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Street gangs on the rise in South America: Are Central America's 'Maras' among them?

South American street gangs may not be as notorious as the violent 'maras,' but they pose a significant threat to security, writes guest blogger Geoffrey Ramsey.

By Geoffrey RamseyGuest blogger / March 15, 2012

A soldier stands guard as a policeman searches men for drugs and weapons during an operation in San Salvador January 23. As Mexican cartels are moving into Central America, this forces governments to call in army troops to support local law enforcements efforts against drug trafficking. Drug gangs have also established connections with local kingpins and gangs, known as Maras, increasing the levels of violence in the area.

Leonardo Baldovinos/REUTERS

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• A version of this post ran on the author's site, Insightcrime.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

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In recent years, officials have expressed increasing concern about the influence of Central American street gangs, known as “maras,” in South America; but while street gangs are on the rise in the region, they are a different beast.

On May 25 last year, 19-year-old Peruvian Oscar Barrientos shot and killed his father in their home in Callao, a city just west of Lima. When Peruvian police arrested him last month, however, his confession was less shocking than his reported motive. According to officials, Barrientos considered himself a member of the Mara Salvatrucha (link in Spanish) – also known as MS-13 – and may have killed his father as part of an initiation rite into the gang (see original post for photo of his tattooed lower lip). This revelation set off a wave of speculation in Peru on the influence of the Central American street gang in the country, and prompted local police to claim that Callao is home to at least one MS-13 crew of about 20 individuals.

Alarm over the spreading influence of Central American “maras” is nothing new. Groups like MS-13 and their rivals, Barrio 18, have expanded across Central America, as well as operating in Mexico and the United States. In recent years, analysts have become concerned about the potential for their growth in South America. Since as far back as 2005, US law enforcement officials have been warning that cells of the Mara Salvatrucha have sprung up in Ecuador, and there have been reports of members of both the MS-13 and Barrio 18 in countries as distant as Bolivia, Venezuela and even Argentina.

But while there may be small cells active in these countries, these groups do not pose anything like the same menace that they do in Central America. Claims to the contrary overlook a primary feature of the maras’ history: the fact that they first formed in the US, and that their spread throughout Central America is due mostly to a wave of deportations of gang members from the US that began in the 1990s.

Both MS-13 and M-18 began as small scale street gangs made up of mostly Central American (and some Mexican) migrants in the barrios, or slums, of Los Angeles in the late 1980s. They eventually became some of the most powerful gangs in the California prison system. By the end of the 1990s, the US started to see these groups as a serious criminal threat. Partly as a result, the Clinton administration significantly strengthened US deportation policies, beginning to send large numbers of foreign-born convicts back to their home countries.

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