the rate in similarly violent Guatemala and El Salvador is around 40 per 100,000. Between 2003 and February 6, 2015, a total of 51 journalists and radio and TV anchors have been murdered in Honduras. Impunity reigns: a firm sentence has been obtained in only 4% of these crimes. These figures are comparable only to Mexico, where in the last decade 80 communicators were murdered and 17 disappeared. But the 51 murders in Honduras happened in a country of 8 million inhabitants, while Mexico has a population of 120 million. The Honduran city of San Pedro Sula was ranked the most violent city in the world, with 187 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, over twice the national rate. Guatemala City comes in eighth with 68 per 100,000 and San Salvador 27th with 44.7.

Is the violence
rooted in the wars?

One could hypothesize that the violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle might have something to do with the violence established in the war years. In the case of El Salvador we can go back as far as the brutal massacre of 1932, when the troops of President Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, under the command of General Tomás Calderón—grandfather of former President Armando Calderón Sol (1994-1999)—fought an indigenous rebellion that caused about 100 deaths. The reprisal left between 10,000 and 30,000 victims, according Thomas Anderson’s book Massacre, for a ratio of 100-300 victims for every person who had actually participated in the rebellion.

Analyst Salvador Samayoa, co-negotiator of the Peace Accords in El Salvador as an FMLN member at the time, told the seminar that El Salvador’s current violence only has “tangential links” with the violence during the war. The case of Guatemala is different, however, as former kaibiles (members of the Guatemalan special operations forces) abandoned the Army to form part of Los Zetas Cartel. Samayoa considers that today’s violence—at least that related to the maras—goes back to the early 1990s, when members of the Salvadoran youth gangs operating in the streets of Los Angeles (13th and 18th Street) were deported back to El Salvador and settled in marginalized neighborhoods. There were also deportations to Guatemala and Honduras.
One former gang member with quite a track record who talked to the seminar referred to the slogan they had in those days: “I live for my mother and die for my barrio.” He told how attractive arms and drugs are to them. The gang members were mostly from impoverished barrios, so ignored that their families risked everything to migrate to the United States. Although the barrios were just as ignored when these kids, now toughened members of the LA street gangs, were deported back to them, the youth themselves became visible. It is also possible that the extreme overcrowding of these very poor barrios may have further contributed to the violence that developed there.

Nicaragua’s pandillas

Sociologist José Luis Rocha offered us an analysis of Nicaragua’s youth pandillas, another term for gangs, providing clues to why the degree of violence of Nicaraguan youth gangs bears little relationship to that of the maras of the Northern Triangle. None of Nicaragua’s cities ranked among the world’s 50 most violent cities in 2013.
Leaving aside the 1980s and even before, Rocha explained what happened in the early 1990s following the end of the revolution and the counterrevolutionary war. Nicaragua’s youth gangs formed out of former Sandinista Popular Army recruits drawn to recapture the sense of camaraderie and reactivate the adrenaline they had experienced. They also sought to recover a lead role for themselves and shift from being “Sandino’s pups,” as the young soldiers had been called, to being defenders of their neighborhood. Faced with the slashing of the State budget and subsequent shortage of jobs, the pandillas offered other opportunities and inherited the armed violence, although now in a de-ideologized and democratized form.
The 1993-1999 period was the “golden age” of Nicaragua’s gangs. By 1999 there were 110 gangs with 8,250 members in Managua alone. The gangs used “homemade” weapons and their main activity was fighting each other, mainly to win respect. As one youth gang member known as Gordo Cristóbal (Fat Christopher) put it, “My family’s really poor; we have one of the worst houses. They used to look at me like I was a piece of shit, but I got involved in the brawls and now they respect me.” There was an ethical code among gang members, including the idea that you didn’t steal in your own barrio, for example. Managua’s sprawling Reparto Schick conglomerate of poor barrios is a particular hotbed of youth gangs.

Between the last years of the 1990s and the first five of the new century, Nicaragua experienced a proliferation of state interventions, mainly in the form of laws related to children and youth, although with dubious success. Two political parties proposed classifying membership in the pandillas as “associating to commit crime.”

The Nicaraguan gangs found a self-justifying legend in the TV adaptations of Akira Toriyama’s Japanese comic books, which sold over 300 million copies worldwide. They dramatize a saga of warriors who in Manichaean fashion divide the world into friends and enemies to protect not only the Earth but also the universe through multiple lives and conversions, all entwined with religious trappings. In those years, being such a “savior,” even if only of their own street, was the aspiration of all gang members. The TV series allowed the inter-generational transmission of the saga’s “good news.”

From throwing rocks
to smoking rock

Between 2000 and 2005 there was an important change in the Nicaraguan youth gangs brought about by participation in retail-level drug dealing. Youth gang members graduated from throwing rocks to smoking rock as the consumption, dealing and manufacture of drugs, particularly crack cocaaine replaced fights. The ethical code slackened as they got high and the age range of the gang members dropped from 18-30 to 14-18. Between 2006 and 2008, there was a kind of truce with some gang members defining themselves as “peace leaders.” Tattoos started to establish themselves as an emblem rather than a stigma.

Nicaragua never saw the kind of massacres that took place in Northern Triangle jails, particularly in Honduras with 107 deaths in the fire at the San Pedro Sula penitentiary in 2004 and 377 in the Comayagua prison fire in 2012. According to data from the University Public Opinion Institute of El Salvador’s Central American University, 32% of mara-member deaths in that country were due to the police, 22.2% to a rival gang, 11.1% to the government, 9.2% to extermination groups and 3.5% to their own gang, while no cause was identified for 13%.

Why less violence in Nicaragua?

So what could explain the lower level of violence in Nicaragua? Leaving certain myths to one side, Rocha thinks various factors back up the data that Nicaragua is a less violent country, including lower homicide rates, a lower perception of insecurity, the absence of maras in favor of less violent pandillas. Under-recording of the official data also has an influence here. But Nicaragua has had other kinds of violence, including the political kind up to the first years of this century with the well-known recompas, recontras, revueltos y rejuntos, culminating at that time with the Andrés Castro United Front. More recently new politically motivated rearmed groups opposing the government of Daniel Ortega have formed, but the government is doing its utmost to deny their existence.

One difference that helps explain the absence of actual maras is the distribution of the emigrant population. While data for 2004 show that Los Angeles alone had 368,416 emigrants from El Salvador, 199,543 from Guatemala and 56,555 from Honduras, there were only 29,910 from Nicaragua, with many more over time going to Florida, with its stronger Cuban culture. Also, a much lower number of Nicaraguans who went to the United States, particularly but not only during the war years, are deported from the United States, as shown in the table below. A full 53% of Nicaraguans who emigrate, above all the poorest ones, go to Costa Rica.

Other factors in Nicaragua are the great pressure the United States exerted to achieve demilitarization; the country’s larger agricultural frontier, which has absorbed so much internally displaced workers; both an army and a police force with the identity and inherited training of the revolutionary years, somewhat less availability of arms, the fact that the Nicaraguan National Police was rooted in the Sandinista Police, anti-gang plans that were very different from the “hard-hand” and “super hard-hand” plans of the Northern Triangle countries and an important investment in improved penitentiary conditions.

José Luis Rocha ended by reminding us of certain recent violent events in Nicaragua: those of July 19, 2014, and the political violence in 2013 perpetrated by young Sandinistas against youths supporting a group of elderly people demanding a pension. His point was encapsulated in the words of the great social philosopher Hannah Arendt, who stressed “the all-pervading unpredictability” of violence.

Maras bestow identity

For a Salvadoran, Guatemalan or Honduran teenager born into poverty, belonging to a youth gang is a way of defending one’s life in an environment of such great discrimination as the United States, a way of aspiring to power by winning over the identity of the place to which one has emigrated. The problem for Latino emigrants, particularly Central Americans, the most recent arrivals, is that rejection of them as immigrants is combined with racist rejection of their brown skin.

Belonging to a tough youth gang could be a way to try to win the respect due poor people in countries with brutal inequality. It’s a violent and very often criminal path, but perhaps no more criminal than the one followed by the rich and powerful who maintain starvation-level wages and have connections with the drug transnationals that evade taxes or launder money through the
“honorable” banks doing business in Central America.

The incapable State

Another participant was Leticia Salomón, a sociologist and professor at the National University of Honduras. She argued that the State is increasingly incapable of responding to criminality and its violence. She based this opinion on three factors: the inefficiency of the state apparatus, party politicization and the involvement of judicial officials with criminal bands from organized crime. People are becoming utterly disenchanted because voting is no longer a mechanism for change since those three factors hold for any party that gets into power.

As long as the State remains so rotten, violence will continue to be reproduced through the mechanisms of democracy. She sees the need to discover innovative ways for civil society to become more involved in prevention and control until the State can be radically reconstructed.

Stigmatized by the media

During the seminar, Amparo Marroquín presented a research study on how the Salvadoran media focus on the problem of violence. She demonstrated how “the youth gangs remain a useful control instrument of the social media, a useful—albeit increasingly less efficient—tool for electoral campaigns and a very visible scapegoat in general for explaining the ills of the Central American societies.” She added that “youth gangs have been transformed from a generational cultural expression in urban barrios to an amalgam of complex relationships that administer certain forms of organized violence.”

Marroquín explained how the official discourse constructs an “other,” allotting it certain characteristics. Such stereotypes are used to stigmatize deportees, pandilla members—and mara members even more—as well as the groups they affiliate or join up with.”

“War should scare us
so we don’t repeat it”

Marroquín does see a more than tangential relationship between war’s violence and the violence of organized crime, and particularly of the maras: “The kind of murders, disappearances and displacements due to violence in the 21st century is very similar to how violence was employed during the military dictatorships and the war of the 1980s.”

Her study is particularly important because of its conclusions about the mass media: “They equate youth gangs with young people and young people with youth gangs, at the same time minimizing organized crime and corruption. There’s an intentional agenda for what’s shown and what’s concealed.”
Marroquín concluded her presentation by quoting someone who experienced the war in El Salvador when very young: “Having seen just the last flares of war, I think awareness should be promoted that it was the blood of the most defenseless people that flowed in this country; knowledge of our history should be promoted until it scares us enough to not repeat it.”

The young voices

We invited a large number of young people, both male and female, to the seminar. They shared with us their direct contact with maras and pandillas and talked about programs aimed at helping youth choose different paths to that of violence.

One young man, who had to flee the place he was born and grew up, talked to us about his experience as the “son”—he used it as a bold metaphor, not as a kinship relation—of one of the Mara Salvatrucha leaders. It was hard listening to his description of how gang violence affects young people, particularly girls. He has witnessed girls in certain barrios cornered then raped by up to 13 gang members. He also explained to us how the maras offer members an emotional reference point they don’t find in their families, which are often headed by just the mother or grandmother, who works far from home so is seldom there.

A young man interested in municipal politics gave us a terrifying account of how organized crime has been taking control of the mayor’s offices in municipalities on the borders of the Northern Triangle countries. This phenomenon has, among other things, made it virtually impossible for the youth to develop any political vocation.

“They use us like bait”

There are young people in the Northern Triangle who have made mind-boggling journeys across Mexico, reaching the height of their suffering when imprisoned by one of Los Zetas’ splinter groups in the state of Tamaulipas with the border almost within reach. We were told how these groups, which are active in drug-trafficking, force them to take a small case with drugs when they cross the border, attracting the attention of the border police due to their inexperience while the real traffickers calmly cross the same border. “They used us as bait to divert attention from the real spoils.” This resulted in prison and deportation when the goal of their journey was in sight. Some have tried it several times, always running up against the same frustration.

Prevention work

We listened to organizations that work to prevent young people linking up with maras or embarking on migration with no future. Ottoniel, a young, highly-committed educator with obvious capabilities, talked to us about the Puente Belice (Belize Bridge) Education Labor Project in Guatemala, founded in 2004 by Manolo Maquieira, a Jesuit who died of cardiac problems two years later.

The program’s structural secret is the combination of education and work, with some remuneration for part-time work. Without education young people of both sexes have no attractive future to aim for. But without work, mothers who are the heads of family and overwhelmed by having to work so far from their homes don’t feel stimulated enough to support their children in getting an education because it doesn’t contribute economically to the household. That’s why the students involved receive insertion scholarships to work in companies headed by responsible businesspeople.

Thanks to the financial support from this NGO, other sources of solidarity-based aid and the use of land belonging to Guatemala’s Jesuit Landívar University, it has been possible to build school buildings far from Belize Bridge. What cannot be expressed in financial terms is the emotional support these at-risk youths received, first from Father Maquieira and then from other Jesuits and lay collaborators. Educating with both affection and discipline is also a formula for violence prevention.

“Growing is in my own hands”

We also listened to the testimony of young people involved in the Honduran “Step by step” project aimed at keeping youths from opting for maras. Melvin Mejía explained how they employ Brazilian popular education theorist Paulo Freire’s methodology while Sagrario Melgar talked about the frustration generated by the absence of state initiatives to help at-risk youths.

Fidelina Bernardino, a nun from the Sisters of the Guardian Angel, told the seminar about the youth training program they are developing in various Managua barrios. They are trying to communicate to young people that life is a path full of possibilities and doesn’t have to lead to fatalism, frustration and failure. They work with young people to develop their identity, promote values and dreams and guide them toward a healthy sexuality. “Growing is in my hands” is one of the slogans of this initiative, which they try to base on the message of the gospels.

Rosa Anaya of the “Young builders” program in El Salvador insisted that prevention needs to be based on educating youth: around 800 hours of preparation and two basic weeks “during which we work them hard.”

Diverse experiences

Royaris Cruz, who works with young people in Costa Rica, encouraged the idea of bringing together youth movements from the different Central American countries to share experiences, approaches and results. Also from Costa Rica, Karina Fonseca took back up the concerns expressed by Amparo Marroquín and proposed an effort to ensure that young people learn to read at school and to listen critically to the contents disseminated by the mass media and the messages on the social media. This would allow them to expose the stereotypes and stigmas related to young people that fill the media world.

Hoksan Flores from Radio Progreso of the Honduran Jesuits’ Reflection, Research and Communication Team (ERIC) explained that organization’s multiple dimensions, working with migrants, analyzing the current situation and denouncing the corruption and lack of democratic intelligence in politics. ERIC has also ventured into measuring public opinion. Every month they publish A mecate corto and envío-Honduras as well as books on struggles for justice from the Christian faith.

The director of the Human Rights Institute of El Salvador’s Central American University talked about the education for peace project and the experience of working for restorative justice, which has now been going for four years.
A representative of Fe y Alegría in Guatemala also explained to the seminar its efforts to make the State take responsibility for quality public education. It recently brought together 2,000 people in a public protest on this issue with the support of other educational initiatives being implemented by the Jesuits in that country.

Finally, Raúl Mijango, joint facilitator along with Monsignor Colindres of the truce among maras in El Salvador, stuck firmly to his conviction that the Mauricio Funes government did not participate in the negotiation process that led to that truce. He also provided the following data on its results: 41% fewer homicides, 11% fewer extortions and 51.7% fewer disappearances.

We need to lose our fear of the streets

The seminar concluded with an intervention from Honduran Jesuit Ismael Moreno from ERIC-Radio Progreso. He set out a number of challenges for those working to prevent violence among the most impoverished youth: breaking with the logic of living shut up at home [see his article on the topic in this issue of envío]; opening ourselves up to the life and experience of the victims of the unjust social order; resisting the temptation to reach an understanding and make pacts with society’s upper echelons; taking seriously the formation of those working on these tasks; overcoming the fear of social struggles and of risk, which are currently some of the most important signs of the times in his country; losing our fear of the streets; redefining depoliticization and reflecting again on the relationship between faith and politics; and helping to build a simple Church that doesn’t operate with a power-based logic.

The seminar’s closing ceremony was a celebration in which we participated in the same way our original peoples listen to God, addressing Him through their clamors and most profound desires, while interpreting messages from Him through sacred fire in the midst of nature. It’s an experience not far removed from that of Moses, when he saw the burning bush that was not consumed by the flames and heard the call to set his people free; or the words of Jesus when he said “I’ve come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already ablaze!”

Juan Hernández Pico, sj, is the envío correspondent in Guatemala.

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