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Maras: a new approach

Criminal gangs will not give up their lucrative lifestyle until the state offers them something in return

On May 28 the two principal Maras (gangs) of Honduras, Salvatrucha (M-13) and M-18, announced a cessation of criminal violence, at a press conference in the San Pedro Sula prison: "zero homicides" in the words of the Salva spokesman, in exchange for jobs and rehabilitation programs for their members, and an end to police hounding. Honduras is the world's most dangerous country with a rate of 85 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants per year, compared to two in Western Europe. A year earlier, the Maras in El Salvador (the second-most dangerous nation) had reached a non-aggression pact and a promise not to attack the police, on condition their chiefs were transferred from maximum-security jails to ones where they could receive visits, as was done. The Salvadoran authorities deny there was a deal, but do congratulate themselves on a drop in the murder rate, from 14 to 5.5 murders per day. Is this a turning point? Will a life there now be worth more than the price of a bullet?

In Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador some 900 Maras operate, with 70,000 gang members who have a marked inclination toward drug trafficking. The birth of this particular criminal walk of life took place in California among Latin American immigrants in the 1970s, who by this means held their own against the discrimination they faced. The M-18 takes its name from the 18th Street that leads to the Latino quarter of Los Angeles. When US immigration policy turned tougher in the 1990s, many children of immigrants were deported or otherwise returned to their land of origin, where they were joined by demobilized guerrillas and soldiers after the Central American peace accords. But the underlying reason for the existence of these gangs is the inoperativeness of the state. Where justice is only a word, an inextricable tangle of contradictory legalities proliferates, as in the case of the former Guatemalan President Efraín Ríos Montt who, after being sentenced to 80 years in jail, has seen his trial annulled on a technicality, with no immediate prospect of a re-trial.

It is hard to believe that the Maras are making deals because they are tired of an illegal existence

This power vacuum was filled by the Maras, which — like the Mafia in Sicily a century before — functioned as banks of resistance that gave economic sustenance, then and now, to the families of imprisoned members. The journalist Marco Lara underlines that in the face of this vacuum, "the gang world is the prosecution of official power by other means." While the Maras supply killers with a steady living, the official authority structure is in need of a thorough cleansing. Arabeska Sánchez, of the UN Violence Observatory in Honduras, warns that "a salvaging of the state is needed because the security and justice authorities are contaminated by the criminal gangs."

Álvaro Colom, president of Guatemala between 2008 and 2012, had to fire two police chiefs related with the drug gangs. For its part, the Salvadoran government has held talks with Mara leaders in the Zacatecoluca prison, after which 30 were transferred to ordinary jails for "humanitarian reasons." And last April at a ceremony in Washington, the OAS and the Church gave their stamp of approval to a truce that was apparently producing good results. Thus began a second phase of the accords: supervising compliance town by town, to be overseen by the local mayors. Both Honduras and El Salvador have created committees to oversee the proto-peace.

It is hard to believe, as official sources claim, that the Maras are making deals because they are tired of an illegal existence when, according to a UN report, drug trafficking constitutes one of the 20 largest economies in the world, with 3.6 percent of the world GDP. If some Maras withdraw from the business, others will replace them. Only a new approach seems capable of accomplishing anything. Guatemalan President Otto Pérez speaks of "market options" — apparently a euphemism for decriminalization.

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