Central America takes harder line against gangs

A decade after peace accords brought an end to the guerrilla wars in Central America, a new generation of organized violence has besieged the capital cities here.

Youth gangs are a relatively new phenomenon in Central America, but gang membership from Guatemala to Panama has swelled to more than 65,000 in recent years. The feared Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street - gangs born in Los Angeles and exported to Central America in the 1990s - now account for more than half of all violent crimes committed in Honduras and El Salvador. Gangs in Guatemala have become the third leading source of violence there, according to police.

Increasingly, Central American governments are instituting tougher measures to crack down on the violent bands. Honduras and El Salvador have implemented "zero tolerance" laws that allow police to arrest youth just for sporting gang tattoos. The crackdowns have dispersed members into neighboring countries, where legislatures are studying similar measures.

Here in Nicaragua, which has one of the lowest rates of gang violence in the region, lawmakers are weighing a new bill that would stiffen sanctions for crimes committed by gang members as young as 12. Recent elections in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, where winning candidates campaigned on the gang issue, suggest that most voters support tougher tactics. But police and activists who work with gangs say that the new democratic governments, if they take a harder line, would be reverting to the repressive policies of Central America's dark past.

"The problem of gangs is worse now than it was 10 years ago, but only a [small] percentage of all crime is committed by gangs," says Silvia Beltran, director of Homies United, an activist group in Los Angeles and El Salvador. "Political parties feel the need to be perceived as tough on crime. Therefore [cracking down on] gangs provides a very easy way to accomplish this."

Spearheading the outreach approach to gang control is Hamyn Gurdián, commissioner of the juvenile affairs unit of Nicaragua's National Police. In 2002, he implemented a coordinated intervention plan here. Working with government ministries and private businesses, the plan aims to disarm gangs, convince gang leaders to become positive role models in their communities, and help youths find jobs.

Police insist that the program is working. Last year alone it helped to disband 30 of the 33 youth gangs in Managua's districts 2 and 6, effectively demobilizing 400 gang members - almost one-third of the country's total - Mr. Gurdián says.

"About 90 percent of the gang members we have worked with want to get into the program; there is an enormous will among these kids to get out of the gangs and out of the violence," Gurdián says.

Using government and private-sector contacts the program has placed former gang members in jobs in public works, in factories, and even as security guards - this in a country with soaring unemployment.

Under Nicaragua's draft bill, gangs are not outlawed, but members of gangs are subject to harsher jail terms for crimes committed. Congressman Wilfredo Navarro, author of the bill, says that Nicaragua needs such legislation to prevent gang violence from spiraling out of control, as it has in neighboring Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. He dismisses criticism that the law will be used to repress the poor, insisting that its purpose is to deter young men from joining a gang. Mr. Navarro does not discount the work police have done with gangs, but insists that Nicaragua needs a clear policy authored by politicians.

"This is a response to a new type of crime," he says, adding that he expects the bill to become law before the end of the year.

According to police statistics, there are still an estimated 62 gangs in Nicaragua, totaling more than 1,000 youths - a drop in the bucket compared with the 14,000 gang members in Guatemala, 10,500 in El Salvador, 36,000 in Honduras, 2,660 in Costa Rica, and 1,385 in Panamá. Despite the "L.A. factor," experts insist the problem is homegrown - the product of high unemployment, poverty, poor educational systems, and families divided by immigration.

Honduras last year was the first Central American country to pass legislation outlawing gang membership, a crime that carries a 12-year jail sentence. El Salvador's provisional antigang decree is set to expire this month, though newly elected President Antonio Saca is lobbying Congress to pass his "superstrong" law. Both countries have been criticized by activists who claim the legislation violates the right to free association and throws due process out the window. Guatemala and Costa Rica are studying similar bills.

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