Latest US Export: Youth Gang Culture to Central America

Former war exiles bring back ways of L. A. streets

Juan Carlos Urroz Arana flexes chest and limb to accentuate the parade of tattoos running up and down his gangly arms, then mischievously offers to reveal the black-ink scars a pair of striped shorts cover up.

A member of Managua's Eaters of the Dead street gang, young Juan Carlos is all puffed-up bravado as he displays his extensive body art. But his demeanor turns sullen when the conversation shifts to his and his fellow gang members' future.

"I know a guy who tried to get a construction job, even wore a long-sleeve shirt [to cover his tattoos] when he went in," he says, "but the man said, 'Take off your shirt,' and that was it, no job. There's nothing left to do but listen to rock [music]."

The future is a sore subject for Juan Carlos and his Eaters of the Dead brothers - which is why it looks so bright for the youth gangs multiplying in the Nicaraguan capital's sordid, serviceless, no-future barrios.

Nicaragua is experiencing what other countries of Central America, especially El Salvador, already know too well: The end of a civil war combines with tough economic conditions, plus the influence of youth-gang movies and exiled adolescents who have imported gang culture from the United States, to spawn a worrisome rise in gang-related crime and violence.

Nicaragua doesn't have the number of returning gang members that El Salvador has had to deal with, experts here say. That's because many young who fled their country's civil conflict in the 1980s went to Los Angeles, where gang culture is particularly strong.

But the problem in Nicaragua is much the same. A decade-old civil conflict left Nicaraguans with a culture of violence and plenty of arms on tap, while a devastated economy made jobs scarce, especially for a generation of children who passed into adolescence unskilled.

Add to that a curtailing of free public education as Nicaragua's government has fought to reduce inflation and spending, and the result is a perfect climate for growing youth gangs.

"Managua has all the conditions that add up to an explosion of [the gang] problem," says Managua Police Chief Pedro Aguilar. "Poverty affects a majority of our kids. Schooling and recreational opportunities are lacking. The war left the country with a more violent disposition and a greater tendency for people to unite in small groups," he adds, "and all of that is exaggerated by the experience some returning muchachos had in the United States, principally Los Angeles and New York."

Most of the repatriated Nicaraguans didn't actually belong to gangs in the US, as was the case with hundreds of returning Salvadoran youths, Mr. Aguilar says. "In most cases we've looked into, [the Nicaraguans] were marginalized there, too. But they have wanted to translate to their experience here the fame and attention they saw the gangs enjoying in the US," he says.

Members of the Eaters of the Dead and another nearby gang, the Diablitos or Little Devils, discount the influence of repatriated youths.

"No one is coming in to corrupt us. The kids here corrupt themselves," says Byron Larios Chavarria, an Eaters leader. Their reasons for forming "groups" stem, they say, from their living conditions: for self-protection in increasingly violent streets and to have someone to hang out with.

The Managua police have identified 71 gangs - up from a dozen in 1992 - in a city of 1.2 million people. Aguilar estimates the gang population at about 1,500 members, although other nongovernmental organizations working with gangs put the number much higher.

The gangs are one factor in a crime rate that has shot up 500 percent over the past decade, mostly since Nicaragua's civil war ended in 1990. Aguilar estimates that gangs are involved in about 20 reported crimes a day, from petty robberies to armed confrontations. "There is some drug selling, but they aren't organized into drug-selling mafias," Aguilar adds. "At least not yet."

Gang-related killings have been relatively few, especially by US urban standards - city authorities count eight over the last four years - but some gang analysts put the number higher. The Eaters gang is suspected of involvement in a killing last year, although the members disclaim involvement in criminal activities.

Eaters members say their lack of education or specialized training is the highest hurdle for the future. "When you have to pay 35 cordobas [$4] a month to go to school, it just shuts a lot of us out," Byron says.

In what was billed as an effort to improve educational quality and teacher pay, the Nicaraguan government three years ago began charging secondary students what was considered a minor monthly sum. The policy has devastated poor families and fed the city's gangs.

Byron's family is a case in point. Three brothers live in a shack with their father, a garbage collector who earns 400 cordobas ($46) a month. He couldn't afford school for three boys, so they are all out of school - and in a gang.

One organization that offers skills training to Managua's gang members is Prison Fellowship International, the US-based organization founded by convicted Watergate figure Charles Colson. Recognizing that gangs are involved in criminal activities that lead to a further swelling of Nicaragua's already overflowing prison population, the organization has turned to preventive work in Managua's streets.

"We offer programs in different jobs skills, and we bring members of different gangs together to reduce frictions, but we only work with gangs and individuals who show they are serious about staying out of trouble and improving their lives," says Marco Antonio Meja, who heads Prison Fellowship's Managua chapter.

Mr. Meja, like Police Chief Aguilar, says Nicaragua's gang problem will grow as long as Nicaraguan society continues to fear gang members "and their tattoos," but does little to integrate them into mainstream productive living.

"There's no social conscience demanding the free schooling, the recreation, and other steps we know would help limit this problem," Aguilar says. "We need a strong commitment from many sectors of society if we're going to stop these gangs from escalating into drug mafias, for example, but right now it's not there."

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