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Central America's gang woes

The gang problem in Central America has a long history shared with the United States. Many people fleeing the region's civil wars of the 1970s and '80s settled in Los Angeles, where they joined or formed street gangs. In the 1990s, the United States stepped up the deportation of Central American immigrants who were convicted of crimes.
Rescue workers carry an inmate to be treated after a riot broke out at the La Esperanza penitentiary in San Salvador, El Salvador, in August.
Rescue workers carry an inmate to be treated after a riot broke out at the La Esperanza penitentiary in San Salvador, El Salvador, in August. Luis Romero / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Homemade grenades started exploding mid-morning on Aug. 18 at La Esperanza, El Salvador's largest prison, and the 3,200 inmates locked inside the overcrowded cage stampeded to escape the blasts and the fireballs.

A battle between 400 members of a notorious street gang, Mara 18, and the rest of the inmates had erupted after weeks of tension. Hundreds of inmates took up shivs and shanks fashioned from broken wooden chapel benches and steel bed frames. When the killing was over, 31 inmates lay dead, some scalped and mutilated beyond recognition.

The deadly riot was Central America's fourth major prison uprising in 20 months. The riots, in which 216 inmates were hacked, decapitated, burned or shot to death, are the latest evidence that violent street gangs are overwhelming the poor countries of this region. From neighborhoods where menacing, tattooed youths extort money from fearful residents to out-of-control prisons where gang members fabricate grenades, street gangs are the top security concern.

"People are scared. It's having a big impact on society," said Wilfredo Avelena, a top Salvadoran police official. "You never saw this before: When leaders in the region get together, they have meetings dedicated to discussing gangs."

The use of crack cocaine is blamed for driving up the level of violence and the savagery of gang crimes in the past two years, and several Central American governments have responded with massive law enforcement operations. Salvadoran President Tony Saca has deployed more than 1,000 heavily armed soldiers on the streets to aid the national police in arresting gang leaders, most of whom come from the two main groups, the Mara 18 and Mara Salvatrucha.

The gang problem in Central America has a long history shared with the United States. Many people fleeing the region's civil wars of the 1970s and '80s settled in Los Angeles, where they joined or formed street gangs. In the 1990s, the United States stepped up the deportation of Central American immigrants who were convicted of crimes.

Last year the United States deported nearly 2,000 people with criminal records to this country of 6.5 million, officials said. Many had spent much of their lives in the United States; stigmatized and estranged from families here, they quickly fell in with the local chapter of their gangs.

In the Washington area, which has the nation's second-largest Salvadoran population after Los Angeles, gang activity has been growing. Instead of the large body tattoos that identify gang members in Central America, many in the United States mark their affiliation more discreetly, such as tattooing the number "18" or "MS" inside their bottom lips. Police in Northern Virginia have estimated that 2,500 youths belong to street gangs, primarily Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13.

In El Salvador, "the prison system is pushed to the limit," said Rene Figueroa, the country's interior minister. He said the government was considering a plan to open work farms for some gang members.

El Salvador's prison population has doubled in the past five years, to 12,000, and 40 percent of inmates belong to street gangs. Thousands of inmates sleep on prison floors because the beds are full, according to human rights activists and gang members interviewed in prison. In La Esperanza, prisoners spend much of the day in the open air washing their clothes and chatting until they are locked down at dusk in small, dark cells. Some sleep underneath the beds of others.

Because gang-related prosecutions have clogged the court system, officials said people charged with misdemeanors are often held for a year or more before trial. According to prison records, most of those killed in the riot at La Esperanza were not gang members, and four of them were awaiting trials.

One of those killed at La Esperanza was Jaime Antonio Sanchez, who officials said was about to be released for good behavior. He was not a gang member.

Sanchez's aunt, Mario Ophelia Ortiz Quinteros, said her nephew, who was convicted of drug possession, was worried about his last days behind bars. "He told me, 'I have to stay away from gangs. I am scared of them. They taunt me,' " Ortiz recounted him as saying. "The violence of the gangs never ends, not even when you lock them up."

Figueroa, the interior minister, said the government needed to build new concrete-and-steel prisons, in part because gang members often fashion weapons out of wood torn from the structure of prison buildings. But he said prison construction meant "money being taken away from hospitals and schools. We are stretched to the last dollar."

Governments across the region have adopted popular, get-tough measures against gangs, including laws that make it easy for police to detain people with telltale tattoos. Critics said such methods, some of which have been ruled unconstitutional, had not stopped the gangs, but rather forced them to disperse to rural areas and to other countries.

The estimated 25,000 to 50,000 gang members in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala were once concentrated in urban areas, officials said. But gangs are now showing up in the most remote corners of Central America. In addition to committing crimes in urban areas, Figueroa said, they are now terrorizing rural farmers and stealing their other crops.

'I need my gang'
"I like to be in the gang. I am proud of it," said Wilmer Antonio Salmeron Molina, 22, who is serving time on drug charges. He talked as he sat in a one-story, whitewashed prison in the town of Cojutepeque, 20 miles east of San Salvador, the capital.

Until a few weeks ago the prison was home to 46 non-gang inmates, a quiet lockup in the center of a quiet town, its white facade blending in with the small corner grocery and nearby tailor shop. But it now forms part of the government's effort to separate gang members from other prisoners. The 1930s jail houses 365 Mara 18 members, crammed into communal cells. Nearly all were imprisoned at La Esperanza during the riot.

"Because of my gang, I have something to eat," Salmeron said, sitting in a small prison office with two armed guards close by.

Salmeron, who has big, caramel-colored eyes and "18" tattooed on his face in numbers that stretch from his forehead to his chin, said he was born in El Salvador but grew up in Los Angeles. He said he was 14 when he joined the Mara 18, a group that grew out of the city's 18th Street Gang.

"My mother used to hit me with a belt buckle and wires, and my father didn't want anything to do with me," he said in English, wearing jeans and a blue T-shirt with the sleeves torn off. The gang became his family, he said: "I ran away from home, and they gave me money, a place to sleep. Maybe it was the wrong step I took, but I had no options."

He said he spent five years in a youth detention center in California on drug charges and was deported to El Salvador after serving his sentence. His relatives wanted nothing to do with him when they saw his tattooed face, he said, so he sought out members of the Mara 18 in San Salvador.

"I am no one without my gang," Salmeron said. "My future? Tell me: What exactly are my options? I cannot do life alone. I have nobody. I need my gang."

Joining the Mara 18 involves an initiation, Salmeron said matter-of-factly. Would-be members must prove they are willing to kill a member of a rival gang. "They give you a gun and see if you have the guts to do something with it," he said, smiling nervously. He declined to say whether he'd ever killed anyone, but he spoke with disgust about the rival Mara Salvatrucha gang. He said that one of its members shot his girlfriend in the face, and she lost an eye.

"They kill girls and kids," he said. "We are not like that."

Just before returning to the prison yard, where he would rejoin hundreds of his gang brethren, Salmeron answered a question about how he was coping with jail. "I cry a lot," he said. "My mother, my brothers, my sister, no one has contact with me."

'We will go to war'
Jaime Martinez Ventura, director of El Salvador's Center for Penal Studies, said many gang members were trapped. They want out of the life of violence, but face the constant danger of being killed by members of rival gangs. There are an extraordinary number of youths in El Salvador -- the median age is 21 -- and there are not enough jobs, Martinez said. Many of the poorest teenagers live in broken homes, often because one or both of their parents work in the United States.

Overcrowding -- 30 to 40 gang members are often crammed into prison spaces meant for 10 -- has "radicalized" the problem, Martinez said. While some are jailed for homicide, the majority are behind bars for selling crack or committing robbery or lesser crimes, including "illicit association," a new charge that makes it unlawful for two gang members to be together. He said youths join gangs because they have "no place to play, no decent school, no jobs," and many learn serious crime inside the prisons, where drug use is rampant.

The crackdowns are sending a message to the gangs, he said: "It's war. The government is using all force, now even soldiers. Their feeling is, 'If the government is going to declare war, we will go to war.' "

Ortiz, 71, whose nephew was due to be released soon from La Esperanza, said she raised the boy after his father died and his mother fled the country during the civil war. She visited him at the prison every Sunday. Her last visit was on Aug. 22, four days after the riot.

Carrying his favorite meal, steamed chicken and potatoes, the gray-haired woman, who worked 30 years making cookies for a bakery, also brought along sweets and breads. She cried as she recalled waiting alone in the hot prison courtyard. Finally someone came with the news -- her nephew was not there. She was told to go look for him in the city morgue.

A Spanish-language version of this report is being published in El Tiempo Latino.